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Dec 12, 2018

Why Relationships Matter

How they helped transform my first flower shop into a billion-dollar retailer.

I entered the floral business over 40 years ago after purchasing my first flower shop. That shop would soon expand into a small chain. A decade later, I had learned that a Dallas-based company using the 1-800-Flowers phone number had fallen on tough times. Thinking it would be a great way to get people to remember our name, I decided to buy the nearly defunct company as a means to obtain the number. Little did I know it would turn out to be the biggest (and in many ways the best) mistake I ever made.

I did what I refer to as due negligence instead of due diligence. I paid $2 million to buy the company without realizing I was assuming $7 million in debt for which I was personally liable. Much of that debt was owed to florists who had done business with the company under its previous owners. The last thing I wanted to do was cause any harm to those florists, so I never seriously considered bankruptcy. It took five years, but we were able to work our way out of that hole.

How did we do it? To pay off the debt, we developed a payment plan with our creditors. We met with each one and explained, openly and honestly, what we could afford. If we were successful, we affirmed that it would allow us to pay off our debt to them sooner. We needed time to continue to invest in and grow the company and needed them to be flexible with us, more than anything. This approach didn’t work with all of our creditors, but enough understood that if we followed through on our plan, and they worked with us, we would be able to repay our debts. 

I learned two valuable lessons from that experience, the most obvious being the importance of diligence. The less obvious, but equally important, lesson was not to run and hide. Be as transparent as possible and get everyone involved in the process. They are the ones who can help you to develop, adjust and implement your plan so that it is realistic for everyone involved. We made our creditors our partners. Not only did we repay the debt and make them whole, they got a healthy return on the money they left with us as an “investment.” They also earned our loyalty, and we continued to work with those vendors long after our obligations were satisfied.

Beyond getting your team invested in what you do and building relationships with them, I’ve found it is equally important to build relationships with your customers. 

Take sympathy as an example. When a friend or relative loses a loved one, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. At one time, this was a conversation that would have occurred face-to-face with customers in our floral shops. Today, we are always looking for ways to replicate those interactions on a much larger scale so that we can service the widest audience possible. Social media is an especially useful platform where people are heavily and increasingly engaged. It’s a platform for individuals to have an open dialogue about many challenging topics surrounding sympathy and grief. We have been able to achieve this through our “Celebrating a Life” campaign, which is aimed at opening a dialogue about many challenging topics surrounding sympathy and grief. While speaking face-to-face is still the best way to have these discussions, we have been able to ignite a conversation on larger media platforms like radio and social media where people are heavily and increasingly engaged.

There is a certain irony in using artificial intelligence today as a way to replicate the relationships that existed with customers years ago, for example, in our own brick and mortar stores. Those relationships can and still do exist, but to the extent that people’s behavior and technology has evolved over time, so, too, must the ways in which we engage with our customers. Today, it’s voice ordering and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa that allow us to do so. We now have the ability to recreate those relationships on a much larger scale, thanks to the advances in modern technology.

I believe that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great partners and team members to work with, as well as loyal customers to serve and engage with. It’s not enough to simply maintain those relationships—you should always be working to make them even stronger.

Jim McCann is the founder and executive chairman of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, a leading provider of gifts for all celebratory occasions. In August 2018, McCann’s company, Clarim Holdings, acquired Worth. He now serves as its chairman.

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