Nearly 20 years ago, Chris Barber had such a bad experience at a computer repair store that he sat down in the dining room of his girlfriend’s apartment and created a business that aimed to “take the ‘s-h’ out of ‘IT’” by prioritizing customer service.
Today, Barber is the “chief nerd” and owner of Cheaper Than a Geek in Crofton — an IT company that offers outsourced technology solutions for businesses too small to have a designated IT staff.
Barber’s business reflects what Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau in Maryland, calls a “generational change” in the business landscape.
Emerging companies care about the bottom line, but also understand that to be competitive they need to build trust with their customers, said Barnett. Barber’s journey building his company serves as evidence that when ethical considerations are made from the ground up, they help to differentiate brands and create consumer trust.
In order to recognize companies who “demonstrate the highest commitment to honesty and integrity” in their first five years, the Better Business Bureau in the Greater Maryland Area is launching the Spark Award.
Award recipients will be young companies that show a dedication to maintaining an ethical workplace, with a business model that focuses on creating consumer trust, Barnett said.
“By focusing on values that foster trust early on, they are building a foundation for lasting customer relationships and positioning their organizations for long-term success,” Barnett said in a statement.
For new businesses, prioritizing services like this can be hard to do when considering the bottom line, Barber said.
“When you’re starting out, resources are scarce,” Barber said. You’re struggling to promote your service and get clients, and customer service slows that down when every second counts.
The fewer calls your workers are fielding, the less expensive it is to run an operation, Barber said. Some people take the easy way out and use that money to focus on marketing, but attention to customer service takes discipline.
“It made for a very strong foundation,” Barber said. “I could always see what the end game looked like.”
Joann Francavilla, director of strategic partnerships at the Better Business Bureau, said, “Down the road when we see the phone start ringing here (at the Better Business Bureau) and businesses have gotten themselves into a jam, it’s way harder to dig out of that than to have had very strong (ethics) on the front end.”
If an emphasis on marketplace trust isn’t made at the top of an organization, it’s hard to create that culture later, Barber said, and companies that do stand out in a competitive marketplace.
Barnett’s bureau joins less than 10 bureaus across the country that offer the Spark Award.
To qualify, a business or nonprofit must be located in Baltimore or the surrounding 18 counties, have served customers for five years or less and be eligible for a bureau rating of a B or better.
Anyone can nominate a business for the award, and eligible organizations may also self-apply. There is no cost to apply, and a BBB accreditation is not required.
The BBB is celebrating the launch of the Spark Awards with a series of happy hours — on June 6, 13 and 21 — hosted by local incubators.