Looking for employees during the labor shortage era was like looking for gold. Who would have thought that my lifesaving jacket was starting a virtual services business. This is the Koll Center Solutions story.
Once upon a time, I was a proud business owner of a few quick service restaurants. Business was growing at a steady pace, efficiently, and synchronized like the gears of a Swiss made watch.
My team and I were dealing all the life cards by the book enjoying what we all Greeks have learned what to do best. Work hard, trying to excel at anything we all do regardless of gender or region, young or old, rich or poor.
Carry on a simple and profound belief in building customer-centric businesses that serve our communities, satisfy our customers, develop our employees, and allow everyone involved to reach their own self-actualization.
Then, life suddenly changed. A global pandemic covered our reality filled up with strict lockdowns, isolation, and in some cases loss of loved ones by a disease that was taking away every glimpse of hope.
Historical data of previous pandemics did not leave a lot of room for hope because labor shortage, inflation and a foreseeable widespread recession were expected ahead of us when the economy was going to open, and the strict health measures removed.
Our businesses experienced what most businesses and other households had to go through.
The Perfect Storm.
A modern Pandora’s Box that opened up and whatever could go wrong in this cosmos, it was happening all at the same time.
Unable to find employees, stuck with skyrocketing energy costs, ballooned prices by all suppliers, and a customer base kept hostage due to reduced disposable incomes.
How sad indeed to see catastrophic winds causing anemic sales, bleeding to extinction our balance sheets and P&L statements.
The pandemic forced thousands of businesses to shut down for months and in the summer of 2021 when everyone returned back to normal, employees did not.
Of course, I never blamed them for that.
From time to time I come across other fellow business owners who easily start a rancorous argument about the workforce being too lazy or blaming employees for getting used to the monthly subsidies, allowances, even the – don’t worry about giving back – PPP loans that many business owners received during the pandemic.
Is this the real deal though? Or is it our inner need to victimize ourselves and sterilize our weaknesses by blaming others. Epictetus describes this stoically when he said that “to accuse others for one’s own misfortune is a sign of want of education.
To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun.
To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.” Who can possibly argue with the average American worker that pays a big chunk of their paycheck at the gas pump because of skyrocketing oil prices.
Who can possibly argue with the former restaurant employees who left the industry after they realized government agencies can easily shut their livelihoods down when the next pandemic comes again.
Why wouldn’t they look for a better opportunity for themselves? I highly doubt we would blame employees so easily if we knew we could bump into Epictetus at the local Starbucks of his time.
The real challenges we all faced during the labor shortage have been quite complex, with roots deep inside the disruption of supply and demand.
A malfunctioning relationship of labor between what employers are willing to pay and what employees are willing to work for.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic the equilibrium between the two turned out to be an expensive agreement that brought many small businesses to their knees giving employees a temporary favorable position on their commodity of labor. Unfortunately, that commodity was swept away by inflation and unsustainable economics. In other words, a lost-lost situation for both employees and employers.
Trying to manage our restaurants, I found myself trapped in the pandemic’s Axis of Evil with labor shortage being the greatest threat of all. Again, not because of employees’ fault but because of the pandemics’ bottleneck cause and effect variables.
All the businesses needed employees at the same time. And they needed lots and lots of them. It didn’t matter how much any employer paid. There was always going to be someone else that would offer better pay.
A never-ending vicious cycle of Now Hiring, Now Losing, Now Stealing each other’s employees. Month after month, this Gordian knot was becoming harder and harder to untangle with near death experiences becoming imminent for our business existence at a weekly basis.
Our herculean efforts to survive were now more important than ever. Independent small businesses have by default less ammunition in the battle for talent.
We lack sophisticated Human Resources departments that strategize intelligently around economies of scales, multiunit business models and access to heavy capital that allows sign on bonuses, competitive wages and dynamic recruiting.
Is it the size or resources though that determines who makes it and who doesn’t during a poker style business challenge? I don’t think so. History has answered that rhetorical
question several times and data proved otherwise.
It was that Gordian knot therefore and our Greek heritage that pushed me and our team to think outside the box and conceptualize a virtual call center that can help our restaurant teams on the ground to continue operating.
Virtual call centers have been around for a long time but for some reason I always felt that was a privilege for the big and greatest. The one percenters of the world. A privilege for the industry Goliaths out there with vast resources, an arsenal of business tools, able to make the world feel a lot smaller.
But not now!
Now it was the time to think boldly, to look deep through relationships and identify centers of influence ready to become catalyst of change, change the entire organization believed in so we could make it through the storm. Heraclitus says this best through his doctrine of change.
“The only thing that is constant, is change,” meaning that anyone must be adaptable and open to change in order to succeed.
For us entrepreneurs, it highlights the importance of being able to pivot and adjust strategies as needed. It also reminds us that success in business is not a static state, but rather a continuous process of growth and evolution.
To stay ahead of the competition, business owners must be able to embrace change, to get comfortable getting uncomfortable, to get distracted when they don’t get distracted.
A shared belief that we can change our future by changing our comfort levels.
Fortunate for my relationships, I was able to resurface a few contacts who were willing to share my vision for a creation of a virtual call center in order to help keep our restaurants running.
At the time, a good portion of our sales were phone orders and it was critical to have a reliable schedule of phone cashiers answering the phones, taking our orders from our customers passing the orders on to the kitchen.
Initially, we launched the venture through a shared one-bedroom apartment with a couple VoIP phones and a computer on top of a couple suitcases sending in online orders on behalf of the customers. Nothing special, nothing smart, nothing difficult, nothing expensive.
Just answering the phones, taking the order, then going to our website and placing an online order under the same customer name every single time: Mr Phone Orderopoulos!
It was our easiest way of talking with our customers and then communicating with the kitchen remotely without investing in expensive infrastructure and setting up an expensive call center.
The experiment worked and this is how the Koll Center was born.
Following Heraclitus’ every single syllable of doctrine of change, our team continued changing our approach, improving it, perfecting it.
Our cycle was constantly recycled. Reset, refocus, restart.
A continuous effort to isolate imperfections and create a customer experience as perfect as possible.
The shared bedroom apartment/office soon moved to a non-bedroom apartment and then later it moved into a high-tech business center with Fiber Optic infrastructure and state of the art working stations.
The conversion of phone orders into online orders quickly became phone orders entered into real point of sales terminals with remote access.
A much less Daedalic style than what we originally started with. Our next milestone was our introduction of the Koll Center technology into our drive-through
Historically, American drive thru stations are physically connected to an order taker inside the building with that employee being in front of the point of sales computer right by the drive thru window. What if that employee has an emergency however and cannot make it to work?
What if that employee is late because of valid reasons or needs to leave early due to a family emergency. Our drive thru technology came right in and provided solutions to these challenges.
Operating the drive thru remotely is now giving restaurant owners the freedom to focus on the production side and improve the quality of food making instead of order taking.
The order taker is also not working within a stressful noisy and hot kitchen environment dealing with the kitchen politics of the restaurant.
Yes, drama was not only in ancient Epidaurus that flourished, you can also find some of it in restaurant kitchens. With phone orders and drive-thru orders funneled through the Koll Center, the next front that needed to be addressed was the front walk-in orders.
Utilizing same VoIP drive thru communication technology, we are now able to set up counter communication devices and take orders remotely while our teams
inside the kitchen can focus in the food production with much quicker service and increased order accuracy.
Today, our Mr Beef restaurant in Forest Park, it is our prototype restaurant model that has all three channels of sales coming in through the Koll Center. Front counter, drive thru window and phone orders.
And we are not done!
Our biggest innovation of all, our Eureka moment that brings all the bells and whistles of the Koll Center together is our partnership with Let’s Play Work.
A local indoors playground in Forest Park, IL, allowing us to build our first virtual restaurant inside their premises.
A virtual restaurant with real menu boards, real ordering counter, real dining room section but a virtual kitchen and virtual cashiers working out of our Koll Center.
You see, our Mr Beef restaurant in Forest Park was too small to have an indoors playground but big enough for the indoors playground to have a virtual Mr Beef. We are very excited about what lies ahead of us with our new Virtual Services company.
Koll Center Solutions has recently grown in size serving clients outside our own businesses. We now service clients from the medical industry, auto industry, media and several office related professions that need inbound and/or outbound phone support.
We recently also launched our white label program which allows anyone now to resell our Koll Center Services to business contacts within their own personal networks.
An opportunity for everyone to build a Virtual Services Company and help other businesses overcome their challenges.
There is really not a better toolbox than our Virtual Koll Center. Remote work is here to stay.
Today’s faster and more reliable internet communication channels, a tech revolution that brought conference platforms as close as our pockets and the working from home benefits enjoyed during the pandemic, have transformed remote work to a mainstream option instead of an act for only large conglomerates.
According to research cited in Forbes, 25 percent of all professional jobs in North America were remote by the end of 2022, and remote opportunities will continue to increase through 2023.
Of course, there are many business owners who don’t feel comfortable adjusting to these new tectonic shifts of doing business. This feeling alone is not the change we seek, it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that is not sustainable if we go back to the status quo.
Let’s remember that it was in our times when we stopped dialing a telephone tied up to a wall without the convenience to take it with us. Let’s remember that it was in our times when we stopped paying a small fortune to communicate with friends and family in distant shores and the forgotten corners of the world.
As Henry Ford told to a society far less technologically advanced than ours today. “If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.
The Koll Center story had lots of struggles that any business owner, any individual can relate. If there is one chapter though that I can highlight finishing up these lines, was the time when I was trying to connect our drive thru with our virtual cashiers.
For many months – way more than a year – I was researching and interviewing telecom companies asking them for help to take orders remotely.
I talked to local start-ups, regional companies, national tech leaders, even 100 years old firms specializing in space telecoms. Every single time the response was negative, filled with cynicism and a response attitude that this is not possible, it cannot be done.
Today, I am thinking about these feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, despondency and I am looking at all the customers we are currently helping manage their businesses virtually. If my newborn daughter Eleni and all of our children, should be so lucky to see the next century, what side of history would we want them to see us being part of?
The side of darkness, backward-looking decision making or the side of forward thinking, innovation and the fundamental belief in science to save, sustain and grow or small business community.
This is our chance for them to see us from the side of history where a man touched down on the moon while talking to Houston, a rover was sent to Mars to explore topography, brothers and sisters found cure because of telemedicine and a single mother is able to work from home while she is taking her lunch-break to breastfeed her baby.
This is the time to think outside our walls. A famous quote went like this:
“Reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one; that
while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that
we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”
To reach me directly, Nick Kollias, my email is email@example.com. Use coupon code “TalkBenjamin” to receive a cool discount on using our virtual services.
Also check out our Youtube channel where we interview entrepreneurs. Click HERE to watch.