Mike Cusick

For Mike Cusick, the opportunities were just too promising to squander.

The director of marketing and sales for Sprint’s Great Lakes Region and headquartered in Pittsburgh, Cusick saw exciting new wireless devices coming available, phone number portability and an improving economy as compelling reasons to expect a sales boom in wireless products.

But Cusick also knew that Sprint’s customer service had lagged as the industry tried desperately to keep up with a burgeoning demand for service, and that hanging onto existing customers would be just as crucial as acquiring new ones in the wireless market.

Cusick’s team came up with the Star Program, a simple yet effective way to boost customer service delivered by his region’s 500 employees in 59 stores and its direct sales force. Comment cards are placed in every store, encouraging customers to rate the employee who waits on them on a simple scale that ranges from poor to excellent. Results are tallied weekly and distributed to store managers.

Employees gain awards by receiving unsolicited comments from customers and high ratings on the comment cards. High-performing individuals receive star lapel pins, and the top-performing retail outlet each quarter earns the right to display a trophy that circulates among the stores.

The program appears to be a winner. In a recent companywide telephone survey of Sprint customers, the Great Lakes region nailed the best performance record. And since initiating the effort, the region has reduced its customer turnover rate substantially.

Cusick says the key factors in making the program a success are its simplicity, ease of administration and accessibility to customers.

Says Cusick: “I think people are willing to give you their input if they’re asked for it, and they give it in a constructive way.”

Smart Business talked with Cusick about why the program has been effective and how customers have reacted.

Why did you initiate the Star Program?

For the first five years of the business, it was such a growth industry. We were growing at a rate faster than any company in the industry, and I think we reached a point where business naturally slows down a bit, and in a situation where you’ve got an economy that’s not as strong as it was two or three years ago.

What differentiates one company from another is the level of care that you provide your customers, and that’s what we’re really looking to do. We saw an opportunity to improve on that, not only on a national level with a new president coming in — because that was his big focus — (but) we wanted to control as much as we could at a local level.

As a result, we developed this program entirely within the area last March.

How does the Star Program work and how does it help improve customer service?

The program has a couple of different attributes; probably the most important is that we get feedback from our customers.

It allows us to look at areas of the business where we have opportunity or that we’re doing well with. The great response that we have from the suggestion cards allows us to run our business as best we can with that type of dialogue with the customer.

To acknowledge and reward outstanding achievement, we’ve also put in a recognition program that involves … monthly rewards at rep and store levels, and quarterly and annual rewards.

The Star Awards will now be at a par with all those different sales award that are awarded throughout the area. We’ve sort of tiered it so you can achieve four different levels of recognition, starting with a bronze award, then progressing to silver, to gold, and we chose red as our ultimate award because it ties in with our company colors.

The way you attain those awards is to meet the various qualifiers.

How have customers responded?

It hasn’t all been positive. It’s been a vehicle for customers to air complaints — we have our share — but at the same time, it gives us that opportunity to go back and address them head on.

We think that every complaint we get from a customer is an opportunity to turn them around and get referrals, which is a big part of our business.

What is the long-term value in collecting this information?

The whole program allows us to identify trends, things that are going well or not going well. One of the big things we hear from customers is about the wait time in our stores.

So as a result of seeing that through the customer cards, we’ve been able to tweak the way we do upgrades to our phones. We’ve actually gone back to corporate and said ‘We’re hearing this from customers, is there any way we can improve on the process?’

It’s feedback like that and trends we can identify that allow us to fix our business model to better serve our customers, so it’s ongoing and evolves constantly. Customers are really telling us we’re doing this right, we’re doing this wrong.

If we’re doing it wrong, we can fix it.

Why, in your view, has the program been effective?

All I can say is, I know from a personal standpoint when I go into a business with this type of program, I think it’s a business that provides the customer with a more open environment. I appreciate the fact that they want feedback from me as a customer.

I think that’s what it boils down to, especially in markets like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where it’s not so much of a big city feel, it’s a smaller town feel. I think feedback is appreciated, I think the ability to give feedback is appreciated.

The fact is we can track tangible results pretty quickly, and be able to measure 500 retail people in a given area with a staff of one. It gives me enough information to grade them, and I think it gets the message across.

I think it’s simple, and I think that’s important both internally and externally. I love simplicity.

I used to work for a guy whose goal was to always keep it simple. It made total sense to me. How to reach: Sprint, www.sprint.com

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