Naeem Arif is a multi-award winning entrepreneur, business owner and business consultant. He is known as the Customer First Enabler, and over the last 25 years, he has consulted for some of the biggest brands in the world, including British Airways, The BBC and Jaguar Land Rover.
Naeem is the Chair of the Midlands Retail Forum and sits on the Executive Committee of the Sutton Coldfield Chamber of Commerce. He is also a six-time bestselling author and has been published in English, Russian and Mandarin. His recent book, Customer First, was the no.1 bestseller in multiple categories, including Customer Service in numerous countries. The book focuses on some simple concepts including this;
“Too many organisations are chasing turnover and profit. You need to pursue Customer Satisfaction if you can do that, the money will come by itself.”
A concept that has been part of his DNA, with his parents believing in this approach in all the family businesses they built, and it is a mantra that he lives by. The environment in which he grew up in also had an impact on his current self. His parents got into business as a way to make a better life for themselves. Growing up, Naeem saw his parents work paid jobs as well as build businesses on the side. Their businesses were dear to them, and they treated their customers as guests. As such, they would be keen to take advantage of opportunities to make money, but at the same time, always wanted to make sure they had happy customers.
It’s about getting the balance right between taking opportunities, and also giving value to his customers. Doing the right thing for the right reasons will always pay benefits in the long term; you have to do it for the cause and not the applause.
While talking to Naeem, it is safe to say that Entrepreneurship is definitely highly significant in their family, as in his earlier years he would work on weekends, in the school holidays and on Saturdays which became an opportunity for Naeem to make money for himself growing up. As the owners’ son, he was given responsibility early and also understood the value of money. When the school tuck shop closed down for renovation; he started selling sweets to friends. This developed into selling football badges, footballs and then in the Sixth Form a personalised T-shirt business. This was never big money, but it honed the skills in terms of buying, selling and customer service.
Rather than joining the family business, after university he took a graduate job with Price Waterhouse Coopers, allowing him to take his business experience and use it to build relationships with many corporate clients. While the size of the organisations may have been more significant, the concepts remained the same. The knowledge and experience that was already built into him made him a valuable consultant, which lead him to work on some significant transformation projects globally.
However, despite his budding success, Naeem continued to work with his family, while having a career of his own. In 2005 they invested in a new project that saw Naeem become a franchise owner of United Carpets and Beds, a renown national retail business. Starting a new business is a difficult time for anyone, but as a family, they pulled together, and for this reason, the project became a huge success. Despite knowing nothing about the products, they were always confident about making it a success. As they knew it was not about having cutting edge technology or new ideas, it was about getting the business basics right.
What does this mean? You have to remember that you are in business to help customers solve their flooring requirements and not to make money. If you can do the former, then the money will come itself.
Big Data and SEO are both equally important, but in retail, a friendly welcome and excellent service is a perfect formula for success. It is no surprise that this business has grown year on year for 15 years now, despite the challenges on the High Street. Problems that haven’t seemed to compromise his success as he and his family have won multiple awards, many for Customer Service excellence.
“Excellent customer service is how SMEs will dominate the marketplace; customers will remember your service much longer than your price, and they will tell everyone they know about the great experience you gave them.”
Through his role on the MRF (Midlands Retail & Hospitality Forum), he is also working to tackle one of the biggest economic challenges at the moment involving the decline of Town Centres and High Street’s. Although recent reports state that approximately 20% of retail is now online and thought to increase to 30% over the next 24 months this, in fact, means that the high streets are having to evolve rather than declining as such. Naeem believes that many businesses, usually independents, can offer customers an all round experience that will mean that bricks and mortar stores will always be in demand.
“It’s about understanding what is important to your customers, they value their spare time and don’t to support faceless brands or feel like they are not being valued”
Whether you are in retail or hospitality, it is about connecting with your customers on a deeper level than just a transaction. If you can make this connection, they wouldn’t want to shop elsewhere. You have to speak and act in a way that resonates with them on an emotional level. This is something that successful brands do well, and Naeem’s time working as a corporate consultant allowed him to learn the secrets of the corporate boardroom from the inside and out.
As well as being a great mentor for people going through hard times. Naeem has also put his knowledge and experience into practice with Business Basics First, a three-month accelerator program of his that features five modules with “Customer First” being the core module which is coincidentally the very title of his recent book. The course teaches entrepreneurs and business owners strategies to make themselves more memorable and to conduct better services that build relationships. This can only be achieved when you have a Customer First attitude, internally with your own team and externally when you face up to your customers.
‘Customer First’ talks about how to grow your business by becoming so remarkably good that customers will never want to leave you or abandon your business. It talks about how to create loyal and long-lasting customers. It portrays how to create a brand image which customers can simply not forget. Writing books was the best way Naeem found to reach the hearts of his clients and increase his credibility in his market. “Customer First” is his fifth and most important piece of work. There is a chapter called ‘The 12 Golden Rules of Customer Service’ which is also now a specific course that Naeem teaches. It puts in place the basic things that every customer service strategy should have. For example, ‘being helpful, even when there is no sale insight’ is a principle that encourages your staff to think about more than just making money. Companies that adopt this principle often find that they increase their chances of converting prospective customers who are won over by the friendly nature of the customer service that they receive.
Naeem is a proud Brummie and is also keen to give back to the Birmingham Community. Birmingham is an integral part of the U.K.’s economy, as a lot of business is done there and statistics confirm that a lot of start-ups originate from Birmingham. With its diverse communities and functional transport networks, it is an ideal place to start a business. He set a target of helping 50 start-ups entrepreneurs in 2018 by offering them a fully funded place on his accelerator course and repeated the same in 2019. He also volunteers as a mentors on the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator programme in Birmingham.
Sharing knowledge and experience is not something that people find comfortable, for fear of giving away their secrets. Naeem does not believe in this, he is keen to share and help others as a way of learning and growing together. At a time when the world seems to be full of experts, it is important to ensure that people do not get trapped with the wrong kind of advice and support.
Since joining High Profile Club, Naeem has received a number of opportunities that have seen him interview recently by many global publications. Naeem is on the Editorial Board of Modern Retail magazine and is a regular contributor to other publications such as Customer Experience Magazine, The Asian Today and Retail Gazette.
“If you truly are an expert in a sector, then it is your responsibility to share that knowledge with your peers, and it should be your passion to see that field sector grow. By sharing you will not reduce your own knowledge, you will help everyone grow together, imagine if Edison or Tesla had kept electricity just to themselves?”
It is massively important to him that his work is not just about making money, but also about doing the right thing. He felt that in addition to having an impact on his own career, writing has an effect on other people’s lives as well. His book preaches customer care from every angle as well as correct business morals and way of moving in the economy. “When people come back to me after reading my book or attending our courses and say “hey, you have really helped me change my performance in the market! It makes me feel proud.”
Naeem recalls the times where his team have saved businesses that were in trouble and the families that rely on them.
“Knowing that our work is making a difference is extremely rewarding.”
This is particularly true in the SME space, as SME businesses, which are usually Owner-Operated or family-based businesses. The marketplace today means that you don’t need to have Retail premises on Oxford Street, just as a Fleet of Trucks are no longer essential to run a significant business, as technology now removes so many barriers.
“Not only can SME’s challenge the big brands, but they can beat them.”
Meaning that we are currently living in the most significant time in history for Entrepreneurs and SME business owners. Where digital technology and innovative thinking has plateaued us to a place where we can target and connect with anybody we want. A connected global marketplace is realistically accessible, as Social Media tools allow us to read the market, identify and communicate with people on more of a personal level.
If you look to the global giants, there aren’t any “magical formulas” behind their success. Richard Branson built Virgin based on excellent customer service, Amazon has thrived due to its ease and variety all in a 1-click ordering process and Apple products just work, which is a fantastic customer experience. Though these may sound like basic strategies, these guys are Brilliant at the Basics.
When asked to give one piece of advice to other entrepreneurs, Naeem would say; – Not only can the small businesses challenge the big brands, but they can beat them. Following the era of “value for money” and “brand identity”, customers now demand personalisation and experiences. Faceless corporates are finding it harder to maintain the attention of their customers these days; an independent coffee shop can challenge the likes of Starbucks, just because of the way they make their guests “feel”. The big message I took away from speaking with him was that business success can be achieved by simply putting the Customer First.
Since this interview Naeem has been selected to sit on the Forbes Business Council, so look out to seeing his articles being published in Forbes later this year.
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