Last week David Robinson wrote about the failures of the Post Office and the implications of putting relationships last. This week he reflects on the success of a very different kind of business.

Putting relationships first

I don’t spend a lot of money on my hair, but then again, I don’t have a lot of hair to spend my money on. I always go to the same barber. Contrary to the stereotype, he’s not a big talker. Our interaction is always the same:

“How are you?” I say.
“Mustn’t grumble” he replies. And then he cuts my hair.

Its all very transactional, but it is an entirely satisfactory transaction, meeting the needs of us both.

I was there last week when the homeless man came in. …

Three of us are waiting on the only bench and the little shop is almost full. I recognise the man. He often sits on the pavement by the Co-op. He pauses in the doorway, looks around, gathers his overlarge coat and backs into a tiny gap between us on the bench, bottom first.

“Can’t sit there Jack” says the barber, talking to the mirror, “no room, come here…”

He drags out the other barber’s chair, fortuitously vacant today.

The man sits heavily, opens his carrier bag and pulls out a variety of food items, a squashed Burger King box with some chicken nuggets, half a Belgium bun. He slides the scissors and the shampoo along the counter in front of him, arranges the food and begins to eat. After a while he calls across to the barber, “shave?”

“Not now, Jack, look – very busy” the barber gestures to the bench. “Later.”

Jack harrumphs, gets up awkwardly and walks out, leaving the remains of his meal on the counter and on the floor.

At first the barber doesn’t notice, then he does.

“Fucking hell Jack” he breathes to no one in particular. He opens the door with one hand, still snipping with the other, and shouts down the street “Oi Jack, get back in here, clear up your mess”.

Jack trudges in again and tidies up, noisily and evidently cross. Neither says anything. He’ll have his free shave after the rush.

The next man in front of me settles slowly in the barber’s chair.

“I’m sorry for your loss” says the barber, apparently unprompted.

After a long pause, the man speaks very quietly, maybe he’s just thinking aloud. “They shaved him at the hospital. Left him with a moustache. Dad never had a ‘tache. Not in all his life.” He waves vaguely towards the undertakers on the other side of the road, “just been to see him. Can’t bury him like that”.

“Tell them” says the barber “they’ll take it off”.
“Will they? Will they do it right?”
“Course they will. They do it all the time”

The haircut is finished before either speaks again. The man is dusting his shoulders.

“Tell them I’ll do it, if you want” says the barber.

The man leaves.

Almost immediately he’s back. He won’t have had time to cross the busy road, let alone to speak to the undertaker.

“They say, could you come?” he says.
“10 minutes” the barber replies, “I’ll do this bloke” gesturing to me “and I’ll be over”.

One more thing you should know about my barber. He runs a very successful business. There is always a queue and in the last ten years alone, he has seen off three other hairdressers from the high street.

Relationship-centred practice comes in many different wrappers. We don’t all need the same kind of relationships with everybody, but everything works better when relationships are good. 

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