Presented by Ian Fuhr, CEO: The Sorbet Group

Ian does not believe in the value of a tertiary education. He is a true serial entrepreneur, having founded the retail chain Super Mart, a record company, a race relations consultancy and finally Sorbet. He is also a co-owner of the Lion Park, a tourist venture located in Johannesburg. Most importantly, Ian is one of these rare speakers who have the ability to keep their audience entertained while communicating a very profound message.

The early years
Ian started his presentation with a summary of his early life which included a sheltered childhood in a protective Jewish community, army service, working with bands and a university career that was prematurely terminated by choice. Early on, his somewhat flippant appearance belied a strong sense of community involvement and being of service to people of all races and creeds. A series of power lessons that he formulated over the years bear witness to this.

In the late 1970s, Ian set up and operated a chain of music stores under the name of K-Mart. A few years later, the name had to be changed to Super Mart to avoid a trademark tussle with a US-based multinational.

Eventually, Ian left the operation of the music stores to his brother and started a race relations agency named Labour Link. He had correctly identified that racial polarisation in the workplace was one of the main causes for low productivity and was determined to change that. Some early adopters of enlightened workplace policies became his clients but it was a struggle. Subsequently, Ian became involved in operating the Lion Park but in 1997, he resumed control of Super Mart. The business was sold to Edcon in 2004.

By now defined as a serial entrepreneur, Ian was ready for a new challenge. He decided to move into the beauty salon industry, with his only qualification being his inherent belief that “sameness” is a disease. After studying the sector and acquiring a few existing salons, he decided to turn the sector on its head. His model was a retail store that offers treatments in back rooms rather than a beauty salon with a small retail section tacked on.

This was significant because the resulting focus on retail involved good lighting, products displays on open shelves where customers could handle them and the introduction of a customer-centric service philosophy. It made the brand successful from day one.

The name Sorbet was chosen from a list of dozens of names because in Ian’s and his team’s minds, it created an image of freshness, tantalising taste and beautiful pastel colours. Incidentally, those who don’t know him well could be fooled by Ian’s easy-going manner but in reality, he knows what he wants and will not rest until he gets it. One person who experienced this first-hand was the hapless designer of Sorbet’s trademark. He went to work the moment the name was selected but it took four months and hundreds of rejections before Ian approved the design.

The Sorbet Team
The company currently employs over 600 people who have come to share Sorbet’s dogma that “service must come before reward.” The working environment at Sorbet is conducive to self-motivation and service attitude. That staff love it is confirmed by the retention rate. At the outset, staff turnover hovered around 40%, not at all unusual for this sector. Today, it has fallen to between 5-7%.

One secret is that staff are not treated as a cost burden but are seen as an asset. They are referred to as citizens, the company is their community and the business itself is defined as people serving people. Rampant growth notwithstanding, Ian insists on personally handling the initial training of every new staff member.

The Sorbet franchise
Ian’s obsession with perfection manifests itself in the way he set up his franchise. He planned to franchise the concept from the outset but it was only after he had set up and operated 22 company-owned stores that he launched the franchise. Interest was high from the outset and there is now a long waiting list. By the end of 2013, Sorbet will have a total of 86 stores, 80 of them franchised. Additional stores will follow, with the main constraint to further expansion a lack of suitable sites. Expansion into the UK is planned for 2014 and several other projects are evolving, with SEW (Sobet Empowers Women) an outstanding example.

To be considered for a franchise, prospects need to display 80% passion for the brand and a willingness to accept the servant leadership principle. All other issues account for a mere 20%.

The importance of the Sorbet culture
Ian is not too concerned about competition. His philosophy is that “you can copy a concept but not the culture that underpins it.” He defines culture as “the way we do things around here” and expects all members of the team to assimilate, live and breathe the Sorbet culture.

At the centre is the dogma “Service before reward.” It revolves around the company’s Higher Purpose Statement. It reads as follows: “To serve and improve the lives of our guests and our citizens.”

Translated into practice, it means that everyone is expected to put in more than they take out. Individuals who want to put themselves – “I” – before “us” are jokingly referred to as I-specialists. They need to change to fit in or must ship out because at Sorbet, culture is one area that leaves absolutely no room for flexibility.

Relationship with customers
Sorbet currently sells 80,000 treatments a month and this figure is on the rise. The overriding objective is to have customers leave in a positive frame of mind. To this end, Sorbet’s customer service guidelines revolve around five powerful principles:

  1. Passionate service;
  2. Selflessness – Sorbet’s people are trained to put the needs of others before their own;
  3. Servant leadership – true leaders serve their followers, not the other way round;
  4. Unwavering integrity – this is governed by Sorbet’s Integrity Charter;
  5. Individual growth – Sorbet’s leaders help their followers to grow and eventually reap rewards.

Every company claims to excel in the realm of customer service but Sorbet’s dedication to this big idea is beyond question. Outstanding examples are their complaints handling and product returns policies.

  • Returns policy

If a customer is unhappy with a product, she receives a full refund, no matter how much of it she may already have used.

  • Complaints resolution policy

This is a big issue at Sorbet. Seeing that the average spend per customer per month is R500, the loss of a customer equals the loss of R30,000 in sales over five years. It makes sense, therefore, to do everything possible to settle customer complaints in such a way that the customer remains loyal to the brand.

The cardinal rule is never to argue with a customer. With this in mind, the complaints resolution process unfolds as follows:

  1. Listen carefully and apologise profusely.
  2. Fix it.
  3. Sweeten it.

This policy pays handsome dividends. Most complaints are resolved to the customer’s full satisfaction. The 95% customer retention rate is proof of that.

Sorbet’s Loyalty Programme is another customer magnet. It already has 120,000 members and is growing at a rate of over 1,000 new members a week. Lastly, a strategic partnership with Clicks means that customers earn Clicks ClubCard points at Sorbet. Clicks also stocks a dual-branded range of Sorbet products.

ã Kurt Illetschko 2013. Published with permission