A hidden variable sparks RJ Lee Group to strengthen customer relationships


Curiosity and creativity are prerequisites to work at RJ Lee Group. As an accredited analytical laboratory and scientific consulting firm, its more than 225 scientists and engineers look for patterns and connect the dots to solve problems.

CEO Rich Lee, Ph.D., says the company’s focus across its seven laboratory departments changes with the outside environment. In six months, he believes they will be immersed in water quality — as a result of the Flint, Michigan, crisis — and explosives because the company has technology that can help detect threats on airliners.

While these two areas may seem like they are unrelated, Lee says when you look closer they are actually fairly similar problems, when it comes to helping solve them.

That ability to detect patterns helped Lee identify a flaw in the company’s operations several years ago that he sees as critical to their growth.

“It was one of those things when you look back at in hindsight and say, ‘What a dummy,’” he says.

His marketing department wanted to bring Lee into the modern era and take advantage of social media. The idea was to reach out to customers with targeted messages, so they worked to segment their customers based on the kind of service they wanted.

“And so in characterizing the customers, what we noticed was that we have a surprisingly large number of people who come to us for the first time, and then don’t come back to us for more than a year,” Lee says.

“When we started looking at it, it was pretty clear that they came to us for a very specific problem. They didn’t really know of our other capabilities.”

Lee believes this challenge — making customers aware of all that RJ Lee Group does — probably happens more often in businesses than they realize, and he’s made overcoming it one of his biggest focuses.

He’s made a start on the problem, but it’s an evolutionary process. Lee says there’s never a single cure-all for business.

“We started looking at patterns and this pattern emerged,” he says, “and we go, that is something that we can do something about.”

Seeing beyond the niche

Customer retention or repeat business is a major driver for success in any company because it costs more to find new customers than to expand the relationships with your current customers.

In RJ Lee Group’s case, the problem was not customer service, like it is for many businesses. Lee says they have a 99 percent satisfied customer base when they survey them.

“Our people get great accolades for the quality of service, their ability to innovate and the way they approach the problem,” he says.

The challenge came into focus when they started asking questions like: How frequently does a customer come back to us? How many departments does a customer touch?

A large percentage of customers see the organization from an isolated perspective — and somewhere in the range of 80 percent of RJ Lee Group’s customers come with a specific problem in mind. For one company, RJ Lee Group is an asbestos company. For another organization, it’s a stainless steel failure analysis company.

And if someone comes to the company for a failure analysis on a semi-conductor circuit, their colleague down the hall who has an industrial hygiene problem probably doesn’t know that RJ Lee Group can help.

“It’s a little bit like we’re a transmission shop for many people, and they don’t realize when they’ve got a carburetor problem or a brake problem, they could come to us, as well,” Lee says.

RJ Lee Group also has a number of technologies that can be applied to more than one problem. An instrument can take a measurement related to lead contamination, and it also can measure the composition of a metal part.

“It’s endemic to an organization which services a lot of different kinds of disciplines,” he says.

And the problem is particularly prevalent among new customers, who haven’t realized all of the different services RJ Lee Group provides.

The nature of tire kickers

Lee says since they sell technical services, they mostly deal with technical people, who are what he calls tire kickers.

“They like to see and touch and feel and know, and they are generally only interested in their problem,” he says. “In their company, the guy sitting next to him could have a very large problem of a different order and yet they are just focused. It’s the nature of scientists and engineers.”

That same focus goes for his employees at RJ Lee Group.

It’s a good quality to have when you’re working to solve something, but it makes it hard to shift to the broader picture, especially if that person is naturally introverted or doesn’t have a strong social skill set.

“In their mind, they are the company, so what they have to offer is what the company offers,” Lee says.

There’s an axiom in science that more good science is lost by bad salesmanship and by bad interpersonal relations. At the same time Lee has seen people win the day with lesser technical content, but a better presentation.

Increasing the touch points

A lot of organizations look for ways to cross-sell to their current customers, but in RJ Lee Group’s case, the employees do such a great job with customers, it’s about making that customer relationship broader.

“We’ve done several things, which are not out of the ordinary, but are accumulative in their effect,” Lee says.

“We believe that we’re going to have to touch that customer four or five different ways to get him thinking about us when they have a different problem,” he says.

Now, when they get a new customer, Lee says somebody calls him or her up and thanks them for the business and shares what other services RJ Lee Group provides.

Lee himself and his vice president of sales also identify and approach companies where there are multiple opportunities for contact and collaboration, making sure to talk about all of their service offerings.

The company has hired a customer retention person who works with the new customers and the technical point of contact to support him or her in building the relationship.

The idea is to partner the scientists with someone comfortable asking questions about other aspects of the customer’s business or their personal lives. Lee says it gets the conversation started, and like osmosis, their technical employees become more engaged.

Adding skills

If you have great customers, you want them to return more frequently for a greater variety of services, Lee says. So far their efforts have already made a difference, although he would like to go further.

“Because we’re scientists, we’re pretty good at tracking,” he says. “We track the people that we’re out reaching in this manner, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the frequency, which is what I’m interested in.”

Lee also wants to create formalized training and mentoring in the future.

“My idea would be to find that unique young science or engineer and train them first in customer relationships and then train them secondly on their job,” he says.

You want to start at day zero, when the person arrives, with training them about how you interact with people. He believes it’s important to start with young employees because they are still on that learning curve for how they’re going to build their professional life.

You also should look for more than just technical skills in the people you hire.

“For all the good technical knowledge you have, the fundamentals of business come down to building a relationship between you and other people,” Lee says. “You have to help people very early in their careers, and if you do, they blossom.”

You don’t want your employees to be scared of sales, and they need to feel comfortable talking with the customers about more than just an isolated problem.

“Being a science organization, sales and marketing was probably never high on our list,” Lee says. “It’s an acquired skill, not an innate skill.”

If your technical employees have fun being good scientists and engineers, then you need to find ways for them to have fun working with people, he says. Like anything, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re more willing to do it.

A culture change is never easy to do, even in an entrepreneurial company like RJ Lee Group because people get used to the systems, their niches and what they’re doing. But Lee says RJ Lee Group is making strives as success breeds success.



  • Examine your current customers for patterns.
  • Understand the skill set of your employees, in order to add to it.
  • More quality touch points will increase opportunities to cross-sell.


The Lee File:

Name: Rich Lee, Ph.D.
Title: CEO
Company: RJ Lee Group

Born: Minot, North Dakota
Education: Bachelor of science in physics, University of North Dakota; doctorate in theoretical solid state physics, Colorado State University.

You didn’t get a master’s degree? No. I was a Sputnik baby and I had the opportunity to do an accelerated Ph.D. program. There was a great deal of urgency to get scientists out the door.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? My first job in high school was digging postholes and riding horses, herding cattle. I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do.

I think growing up in that environment teaches you to be self-sufficient and teaches you to solve problems with what you have on hand, and I don’t think you ever get over that.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received? Focus. Running a business is just like running your life — it’s full of a lot of issues. On any day, if you just solve the problem or address the opportunity at hand, and forget about the rest of world when you do it, you’ll manage very effectively.

If you could go back to when you started RJ Lee Group, what would you tell your younger self? Take nothing for granted, especially the communication with your employees and your customers.

Do you have a favorite recent scientific discovery? Why that one? In the recent era, Steve Jobs’ insight into the connectivity between humans and the computer is something that fascinates me every day. The insight into how the computer is going to be an extension of ourselves, how it’s going to influence the way we do business and influence the way we do life. It’s probably the most profound scientific discovery, in part because it’s not pure science. It’s an understanding of the relationship of science to mankind.