Tag Archives: technology

The Sound of Silence

“Come on, you too!” demanded the company nurse ” You have to set an example; you need to have your hearing tested like everyone else. ”  Protesting that in my role as MD I had never spent excessive amounts of time on the factory floor permitted me no escape; I was frog marched off for the test.  “You’ve got a bit of a problem,” was her response to the test results, “You’ll need to have your hearing looked into properly.”

Back in my office I sat pondering this situation. The news that I had been diagnosed with a hearing loss was indeed something of a shock. I wasn’t deaf, I protested to myself. I could hold normal conversations, listen to music and the radio. Then, a comment made a couple of months ago by one of my international colleagues came back to me, “You know that you come across as very aggressive at our management meetings.”

The context of this comment had related to what appeared to have been a habit of mine at our European management meetings.  These multi-day meetings usually took place in a huge hotel conference room with 20 or so executives seated in a horseshoe pattern with the particular country CEO, whose turn it was to present his results, at the open end talking with the aid of an overhead projector.  Ranged across the closed end of the horseshoe were the President and his team who would freely interrupt to fire off question after question. I hadn’t considered previously why I responded to many of the questions to me by walking the length of the horseshoe and then standing over whoever had asked the question. I could see how aggressive this behaviour might have appeared but then the initial questioning was often aggressive and I felt that I was merely standing my ground.

As I pondered the nurse’s unwelcome news I realised that the underlying reason for my ‘aggressive’ behaviour was that I was obviously struggling to hear questions from the other end of what were always very large rooms. Thinking further back, I knew I had previously had acute hearing. Working in the audio industry years before I could recall playing around in the lab with a signal generator with colleagues and finding that my hearing extended way beyond anyone else’s. As a consequence, many a night’s sleep when travelling had been ruined by some faint sound that kept me awake.

Referred to an ENT consultant shortly afterwards, I was tested once again and the results confirmed the findings of our company nurse. I was then taken through a complete medical history questionnaire. After responding to one question relating to drugs administered to treat Pulmonary Tuberculosis as a teenager, he sat back and roared

“Classic, delayed reaction! Still, you’d rather be deaf than dead, wouldn’t you?”

It seemed that the key drug (streptomycin) I had been injected for months had the known side effect of ototoxicity  leading to sensorineural hearing loss. I learnt that there was no known treatment and it was likely to worsen over time.

“You’d better look into a hearing aid.” Was the parting comment.

Shortly afterwards, at the age of 41, I received a small behind the ear aid for my right ear. This improved matters but I felt embarrassed wearing it. Crazy as it might seem, I would remove it before important meetings and would struggle as before to hear clearly what was being said and asked.

As predicted after a year or so I was back at my local audiology clinic and being prescribed an aid for my left ear.  Within a couple of years I was struggling to hear conversations clearly and returned to the clinic.  This time larger and more powerful aids were prescribed. These seemed to restore most of my hearing loss but the aids were large and cumbersome and, although they helped, I hated them. I hated that I had to wear the proof of my disability on display; it fought with my self-image.  But slowly I gave in and wore them every waking moment (except when swimming!) as my hearing deteriorated with every passing year.  I was managing (just) and hating the aids and their deficiencies more with every passing day.

The aids I was being prescribed at the time were old, analogue technology and very unsophisticated.  Chatting one day to the owner of a local business I had got to know quite well, he asked me how I was getting on with my aids.  Out poured all my frustrations.

“Let me give you the details of my audiologist.” Offered Ray who went on to describe in detail his similar experiences and joy at his new, digital aids.

“They’re expensive, mind,” Ray went on in his broad Yorkshire dialect “but worth every penny and more.”  From a Yorkshire man this was praise indeed.

So, I duly made the contact and, following further tests, was sitting some weeks later waiting for my new aids to be fitted and tested. These new aids were no longer behind the ear but were ‘completely in canal’ (CIC) fitting deep and snug into my ears.  With the aids in place a transfer of the programming took place and they were ready for use.

“Can you hear me now?” Enquired Colin, the elderly owner of the long established business. I was almost rendered speechless with amazement. Not only could I hear him clearly but could easy detect subtle nuances in his voice I hadn’t been aware of previously.  Even when Colin continued to speak as he moved behind me and then completely out of the room and down the corridor I could easy understand every word he spoke.

A short while later as I walked down the road to where my car was parked I was almost overwhelmed with the cacophony I noise I could hear. I couldn’t help grinning from the sheer pleasure of being able to hear clearly again and must have appeared somewhat idiotic to passers by.  Starting up my relatively new car at which I had previously marvelled at its near silence, I now discovered I could hear all manner of noises from under the bonnet! Back home I stood and listened to the noises of the car quietly cooling down whilst birds I had forgotten sang in the trees. Bliss!

My life had improved immeasurably, business meetings became easier and the telephone, television and radio less of a challenge. I was now no longer glued to watching people’s lips in an effort to supplement failing hearing.

Nevertheless, a year later I was once more conscious that my hearing had declined further. Back in Colin’s consulting rooms he tested me once more, showed me the frequencies where my hearing had declined again then made adjustments to the programming. I was almost as good as new again.

That was 15 years ago and a lot has happened in that time. My hearing continued to deteriorate as nerve endings died. Technology continued to improve and every two to three years I changed to the latest technology which would produce some improvement once more. This was proving to be an extremely expensive process (a pair of new aids is equivalent to a cheap new car) but without these continuing improvements I would simply not have been able to continue working in what were the very demanding roles I had.

Early on when the Pound was riding high against the European currencies (and then the Euro) I investigated prices in Germany and Scandinavia and seriously considered a trip abroad to purchase new aids. However, I was beginning to realise that what I was paying for was not just the aids but the continuing expert advice and skills of the audiologist and the relationship we had. It was becoming clear to me that yes, you can test hearing and then programme the aids to fill the shortfall across a wide range of frequencies. However, it seems that the brain doesn’t always agree with the analysis and implementation and throws up problems. It is then necessary to be able to articulate precisely what the problem is, the circumstances in which it is apparent and where in the frequency range it is occurring. All this takes time and skill on the part of the audiologist. And time is money.  It was this time and expertise that the NHS seemed unable to provide.

As time has passed, technology has continued to improve but my hearing loss in the mid~high frequencies has now moved into the range deemed ‘profound’. My old audiologist, Colin, decided that the demands of technology were becoming beyond what he wished to keep up with and so sold up. My luck is that Kevan who has bought the business is a technical genius, has great depth and breadth of knowledge of everything on the market and infinite patience. With Kevan’s help I have been able to test most of the major aids on the market. I have become, as a result and of necessity, somewhat of a connoisseur of hearing aids – a ‘petrolhead’ of hearing aids. I can’t identify a winner but at the moment my favourite and the manufacturer of my current aids is the Danish company Widex who produce a smooth and very natural sound.

The greatest problem with losing high frequencies is that one loses the ability to hear or distinguish between certain consonants – the sounds of F, S, H & T going first, soon joined by K and then S, C and H. The situation becomes one of being able to hear someone speaking but being largely incapable of deciphering what it is they are saying e.g. did they say sit, hit, fit or tit? One seeks to use context to provide the answer. However, once the brain has attempted to sort through the possibilities of each possibility, the speaker is two or three sentences further on each of which has raised fresh uncertainties. In one to one situations watching the speaker’s lips can provide vital clues. In many situations this is simply not possible. Female and children’s voices are particularly difficult as they are higher pitched.

The other critical problem is that of hearing a voice within a noisy environment. With normal hearing we seem to be able to focus upon a particular sound (or voice) in much the same way as our eyes can focus (and re-focus rapidly) upon objects far and near and anywhere in-between. Even with glasses we retain this ability. But once an element of technology has been placed between the outside world and our ear drum the ability to focus seems to be lost. Turning up the volume offers no solution and even makes matters worse.

Most manufacturers now offer programmes that transpose higher frequencies down into the wearer’s audible range. I find that this only works (for me) to a very limited extent. Of more use is a programme that greatly reduces background noise allowing one to concentrate on what, for instance, a partner is saying in a crowded restaurant. However, once more, I find this only offers a partial solution.

Technology has begun now to offer some real solutions. For example I now have a device that plugs into the television and transmits the broadcast sound (via a receiver device worn around the neck) directly into my aids. I can also switch off all ambient noise so that this is no distraction and my wife can listen at the volume she chooses. The only problem is that I only realise she is trying to communicate with me when her slipper hits me in the head!

Telephones remain a real challenge but here there are solutions. The first is simply to rely on the loudspeaker function on the handset and this can be supplemented by switching to a programme that boosts speech frequencies. This works not too badly when one is in a quiet environment but, again, not in noisy surroundings. However, I now have a device that allows my mobile phone to send the signal directly to both aids so I can hear the maximum content in both ears. Supplementing this again is the ability to eliminate all ambient sounds with one button.  I can also listen to music, streamed by Bluetooth directly to my aids. These advances are not always foolproof in operation but are a big step forward.

In a recent experiment (of sorts) sitting with a friend in a coffee shop that had become extremely noisy, I asked him to phone me. Using my Bluetooth device I was able to shut out all ambient sound and hear his voice clearly in both ears. This offered no solution for my friend, however, and we must have appeared an odd pair! One manufacturer does offer the possibility of a clip-on battery microphone that the hearing impaired can ask a friend to clip to their lapel. This may offer a limited solution but I would have to change my complete setup and might well lose certain other advantages that Widex offer me now.

Currently I’m in the situation where sounds above a certain frequency have gone forever and no technology can stimulate the dead nerves cells. Increasing the volume of these frequencies merely produces painful distortion in neighbouring frequencies. As nerve cells continue to die off my hearing will worsen. I have read that stem cell technology has reactivated hearing in rats and promises the possibility of a solution for humans at some stage but I have no idea if this is a real possibility nor if it would work for me (or even if I could afford it).

My life has been one of facing up to and overcoming challenges, something I have always learnt from even it not all of the challenges were sought or relished. I am aware that my previous, very extrovert behaviour has changed. Indulging in lively repartee is beyond me now as I struggle to work out the context of a word misunderstood three sentences ago. I hate answering the phone knowing that unless it’s someone I know well, I’m highly unlikely to be able to tune into their voice. I hate the trend that has caused companies to replace postal and email addresses with a call centre.

I’m now back with behind the ear aids once more but these are barely visible. However, in one way, I wish that they were more visible, vanity overtaken by practicality. Deafness is an invisible disability and anyone who doesn’t have this problem simply doesn’t understand what it means to the suffer. I’ve been thinking of having some badges made saying ‘Deaf but not stupid’. I’m fortunate that my time in the workplace has come to an end. But deafness afflicts one in six of the UK population with 3.7 million suffers aged between 16 & 64. These suffers in work have a sometimes terrible burden to bear. And the disco & iPod generation may unfortunately find that there has been a terrible price to pay for their musical & social enjoyment.

So now I shun large gatherings that I would once have sought out. I avoid using the phone unless it’s to someone I know well. I thank technology instead for providing Twitter where I can still meet people and enjoy a lively exchange of views.  It’s good, but it can’t replace face to face social and business interaction.

When I sold up and retired nearly four years ago I decided (and promised my wife) that I wouldn’t work again. After the novelty of having nothing to do wore off, I started voluntary work with a couple of schemes helping students and young people. I would now like to increase this work (as my brain hasn’t retired at the same pace as the rest of me) but I am finding it extremely difficulty to cope with the hearing challenges presented by a room full of students. Ideally, I would wish to increase the enterprise work with students and resume non-executive and mentoring work. But…

I well remember the days, many years ago, when I had hearing like a bat and could make out every instrument in an orchestra. But I also remember the sleepless nights because someone in the next hotel room was snoring loudly.

So, life may not be perfect now….but at least I have an ‘off’ button and can enjoy the sound of silence whenever I want.

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The Business of Life Chapter 35 – when you can’t take no for an answer

ABC desperately needed to acquire a competitor.  If we didn’t then it was increasingly likely that we wouldn’t succeed in turning the business around and finding a buyer of our own.  We knew that acquisition of a suitable company offered us the only realistic opportunity to reduce the cost of sales, boost influence with major suppliers and make a step change in performance.  We also needed to acquire a competitor with distribution rights to certain ‘flagship’ brands.  We had a suitable and seemingly willing target but one huge problem remained; we had no money and no hope of raising any fresh capital. When you can't take no for an answer

The only option was to get the parent company of our target to fund our purchase.  Having worked for most of my career within very large organisations, I understood the type of pressures that can arise.  Someone in the organisation might be so personally desperate to offload their losses-making UK division that they might be prepared to find a way to finance our purchase.  So, having said we were interested at a much lower price than they wanted, we left them alone whilst they negotiated with a number of our other competitors.  No sale took place.

After about six months we approached them again with the following proposal; we would buy the customer list and the goodwill and pay for this out of a percentage of future gross profits over the next 3 years.  We required that they transfer the stock to us and we would pay for it as we sold it.  Any stock still unsold after 1 year, we could return.  They would make the entire workforce redundant and bear the cost themselves.  Finally they would retain the premises.  Following an agonising wait, they accepted our terms in their entirety.

We had assumed that only around 30% of their turnover would be retained but in the event we kept over 60%.  We also retained the distribution rights to the ‘flagship’ brands (having sounded out these suppliers in advance) and used these to grow our business significantly in our traditional accounts.  Over time we backed away from the poorer credit risk customers we had and replaced these with business grown from the higher quality new ones.

Our investment in stock settled down to a level not much higher than pre-acquisition despite the significantly increased turnover.  A key influence in this had been the previous identification that no one person in ABC (except Mike) had responsibility for the value of stock.  A product manager was appointed who, in addition to his responsibilities in managing the ranges, had responsibility for sales forecasting & absolute levels of stock.  With his efforts and skills, stock turns improved, our service levels got better & working capital requirements reduced.  We were often able to win business at regular prices because we were the only distributor with stock.

One of the most successful moves we made was to de-emphasise sales revenue.  In order to adapt to rapidly changing pricing levels amongst competition, it was essential to allow the sales team certain flexibility over day to day pricing.  The problem was that sales revenue was chased to the detriment of margins.  This was especially evident as every month end approached.  In an effort to remedy this we scrapped sales targets and moved to cash gross margin targets.  All access to sales figures was removed from the internal IT systems.  In our internal communications only cash margins were ever referred to from that point on.  The result was a steady improvement in margins that provided clear, additional profit.

Despite including some of the major global corporations (e.g. IBM) the behaviour of most suppliers was chaotic.  They lacked any evidence of a coherent strategy and seemed entirely reactive, capable only of using price as a variable.  We put together a detailed presentation that Mike then made to each of our suppliers.  In it we spelt out our analysis of the sector, our plans for the future and what we needed from our chosen suppliers.  We announced a supplier performance monitoring system together with an annual Supplier of the Year award.  Each month we shared the ratings of our suppliers across 25 pre-announced criteria.  The results were dramatic, with suppliers rapidly falling over each other to improve their ratings (and in so doing improving service to us).  Tangible support in terms of focussed co-operative promotional activity rose and with it our sales.  The year end saw a major one day event for all suppliers with awards given for the best in category and overall winner.  The programme cost us very little but grew in effectiveness each year.

Performance slowly improved and monthly profits started to be the norm.  Gradually, the losses on the balance sheet were being eliminated.  However, part way through this process one of the major customers was placed into administration owing us over £160k.  There was little hope of any recovery and most of the loss was uninsured.  We managed to cover the loss from the provisions we had built and a small insurance recovery.  The shock of this was severe though.  Strict new credit policies were put in place and the board agreed a new guideline that no single customer would be allowed to represent a greater exposure than a pre-set limit.  It was clear that we urgently needed to lift the quality of our customer base to continue building the business.  Many of the traditional customers were just too risky to allow the credit required to fund the extra volumes we required.

Priority then turned to improving the internal processes of the business and to improving profitability.  A range of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) was identified for the entire business with weekly & monthly monitoring agreed.  These became the dials we all watched on the dashboard & formed the language we all talked within the company.  A complete review of the financial systems was undertaken and tight new accounting controls were put into place.

A reorganisation of the internal sales structure was achieved that established a series of teams comprising a Field Sales Manager plus a Customer Service Executive and a Telesales Canvasser.  This restricted the number of expensive field sales heads & beefed up the proactive telesales’ prospecting & selling activities.  Grouping them into discrete teams gave a sense of identity & team spirit.  The increased communication achieved within the teams greatly assisted sales results.  Various techniques were tried in an effort to improve the rate of proactive sales calls.  Finally, the ‘quiet room’ concept was born where each prospector went into a spare office for number of hours per week & made calls from a direct outside line with no distractions.  The rate of new business rose.

That some sales people were much better than others soon became apparent.  We suspected that technique was the cause.  External sales trainers were brought in to overhaul our sales approach & re-train the entire sale steam in a revised selling model.  The sales team loved the process and learnt many new lessons, which they were quickly able to apply.  Mike decided not to replace the sales director but to run the sales force himself (which he did with great leadership & drive).  Mike had a natural ability to lift spirits in the team.  Following a particularly successful month Mike would declare a beer and pizza outing to celebrate.  If the business had an especially bad month, he didn’t rant and rave but declared a beer and pizza evening to put it behind them!

Freed of the German company, we were now making profitable inroads into Europe via a UK based sales effort.  Curiously, Hull proved to be a fertile source for staff with European language skills.  The business went on to make three straight years of good profits and the balance sheet continued to improve, building thereafter to achieve a very healthy net asset value.  Finally, the remodelling of the business was rounded off with a change of name to ABC Technology Distribution Ltd.

The bank had been patient during this period and had finally let us leave the ‘intensive care’ department.  Mark T had moved on within 3i and had been replaced with Ian with whom I built a close working relationship.  The relationship however maintained certain protocols one of the most important being that I never allowed a parallel reporting system to creep in.  We were fellow shareholders with common risks and common interest but all the key issues were reported formally.  There was however a great deal of pressure to achieve a sale and I was constantly keeping Ian up to date on our plans whilst shielding Mike from as much of this pressure as I could.

We did have a very clear plan for a sale however, one that was clearly understood by the board and was one that we carefully implemented.  Mike had known the CEO (Mike B) of a major US distributor, Scansource, for many years and had ‘borrowed’ many of their business practices and strategies.  Having closely followed Asda’s emulation of Walmart, which directly facilitated the eventual acquisition of Asda, Mike’s stated intention of selling out to Scansource made a lot of sense to me.  One significant problem had occurred though.  Having opened a competing business in what Mike B saw as his backyard, the relationship had soured.

Now that we had succeeded in extricating ourselves from the USA, Mike attempted a charm offensive designed to achieve a rapprochement with his erstwhile mentor.  The news that we might be ‘on the market’ to such an obvious buyer was duly conveyed.  This did not achieve the desired effect and it was with dismay that we learnt that Scansource were trawling Europe looking for acquisition candidates whilst ignoring ABC and Mike’s blandishments.  We had to battle on with improving the business with no other realistic purchaser in sight.

Finally, Scansource came knocking on our door and negotiations for a sale began.  After a long, drawn out and frustrating process we achieved a sale in May 2002 for a healthy sum that gave me and all the ordinary shareholders a good return on their investment.  Additionally, Andy and I received a healthy incentive payment from 3i that had been offered to us 5 years previously in the event that we achieved a recovery of their investment.  Mike stayed with the business but this didn’t last long as making the shift from owner to employee was never going to be an easy one.  He went on to form another business in a related field that has been extremely successful.  And, in a strange turn of fate, the Scansource European MD ended up working for me in an unrelated business I formed some years later.

The previous five years had never been easy, firstly with the challenges of keeping ABC afloat, then of making that vital acquisition and going on to achieve a satisfactory sale.  This had been taking place against major problems in my other investments.  It was though, and despite the many pressures, one of the most satisfying times of my career working with such a cohesive and successful team.

Elsewhere life was equally challenging, frustrating, commercially dangerous and rewarding.  I was getting used to it.

 Image courtesy of thepoliticalcarnival.net