The Smith Column: What can a bank robber teach us about good business practices?

Bungled effort highlights best practices

The Smith Column: What can a bank robber teach us about good business practices?

Ask anyone what the most important factor in a successful business is, and you’ll probably get a lot of odd looks and the occasional “Sir, please just give me your coffee order.” However, if you actually wait until the question is appropriate for the situation, “clear communication” will probably be among the top answers.

The ability to communicate clearly, to both customers and coworkers, is vital in any successful business. This lesson was brought home quite forcefully late last year to Alan Slattery, a 67-year-old entrepreneur in southern England.

By “entrepreneur,” of course, I mean “bank robber.” It seems that Slattery decided to knock over a bank in Eastbourne – but left empty-handed because, according to a report by The Huffington Post, the tellers could not read the handwriting on his stick-up note. 

Among embarrassing situations for bank robbers, that has to top the list:

BANK ROBBER: Read this note and keep it quiet.

TELLER (squinting at note): “I have a gum. Put the monkey in the barge and no one gets humped?”


Now, look: I’m not a bank robber, so I wouldn’t dream of commenting on the rest of his technique. I firmly believe that critique should be left to his peers, or a professional consultant whose sense of self-importance makes up for his lack of familiarity with the industry.

However, everyone can appreciate the fact that Slattery’s lack of clear communication prevented him from realizing his goal. That’s a lesson any professional should be able to take to heart.

Many of us have worked for companies in which clear communication was the exception, not the rule. If asked, practically any seasoned professional can cite a time when they found themselves in hot water not through their own negligence, but because their superiors’ expectations weren’t clearly communicated. If asked, practically any seasoned professional will be very happy to tell you all about that experience, in excruciating detail and ornamented here and there with words that I cannot repeat in a family publication.

But poor communication isn’t simply a source of frustration for employees. It can cause real problems. Sometimes, the problems are minor, like when Ted doesn’t bring his famous seven-layer dip to the office potluck because nobody thought to email him. Sometimes, they’re slightly more severe, like when a $193 million NASA probe disintegrated in the Martian atmosphere because one team of engineers was using imperial measurements and the other was using the metric system.

A simple lack of communication can be the death-knell for an otherwise sturdy business. It results in frustrated and less-productive employees, and it infuriates customers. And one thing that frustrated employees and infuriated customers have in common is: eventually, they get fed up and leave. Suddenly, the business can find itself in real trouble – all over something as easy to fix as a communication issue.

The moral here is self-evident: Businesses need to keep their channels of communication – to both customers and employees – open, easy to access and transparent. Expectations should be communicated and managed clearly, and clarification given if needed.

And for God’s sake, if you’re going to rob a bank, just type the note.