Keeping it simple Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

Every customer, every employee, every day.

That simple six-word phrase has proven quite successful for Pete Sinisgalli over the years.

“I’ve generally always believed that wherever I’ve worked,” Sinisgalli says. “It’s a rather straightforward formula. … You have to emphasize different parts of that depending on the specific business, but focusing on customers ruthlessly and focusing on employees passionately will always lead to a good outcome.”

This mantra helped him succeed at Dun & Bradstreet Corp., CheckFree Corp. and also NewRoads Inc. before arriving in the executive suite at Manhattan Associates Inc. in 2004. When he arrived, Manhattan had done $196.8 million in revenue the previous year and things were going well for the supply chain optimization provider.

So what do you do when you’ve already got a good thing going on? Sinisgalli wanted to keep growing and make it even better.

“The key challenge has been how do we continue to grow the company and drive improvements in customer satisfaction,” the president and CEO says.

He looked out at the good organization he already had and knew that his every customer, every employee, every day approach to business would also lead to success at Manhattan, so he decided to focus his efforts on taking care of customers and creating a great place for employees to work.

“It’s overly childish my ‘every customer, every employee, every day’ phrase, but I think if you do that and make incremental progress every day, if you look back a year later, it will look a lot more impressive,” Sinisgalli says.

Focus on customers

When it comes to focusing on every customer, Sinisgalli says it all comes down to one thing: frequent contact.

“We have a number of different prospective opportunities to touch our customers,” Sinisgalli says. “It’s important you take advantage of those opportunities. Too often, companies will suggest that the only time they hear from a company is when they’re sending them a bill. You certainly want to avoid that. … The more frequent and the more open the environment for customer feedback, the better.”

You need to have multiple ways to get feedback, and you can start with customer calls. Whenever customers call for help, make sure they not only have their question answered, but that they also rank their experience. Manhattan sends customers who interacted with the company in some way a link to an online survey where they rate the experience on a scale of 1 to 5 in a few keys areas, such as timeliness, quality and professionalism.

“That instant feedback is very valuable,” he says. “It gives you a firsthand feel for what customers think, and if there is an issue, before it becomes a big issue, you have an opportunity to respond to it.”

If the ranking is less than a 4, then a manager follows up with that customer by calling so he or she can better understand the situation and what needed to happen to improve the customer’s experience.

“The management will penetrate to better understand what didn’t go as well as the customer would have liked under ideal circumstances and then work with the people who provided the support to improve that going forward,” Sinisgalli says.

Last year, Manhattan averaged a 4.6 on these calls, so Sinisgalli is satisfied in his team’s ability to solve customer problems.

Besides taking customer calls, he also has found product councils as a way to get feedback from customers to help dictate the direction Manhattan should go.

“Developing a product council that has real power is a good way to encourage your customers to come forward with their thoughts,” he says.

Manhattan has a small council of about 12 customers for each of its products.

“Any more than that, it’s too hard, and any less than that, you don’t have enough input, but with a dozen on each council, it works out well,” Sinisgalli says.

Each smaller council has a president, and those council presidents — about 20 in all — participate in larger, overall product council meetings three to four times a year.

Lastly, provide a large-scale event for your customers to meet with you each year. Manhattan has an annual meeting with its customers. The last one brought 1,000 people to Orlando to gain more insight into the marketplace and get detailed information about Manhattan’s solutions and products. They have a couple of larger sessions for everyone and then smaller breakout sessions organized by products so people can ask questions and provide thoughts about how the products can better meet their needs. These sessions also help them gauge how prevalent issues are.

“Is this one customer request or were the majority of people in the audience making a similar request?” Sinisgalli says. “It’s a pretty easy way to assess the majority needs of the customer base in these meetings.”

The user conference is also helpful because when customers get around other people that they’re not necessarily doing business with, they’re more willing to speak up and bounce feedback off of each other.

“The most important thing to do is provide an environment that customers are comfortable sharing direct feedback,” Sinisgalli says. “A customer conference is a great mechanism when you have a dozen or more customers using the same product sitting around the table, they’ll tend to get more and more comfortable and feed off each other with suggestions of where to help move our products, so create that environment.”

Focus on employees

If you want to be successful on the people side of the business, you have to start by looking at your hiring process.

“You’ve got to hire correctly,” Sinisgalli says. “When you’re out going on campus or hiring people for midlevel roles, you have to do it with a profile in mind that’s consistent with your culture.”

Sinisgalli looks for someone who’s not only talented but also customer-focused, and he asks a lot of questions to see if candidates have both traits.

“If it’s a college student, it’s a little harder,” he says. “It’s somebody who’s not had work experience before, but then you can ask them questions about what they do in their spare time, how they spend their summer breaks, how engaged they are in outside educational activities, to get a sense for how they prioritize, how they spend their energy.”

If someone has work experience already, it’s a little easier to drive down into his or her core.

“Ask them about what things they were successful at, what wasn’t successful, and then penetrate those areas, and it will come across pretty quickly if they’re focused on customer success or focused on something else,” he says.

Sinisgalli says it’s also crucial to discover whether someone is more focused on personal success or company success.

“Most people are pretty polished and sophisticated,” Sinisgalli says. “It would not come across blatantly. You’d have to ferret that out. … It’s hard to fake more than five or six questions. You penetrate any one line of questioning, and you ultimately get to the core of any person you’re speaking with.”

Lastly, he typically does at least three to five interviews each time he’s hiring someone and also mixes up the location.

“Find more opportunities for the person to behave as they would normally behave,” he says. “Do an office interview, perhaps a lunch interview, a dinner interview, a sporting event. Go to a baseball game or play a round of golf. It’s a good opportunity to better penetrate someone’s true culture.”

Once you have the right people on board, then you have to focus on them.

“Having the right development programs in place is critically important,” he says.

Manhattan has technical training and general manager training, but it also has more elite programs to really hone the cream of the crop. Through the Manhattan Academy, the best of the best spend a week with Sinisgalli and other senior executives in a mini MBA program.

With about 2,200 employees though, it can be hard to figure out whom to invest time and money into, so Sinisgalli relies on his direct reports to help him. Through the semiannual review process, leaders identify team members that have exceptional potential.

“We define that as the ability to do their current job extremely well and the ability to move at least two levels further than where they are today,” he says. “Identify those folks that have exceptional capacity.”

To objectively identify people, he has a matrix with four quadrants on it. One axis is the ability to execute in the current role and the other axis is potential. Ideally, employees want to be in the upper right quadrant. If someone falls into that golden quadrant, then Sinisgalli puts more efforts toward training and developing him or her and ensures his or her compensation plan is strong to keep that person interested in growing with Manhattan.

Lastly, you have to make sure you stay attuned to your employees’ needs and desires.

“Keep an eye out to what’s important to the employees,” Sinisgalli says. “If you’re doing the things that make the employees feel good about working in your company, they’ll do great work.”

For example, if employees are interested in working in China, India, France or another Manhattan location abroad, Sinisgalli makes it happen. If people are interested in working in another department, he gives them the opportunity to try it, and if it doesn’t work out, they can go back to their former role.

“We prioritize that by the top, top folks get the first crack at those transfers, but we try to make that available to anyone who’s in our business,” he says. “It’s one way to expand their knowledge but also keep them excited about working here.”

If you really want to know how your employees feel and what they need though, you have to make them comfortable speaking to you.

For example, about twice a month, Sinisgalli has breakfast with 10 randomly selected associates. He provides doughnuts, juice and coffee and talks for about 15 minutes about the status of the company, and then he opens it up for questions and dialogue. He learns a lot about where he needs to focus his efforts just by listening to their thoughts and ideas.

Another way he connects with employees is by having casual events. During football season, they had a barbecue in the parking deck and encouraged employees to wear their favorite college gear. Sinisgalli sported his Cornell University apparel while grilling burgers and hot dogs and enjoying conversations with employees.

“Create that open environment, and talk to the folks in a relaxed way that will make them comfortable raising ideas and concerns,” he says.

The combination of doing all of these things helps create a strong company culture that encourages your employees to grow with you.

By combining his every employee efforts with his every customer efforts, Sinisgalli has succeeded in taking what was already a good company at $196.8 million when he arrived and growing it to $337 million the past two years. But despite the company’s success, he’ll continue his every customer, every employee, every day approach to ensure Manhattan continues to thrive.

“By making incremental progress on driving up customer satisfaction and making this a better place for employees to work, I believe it will continue to allow us to become an even better company than we are today,” he says.

How to reach: Manhattan Associates Inc., (770) 955-7070 or www.manh.com