Craig Mundie sees science fiction becoming reality all the time. The holodeck, for example – that futuristic simulation room on Star Trek – isn’t so futuristic anymore for the chief research and strategy officer of Microsoft Corp.

“It isn’t that many years away where you’re going to find it quite natural to interact at a distance,” says Mundie, who spoke at the Cleveland Clinic Ideas for Tomorrow series on Jan. 5. “In fact, one of the things that I think you’ll see quite soon is the ability for people to, at least in small groups, go and have meetings together where none of them are actually physically in the same room but their ability to look at each other and talk and communicate is as if you were in the same place.”

Mundie presented Microsoft’s new innovations and shared how innovative technologies will change the game when it comes to long-distance interaction.

“Today we talk about collaboration as you make a phone call and talk; you can have a video conference,” he says. “But increasingly, we think this interaction at a distance is going to be really important. I generally tend to use the term tele-presence as a way to think about what it’s going to be like. … There was the telephone, which collapsed distance for people, but only with the spoken word. Then there was television, which allowed us to do that with images. And I think the next thing that we’re going to see is tele-presence, where more and more we’ll be able to interact with people in a very lifelike and realistic way that aren’t there.”

[VIDEO: See Mundie talk about tele-presence as the next step in interaction.]

Your kids are already using tele-presence – gaming systems like Xbox use avatars to represent players and help them communicate with opponents who aren’t sitting next to them on the couch. Mundie said those will become more realistic.

“The idea that you can have some very lifelike representation that you’re essentially projecting yourself through is not really science fiction,” he says.

Why is this important? Mundie closed his presentation with a video demonstration of a system Microsoft is currently developing based on these technologies. They created a “triage nurse” out of a computer kiosk with the knowledge and question-asking capacity to prioritize patients and make recommendations.

[See Cleveland Clinic’s video of Mundie presenting the triage nurse.]

“This is where I think all of these technologies have the promise to come together and be an amplification factor for the skilled, highly-trained people, whether they’re teachers or doctors, to be able to scale up our capabilities in a more cost-effective way on a planet that’s going to continue to see an increase of population,” Mundie says.

Or there’s the example from the University of Washington BioRobotics Lab, where researchers took an Xbox Kinect sensor into a new environment. In Mundie’s video, a man uses a force feedback system – similar to the joystick in a flying simulation – to “feel” objects in another room, perhaps a precursor for how surgeons will maintain tactile capacity during robotic surgeries.

[See Cleveland Clinic’s video of Mundie sharing the BioRobotics experiment.]

“Many of these things are very important in terms of moving people to comfort in dealing with computers or dealing with people interacting [across] distance,” he says. “Many people today get great value and utility out of computers, but they historically require a lot of training and acclimation to really get a lot of value out of it. As we move to these advanced graphical interfaces and direct manipulation interfaces where you can do things with your fingers or add voice commands, then the ease can get a lot better. The things that have frustrated people in using computers are going to be overcome by making them behave more like we do.”

In other words, why mess with tiny keyboards when your cell phone responds to voice commands? With new direct manipulation interfaces like voice and touch, we’re at a transition point with computers. Until now, they’ve primarily been tools. With those capabilities as good as they need to be, developers are turning to the next phase.

“The key to this is essentially to make it work less at your command and more on your behalf,” Mundie says. “More and more, we’re trying to get these computer systems to anticipate the type of things that you would want to do. In essence, it’s like having a great assistant. They know when you ask them something that they take all of the history and what your preferences are and they factor that into what they do for you.”

[VIDEO: See Mundie talk about the transition of technology from a tool to an assistant.]

Depending how many accounts, profiles and updates you have online, your computer might know you much more intimately than your real assistant. Mundie and his team are trying to use that to your advantage.

For example, they wanted Bing to do more work to satisfy your search, reducing your job to “one input, one click.” Now, when Mundie types in Denver, Bing thinks ahead to why he might be searching for that, and spits back real-time flight prices – kind of like an assistant would.

“We are at a point where computers are going to be more like us,” Mundie says. “From that, we can open up a completely new realm of what the computer can do for us and with us.”

How to reach: Microsoft Corp., http://www.microsoft.com/ or @Microsoft

Published in Akron/Canton

As we enter the month highlighting romance, it is interesting to note that one of the closest relationships people have today is with their mobile device — judged by their constant proximity to it and the instant attention paid to it.

“With many indicators showing an approaching dominance of mobile Internet usage by business and retail consumers, there is an increasing urgency about having a mobile online presence,” says Kevin Hourigan, the president and CEO of Web designWeb development and Internet marketing agency Bayshore Solutions. “But, before a business jumps blindly onto the mobile bandwagon, there are key strategic factors to consider.”

Smart Business spoke with Hourigan about how to know when you’re ready for the mobile Web and how to best engage in it for your business.

What are the mobile trends that are important to businesses?

Recent industry studies show the extremely fast growth of users accessing the Web through a mobile device or smartphone. These studies say that mobile Internet users are projected to exceed desktop Internet users by 2014, one in five mobile users will watch video on a mobile device by 2013, and more than half of mobile users will be Web-enabled by 2013 (and that represents 40 percent of the U.S. population).

As more and more people are accessing the mobile Web, what are they doing there?

More studies reveal these types of mobile activities are gaining popularity:

  • Looking for directions and locations
  • Looking for coupons or promotions
  • Price, availability and support comparisons
  • Reading reviews about products, services and professionals of interest
  • Buying
  • Utilizing the services or processes of a business (checking in for a flight or an online banking transaction, for example)

How do mobile trends affect a business?

This all goes back to Marketing 101: know your customer. If you deliver a product or service that a target customer might be looking for on their mobile device because they are away from their computer, can they find you or do they find your competitors? If they do find your company’s website, does your website’s appearance from a mobile device leave an impression you are proud to show to potential customers?

If your website can be found and seen from a mobile device, what are the most common questions and transactions (both informational and monetary) that your customers will have? If they attempted any of these while on a mobile device, what are their chances of success? Aligning your business’s availability and offerings with today’s mobile trends can have a major impact on its success.

Because our mobile culture increasingly pivots on instant access, answers and gratification, if your business cannot be found and deliver this, then potential customers will simply click to the next competitor who is ready at their fingertips.

When should I establish a mobile presence?

It is critical to first understand the amount of visits your website receives from mobile devices. Google Analytics can show you how much of your traffic is coming from mobile devices, what pages mobile visitors are viewing or attempting to view, and growth in this over time. Analytics will indicate that a mobile Web presence is warranted and what Web pages to spend the most attention on based on your mobile traffic. For some businesses this could be 40 percent, for others as little as 5 percent. If it appears your business would benefit from a mobile website, first make sure your core website’s analytics and strategies are in order. With that in place, it will lead to a coordinated, cost-effective extension into a successful mobile Web presence.

What are your top tips for achieving great mobile Web results?

The hallmark of a successful mobile Web presence is one that is easy — easy to find, easy to track and measure performance and results, and easy for visitors to experience. But, accomplishing all this is not so easy. Strategic elements in developing your mobile presence include:

  • Solid integration with your analytics, CRM systems and marketing and sales lead management processes
  • Search engine marketing that orchestrates your mobile website with your other online (and offline) channels
  • Functionality that accurately understands and even anticipates your mobile visitor’s expectations and needs including making sure the mobile site works on the iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Palm, Android, etc.

A business’s mobile site should not be the soup-to-nuts replication of its main website. In fact, Internet users have fundamentally distinct motivations, behaviors and expectations when accessing websites from a mobile device. Essentially your mobile site should help the mobile visitor get in and get to what they need while they’re on the go. Just a few items that support this would include:

  • Skipping the flashy home page in favor of one-click access to the information or service the visitor needs
  • Simplified copy and link activation to accommodate fingers versus a mouse, and a smaller screen surface
  • Navigability back and forth to your main site to accommodate more detailed user needs.
  • Location, map or driving directions that are immediately accessible.
  • All phone numbers displayed have click-to-call functionality

Take a strategic approach to solidifying your core Web presence and extend to a mobile presence at the right time, for the right reasons and in the right way. This will yield a much more successful result in growing your business.

For a snapshot of Bayshore Solutions’ Web marketing methodology, visit www.BayshoreSolutions.com/method.

Kevin Hourigan is the president and CEO of Bayshore Solutions. Reach him at (877) 535-4578 or www.BayshoreSolutions.com.

Published in Florida

When one thinks of a boutique, a hospital is not usually the first thing that comes to mind; however, it’s a trend that makes sense.

A boutique hospital is small, specialized and dedicated to delivering highly personalized health care services. And, this is exactly what you will find at Coral Gables Hospital.

“A boutique-like influence is imbedded in the culture and mission of an organization and its employees,” says Jay Miranda, the CEO of Coral Gables Hospital, which is a part of Tenet Healthcare Corporation. “It’s integral for a small hospital to advance with top-notch technologies yet remain small in size, which allows it to focus on what’s most important: patients and their families.”

Smart Business spoke to Miranda about the small hospital trend, and how to maintain the culture of a family-centered service while advancing into the future.

Describe the boutique or smaller hospital trend.

Many South Florida communities, and Coral Gables in particular, have been recognized for exemplifying a particular type of style and living by creating a small town feel within a larger city. This feeling of community and identification with it creates a pleasing environment. As part of the local community, a smaller hospital strives to emulate this theme and bring this same feeling of comfort and familiarity into the health care environment.

The boutique hospital trend is growing because communities are becoming more educated and selective when it comes to their health care; they want very high quality care delivered with service excellence. It is generally smaller in size, distinguished by specialized service lines, and can offer high-quality health care within a more intimate, family-centered setting.

What are the advantages of maintaining a smaller, more family-centered health care delivery organization?

A smaller hospital often strives to put the patient first. It often has the resources to treat each patient and his or her family with respect and understanding in a family atmosphere. In a larger facility, patients and their families can get lost in a mass of ‘bricks and mortar,’ and because of the larger number of employees and organizational loopholes, it can be difficult for patients to get the special attention that they may need. With strategic planning, smaller hospitals can deliver a high degree of attention to patients, yet still maintain the same level of clinical equipment and diagnostics as a larger facility.

A smaller organization may also have more control over selecting employees that have a passion for quality service and who reflect the cultures of the community they serve. For example, at Coral Gables Hospital the majority of our staff is bilingual in English and Spanish. Our employees can relate to our diverse patients and cater to their needs. We look only for employees that exemplify the same feeling of compassion, warmth and service that our hospital is known to provide.

How can a company maintain the influence of a small, specialized company while continuing to develop and expand into the future?

Just because a hospital or ‘boutique’ organization is small in size, it is not necessarily short on resources. From a service line perspective, many smaller hospitals advance technologically and expand specialized services based on community needs. One example of this at Coral Gables Hospital is our stroke program. Many of our patients were coming to our emergency room experiencing signs and symptoms of a stroke. We knew we had to expand this level of service to meet the needs of our patients so we went through the proper processes and recruited neurologists to establish our hospital’s stroke program.

Every hospital — despite its size — must continue to upgrade its facility; continue to seek the most qualified employees that fit the organization’s cultural environment; and continue to recruit experienced physicians that can appreciate practicing family-centered medicine.

What are the challenges of running a specialized health care delivery organization and how have you overcome these challenges?

The challenges one faces today are challenges within the complex health care industry as a whole. A hospital is merely one piece of a much larger structure that is constantly evolving and changing. We have to adapt with the ever-changing industry, but as a small hospital, our No. 1 priority will always be maintaining our family atmosphere and patient-centered culture. Every day, it’s the patients who experience health care and it’s a hospital’s job to simplify the process for them and make it as comfortable as possible.

While the challenges are great, there are also many rewards, such as helping people and being a positive influence in the local community. When each staff member walks out of a hospital, he or she feels an intrinsic reward knowing that he or she has had a positive impact on a human being’s life. In patients’ most important critical, vulnerable and often anxiety-driven moments, they are helping them to feel secure that they are receiving the best care possible. This motivates them to achieve the most positive outcomes possible with each patient.

What strategic advice would you give other smaller, boutique-like companies on advancing into the future while staying true to their very consumer-oriented environment?

In a small hospital, building a family-like culture starts from the top, down through interactions between administration and management, physicians and nurses, and, most importantly, patients. This is the true challenge. Machines don’t talk to or touch people; people touch people. Purchasing equipment is something you to do to advance and support the medical professionals in their ability to deliver the best patient care, but the culture is created through the relationships fostered each day. For any boutique business, building relationships is key.

Jay Miranda is the CEO of Coral Gables Hospital, which is a part of Tenet Healthcare Corporation.

Published in Florida
Tuesday, 22 February 2011 14:43

Servant leader

Singing from the same sheet. Following the same path. Reading from the same page.

No matter what idiom you want to use, Stan Johnson’s message is the same to everyone at Veteran’s Affairs San Diego Healthcare System: He wants everyone aligned on delivering the best possible experience to the system’s customers — its patients.

“That is really leading a culture change in terms of working with all staff, informing the staff of what it means to provide patient-centered care,” says Johnson, the director of the 2,400-employee, La Jolla-based health care provider within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “A lot of what we do was already patient-centered care. But it was really looking at redesigning our delivery of care so it is geared toward meeting and exceeding the patient’s expectations.”

Johnson says changing a culture can be challenging and exciting at the same time. You are excited to implement a new way of thinking among your team, but at the same time, there will be bumps in the road as you rebuild processes from the ground up and try to uproot habit-entrenched employees and attempt to show them that the new way is a better way. It can be much more easily said than done.

At the VA San Diego system, the leaders put a template in place by becoming an affiliate of the Planetree Alliance — a nonprofit partnership of health care organizations that advocates for care that is centered on an overall positive experience for the patient. The alignment with Planetree gave Johnson a path to follow when he assumed control of the health care system in 2009. But Johnson had to bring the plan to life every day and coach more than 2,000 employees to do the same.

He did it by involving as many people as possible in the decisions that would affect the system’s future. He sought out the opinions and ideas of not just his employees but patients, as well.

“You really need to look at your organization through your customers’ or patients’ eyes,” Johnson says. “What we’ve done with some of our system design groups is involve many of our patients, because you have to know firsthand what the expectations and needs of your customers are.”

Engage your employees

You’ve probably heard it countless times in your career: Your culture isn’t what you say it is; it’s what your employees believe it is. You can preach all you want on your organizational principles, but if you don’t follow those words with like actions, your culture is going to wither, and distrust will seep into the hierarchy of your company.

One of the actions you need to take is opening a dialogue with your employees. If you are preparing to point your company in a new direction or alter your defining principles in any way, your employees will need opportunities to speak with you in person.

Johnson and his leadership team create those opportunities by getting many people together for a few days off-site, free from workday distractions, where employees can feel enabled to speak up, offer feedback and share ideas.

“About 85 percent of our staff has been on a retreat where they begin to understand what patient care is,” Johnson says. “They begin to individually understand what they individually could look at to improve the patient experience. As a leader, you want to listen to their ideas and suggestions and start to implement things that come out of that, so that it starts to be driven by them instead of being driven by upper management.”

Of course, you can’t implement every employee idea in the name of strengthening or changing your culture. But you can offer feedback on all ideas that come your way, and you can implement the ideas that make the most sense for where your organization is at that point in time. If you don’t at least do that much, you can expect the dialogue, and the wellspring of ideas that comes with it, to dry up .

“You can ask and you can listen, but unless you actually implement some of those suggestions and react fairly quickly to their good ideas, that will dissipate or go away fairly quickly,” Johnson says. “People simply will not continue to give you good ideas and suggestions if you’re not listening to them and implementing some of them. So what you really want is a mechanism to allow your people to make some of those suggestions but also to follow through on your end with the action and implementation of providing feedback and recognition.”

Recognition is another key cog in achieving buy-in on any new initiative. If you want your employees to embrace new cultural principles, reward their good behavior and hold your high performers aloft as an example for everyone else.

It’s something that Johnson emphasizes on a regular basis throughout the San Diego VA system.

“Recently, our communications work group had a patient call center that is about 16 staff members who take a lot of calls, schedule appointments, and the wait time for those calls was longer than we what we liked,” he says. “So those individuals worked with our system redesign staff, flow-mapped the process to see if there were steps that didn’t really add any value to the process any longer, and they were able to make significant improvements in about a two-month time frame.

“Myself and our leaders in that area went to that work area and personally recognized them with an in-person thank you as well as a cash bonus. Many times, it’s a combination of the personal recognition and financial reward that really helps keep employees engaged on that level.”

Stay close to customers

As a business leader, it is imperative that you maintain close relationships with your customers. Without customers, you don’t generate revenue, you don’t turn a profit, your employees don’t keep their jobs and, eventually, you go out of business.

With that in mind, you need to develop avenues to build and maintain customer relationships. Johnson takes it a step further, utilizing the vast amount of military technical training that his organization’s patients have absorbed, by encouraging patients to get involved in various initiatives throughout the system.

“One of the system redesign efforts right now is focused on communication, and a subset of that talent is telecommunications,” Johnson says. “We have a couple of individuals who use the VA for their care, and they have an area of expertise in telecommunications. They’re kind enough to volunteer their time to work with our work group.”

If you always keep it front of mind that your customers are your reason for being, you will be much more apt to seek out their opinions and input on how you run your business from a service standpoint.

“That is the key, to have constant feedback from the people you take care of,” Johnson says. “That is what we’re here for. You have to make sure you’re meeting their needs. It’s not just what we think they’re asking us for, it’s finding out what they’re truly challenged by in using your system.”

As with any other aspect of your business, customer interaction needs leadership with an eye toward continuous improvement. No matter how good you think your system is, no matter how well you think you stay in touch with the people you serve, it can always be done better, and you and your leadership team should constantly seek ways to build a better customer service mousetrap.

“It’s like anything else when you’re in a leadership position,” Johnson says. “You continually work at it. You take nothing for granted. Just because you’re doing something well now doesn’t mean that you’re not continually looking for improvements, how you can be more efficient and effective with what you’re doing. Just because it’s working well now doesn’t mean it can’t be done better.”

Johnson takes the reins when it comes to driving that mentality throughout the organization, but ultimately, he wants all of his employees to become self-starters in delivering an exceptional patient experience.

“It is the responsibility of every single person on our staff,” he says. “We’re here to provide a service to veterans who have served our country. Each one of us, each individual who works with the VA San Diego Healthcare System, can make sure that the patient experience exceeds their expectations. That is what we’re trying to instill in our patient-centered care and affiliation with Planetree, to make sure all staff understand that and can individually make a difference. That is why we want everyone to view it as their responsibility, all the way up to me.”

Continually communicate

Once you have systems in place to allow for engagement of both employees and customers, you need to keep watering the ground with frequent communication. Johnson views continual communication and cultural reinforcement as one of the biggest challenges before him each day.

The challenge of delivering good communication each day is complicated by the fact that you can’t be in all places at all times. You have to have a network of managers and electronic interface points that allow you to keep your messages in front of both employees and customers when you can’t be there in person.

“Communication is another one of those things that you’re always striving to do better,” Johnson says. “What we try to do is communicate in multiple ways. For instance, we have electronic message boards up in elevator lobbies at clinics. We use them to share updates on what is going on at the facility, new information that we want to share, whether it be patient satisfaction or how we did with a recent survey.

“You’re also getting that information out there through e-mail, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, many different ways. Different methods of communication work for different people, and you have to use them all to communicate your strategies and your benchmarks that you have set or that have been set for you.”

But even after you’ve rolled out a new direction for your company, even after the meetings and dialogues with employees and customers, communication remains a two-way street. Feedback from multiple channels is the only way you can ensure that your message is reaching the people you want it to reach and if they are buying in to the message.

“You’re always kind of surveying people, both formally and as you talk with people throughout the day,” Johnson says. “We think we might be doing a good job of communicating, but until you hear it from your customers, patients or staff, you probably haven’t done a good enough job yet.”

How to reach: Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, (858) 552-8585 or www.sandiego.va.gov

The Johnson file

Stan Johnson

Director

Veteran’s Affairs San Diego Healthcare System

Born: Bloomfield, Iowa

History: I joined the Navy and came to San Diego in 1972. I did my boot camp here and served here. I was in the Navy for four years, and they were kind enough to support my education and training, so after that, I went back to Iowa and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Iowa.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Listen to the patient. Involve your staff and your customers in your improvement efforts.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

The key is to develop good working relationships, be transparent and treat people fairly.

What is your definition of success?

For me, it boils down to hearing firsthand from our customers that we’ve done an outstanding job for them.

Published in National

Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, has been increasing in popularity in recent years, and along with that growth has come an increased connection to the health insurance world.

Once the question was: “Why would an insurer need a Facebook page?” Now, that question is more likely to be: “Why not?”

“The modern consumer of health insurance has come to expect companies to use social media products,” says Kelly Kimberland, director of social marketing for UPMC Health Plan. “When an insurer uses social media it is providing the access that consumers value.”

Smart Business spoke to Kimberland about social media in health insurance and why it matters to employers.

Why should an employer care if his or her company’s health insurer is active on social media?

By using social media — Facebook, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn — a business, such as a health insurer, can increase awareness of the company name and its products. But more importantly, it is also a way that the insurer can actively engage with its members and provide useful information about their health plan options and about healthier lifestyles. When a health insurer has a presence on social media sites, it increases the ways that its members — and your employees — can receive information and form connections that can reinforce healthy messages.

What makes social media especially appropriate for a health insurer?

Research indicates that social media may be helpful to individuals trying to improve their lifestyles in areas such as quitting smoking and losing weight. The reason for this is that social media encourages a group dynamic. Instead of asking people to drive to a specific location to be part of a group — which still remains an option, of course — individuals with similar interests can connect online and share stories. It also provides a way for health insurers to get more feedback from and information to members who are interested in using social media.

What evidence is there that social media can be an effective means of communication?

Surveys have shown that an estimated 61 percent of American adults look online for health information and that about two-thirds of those talk with others about what they discover online. Many so-called e-patients have read about someone else’s experience on an online news group, website or blog. What social media tools do is offer a new venue and a new way for people to share stories, make healthy lifestyle changes, and affect others’ lives. Of course, not everyone on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media channels choose to be actively engaged in online communities or chat. But with social media, everyone will have the opportunity to participate and at least build awareness of the importance of healthier lifestyles.

What are some advantages of social media in terms of customer service?

One is access. Many times people are intimidated by forms and by the technical language sometimes connected with health insurance, and they can feel more comfortable using Twitter or Facebook. Finding companies on Facebook, for those who use it frequently, is probably easier than trying to remember a company’s e-mail address or phone number. Social media can provide answers and links to resources more quickly. If there are people out there using social media to do comparison-shopping, to find information and to communicate with others, it just makes sense that a health insurer would be there as well. Also, many employees may consider social media outlets to be friendlier than other media and that will help an insurer to get its message across as well.

What are the biggest challenges facing an insurer that uses social media?

Social media is a 24/7 proposition and demands a kind of more immediate interaction that not every company is equipped or ready to deal with. There is also the challenge of adhering to HIPAA and other regulatory guidelines. Anyone using social media must be aware of the dangers of posting private or personal health information. Visitors to a Facebook page must be mindful of the information they post. But there are advantages, too.

For instance, although not on a public-facing site, UPMC Health Plan offers a Live Chat feature through its secured member portal. Any member that has a question regarding coverage, claims, etc. can connect in real-time with a member advocate. An insurer can enhance the health insurance experience in a more personal way, which is what people are accustomed to with social media, by leveraging new technologies and tools. Social media is about making connections, providing useful information and sharing ideas. It is not all things to all people, but it can be a way to touch lives and is definitely worth offering to employees.

What advantages can an employer gain by having an insurer that uses social media?

One advantage of using social media is your employees may come to see their insurer in a more personal way because it is part of an online community. The health insurer can help to facilitate communities and conversations not only among its followers, but also gain their insight and feedback on specific questions or issues.

Kelly Kimberland is the director of social marketing for UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at kimberlandka@upmc.edu or (412) 454-5273.

Published in Pittsburgh

Back in 2002, when Peter Shaper joined the company that is now known as Harris CapRock Communications, the business looked much different than it does today. At that time, 80 percent of the company’s business came from the United States, mainly from energy customers who needed communications and network services for their critical operations.

Then, thanks in part to 2007’s acquisition of Arrowhead Global Solutions — which became CapRock Government Solutions and produced double-digit growth — and last year’s acquisition by Harris Corp., CapRock tapped into new growth avenues. The Houston-based company is expanding the services it offers, the vertical markets it serves and the geographic footprint it reaches. For example, it entered and provided service in 35 countries in 2009, shifting the balance so that 70 percent of CapRock’s revenue today stems from outside the U.S.

“The reason we have continued to grow even during the recession is by creating more breadth, by diversifying the verticals we’re in, diversifying the geographic markets we’re in, diversifying the services we deliver,” says Shaper, group president. “That diversification has made a difference.”

CapRock has seen 202 percent growth in the last three years alone, rocketing from 2006 revenue of $119 million to 2009 revenue of $359.3 million. That pattern landed the company on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies and Space News’ list of the top 50 companies in the space industry, and it earned Shaper the distinction of Via Satellite’s Satellite Executive of the Year for 2009.

But accolades aren’t a reflection of rampant, unchecked growth. Shaper sticks close to the company’s core to evaluate new ideas and opportunities. That keeps CapRock growing in the right direction and stabilized for the future.

“Not all markets, not all parts of the world go into recession at the same time, and so by having the real breadth, we get some areas that are countercyclical so they’re growing when others are not,” Shaper says. “It’s rare that we find all areas of the world, all markets, all services growing at the same time, but as long as we have some that are, we can continue the overall growth.”

Set the course

For CapRock to grow in alignment with its core, Shaper has to lead the way with a clear strategic vision for the course.

“Have some vision for the future for reaching that next state or reaching a new height or a new goal,” Shaper says. “Share that with other people so they can see it, too, so they can all really work toward that same goal.”

Shaper starts with five imperatives encompassing the company’s vision. Because they’re considered competitive differentiators, those aren’t publicly shared — but they are certainly repeated internally as often as possible. Shaper takes every opportunity, from new employee orientation to quarterly all-hands meetings to strategic planning sessions, to align his 757 employees around CapRock’s vision.

“We tell all of our people that your activities need to be working toward those strategic imperatives, and they better be either growing revenue, growing margins or growing the team,” Shaper says. “Be able to communicate that strategy to (employees) … being very clear about how those goals are aligned with where we’re going strategically. It’s that repetition of the message that allows people to really start to get it.”

The goal in communication is consistency, and the key is relentlessness. It may get tiring for you, but repetition will keep employees motivated and keep you focused.

“To a certain extent, they are hearing the same old thing over and over again. To the extent that we are energetic and enthused about it, then people don’t mind hearing the same thing over and over again,” Shaper says. “Sometimes you feel, ‘Boy, do I really need to go repeat this again?’ The answer’s always yes because there are always people who need a refresher on what we’re doing and where we’re going and why. It’s a great refresher for us, the management team that’s presenting the same imperatives over and over again, because it keeps us focused on what’s really important.”

Communicating your course also predetermines a compass to measure potential moves. By articulating your differentiators ahead of time, you set the filters that opportunities must pass.

“Any new product, any new market, any new service, anything new we want to do, we measure against: Is this really playing to our strategic objectives? Does this further where we really want to go in terms of our long-term vision of the business?” Shaper says. “If it’s not helping us along that path, then it’s probably not something we want to do.

“If it’s not our core strength where we have some reason to have an advantage, I’d rather not invest our time and our money that way. Where can we really compete in an advantaged way such that we have a good chance of winning and growing and being successful in that market?”

When you stick consistently to that core measuring stick, it’s also easier to communicate course adjustments to employees. You know how to explain a move into a new sector if it passes through your core filters.

“Here’s a new market we’re moving into — the maritime market. Here’s why we’re moving in,” Shaper would tell his employees. “If you look at our strategy, it fits squarely into where we’re going and what we want to do. Folks who are in remote and harsh conditions need mission-critical communications. They’re on a global basis that can leverage our scale. By lining up the strategic elements that make it make sense, it allows everybody to understand why we’re doing it.”

Train champions

Shaper’s job would be easier if all he had to do was communicate the vision and then stand back as opportunities rolled in. Obviously, a lot more legwork has to happen before the company decides to pursue an idea.

He shares that workload with employees by equipping them to vet opportunities before they get to him. The constant communication serves to educate employees about the evaluation process they should use.

“We have to teach folks who are going to champion new ideas, new products, new services and new geographies how to evaluate them,” Shaper says. “Make sure they understand the strategy and where we want to go and how we’re going to measure whatever ideas they bring, so that the people on the front lines are filtering these out themselves.”

Some champions get more specific training because their positions involve finding ideas to turn into products. Some CapRock employees, for example, are tasked with geographic expansion, and others in R&D, engineering and development are responsible for ushering potential products and services to Shaper’s desk.

“Generally, for it to get any legs, someone has to decide, ‘I like this so much I want to be its champion. I’ve heard it; I know three or four other people who’ve heard it. I’m going to go out and do a little investigation. I’m going to put together a presentation and say, “Here’s something that we should do,”’” Shaper says. “Whether it’s a new product or service or changing something we have today, without a champion nothing really ends up getting (done).”

Depending on the opportunity, Shaper has different expectations for a champion’s preliminary research. A brand-new product or service would obviously require the most prep, ranging from customer discussions to market sizing and economic viability tests. A simple cost-saving idea, on the other hand, might not need as much background analysis.

The champion’s responsibility is then presenting the case to management.

“That champion will push the idea up the chain,” Shaper says. “Eventually, the executive committee will look at it, talk about it, push back, maybe ask for more information and say, ‘Well, that makes sense. It fits in our list of priorities to invest in. Here’s the capital to go make something happen.’”

Continuous communication indirectly paves the way for this pass-off. You can’t expect employees to present an opportunity to you if they don’t have an established connection. Interacting with employees regularly will make them more comfortable sharing ideas.

“By (communicating) often, doing it frequently, getting out and meeting people so it’s not the first time they’ve talked to me face to face, doing it in a casual setting — either walking around the office or at office events — it just will make the executives more real, more approachable,” Shaper says. “Really connecting with the employees is critical to be able to lead them. That consistency in forming connections with employees is what builds the bridge and allows them to be very courageous and transparent in bringing things to you.”

Run field tests

If opportunities are still standing after the champion brings them to Shaper’s executive team, then they have to face the field. The next test is how CapRock customers react.

“We will always take these ideas and go out to some key customers — typically key customers who we would like to be the initial buyers — and we will make sure we spend time with them on, ‘OK, this is what we’re thinking about doing. Here’s the need we think it solves. Is this something that you would buy, and where does the price point need to be?’” Shaper says. “We’ll have customers come in and help us develop what the end solution is so that we’ve already got a known market by the time we’re ready to go to market.”

You could conduct general market research and read articles about the state of the marketplace, but Shaper prefers listening to the voice of the customer. In addition to regular one-on-ones between customers, salespeople and management, CapRock sends out surveys and sets up additional events to solicit feedback, such as the Customer Advisory Board, or CAB. CapRock invites a broad cross-section of customers from different markets, different areas of each market and different functions within client companies to achieve a diverse spectrum of perspectives.

“We run the CAB as a forum for them to talk and us to listen,” Shaper says. “We facilitate the discussion, but we try to do as little of the talking as we can because that’s where we get the real value — it comes from listening, not from talking.”

To get open feedback, CapRock keeps itself out of the conversation until the end. The two-day session starts with an objective focus on customer needs before shifting into a company-specific evaluation.

“Our core focus at our CABs is usually what’s coming next,” Shaper says. “What challenges are you facing? What opportunities do you see? We have discussions all around the future — what they see coming and what’s happening.

“We specifically carve off a separate section where I stand up and ask them, ‘What are we doing well at CapRock, and what are we doing poorly?’ so that the discussion around the marketplace and the challenges and opportunities doesn’t become colored by commentary around CapRock. … Using their challenges and opportunities at the end of the two-day meeting, they help us prioritize: Here are the most important places for us to spend our development dollars. Those next products, services, capabilities that we should be investing to generate are based on the two days of discussions that they just had.”

If done correctly, customer feedback solicitation is continuous. You’re constantly gathering input from meetings with customers, survey results, advisory board sessions and quarterly marketplace reports. Keep your ears perpetually perked for patterns.

“It’s a steady stream, and you’re always listening for trends within that stream,” Shaper says. “(We) all sit down and discuss what are we hearing, what’s going on, and the trends will start to come up: ‘Well, I’ve been hearing this three, four, five times. We ought to think about acting on this.’ As you start to hear the consistency and something becomes a trend, then you start to believe that it might be real and you take action.”

Shaper relies on this process for testing ideas against CapRock’s core-centric success, separating growth opportunities into pursuits and passes. Throughout the process, he also gets employees on board with the direction they end up taking.

“We want to have those opportunities to really kick ideas around, discuss them with some emotion and then know that we’ve got to make a decision,” Shaper says. “Once we make a decision, we understand why it wasn’t just a random decision but we’ve got some rationale why and we’re all going to back that.”

How to reach: Harris CapRock Communications, (888) 482-0289 or www.caprock.com

The Shaper file

Peter Shaper

group president

Harris CapRock Communications

Born: Houston

Education: Master of business administration degree from Harvard University and bachelor of science degree in engineering from Stanford University

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

My first job was a summer job when I was in high school, and I was a gofer. I literally drove a truck, picked things up, dropped them off, drove things all around town, picked up equipment, supplies. The most important thing it taught me was that I wanted to be one of the guys who was working in the office, not one of the guys who was working out on the manufacturing floor.

Whom do you admire most and why?

I admire children most because they have such a fantastic positive outlook on life and none of the weight of negative attitude and bad things having happened to them. That’s just such a wonderful way to go through life. I wish I could still have a child’s attitude.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

It would clearly be the ability to control time. One thing I definitely don’t have enough of is I never have enough time. So if I had the ability to slow time down and create more for myself, that would be my superpower.

If you could have dinner with anyone from any time, who would it be and why?

I would probably choose Jesus because so much of world history since then has been dominated by differing religious views; the crux of them all is during his lifetime, from the Jews before and after, to the Christians, to what that did to the Muslims. I just think that’s a fascinating crossroads in the history of man.

What’s your favorite stress relief?

It’s exercise — playing basketball.

What’s your favorite local spot for a business lunch?

I love going different places all the time so I guess my favorite spot is always the next one that I haven’t tried.

Published in Houston
Monday, 21 February 2011 13:47

On the move

When Camille Cheney Fournier was 10 years old, she was already well established as a vital part of the family business.

“We used to have three-part commissions, and we had to tear them and get them all sorted out,” she says. “I was pretty little, because I remember I couldn’t reach far enough to put the checks in numeric order.”

But even in such a seemingly small role, she learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with her through the years and helps her as she now leads the family business, SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc., as owner and CEO.

“It takes everybody to make the business work,” Fournier says. “It really does. Some of those tasks that I was doing, like putting checks in numerical order or sorting salesmen commission reports, all that had to be done, and somebody had to do it. It was something that even a kid could do so that the employees at the office could do something they had the skill to handle.

“It goes to show that there are so many jobs at a company, and they’re all important, and they’re all needed, and they all need to be appreciated.”

By encouraging teamwork and valuing every job at the company, which sources and redistributes food service products globally, people know how important their roles are. This has helped employees work together to increase efficiencies internally as well as for their customers, which has allowed the organization to grow from $159.3 million in revenue in 2006 to $253.5 million in 2009.

“Without everybody doing their part, it doesn’t work,” she says.

Hire and train team-oriented people

For Fournier, having the right type of people who will be willing to work collaboratively with other team members and customers has been critical to the company’s growth over the past few years. That happens by making sure she hires the right people.

“You have to have the right people that care and are proactive and ask questions that go beyond what is just expected,” she says.

It starts in the interview process by clearly laying out how SWS operates and what the company’s philosophies are regarding customer service, teamwork and collaboration.

“By talking to them, you can really feel that they would be the right person,” she says. “If they ask good questions in the interview process, they’re probably going to be a questioning kind of person to begin with.”

The questions people ask can vary depending on the job, but she says that if they ask about how people stay sharp in their positions and how they make sure they do the best work possible, no matter what the situation, that can be an indication of a good fit.

Once hired, cross-training them is critical to success.

“Staying sharp is really important,” she says. “We try to diversify through the type of job that each person has so their job is broken up a little bit more, they have a little bit different responsibilities so that when they come back to one that may be a little bit more monotonous, they can still be sharp doing that task.”

For example, a customer service person would primarily spend his or her day taking orders from customers and helping those customers build their truckloads of various products. The customer service people may take several of those orders and work with the customers back and forth to make the loads as efficient as possible, but they may also have to take a timeout and check someone else’s order to make sure that other customer service person made his or her order the correct way and in the most efficient manner possible.

“It’s kind of like a puzzle,” she says. “If you have a different set of eyes look at it, all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh, this could be done a little bit differently,’ so they make suggestions.”

Additionally, someone may pull an order for a customer, but then someone else will come through and check to make sure it’s all correctly pulled.

“We try to break up different people’s responsibilities, and then we throw someone in a totally different area of the company to do another task to show them what they’ve done is related to another area of the company, too.”

This approach to training helps not only avoid problems and errors, but it also eliminates silos from being built because employees are constantly doing tasks outside their main area and seeing every aspect of each order from different points of view.

“It’s nice for different areas of the office, whether you’re in customer service or accounts payable or accounts receivable or shipping or purchasing to understand how it all fits together,” she says. “When you understand that, you understand how important everything you do is and how important it is to do it correctly.”

While this approach helps the company, it also helps the employees, as well. As they learn different roles and aspects of the business, it makes them more versatile. One manager started in customer service and then went to shipping and then accounts receivable before landing her management position.

“She knows it from the ground up,” Fournier says. “We try to promote from within, because our business is somewhat complex, and it helps if our employees truly understand all the different aspects.”

Help employees build customer relationships

The greatest compliment that Fournier has received from a customer is that her team is always able to find solutions to any kind of situation or problem that a customer faces.

“Part of it starts within getting all of the people that work in your company to realize how important each of their areas of the company are and that we all make up a cog in the wheel to make it all work,” she says. “It’s important for me to meet with the customer and listen and understand what their needs are and be able to come to them with good proactive solutions and proactive ideas about what they might want to change in the future. It’s important that everybody in my company understand how important they are in making our customer satisfied and happy.”

This started with looking at how trucks were loaded. A typical truck will hold 26 skids of a product, but by being creative, SWS employees can get 35 or 36 skids on a truck.

“When they’re training, they go out and actually see the loads going out,” she says. “What we explain is, ‘This is a heavy product, and it can have something stacked on it. This is a light product, and it cannot, but it can go on top of something. This is really tall.’

“Just to understand what you’re selling when you’re sitting in an office is so important to being able to be a really good partner with your customer.”

One manager took the initiative to create a chart of which products were light, heavy and stackable to give to customers so that the customers could then maximize their orders as well to save money.

“It’s really being proactive,” Fournier says. “I’ve got a great group of people being very proactive that work here.”

That same manager also pulls her customers’ order history so she can see what their needs are and how fast they move through certain products and uses that information to make suggestions to them about what could be a good add-on to their order to create more efficiencies.

“You also have to know what your customers’ sales are and what their needs are and how fast they go through their products, because turns on the inventory is also a very important factor for the customer,” she says. “They have to be able to turn the merchandise fast enough that they want to get as much on the truck as possible so they’re not having to buy another truckload sooner because they’ve run out of a product.”

Beyond looking at their order histories, you also have to communicate with your customers. Fournier and her employees meet with customers over the phone and Internet daily and weekly and also meet with them in person two or three times a year.

“[It’s] communication — meeting with them and talking to them and finding out what their problems are and their concerns and working on solutions to correct any of the problems that their company is facing,” she says.

When she meets with them, she asks them what they like and dislike about different products that they’re currently using, but she also asks what they would like to see changed or made differently.

The approach of trying to save the customer money and time has built strong relationships that have helped fuel the company’s growth.

“We’re all on the same team trying to do the same thing,” Fournier says. “That’s a large, important part of our business — that everybody realized that we’re all on the same team. It’s not just my company that’s a team. The customers are part of the team. The end users are part of the team. We’re all in it together, and if the whole group of everybody isn’t happy and satisfied and saving money and working well, then we’re missing something, and we need to re-evaluate because that’s our job.”

How to reach: SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc., (972) 466-9720 or www.swsco.net

The Cheney Fournier file

Camille Cheney Fournier

owner and CEO

SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc.

Born: Dallas — born and raised; I’m a fourth generation.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in textiles and clothing, University of Texas at Austin

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a buyer in a clothing store. University of Texas didn’t have fashion merchandising — the closest thing they had was textiles.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Tell the truth, even if they don’t want to hear it. That’s probably the best. Always tell the truth, always be honest. You have to be fair — that’s another one.

What’s your favorite board game and why?

Monopoly because I like the strategy of trying to buy the different properties. I like the strategy of the different combinations of properties you can buy in your little portfolio. ... I think games keep your brain sharp, and it’s entertainment, and it’s distracting. It’s kind of like going on a mini-vacation, and it takes your mind off of what is going on in your life, and then you’re fresh to come back to it. It’s just like reading. When I read, I usually read fiction, because when I read, it’s a release and I enjoy it, and then I can come back to reality and life and have a fresh perspective. It’s important to have enough down time that you’re always positive and sharp in your business or your family or whatever you’re doing in life.

What’s your favorite book that you’ve read?

Recently, ‘The Kite Runner.’ I’ve read several books that I liked lately. ‘The Help’ was good, too. They’re just different. It’s real interesting to see different people’s perspective. ‘Same Kind of Different as Me,’ that’s probably one of the better books I’ve read.

Published in Dallas
Saturday, 19 February 2011 23:13

Interactive conversations

Maybe Regis Philbin wouldn’t convert your prospects to customers by confirming their final answers. But Amanda Lannert thinks your business could benefit by borrowing some philosophies from interactive games.

Lannert is president at The Jellyvision Lab Inc. — a sibling company to Jellyvision Games, known for its best-selling games “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “You Don’t Know Jack.” She’s taking interactive conversations beyond gaming to help companies better communicate with customers, replacing virtual game show hosts with virtual insurance agents, enterprise IT salespeople and even guidance counselors.

“Find ways to ask questions to let people self-select into the information they want, versus just piling a bunch of information on your website and making people have to do the legwork of understanding it all so that they can then match the product to their needs,” says Lannert, who has about 50 employees. “Try to help people narrow down to the information they need at a level in which they can understand.”

Smart Business spoke with Lannert about turning prospects into customers with interactive conversation.

Be respectfully relevant. The best salespeople that we see in all industries ask questions first. They make it about you, the buyer, not about the product first. The salesperson doesn’t come up [in a store] and say, ‘Oh, the texture of the chiffon is so lovely.’ They say, ‘Where are you going to wear the dress?’ and then they put the product into the context of what the user cares about versus just blathering on about the product. They’re engaging and not pushy.

We’ll ask stuff like, ‘What keeps you up at night? What problems are you interested in solving?’ and we’ll lay out four or so options on the screen. … People click and then you can focus on that and know that you’re dealing with their top issue.

Be relevant and respectful of your audience and their time. … It’s about having an editorial perspective that allows you to know what you’re talking about but not speak in a way that’s mired in industry lingo or corporate gobbledygook. Being clear, being conversational is respectful to your audience.

Just remember, people read and think and process best in conversational English versus jargon or lingo or corporate-speak. Try to read your copy out loud. If it’s not what you would say to a human being, rewrite it. Call your husband or your wife or your mother and read it to them, and just have them raise their hand when they start to get a little tricky.

Take it slow. Interactive conversations are a touch-point in a very long and complex sales cycle. Our philosophy is that, for complex sales and transactions, you need to take a long-term dating focus. You don’t want to move too quickly on the first date.

You need to set up a strategy of providing valuable advice and service over time, sometimes when it has nothing to do with actually selling your product. Sometimes, it just has to do with proving that you’re a credible, reliable, helpful person. That will pay dividends.

The best way we’ve found to build and maintain relationships is patience. … You accrue brand equity the same way you build interest in dating: You build intrigue by being patient.

Our goal is usually to get people to move from being a website researcher to being an active lead on the phone with a representative who can configure a solution. So we say, ‘All right, would you like to speak with a rep?’ Can we capture a lead right away? They say, ‘Oh, I’m not ready to be sold to.’ ‘Well, that’s OK. Can we send you a white paper on blank that you already told me that you’re interested in?’

Provide options. Instead of, ‘Can I close? Yes or no,’ it’s, ‘Would you like to close? Would you like to learn more?’

You can set up stuff in marketing automation. … And then two weeks later, you have an automatic e-mail that says, ‘Hey, there’s a new webinar.’ Two weeks later, ‘Here’s an interesting article I read that might be germane to your business about how this solution has helped other companies.’

You continue to provide resources and advice that has nothing to do with (selling) that allows people to get more comfortable with your solution over time. A white paper may not actually advance your sale, but it builds your credibility so that when someone actually is ready to move toward your solution, they’re more likely to remember you, more likely to give you a call.

Match needs to inventory. The great thing about the Web is you are not limited by physical space in terms of the amount of inventory you can cover. And the bad thing about the Web is that you’re not limited by physical space (for) the inventory you can cover.

That’s why consumer decision support tools are so important, particularly when you’re selling something complex. You don’t want to force your prospect to have to become a category expert. You just want them to have to understand their business, their pain and their situation and then you want to say, ‘I get the products. I understand the background of everything we offer. Based on what you said, I’m going to recommend this, and I’m going to tell you why based on what I’ve learned about you.’ So you take the onus of expertise off of the prospect who’s doing research and all they have to know is what they know already: their own situation.

People so often forget the ‘and why.’ … That’s how you build confidence in the sale. When (other interactive decision support tools) get to the recommendation, they drop people off at a page because to present produced recommendations for your entire inventory could bankrupt the company. Well, don’t produce the whole inventory. Narrow the coverage you need to provide and invest in a recommendation. Invest in saying, ‘Hey, customer, I hear you. I know what you’re looking for, and based on what you told me, this is what I recommend and here’s why.’

How to reach: The Jellyvision Lab Inc., (888) 387-4446 or www.jellyvisionlab.com

Published in Chicago

The golden arches, the swoosh, the apple – Keeven White will tell you these recognizable icons are not brands. He knows that it goes much deeper than logos, taglines or even products – it comes down to consumer perceptions.

As the president and CEO of Whitespace Creative, an Akron-based integrated marketing communications agency and project resource that has averaged 25 percent annual growth over the past decade, White has made branding his business.

White spoke at the Smart Business Akron Live Luncheon at InfoCision Stadium last year about keeping your brand relevant in the face of social media, boredom and busyness.

What is a brand?

A brand is really the perceptions that are held in the mind of your customers. It’s that gut feeling they have about your company and the promise that your company puts out to them, what to expect when working with your brand or company. The brand completely lives within the minds of your customers.

How is branding different today?

The tactical landscape has changed radically. Social media has really taken the control away from you as the company and put it back in the hands of the consumers. It used to be that companies could outspend consumers to take control of that perception by putting a better image out there and saturating the market place with it. Well, now consumers have the voice and they have the ability to get that rapid distribution of their perceptions of what your brand is, and that has really changed the approach that a lot of people have to have in branding.

You still have to have all the advertising and marketing functions, but companies really need to embrace the fact that (social media is) going on because that conversation’s happening whether you’re taking part in it or not. Companies have to find a way to get involved and still influence that discussion, but they can’t do it from the bully pulpit anymore. They have to do it from controlling their products and brands and the way things are going out to the community.

What’s the biggest challenge of branding?

The biggest challenge of branding is boredom, and that comes from inside. Companies tend to get bored with their own brands way before your consumers get bored with it, and that’s from the visual presentation standpoint. They’ve seen it internally for so long, but to the consumers, it’s a small piece of what they see.

It used to be, back in the 70s, the consumer might get 500 pieces of advertising thrown at them per day. Today, it’s more like 3-6,000 thousand pieces per day, so they have tons of clutter coming at them. If you’re lucky enough to create connections with the consumer that they come to expect certain stylistic things coming out of your company and all of a sudden you change those things, you lost a connection that you had. Now you have to fight the 3 to 6,000 other impressions that are coming at them to reconnect those pieces.

What’s the biggest branding mistake leaders make?

They underestimate it. A lot of people want to do it once and just forget about it instead of making it a priority. Brands, if done right, can create long-term value and can drive premium pricing. Just because you have a logo and a couple ads that are consistent doesn’t mean that that’s a brand. You have to constantly focus on enhancing it and expanding it, and too often there’s other things that come up that take priorities, like sales are off this month. But branding has to be a priority at the top level of the company. Keep the focus on making sure that that brand is consistent. … The perceptions are always changing and you have to make sure that you’re trying to influence that.

Talk to your consumers. Find out what they think you are because it probably is going to be a lot different from who you think you are. The brand is not about what you say you are, it’s about what they say you are. You’ve got to get the consumer input and then go about delivering on things and creating more pieces that enhance that expectation.

How to reach: Whitespace Creative, (330) 762-9320 or www.whitespace-creative.com

Published in Akron/Canton
Tuesday, 31 May 2011 20:15

Keep trucking

The people at TravelCenters of America LLC believe in being resilient, in the ability to survive many pitfalls in the business world and in living to fight another day.

But they can’t survive poor customer service. Which is why it’s a top priority for the company to deliver an excellent customer service experience every day, to every customer.

Existing in a commodity-driven marketplace, with competitors offering many of the same products and services, TravelCenters — led by Managing Director, President and CEO Thomas O’Brien — has recognized that customer service must be its market differentiator.

The company keeps its repeat customers coming back through its loyalty program, UltraOne, which began a major upgrade last year. VIP members receive benefits such as upgraded shower credits that don’t expire, free dinners on their birthdays and free parking at sites that normally charge a fee.

TravelCenters also focuses on customer service through efficient processes. When a customer comes into a service site for a repair, a swipe of his loyalty card will bring up all pertinent information about his company and his truck, meaning that the driver is easily recognized at any TravelCenters location throughout the country.

The system also allows site employees to look up the details of the customer’s last three visits to a TravelCenters site. Staff members can use the information to make each customer’s visit more personal. Employees are able to inquire about tires a customer purchased on a previous visit and offer a free tire pressure measurement and inflation service.

Employee training goes hand in hand with better systems and technology. With that in mind, TravelCenters has created a career path for each employee, with training completion monitored and reported on electronically. The training program, called Q-Force, is taught in four-hour sessions, 10 times a year to the company’s work force of truck service advisers, who are generally the first employees to greet and service a customer.

How to reach: TravelCenters of America LLC, (440) 808-9100 or www.tatravelcenters.com

Published in Akron/Canton
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