Lessons from Work to Succeed in Life: An Interview with Louis Upkins, Jr.

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Louis Upkins, Jr., likes to catch people off guard by saying, "I sleep with my most important client." He means his wife, of course. In his recent book, Treat Me Like a Customer, he wants to teach people in business how to have a better relationship with their spouses and their families by treating them as good as they treat people at work. Not surprisingly, the book is also a great reminder for how we should be serving people in our work every day.

Mr. Upkins has certainly served his share of high profile people throughout his career in branding and marketing—from Oprah Winfrey to Whitney Houston, from Cracker Barrel to McDonald's, from The Olympic Games to Luis Palau and T. D. Jakes.

Let's start with the principles of great customer service. Can you give us corporate examples of great customer service?

The company that comes to mind immediately for me is Starbucks. They do a really good job of making customers feel special. They handle complaints extremely well: they just give you a free cup of coffee. I don't think I've ever seen an irate customer in a Starbucks. Maybe you have, but I've never seen it.

Why do you think that is?

They have dialed in on what matters most, their customers. A lot of companies say that customers are important. Not many show the customers how important they are. They do a variety of things that simply say, "We're paying attention to what's important to you." They have taken a consumer-friendly product and turned it into a significant experience for the consumer.

I want to pursue that idea about simply paying attention to customers. Why doesn't everybody do that? What does Starbucks do that's so hard for other companies to do?

First, you have to want to do it. Some people take their customers for granted, like they are always going to show up or like they have no options. Those companies don't really care if the customer is happy or not, as if it's your honor to come and give them your money. A lot of companies still have a lot to learn about how to value the customer.

You've spent a significant portion of your career in marketing and branding. What insights do you learn from marketing as a communication skill that you then apply to communication with your family?

Marketing is all about the messaging. It's all about communicating a product or communicating a service or communicating an event.

One of the greatest things we can take away from that type of career is how we communicate with our family. Do we really stay engaged with our family like we would with our customers? You know, a happy customer is typically a person that's been well-communicated to. There are no surprises, so they have time to work through challenges.

With family, oftentimes, we can tend to shut down and feel like we really don't have to say what we're really feeling. Or if there is a disconnect, we just hope that it works itself out. But, in corporate America, and with customers, we find ways to drill down to the very basic challenge so we can really work through it.

I would never sit in a meeting with a customer and pull out my iPhone and begin to check Facebook and check my voicemails and things of that nature; but yet, we feel okay to do that with our families. I think that's a bad communication thing with your family. You should show them the same respect that you would a customer. You would never scream at an irate customer. You would never push back in a very negative way. And those are things that you shouldn't do at home either.

Let's shift gears here a bit. You called yourself a born optimist. What does that mean in your work and your family?

I tend to see things on the opportunity side. You know, it may be raining outside and tornadoes all around us, but the sun has to come out after the tornadoes. I remember that. When I view an opportunity or a challenge, I focus on the best that can come out of it, versus the worst.

At what point does optimism become a kind of naivety?

For me, they're not one and the same. I don't go into things blindly. I just go into things with a perspective of a positive outcome, even if the outcome is not what one would hope that it would be. Even in bad circumstances, we can learn lessons that will elevate us in the future, if we choose to learn.

It reminds me of the part in your book where you said, "Expect to win."

You have to. You can't tell me that football players prepare for the Super Bowl expecting to lose.

If I were preparing for the Super Bowl given my current physical state, I would expect to lose.

[Laughing] Okay. But professional football players are not going in with that mentality. They don't think to themselves, "Hey, we're one of the two best teams in the country about to play the Super Bowl, and we're going to go and get our butts whipped."

I read on Twitter that you went to the Pancake Pantry with your son last week. How was the breakfast?

It was absolutely awesome. You know, we take little special things like that to create memories together. The Pancake Pantry is something that I really enjoyed as a single person. Then, my wife and I went there as we dated and as a newly married couple. Now, our entire family goes. Sometimes we go together, sometimes just my son and I, sometimes my daughter and I, sometimes my wife and I. We get away and just go there. It's a tourist attraction for this city, but it feels like our kitchen for us.

There's a customer inventory questionnaire in your book with this question: "What's one thing you do that annoys your spouse?" So, I just thought I'd ask you that.

I use the word "simple" a lot, and it drives her nuts.


If she's facing a challenge, I'll say, "Honey, it's simple." I mean, you do this, this, and this. You know, 1-2-3-4-5. She says, "Louis, you always think everything is simple." I say, "But it is." It really annoys her, and she has asked me to use a different word. She says, "Don't just say 'it's simple,' because it's simple in your head, and you see it. It's not simple for the person who has to go through it."

You described your skill set as idea generation, innovation, and manifestation. How do you translate that skill set to serve your family?

Here's the deal. Our family should have a purpose. We want to be a family of integrity and balance and joy and memories and competence in serving and things of that nature.

You create a visual for what you want in your family. Then, you start walking toward that visual. "Our family will stand for X; and we will serve in this capacity; and we will give in this capacity; and we will lead in this capacity; and we will listen in this capacity."

It's just like anything else. If you're crafting a new business, you've got to have some philosophies built around the structure of that new company, so that your staff and your people can begin to see the vision.

The same thing is true for a family. Without a vision for your family, your family doesn't know where it's going.

Can you share your vision with us?

Our family aims to influence the influencers who, ultimately, will influence the mass for good and for God. That's my mission statement.

When an opportunity comes our way, we look at how it matches our mission, whether it's in our school, our church, our businesses, etc. So we find ourselves saying "yes" to the things that match our mission and "no" to the things that don't. We try not to waste a lot of time doing just good things, but doing things that are meaningful, that we feel that we've been purposed and designed to do.

Your kids are pretty young.

They are eleven and seven.

Mine are nine and six. Great ages. But how do they interact with a family purpose statement when they are so young?

You know, it's interesting. Our kids really helped draft our family purpose statement. They really have beautiful hearts to serve. And, they love God; and we love God. When we talk about things that are important, they bring out some of the greatest lessons that I've learned.

My son, Caleb, for example, is a huge advocate for homelessness and has really actively gotten engaged. And, I've really been a shepherd pushing him forward, versus him following me. He's gotten involved with Second Harvest Food Bank here in the city. We've done backpack drives. We've done a lot of things as a result of his heartbeat for the homeless. And, that's him leading me, not me leading him.

Let's get back to your book. You talk about sitting next to Halle Berry at the BET Awards. Does your wife know about this?

[Laughing] She does, but I wasn't married at the time.

Related to that, one of the most challenging sections in your book is on "Protecting Market Share." I want to hear you talk about how we protect market share with our spouse.

In business, we think about our competitor; and we study our competitor. We know everything he's doing, because we don't want to give up any of that market share. Market share means revenue, and lost revenue means lost opportunities.

At home, the market share is my family. The market share is my spouse and my children—but particularly my spouse. When you're not servicing a client in corporate America, what happens? You lose that client. You're not servicing them well, and somebody realizes, "We can do better. We can charge less. We can give greater service. We can do all these things."

At home, that same thing happens, unfortunately. Divorce happens when people are not valuing home; they're focused on everything except home. And so, infidelity kicks in, and people look for options. That's how we lose market share, because there's somebody willing to service your customer.

That's a scary thing.

It's a very scary thing, but it's very real. A guy on autopilot says to himself, "I don't need to communicate well to my wife. I don't need to do anything special for her anymore. I don't need to say nice things to her and tell her that she looks beautiful today." He takes her for granted.

But every day she walks into her office, and somebody tells her that she looks absolutely gorgeous and this and that. Over a period of time, this person is paying more attention to that customer than you are. That's the lesson. Whatever we do every day at work to make sure we're not losing customers—do the same thing at home to make sure we're not losing family.

How does the idea of market share apply to our children?

If we don't pay attention to our children, then all of a sudden the streets raise our children or the drug dealers raise our children or some community club is raising our children. Mom and dad are too busy, so somebody else takes that market share, that responsibility. Somebody else raises our kids.

This is what happens when we take our eyes off our most prized customer. The dope boy sees this kid walking down the street every day that looks like he's lost. He tells him that he's something special. He puts a package in his hand. And, he tells him that he can be a man; he can make money. Before you know it, he's got your kid; and your kid is gone.

I wonder if we can flip the market share question around. Is there a way to adjust our own expectations of how our spouse serves us, so that we don't get distracted by competition?

You have to go back to your covenant. Why did you choose this customer—if we're just going to use business terminology. Why did you sign up for this person?

If I were a customer and I had competitors trying to pull me away, I have an opportunity with the company that serves me to say, "Hey, I'm having some issues that are leaving me vulnerable." Or, "I'm having some issues that are leaving me even thinking about considering going with a new vendor. And, what can we do to maintain this relationship?"

Customers change every day. We spend all our business development strategies and resources figuring out how our customers are changing and what the emerging trends are and all that kind of stuff. We can think about our family in the same way. Your wife today is not the person she was 30 years ago when you got married. She might have been a 20-year old young lady who just graduated from college; today she's a 50-year old mother of four, grandmother of one. She is a different person, and that emerging trend is different. Understanding the changes in our spouse is our responsibility.

Pornography is one way a lot of people in our country are letting themselves be distracted by competition. In 2010, 8.5% of Americans are spending one to ten hours a week watching online pornography. How do we protect ourselves from this distraction, and how do we protect our families?

First, it is more than a distraction; it is a destroyer. Second, I think you have to be intentional about ways in which to protect yourself, whether that's putting filters on your computers—on your children's computers. I've got a friend who actually owns a company called BSafe, and it sends an alert to your spouse or to the parents if pornography pops on your computer at all. So, that creates a built-in accountability in your household, even if you stumble across it accidentally. Not everybody wakes up looking for pornography—but sometimes pornography finds us and our family. A kid clicks on a link to the White House, and all of a sudden, there are girls on the computer. And the kid is shouting, "Oh my goodness! Where did that come from?"

So part of protecting our families means being open to conversations when pornography pops up on a kid's computer or phone?

Yeah. We have these conversations at the appropriate time, at the appropriate age, but more importantly, we create the safeguards that will keep it away from them.

Think about television. It can be a precursor to pornography in so many ways. Some of it is just terrible. You have so many things that are on television that we know are not right. They are part of a special music show or whatever. And they have lures that draw innocence in, but the subtle messagings are far from pure.

So, I have to ask about the TV you bought for your kids.

[Laughing] My wife and I laugh about this. We say we have "able," not "cable." We took the "c" off, because we have the very basic, basic, basic that only allows your TV to have a clear picture.

So our kids don't have access to a lot of what is on television. Instead, we have family movies and family time. We use the television for family games too.

You limited your own access in a way when you changed jobs to allow room in your life for a wife and family. It seems to me like access is a kind of success that is particularly hard to resist. How did you give up the opportunity to rub shoulders with people like Halle Berry without letting resentment build up towards the people you chose over Halle Berry and Oprah Winfrey and the others?

It really boiled down to purpose. I value my life; I value why I'm here. I began to really seek and question my purpose, and it became clear to me. If I wanted the family that I want, if I wanted the balance that I want, certain things weren't optional. I'd seen too much in that line of work to know that it wouldn't be healthy for a new marriage. It wouldn't be healthy for a young father.

I walked away from that so that I could have the better thing, and that is to rub shoulders with my wife and my children. Working with national figures is exciting and wonderful and cool, and it's great to talk about. But I'm telling you, the joy of being a father and the joy of being a husband—there's nothing that measures up to it.