How I Grew My Business: 6 Ingredients for Success

Entrepreneur Ian Cowley shares his tips for growing a profitable firm, from keeping an eye on the ‘front line’ to nailing customer service...

How I Grew My Business: 6 Ingredients for Success

I’m incredibly proud of, it’s a great business to lead and the recent plaudits we have won for customer satisfaction coupled with the Sunday Times Fast Track award mean we’re on the right, er, track.

I thought I’d share the six top tips that have helped me to grow the company and make it the largest online printer cartridge retailer in the UK.

Being on the front line

As much as I look at the business from a strategic point of view, and trust in my senior team to deliver the jobs, I’ve always maintained a keen eye on the ‘front line’. Every morning I spend 30 minutes to an hour looking through our customer service back office system reviewing returns and complaints. Where necessary I’ll listen to the recorded conversations between staff and our customers and at least once a week I’ll visit the warehouse.

Being at the customer-facing side of the business allows me to spot trends that I might miss if I were to adopt an insular approach to management. Often trends are only understandable if you have insight of the entire business so I urge business owners to revisit the front line once in a while.

Marketing scientifically

Perhaps the most significant milestone for the business was the appointment of Sean Blanks. Formerly of BAE systems, Sean is a former scientist and a true advocate of progress through trial and error.

Our approach to marketing is hugely scientific now, because for the first time ever information is both abundant and easy to gather, especially for etailers. We’re in an environment where we can test, tweak, experiment and get the results through immediately. This is as relevant to an independent boutique as it is Amazon. Test the channels that drive traffic or measure margins on projects, but crucially, test one thing at a time and test it through to finality. Every business has data to collect, and here’s the important step, you also need the correct personnel to analyse it and implement the learnings gleaned from the data, this will generate incremental improvements, stick with it and you’ll soon be reaping serious rewards.

Knowing when to outsource

Outsourcing can be a dirty word in some businesses. In the news it seems to be tied to foreign trade and redundancies. For us, outsourcing has meant the opposite; roles are filled more quickly, creating more jobs.

Outsourcing doesn’t mean you’re not doing something well, but instead another company can do it quicker, or better than you. This is the case with our recruitment. We shifted our recruitment strategy because we were growing at a phenomenal rate and couldn’t find the right people fast enough.

With outsourcing though it’s of vital importance that you regularly compare the market to make sure you’re getting the best deal. We changed our logistics supplier this month delivering a better, carbon neutral service with better IT integration that saves us £1,000 per month.

Rewarding staff

Recruiting the very best is great, but ensuring you can offer an ongoing, rewarding experience is crucial.

With experience of what faces our staff at the sharp end of the business, I have a good idea of what are and what aren’t realistic targets. When I noticed the KPIs we had in place weren’t being reached I researched the bonus structure in place.

It flagged up something that I’d never questioned: bonuses only work to motivate staff where the task is mechanic. However all of our staff are required to engage in a more cerebral way.

As a result,  bonuses had become a punishment or in some cases contributed to huge egos. What became obvious to us was purpose was truly key to improved performance. Pay your colleagues enough so that money is not an issue and you will see they are capable of exceeding targets.

Nailing customer service

So you’ve got the right staff, who are content at work? Now make sure they’re focused on keeping the customer happy. We’re incredibly lucky that our customers are so happy to talk about the quality of our service publicly and this is responsible for a lot of our business.

Ensure your staff that deal with customers have a high standard of English and Maths and make sure they have all the tools available to resolve conflicts in as short a time as possible. First call resolution rate is naturally something everyone should be working towards, but are your customers aware of what information to provide so you can solve the problem straight away? Are your staff able to access all the information they need no matter what the problem? If not, you’re building frustration for the customer and adding to your staff’s workload.

My final tip would be to constantly innovate; it’s the only way to stay ahead. If you don’t gamble you’ve got nothing to win. Expect to see some innovation on customer service from us very soon.

Ian Cowley is the managing director and founder of

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