Akron/Canton (3279)

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

Too big for your britches?

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Mike and Debbie Bacon have won 52 Emmy awards since 1990, and their phones ring nonstop. And because their television production company’s hallmark is to do things faster, better and cheaper than the broadcasters, their burgeoning customer base necessitates more employees, more equipment and more space.

“What’s frustrating about growth is that it’s so capital intensive,” says Mike Bacon, vice president of Twinsburg-based Classic Teleproductions Inc.

Bacon launched Classic in 1980, working from his home as a free-lance producer.

“The Virgil Dominics of the world would seek me out because I would work like a dog for next to nothing,” he laughs. (Bacon began working with Dominic in 1981, and in 1997, Dominic became Classic’s president of new programming.)

Bacon says Classic grew by focusing on niche markets and matching its forte to the needs of the community.

“We found our niche in sports programming and broadcasting community events,” Bacon says, confiding that Classic earns about $1 million annually from lucrative contracts with television stations and community organizations.

“I never thought we would be this successful,” he says, crediting spouse Debbie, Classic’s president, and the firm’s 12 employees for the business’ success. “But when you grow, everything grows. As our customer base grows, so does their level of expectation. That calls for more investments,” which include high-end edit systems (their first was $100,000), nine broadcast cameras (about $40,000 each) and a digital production truck (worth about $750,000).

“You’ve got to have the equipment to be a player, and you’ve got to have good people to operate the equipment. We hire only the best and that takes a lot of money, too,” he says.

In 1995, Classic spent $200,000 for a 7,500-square-foot expansion and in 1998 purchased more space next door. The current 15,500-square-footage comprises a television studio, 7 edit suites, an audio studio, conference rooms and office space.

To manage growth and maintain profitability, the Bacons have sought good advice, bought wisely, fostered relationships and valued their employees.

“If I’m going to overpay for anything, it’s for good advice,” Bacon says, explaining that expert advice saves money in the long run.

In terms of purchasing, Bacon says many entrepreneurs jump to buy the latest equipment.

“Sometimes it’s better to wait for the second or third version of a product, after the bugs have been worked out,” he says. “You must also contrast the money you need to spend against what you could earn if you had a certain piece of equipment.”

Fostering professional relationships also pays off. “Make friends with your banker!” Bacon exclaims.

And don’t hesitate to do favors for professionals who can’t always afford first-rate prices for first-rate services.

“You’ve got two choices: reduced rate or favor. You’re a lot better off doing it as a favor because if you charge them, they remember that. But if it’s a favor, they become loyal clients when they do have money. But don’t treat it as a favor — give them the full service.”

Empowering employees is also important, Bacon says.

“If they know the ‘why’ behind a directive, and if you give them the authority to do what it takes to make your clients happy, they can respond faster and better to do that.”

How to reach: Classic Teleproductions, (330) 963-7763

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

Newsclips

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Fussy about Mrs. Hargrove

Mike Hargrove may have been dismissed from his high-profile position as manager of the Cleveland Indians, but Akron-based Fussy Cleaners isn’t necessarily going to follow suit by dumping its commercial spokesperson, his wife, Sharon. At least not right away.

For the better part of the last year, Mrs. Hargrove has put her sassy West Texas twang to good use in radio and print ads for the chain, which has 18 locations in four Northeastern Ohio counties. In the radio spots, she can be heard singing the praises of her personal Fussy Cleaners delivery person, who dutifully and cheerily picks up and delivers the family’s laundry to their house (in Strongsville), thus making her life easier in preparing for her husband’s long road trips.

Fussy’s president and founder, John Baraona, met the former First Lady of Cleveland baseball at a meeting, where she spontaneously remarked how much she enjoyed Fussy’s service. That led to the relationship.

He says he’s made no decision yet on whether she’ll remain a factor in the chain’s marketing mix for this next year, now that her husband has been hired by the Baltimore Orioles.

“Our radio spots are going to continue to run until the current schedule is through, and then we’ll go from there. This is long-term, institutional advertising,” says Baraona, who has previously distinguished his company from the competition by running a series of restrained image ads on Cleveland’s public-television station WVIZ. “She doesn’t say, ‘Come on in.’”

And, he hastens to points out, lest one mistakenly conclude that his choice of spokespeople is influenced by his interests as a fan: “Sharon and I never talk about baseball. I’ve never even met Mike.”

So, now you know

According to Baker, Thomsen Associates Inc. — which provides survey reports on median salaries — if you live in Akron and you hold one of the following positions, you should be taking home an annual salary of ...

CEO $143,233

Director of Operations $73,789

Information Systems Manager $49,387

Purchasing Director $42,537

Public Relations Manager $40,095

Personnel Manager $40,019

Executive Assistant $31,497

Since these median salaries are those of entry-level positions, if you’ve been on the job for a while and your paycheck is below par, maybe you should talk to your boss. And if you’re the CEO? Take it up with the board of directors. Source: www.salariesreview.com/freedata

Corporate confessions

Successful CEOs don’t just remember their mistakes, they try not to repeat them.

But, as president and CEO of Davey Tree Expert Co. in Hudson — a landscaping firm employing about 250 people in Akron and 6,000 nationwide — Douglas Cowan says it’s hard for a CEO to let employees make their own mistakes.

Cowan says he made one of the biggest mistakes of his career by not firing a senior-level executive sooner.

“He’d been here a long time, he wasn’t doing the job that needed to be done, and we hung onto him too long — to the point where somebody could have come in and made things run a lot better, a lot faster,” Cowan explains. “It also resulted in a loss of morale in the department.”

The point is, Cowan says, “How do you allow the next generation to make mistakes that aren’t going to kill you, and yet will allow them to learn and grow?”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

Looking into the future

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According to trend watchers here, the climate update for Ohio’s Polymer Valley is calling for a good chance of double-digit growth over the next 4 to 5 years.

With almost 45 percent of Ohio’s polymer-related producers located in Northeast Ohio, what determines the growth rate of any single player in this field will have as much to do with generic trends as with how their leaders create the conditions for their own luck and success. Look for several interdependent and synergistic variables to play key roles in this effort.

New technology. With more than 20,000 polymer-related materials in his database, John Hickman, president of Plastech Consulting of Tallmadge, says that as much as 30 percent of those materials will turn over in the next three years. The next generation of materials will drive new applications, start-up and investment opportunities.

According to Frank Kelley, dean of The College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at the University of Akron, we will see new opportunities driven by emerging technologies in the areas of information electronics, biomedical technologies and control systems in which polymers will play a new active role.

With the conversions from nonplastics to plastics, there is no foreseeable end to the proliferation of new alloys and blends available to original equipment manufacturers.

E-commerce. John Colangelo, Director of Business Development at the Edison Polymer Innovation Corp., says he’s “optimistic about the growth of the industry” in the region. Polymer companies — especially processors coming from industrial paradigms — need “to become part of the knowledge economy.” Colangelo suggests that OEMs will be looking to reward those suppliers which have reinvented their capabilities to provide more diversified deliverables at the speed of a click.

They may continue the practice of sending larger, more unchanging orders off-shore for labor cost considerations, but domestic suppliers which have the speed, efficiency, and flexibility will attract the orders that will represent the emerging market opportunities.

Manufacturing process capabilities. New technologies and applications, combined with the need for lower costs, will propel more processors to innovate with process methods, management and technologies.

Innovating with changeovers, robotics, value-added assembly, customization and finite capacity scheduling will become imperative for the kind of speed, efficiency and flexibility OEMs will require.

Technical literacy. With new process challenges and material innovations, polymer work forces and management methods will require an equivalent level of improvement and innovation. Even with employee turnover and low unemployment, the winners will be passionate about creating knowledge workers in an intellectual capital-intensive industry. It will also become critical to recruit, retain and retrain people equipped to meet these new challenges.

Learning organization. With the dizzying speed of change and innovation in the polymer industry, it will become more important than ever for companies to be learning organizations. Those falling to lower performance percentiles in the industry will be those failing to keep up to date with new technologies, materials, applications and process improvement methodologies and technologies.

More than ever, companies will need to partner with resources such as industry trade associations, economic consortiums, research and training institutes like those at Akron University, patent literature resources, as well as expert and consulting resources such as EPIC and Plastech.

Although forecasts in this dynamic industry may be challenging, one thing that seems apparent is that the crystal in our portent ball will likely be a polymer.

Jack Ricchiuto is a certified management consultant and author of “Collaborative Creativity” and “Accidental Conversations.” He can be contacted through his Web site at www.newpossibilities.net.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

If you build it, will they come?

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William Seaton, a longtime Hudson resident and employee of the University of Akron, knew he loved the Internet almost immediately after his children unwrapped the computer he gave them two years ago on Christmas Day. But he had no idea he would one day plan his future around it.

After he got over the initial thrill of tapping into the mysteries of this unknown world, Seaton bought books about the Internet and learned. On weekends and at night, he pored over pages and tapped on his keyboard until he not only unraveled the Internet’s mysteries but figured out a way to become a part of the world as well.

Soon, he was designing Web pages, and, in time, attracted clients such as LifeCenter plus fitness center in Hudson. But it wasn’t until he had what he calls a eureka experience that his business was complete. A subscriber to a number of Internet newsletters, Seaton read about someone who had an Internet site for a small town on the East Coast.

“When I looked at it, I had the eureka experience,” he says.

The 54-year-old college administrator at the University of Akron’s College of Fine and Applied Arts had already been accepted for early retirement. This idea could round out his new life.

For weeks, he researched and wrote and designed and thought. He could barely contain his excitement as he created HudsonOhonline.com, a Web site for the Western Reserve town with the clock tower, gazebo and the Main Street that looks like it popped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

With offerings ranging from where you can go to church to where you can go to the movies to where you can shop to get that dress you’ve been dying to find, this Web site offers Hudson businesses and residents a one-stop shop for information that can’t be matched anywhere else on the Web.

There was just one question. How was Seaton going to make money with this gig?

“I didn’t think about it until it was nearly finished,” he says.

This kind of honesty may be unusual, but with Seaton’s money-back guarantee for advertisers who don’t get the response that they’d hoped for and free sample sites to companies who’d like to have a Web site but aren’t quite sure what they want, it’s clear that he does business the way people did long ago.

In this same spirit, Seaton has a number of ways that businesses can advertise free — such as listing a business card or a calendar event or placing a classified ad. But he also plans to make money by selling ads in his Business Directory, which costs $100 a year, and Sponsor Pages, which also cost $100 a year and give users a handy link to a sponsor’s site.

More creative offerings include $200 ads that announce sales, holiday greeting cards for $15 that let businesses say happy holidays to their online customers and online discussion groups that for $100 enable the local mechanic, for example, to have live discussions with customers about oil changes and timing belts and knocks and pings — anything the customer wants to ask.

Seaton is just one of many entrepreneurs who have dove into this new world and started swimming without knowing exactly where he’s going to end up. While he will most likely stand out because of his tight niche and his commitment to customer service, he’s entering a world that’s as cutthroat as it is creative.

According to Kelly Mooney, director of intelligence at Resource Marketing, a Columbus company that’s been in the technical marketing business for nearly 20 years, Seaton and others are fighting “to not get lost in this vast sea of Internet space,” she says. “Anybody can have a Web site, but what we always say is, ‘You can build it, but it doesn’t mean they’ll always come.’”

In other words, says Geoff Karcher, president of The Karcher Group, a Canton Web design company, Seaton won’t rise above the pack unless he makes sure people in Hudson know that HudsonOhonline.com exists.

“He has to promote the daylights out of it,” Karcher says.

Reserving key words such as Hudson or Northeast Ohio or Western Reserve on search engines might steer traffic Seaton’s way, but with search results numbering in the hundreds — even thousands — Mooney says Web businesses have to figure out a way to get to customers.

“Reach them in their real world,” she says. “[Get] into their home or, if they’re commuters ... advertise at the bus station or train station.”

Unless you’ve been out of the country for the last three months, your nightly television watching has probably been interrupted by sights of thoughtful women talking about their health on ads for iVillage.com.

But to be a success, Web site advertisements have to do what every successful advertisement does: Reach an audience. iVillage.com, for example, “has a message that says, ‘We’re the place where women come together [to] get advice and help manage their lives in these chaotic times,’” Mooney says.

If you have no room in your budget for advertising, however, you have to make sure that your Web programmer plugs you in to search engines in the right way so that your customer finds you. One thing Karcher stresses? Avoid business jargon.

“If you use technical words that you know, that doesn’t mean that’s what your customer calls it,” he says. “Keep it simple, stupid. If you go by that principle, you’ll do well.”

But none of this matters if a surfer finds you and is so bored he never logs on to your Web site again. Seaton’s taken care of that with lively content that answers virtually every question somebody might have about living in Hudson, Ohio. And that’s the key.

“There are three keys to an effective Web site,” says Karcher.

It’s got to look good. It’s got to be easy to use.

“But your most important piece is to have good content,” he says. “Allow the user to accomplish something by coming to your site. And you’ve got to keep something new there. Give someone a reason to take two seconds to log on to your Web site and check it out.”

Web businesses can also do customer profiling to see who is logging on to their sites and ask questions such as, “What do you like about the Web site?” “Why do you buy products online”’ and “How often do you eat dinner out each week?”

“They save it in a repository that builds on itself so that they can ... know what you might buy the next time or how they can get you buy more things,” says Mooney. “It’s direct marketing at the heart.”

With this data, Web businesses can also e-mail customers with news about subjects — or products — that they think the customer will want. Amazon.com made this tool famous.

“Their belief is that it will pay off down the road because they will know [more] about their customers than anybody else,” Mooney says.

But no matter how much marketing and e-mailing and profiling Seaton does or does not do, and no matter how much money Seaton does or does not make, he doesn’t regret taking the risk.

“I had to do this for a lot of different reasons,” he says. “I really believe in it.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

Adapting to change

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Akron Porcelain & Plastics Co. was chartered 110 years ago as the Akron Smoking Pipe Co. Now, in its third century, the company’s leaders are again seeking ways to update — and possibly change — the company’s focus.

Founded as a manufacturer of clay pipes (used for smoking tobacco), the Akron Smoking Pipe Co. monopolized its market, producing 83 percent of the clay pipes used in the United States at the time. By 1920, with the advent of electricity, the clay pipe product line was discontinued, and the company started manufacturing standard knobs, tubes and cleats used in the conversion of kerosene and gas to electric lighting. The company’s name was changed at the same time to The Mogadore Insulator Co.

In 1958, the company’s leaders saw an opportunity in plastics, noting that more and more ceramic products were being made out of plastic. George “Mike” Lewis, current president and CEO, started working at his family’s business just as that product line conversion was taking place.

“What really pushed us along was to see this thermosetting industry taking parts away from our ceramics business,” Lewis recalls. “It’s the old adage, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’”

In 1963, plastics sales made up only 3 percent of the company’s total sales. By 1965, that had increased to 15 percent, and the company slowly purchased more plastics manufacturing equipment and expanded the plant to keep up with demand. By 1976, the plastics division accounted for a third of the company’s total sales.

The plastics division grew as the demand for ceramics shrunk. In 1984, the company once again changed its name, this time to Akron Porcelain & Plastics Co. By 1986, plastics sales had exceeded ceramics for the first time in the company’s history.

Now with 200 employees at plants in Akron and Barberton, the company still manufactures ceramics and custom-molded plastic parts. Its plastics are manufactured in two families: thermoset (once the material is pressurized, a chemical reaction takes place and it can’t be remolded); and thermoplastics (plastics that melt every time they are heated).

Akron Porcelain & Plastics’ products include parts for electrical components and appliances, and parts for the automotive industry. Its primary product line is automotive ashtray assemblies, but Akron Porcelain & Plastics Co. may be about to enter another stage as fewer and fewer car companies include ashtrays as “standard” items in new cars.

Lewis says that as the company moves into its third century, additional product lines are being considered for the $18 million company to possibly replace the ashtray assemblies if demand for them goes the way of clay pipes.

“We’re looking for other niches where we can do the same type of molding, with value-added pieces,” he says.

Recently, the company has focused on assemblies that have many different parts, what Lewis calls “value-added.” Some of these components have up to 20 different parts, he says. Lewis is also seeking out new growth potential on the ceramics side.

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Winging it

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If you were the president of a publicly traded sporting goods company that sold its products nationwide, would you make your home almost 500 miles away from your corporate office?

Most people wouldn’t. But Doug Buffington does.

Since 1995, Buffington has been president of Square Two Golf, a leading golf equipment manufacturer based in Fairfield, N.J. When he took the job, Buffington insisted that he be allowed to maintain his Jackson Township, Ohio, residence.

So he flies from Akron-Canton Airport about once a week, doing the majority of business out of his home.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Rebirth of a salesman

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Willy Loman might have set lofty goals for himself to succeed as a salesman, but today’s account executive is expected to leap tall buildings to service clients.

Formerly thought of as an order-taker, today’s salesperson must perform far beyond the traditional role of a salesman. Salespeople are obligated to handle everything, from educating the client on how processes work to coordinating sales and service, to resolving billing discrepancies, hand-delivering product and more.

“Every one of those requirements applies to my position,” says Julie LeMay, a sales engineer at The Timken Co. in Canton. “We’re expected to solve any problem — ordering, production, application, shipping, billing — we help in any fashion related to customer needs.”

Paul Benevich may have the title of account executive at Printing Concepts Inc. in Stow, but he manages every aspect of printing, from ensuring the customer understands the best quality paper and ink to use for the lowest price to making sure client files download properly for printing, to delivering the finished product and then some.

“In my business, a salesperson has to be more of a consultant than just an order-taker, because there are so many variables than can change the price dramatically,” Benevich says. “And since I consider it my job to save the client as much money as possible, that requires having the knowledge to anticipate potential problems before they happen.”

Benevich and LeMay concur that the goal of salespeople is to win business and keep clients happy. To do that, they must also act as decision-making CEOs. But they can only do that with the support of their organizations.

“Timken gives us the authority to represent our customer,” LeMay says. “We’re the customer’s voice, so if there’s something they need that’s out of the norm for Timken, we work to bend and change the rules to make things happen for the customer.”

As Benevich puts it, “My boss says that an executive is somebody who has the authority to change the rules in certain circumstances. So I have the responsibility and authority to change whatever the standard procedure is and do it a different way — the way you know the customer wants it done.”

In today’s competitive sales arena, more effort and knowledge are also required of salespeople so they can differentiate their products and add legitimate value to their services.

LeMay says that with the influx of steel bar producers and the decrease in product demand, the steel industry has become extremely competitive. That, in turn, places more demands on her as a salesperson.

“You must now set your company apart from the others by offering services like application support, cost cutting ideas and other value-added services,” LeMay says.

LeMay says today’s customer wants a single contact who can answer all questions and solve any and all problems related to the product. To be effective problem-solvers, salespeople must amass limitless knowledge about their products and services, their industries and business in general.

“I think almost all of us in sales are being forced to continually gain knowledge so we can answer every customer’s question,” says LeMay. “And we’re expected to know all sides of the business. A lot of sales engineers are now going back to school to get a business degree to be able to understand that portion of the business, so they can relate to customers.”

LeMay confides that she, too, is pursuing a degree, even though she formerly worked in Timken’s research group.

“That has helped me tremendously in the technical area, because we’re constantly being asked not just the typical sales questions, but we’re asked all the theories behind what we’re selling,” she says. “We’re expected to be technical experts, not just the people who make their steel get there on time.”

Benevich must also keep apprised of changes in production technology and techniques.

“As new pre-press equipment is developed and different computer software comes in, it can change the way you manufacture a piece,” he says. “I must also know how to best advise my customers about design changes they can make that will save them X number of dollars.”

Using the example of a piece designed for a mailing, Benevich explains that even a small change such as paper size and weight can dramatically alter the cost of production. And if it’s not designed in compliance with postal requirements, or if it’s folded incorrectly, it may be disqualified from postage automation discounts.

Benevich says he also acts as a consultant when a client is having a creativity crisis.

“A client might have an idea that’s vague and not very concrete, so you might have to spend a lot of time to figure out how to make it work, or to determine if it’s even possible,” he says.

Above all, says Benevich, a salesperson must serve as the client’s advocate inside the shop.

“I’m the one who walks the customer’s project through the entire process, making sure the artwork is done on time, proofs are delivered to the customer, the customer signs off, and that we print and deliver the job on time.”

With 25 years experience in the business, Benevich says a salesperson’s job today is completely different than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

“Back then, the customer’s expectations weren’t as demanding,” he says. “Now, because of technology and just-in-time delivery, companies want it right, and they want it right now.”

Diana McGonigal of Bruner-Cox LLP — a client of Printing Concepts — describes Benevich as “a salesperson who does whatever it takes to make things right.”

“I’m glad they think that, because that’s really what I do,” says Benevich. “The customer is the most important thing — and like the old saying, ‘The customer is always right’ — in any business, that’s how they should be treated.”

How to reach: The Timken Co., (330) 438-3000; Printing Concepts Inc., (330) 572-8200

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Moving toward centralization

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The good news was that Meter Devices Co. Inc. had quadrupled its business in the last decade, due in part to the utility industry deregulation.

The down side was that, because the company’s manufacturing operations, offices and employees were scattered between two Canton locations, chaos was inevitable unless the company centralized.

“Our Prospect Street location manufactured one series of product, and the Third Street operation manufactured another,” says John Shincovich, group vice president. “And our engineering, operations, purchasing, accounting, marketing and other departments were separated.”

That arrangement necessitated a lot of schlepping between locations, and too much reliance on electronic communications, says Shincovich. Not an efficient arrangement when you’re the world’s premier supplier and market share leader of products for meter, relay and test switches, selling to utility companies around the world.

Along with parent company E.J. Brooks Co. in Livingston, N.J., Meter Devices serves customers in more than 60 countries.

“Because our business had expanded so much and continues to grow, we needed to take the big step to move our operations and 70 employees,” says Shincovich.

Out with the old, in with the new. The first month of 2000 saw the 82-year-old company move to its new home on Bruening Avenue S.W. in Canton. The facility — at a cost of $3.2 million — is set on 10 acres and boasts 57,980 square feet of manufacturing space, a 7,400-square-foot office area and 9,620 square feet for leased offices.

The total square footage represents a 50 percent jump in size from the former headquarters.

Such a consolidation required coordination of countless details, says Shincovich. That took months of preparation — not just in terms of the company’s needs, but in consideration of its more than 3,000 customers.

“To minimize inconvenience to the customer, the game plan was to start operations at the new facility in parallel with existing operations,” Shincovich explains. “As those simultaneous operations continued and we completed all orders required to be shipped, we eventually pulled the plug at the old facility, department by department, in an organized way to prevent product shipment delays and minimize chaos.”

Shincovich says the parallel operations plan also prevented downtime.

“It was the easiest way to keep the customers happy,” he says.

The new facility will take the company from a small business to a medium-sized manufacturing firm, says Shincovich. This year, Meter Devices will begin the ISO 9001 process to become certified as a world class quality producer, and will add about $1.5 million in new automated equipment to produce higher quality product and reduce manufacturing costs.

The company is also adding new product lines, which will lead to an expansion of its work force.

“And the new facility will enable our employees to better communicate and develop relationships with each other,” he says, noting that this month, the company is bringing in communication and relationship-building experts to facilitate that goal.

“As a result, we’ll be a stronger, team-oriented operation.”

How to reach: Meter Devices Co., (330) 455-0301

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:45

Building better service

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Most businesses would be hard-pressed not to list customer service as a top priority. But the definition of good customer service varies as widely as do types of businesses.

So your coffee wasn’t served with a smile this morning; you still may return tomorrow for another cup. But if you’re buying a big-ticket, emotionally charged item such as a home addition, satisfaction takes on a whole new level of importance.

As the executive vice president of Macedonia-based Patio Enclosures, Jerry Fox admits a growth spurt last year left his company with some room to improve its customer-responsiveness record. In January, he helped launch a new program called JUMP (Job Update and Milestones of Progress), designed to improve communication between the $70 million company and its customers.

Fox speaks frankly of the indications that such a program was needed, and how it was implemented.

What indications did you have that made you realize that you needed to put a program like this in place?

When we have complaints from customers and you can see the frustration. Normally, lead time (in building a sunroom) is eight to 10 weeks. We had such a banner year last year that in some markets, that lead time stretched to 16 weeks, 18 weeks.

How did you know that customers were getting frustrated?

If they didn’t feel like they were being adequately serviced by the local branch, they would call into headquarters. They’d tell you up front, “No one tells me what’s going on. I’ve seen the salesman, I haven’t heard from him in five or six weeks. I call the office to find out what’s going on, but I think you should be telling us what’s going on.”

In most of the cases, we’re within the (eight to 10 week) time frame. That’s not good enough, though. We felt that if we became proactive in supplying this information, it would hold down the natural frustrations of waiting a certain period of time.

Everybody wants it now. And of course, you can’t do that when you’re in a custom manufacturing environment. So in order to hold down that frustration level, we felt that if, at certain times during the whole process, we initiated the contact, even if it’s just leaving a message on an answering machine ... this will hold down that frustration level, and keep them involved in the whole process.

How often during the construction process are you in contact with a customer?

The first step is actually done the day of the sale. They’re given a construction guide. It’s a description of the whole process. And then each time that we make contact with customers, we remind them to refer to that guide, but add, “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, your room is on order, and we expect delivery the second week of February.”

And then in the second week of February, when the room is delivered to the location, we make contact saying, “Your room has been delivered and we will be contacting you shortly with the exact installation date.” So there are no surprises. They always know what’s going on.

After we sign the contract, there are actually nine contacts that we make with the customer, keeping them informed.

Once you saw a need for the program, how was it developed?

We went out and surveyed all of our (41) locations, asking them, “What do you do to keep your customers informed?” This was done in mid-1999. The survey was sent to all of our operations supervisors. And they submitted what they did.

Some did nothing, some did a lot, some did a little. And what we did is we took the creme de la creme, and we took all of the types of contact that were going on, and we put them in a set program. And each one of these contacts is triggered by an activity. When the permit is issued by the building department, saying that it’s OK to build this room in this community, we notify the customer, “Your permit has been approved.’”

There are nine activities that take place that trigger nine contacts with the customer. And we really believe that this will bring down that frustration level in the upcoming year.

How do you monitor that contact from headquarters?

This is a mandatory program, and (each location) will be audited. Each of our locations, once a year, receives an operational audit, and we will audit, because all of those nine contacts have to be logged in to what we call the job jacket. And so they are signed off on either by the operations supervisor, or the sales secretary who mailed out the postcard, or the installer who left the note on the door. So everybody involved in this program has to check off that the customer was notified. It’s a mandatory process, because the need for this was so obvious.

We do this at our window of opportunity. In other words, if you don’t inform the customer, and they’re calling you irate and frustrated, it’s normally at a time when you’re doing something else, and the phone rings and you have a mad customer.

By us becoming proactive, we can better schedule our time for making these contacts, because if you don’t call them, they’re going to call you. And they’re not always going to call you at the best time.

Have you noticed a trend among companies recently to improve customer service?

There’s no doubt about it. So often you hear about customer service, and that the customer is king, and a lot of times it’s just lip service. You say that, and you go about SOP, and you’re not really servicing the customer.

This program was developed because we heard a loud and clear message from our customer base as to why they were frustrated. It’s simply a lack of communication.

Would you have responded the same way 10 years ago?

Times have changed. Circumstances have changed. We’re in the remodeling business, and in the construction business there’s a serious shortage of skilled labor. Kids want to come out of school and become computer programmers. They don’t want to wear a tool belt and climb up and down a ladder anymore.

This has been evolving over time, and our sales are increasing. We don’t sell a product you need, we sell a product you want. The demand for sunrooms is very high right now ... And today’s consumer in this computer world wants everything now.

With the high backlog of business, and the strain of having an insufficient labor force to put the product in, we have to be very responsive to our customers. Conditions have changed. It wasn’t like this 10 years ago.