As Seeley, Savidge, Ebert & Gourash Co. LPA has grown from its humble beginnings in Avon Lake to a dynamic and successful law firm that helps clients across Northeast Ohio, one thing hasn’t changed a bit.

The firm’s attention to detail when it comes to customer service is as sharp as it has ever been at SSE&G. Jim Pshock, founder and CEO at Bravo Wellness, can testify to that personally.

“We never get the impression that the clock is ticking or that the service we receive is fee driven,” Pshock says. “It is evident to Bravo that it is SSE&G’s mission to live up to their values of hard work, responsiveness and efficiency while consistently bringing innovative ideas to the table.”

The firm makes it a point to ensure that when calls come in, they are returned in less than a day. Technology has upgraded the firm from a tickler system of 3-by-5 index cards, but the personal touch is still as evident as ever when clients need support from the firm.

The firm’s founder, Gregory D. Seeley, wants clients to understand that the firm is working for them and that they have a right to ask questions about how that service is provided. So if they believe too much time was spent on a project, adjustments are made. If there are concerns about the way a situation is being handled, Seeley wants to hear about that too.

He’s a firm believer that when you let concerns go unaddressed; they fester and end up creating bigger problems in the long run.

Seeley says the firm has a formula that works and sees no need to change it. While he makes sure SSE&G has the latest in technology to do its work, the act of providing great customer service is truly timeless.

How to reach: Seeley, Savidge, Ebert & Gourash Co. LLP, (216) 566-8200 or www.sseg-law.com

Published in Cleveland

Customer service is the biggest factor in differentiating your company from competition. The Shamrock Cos. Inc.’s CEO, Robert Troop, has driven growth at the marketing solutions provider by giving customers an experience they can’t get anywhere else.

Shamrock’s mission is to be the premier provider of integrated marketing solutions that help customers build and protect their brands, drive revenue and create efficiency using the right mix of people, services and technology. Led by this mission and powered by the ability to offer fully integrated, progressive solutions for customers, Shamrock has been bringing value beyond the products and services it offers clients.

A big way the company has done this and continues to drive customer service to new levels is through its Raving Fan Feedback System (RFF). Shamrock’s customer service is so distinguished from the competition that the company not only maintains clients as loyal customers, but it inspires them to tell others about Shamrock and the way the company conducts business.

The goal is to make every client a “raving fan.” To make the raving fan system work, Shamrock is certain to make its day-to-day performance stellar, and processes are continuously improved and the envelope in always pushed in terms of quality, turnaround time and customer relations.

Data is collected through what Shamrock calls the Problem Solving Analytical Technique (PSAT), which identifies the problem, all possible reasons, measures occurrences against possible causes, determines real root cause, implements a corrective action and monitors results to ensure the action has been effective. All results are stored in a database for any department or plant to analyze trends, events and process weaknesses.

Since implementing the RFF and PSAT systems, Shamrock has increased manufacturing on-time performance, decreased turnaround time to under seven days, increased distribution performance, decreased delivery time, and decreased customer impacted quality events.

How to reach: The Shamrock Cos. Inc., (440) 250-2186 or www.shamrockcompanies.net

Published in Cleveland

Some accounting firms customarily contact their tax clients only around tax season, an approach that can result in missed opportunities for tax savings. Skoda Minotti, led by Chairman Gregory Skoda, makes it a practice to stay in touch with its clients year-round, whether it is simply preparing a tax return or providing other services to the client.

All of the professionals at Skoda Minotti are instructed to take a proactive approach to client service, which enables Skoda Minotti to identify common needs among clients and, when appropriate, to fill those needs in-house. This was the case with several service offerings the firm began providing in recent years, such as professional staffing, business valuations, technology, telecommunications, litigation, small business services and marketing.

In addition to helping its clients grow via its business and financial services, Skoda Minotti keeps its clients updated on developments in the industries related to their businesses. On a quarterly basis, the firm sends its clients electronic updates with their choices from about 200 different industries.

Skoda Minotti publishes monthly e-newsletters with industry news and business articles for several of its niche service areas, and monthly and quarterly industry-specific newsletters covering information technology, real estate, construction, business valuation, litigation advisory, nonprofit and employee benefit plans. In addition, the firm’s professionals maintain a blog that is updated several times a week with news and analysis.

One of the most important customer service benefits that Skoda Minotti’s clients receive is the knowledge and expertise of the firm’s staff. Skoda Minotti’s partners have owned and operated businesses in the past, so they can provide insight to clients in that area. And the firm keeps its entire staff at a high level of technical expertise, with a commitment to offering 1.5 to two times the industry average of continuing professional education.

HOW TO REACH: Skoda Minotti, (440) 449-6800 or www.skodaminotti.com

Published in Cleveland

The customer service philosophy of SS&G, led by its managing directors, Gary Shamis and Mark Goldfarb, is to provide exceptional service to all clients regardless of their size or profitability. Whether SS&G prepares a client’s taxes, performs an audit, or provides financial consultation, the firms strives to show every client it is committed to meeting their needs.

SS&G believes in investing in its relationships with its clients. The firm practices reciprocity for its services by engaging clients for their products and services. SS&G has a policy of working with clients before engaging outside vendors, sometimes putting aside cost in favor of giving business to its clients. Among the client products and services SS&G uses are printed and promotional material, cleaning services, copiers and interior landscaping. And SS&G recommends its clients’ products and services to others whenever appropriate.

At the start of each client relationship, SS&G provides a welcome packet to help the client become acquainted with the firm and its offerings. The packet includes a personal letter and literature about SS&G’s mission, resources available exclusively to SS&G clients and the level of service they can expect to receive. And to get to know clients outside of the office, SS&G invites them to sporting events, award banquets, and networking and social events.

SS&G has lower staff turnover than the national average, which helps ensure that its clients receive consistent service year after year.

SS&G makes a charitable donation each year in its clients’ honor to organizations with a presence in each of the communities in which the firm operates. During the most recent holiday season, SS&G made a donation to Alex’s Lemonade Stand dedicated to fighting childhood cancer. Each client received a holiday card informing them of the gesture made by SS&G on their behalf.

HOW TO REACH: SS&G Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

Published in Cleveland

“What’s important to you?” That’s the question employees at Today’s Business Products know to ask every time they meet with a client for the first time. Recognizing that every customer has unique and specific needs, the national provider of office supplies and furniture approaches customer service by focusing on the things customers say are important to them. They call it a “roll up your sleeves and get the job done mentality.”

Under the leadership of President Richard Voigt, Today’s Business Products recently celebrated its 27th anniversary, continuing to drive its goal of being the first name that people depend on for their office products. Today, the organization provides more than 50,000 business items for clients and taps its network of 40 regional warehouses to deliver to 98 percent of the population nationwide. Even with such a vast reach, transcending the competition hasn’t been easy. Two words have been critical in helping the company differentiate itself with customers: unsurpassed dependability.

Whether it means coming in early or staying late, the company’s customer service team members are ready to do what it takes to get an order right, meet a client deadline or make life easier for a customer or co-worker. This mentality stems from a culture that engages employees in partnership, customers, the community and the company.

The company rewards employees who embody customer-driven attitudes with programs such as its “Gold Star” awards, which gives team members gold stars to put on the wall to signify a job well done from clients, and the Bravo Award for employees who go above and beyond their job duties for a fellow employee or client. In order to help employees see their role as a partner outside of the company’s products and services, Today’s Business Products also works with many education and nonprofit clients, donating cash and auction items to local charities and organizations.

How to reach: Today’s Business Products, (216) 267-5000 or www.todaysbusinessproducts.com

Published in Cleveland

At Visual Marking Systems Inc., customer service is their competitive advantage. The company’s employees, led by CEO Dolf Kahle, act as consultants in the industry. The company’s staff frequently acts as a friend and shoulder to lean on for clients who are struggling to decide the direction in which they want to take their product identification. VMS provides support by giving advice and solutions that solve the product identification problems faced by customers.

To help facilitate productive solutions for customers, VMS developed an innovation center, which is often the first chance the staff at VMS gets to interact with a new client. The staff meets with the client to brainstorm ideas on everything from the best way to manufacture a product for their requirements, cutting options, shipping options, packaging methods and the best material to use. As a result of those meetings, VMS can often produce pre-production prototypes to allow customers to see and approve the product before placing a full-quantity order. By relentlessly looking for ways to improve products, VMS demonstrates that they have their customers’ best interests at heart.

All of the attention VMS pays to customer service is aimed at allowing their customers to excel at their own businesses. By making the purchase process as easy as possible, VMS allows its customers to focus on serving their own customers. VMS eliminates the burden of selecting complicated adhesives, materials and print options, instead evaluating the overall needs of each customer, and finding innovative solutions that meet their needs. By doing so, VMS allows customers to excel at their own company. By providing the services that build loyal customers, VMS allows their own customer to build loyal customers, strengthening everyone’s business in the process. VMS is a trusted partner for its customers and takes pride when they do well.

How to reach: Visual Marking Systems Inc., (330) 425-7100 or www.vmsinc.com

Published in Cleveland

When Dollar General was shopping for a single vendor for its phone systems, Norm Worthington figured they would do the same thing as most big companies. They would call up Verizon or AT&T. He also knew that those companies didn’t have the answer.

“They found us instead and realized that we really are the only ones that could do it,” says Worthington, the founder and CEO of Star2Star Communications LLC, a technology company that delivers Internet telephone systems and services for business communications.

Today Star2Star provides phones at all of Dollar General’s 10,000 stores in North America. One of the key differentiators from competitors is that the company — which generated revenue of $10.8 million in 2010 — leverages a diversified, international network of distributors to sell its solutions.

Smart Business spoke with Worthington about how companies can improve costs and reach more customers by leveraging established distribution channels for sales.

What kinds of companies benefit from using established distributors rather than a direct sales force?

If you’re only going to serve one city, well maybe it makes sense to  have your own sales force; but if you’re saying I have technology that lets me cover around the world or North America, then for logistical reasons, I need to have a distribution that lets me rapidly be there, be across that whole geography. You can only do that effectively by connecting with established distribution channels.

It’s a lot less expensive to use established channels than to build your own. This is another built-in advantage if you’re looking at it as a financial decision. Unless you have a very, very low cost of operations, and this again is driven by your technology, you really can’t put the product or service out at a competitive price while paying your distribution channels a share of the revenue that they expect, and then have enough left over to operate your own organization. I think we’re very unique in that the special technology that we have allows us to operate at such a low cost that we’re able to do that. So we could in fact leverage the distribution channel without having to raise the price to an uncompetitive level.

What are keys to operating this kind of distribution network effectively?

I think the most important thing on that is that you have to be culturally committed to it. Here’s the reality of dealing with the channel: Your partners are sometimes going to be challenging to deal with. There’s less margin in it than if you do it direct. So there’s a continuing tension, continuing incentive to kind of carve out special exceptions. The classic case is start off this way and you end up creating a direct sales team or a government-direct sales force. You have these special exceptions instead of involving and engaging your partners. That sometimes has some kind of advantage in the very short term to revenue or margins, but in the long term you just destroy the trust in the channel because every one of your customers, your dealers, wonders whether they’ll find the lead, make the introduction, do the footwork on the sale and then have it stolen away from them by the parent company.

What can business leaders do to reinforce the cultural commitment?

It’s being as considerate and as sensitive as you can be in providing information to your distribution partners. It’s easy in the rush of business, especially when you’re doubling every year as we have for the last five years, to make the improper assumption that because you and everyone that you see on a daily basis knows something, that of course, everyone else knows it too. It’s a common error. So you have to really keep at the forefront of your mind what has changed, what has to be disseminated to your partners and how best do that.

Trust and confidence in the channel goes a long way. So if you fumble or stumble on something you’ll get a second and a third chance. And if you introduce something new, it will be reached for, taken and adopted much more readily than if that trust and confidence doesn’t exist.

How to reach: Star2Star Communications LLC, (941) 234-0001 or www.star2star.com

Published in Florida

As the president of the traveling exhibition company, American Exhibitions Inc., Marcus Corwin knows that creating the “blockbuster” exhibitions that the public wants to see involves creativity and ingenuity. But it also takes a lot of patience and upfront research.

“You don’t get Broadway successes overnight,” says Corwin, who joined the Boca Raton, Fla.-based exhibition company in 2006. “Most of them don’t make it. So how do you create something that people are going to want to see, that they’re going to be excited about, they’re going to be engaged?”

The company must develop new products all the time that it knows will resonate with customers. Corwin says that step one is figure out what fascinates and excites your potential audience — a million-dollar question for any business. This was the goal he had in mind when the organization developed its Mummies of the World exhibition, which focuses on a topic that has fascinated people for centuries.

“When Pepsi or Coca-Cola go to design a new soda, they’ve gone and done some focus groups, they’ve done some development, spent money on marketing,” he says. “And as good as they are, sometimes they get it wrong. So with regard to how do you find a product that you want to bring to market … sometimes we have it in our gut.”

Part of creating a hit with customers is having a sense for what the public wants by doing your homework and knowing who your customer is. By looking at similar exhibits that resonated with consumers, for example, Corwin was able to recognize trends toward subject matter such as human anatomy. The fact that these exhibits were extremely popular with consumers around the world evolved into the concept of mummies.

“Our thought process was what else would be people interested in seeing, because people are always interested in their history and the cultures that came before them,” Corwin says.

From there, it’s finding out how much they like it, what aspects resonate and most importantly whether they will pay and how much they will pay for it.

“We went and we had focus groups here in Florida,” Corwin says. “We had focus groups in Boston, Mass., and we had focus groups in Philadelphia — all which helped us identify the public’s perceptions of mummies and the public’s needs of why they choose an exhibition to come to, why they chose a museum to come to, how they spend their money and what are their trigger points in coming to see an exhibition like mummies.”

With focus groups, it’s important to examine a variety of feedback. Corwin specifically wanted to know which points of interest appealed to the majority of the audience, what price points could turn that interest into business, and which marketing materials were inviting versus frightening.

In the end, the company was able to put together the largest collection of mummies ever assembled in history from Egypt, South America, Asia and Oceania.

“We’ve had over 500,000 people see the exhibit already,” Corwin says. “Over 85 percent of them liked the exhibit a lot and would recommend the exhibit to their friends, family and relatives.”

Corwin says that when you have a product that’s successful, you need to then be asking yourself questions such as “What is our progression of additional product?” and “How do we continue to grow?” so you are always building on success.

Since the company opened the exhibit, it has done exit surveys at every location to determine what drove customers to attend and what they did and didn’t like so they can continue to improve the product. Now that it has built this brand and knows that people like mummies, Corwin says the next venture is to create sequels, such as Mummies II.

“From my company’s viewpoint, it’s almost like being at the helm of an ocean freighter,” Corwin says. “When you’re at the helm of an ocean freighter, you are looking way ahead, because it’s going to take you a period of time to shift the direction and speed of the ship. So I’m looking not one year out, but where am I going to be two, three, four, five years out with our company.”

How to reach: American Exhibitions Inc., (561) 482-2088 or www.americanexhibitions.com

Considering costs

In any kind of strategic planning, budgeting is very important. When you’re putting on a nationwide exhibition for thousands of people, it’s critical to map out your budget as clearly as possible so you can deliver for your partners and customers.

“The budget and forecasting is the premise of why you’re going forward with a project,” says Marcus Corwin, president of the exhibition company American Exhibitions Inc.

This was the greatest difficulty for Corwin and his team as they planned for “Mummies of the World,” especially because the economy is so uncertain.

“Sometimes we’re in a strong economy,” he says. “Sometimes we’re in a weaker economy. You can only make the best effort that you can do, but sometimes with the outcome, you are powerless.”

Once the budget and forecast make sense, being able to execute on that successfully involves a number of factors. One of the most important things to keep in mind is not getting carried away with ideas that haven’t been thoroughly vetted and can end up draining more resources or money than you have available. By making sure you are effectively planning and managing the costs, you can deliver your product at a better cost and profit.

“You have to deliver your product within those parameters,” Corwin says. “We found like typical in all worlds, designers have great ideas. And sometimes those ideas are pie in the sky and you have to be able to make sure that those ideas work, those ideas work within a budget and that the exhibit can be produced within that budget.”

Published in Florida

The customer is always right. For Maura Clark, this old adage has never been truer than in today’s business environment. Clark leads a business in an industry that is known for its tough competition and pressures to be at the top.

She is president of Direct Energy Business, a $4.5 billion division of Direct Energy, which provides electricity and natural gas solutions to businesses across North America. To overcome the economic conditions, remain on top of the energy industry, defeat the competition and answer the pressures of the market, she has had to keep the company focused on customer needs.

“All of our customers are feeling the pressure, and it just calls upon you to be a stronger leader through difficult external market conditions,” Clark says. “This kind of external environment and a very competitive landscape just really calls upon you to be extremely sharp, and it doesn’t leave much cushion for missteps.”

Clark’s leadership and the company’s ability to understand the customer and find opportunities have allowed the business to be a growth division within Direct Energy. The key moving forward will be to continue to listen to the customer and continue to differentiate the business from its fierce competition.

Here’s how Maura Clark has used the voice of the customer to continue growing in a tough industry and economy.

Differentiate your business

In any line of business, it’s good to have something that customers can identify as a differentiator. In today’s economy, everybody is experiencing similar challenges and obstacles and it will be those who rise to the top that will win.

“I’m not sure that our experience is really all that different from what many other business leaders would face and in fact, from our perspective, what we’re going through is probably no different than what many of our customers are experiencing,” Clark says. “I think it’s simply just a really difficult time to be in business.”

When you operate in an industry where there isn’t much difference between your company and your competition, you have to look for anything you can that will help make your business stand out among the rest.

“We’ve actually had tremendous financial success and we’ve managed to grow our business through the environment, so I think the overarching challenge is how to continue to grow a business in a very competitive environment,” Clark says. “In a commodity-based business, it’s hard to differentiate ourselves from the competition. It’s very hard to differentiate through products and it’s very hard to differentiate the end-user experience. You really have to think about the things you can do to set you apart from the competition and that usually has to do with the customer interface.”

How customers view your business, your products, or your services is what sells them on your company. You have to make sure you are doing what you can to make them happy and coming back for more.

“Increasingly, I think it’s all about how you differentiate yourself through the customer experience,” she says. “Its how that initial sales encounter goes when you’re trying to advise your customers around the choices they have and managing their energy needs. Then it comes up again in how easy it is for them to actually do business with you, whether that’s on the front end of signing up and executing the contract or whether it’s months down the road where they might have a question or a problem and how well we do in those sorts of encounters. Customers are getting way more discerning too, because it is so competitive and because so many other industries have really broken new ground in terms of defining the customer experience; you have to work that much harder to get people excited.”

Listen to the customer

If it’s the customer who will help bring your business to the top, then you have to be willing to listen to what they have to say. Set up ways to allow them to voice their opinions.

“We try hard to listen to the customer, and I think the things that we have done in the last couple of years that have really allowed us to really think about that customer experience are we’ve held a series of customer listening sessions as well as business partner and channel partner listening sessions,” Clark says. “We’ve taken quite a bit of time as a leadership team and throughout the organization to really listen to what the customer experience is like for our customers and what needs and requirements they have that we could do a better job of meeting.”

In order to make these sessions worth your company’s while, you have to make sure you get people involved in that process who can take what customers say and really make a difference in how your company operates.

“My entire leadership team is required to attend these sessions and we often have folks from all of the different functional areas, not just sales, but people who would be responsible for operations and so on attend these sessions,” Clark says. “They can hear from the horse’s mouth as it were, just what it’s like to be a customer and what things are important to them, how we’ve done well, times where we could have done better and it’s always a mixture of good feedback and sometimes not so good feedback. It’s unbelievably helpful to us as we think about making decisions around how we invest in our business to understand and really partner with our customers to understand what’s important to them.”

While the customer certainly has a big effect on how you could improve your product or services that they use, you can’t rely on them alone. It is very helpful to have some other way of measuring your customer satisfaction.

“We also use net promoter score,” she says. “It’s a measure of customer satisfaction that is actually one of our annual bonus targets. We’ve worked very hard to really institutionalize the thinking around this metric. We have lots of communications around how we’re doing. We share the results of our monthly metric and we share the things that our customers are saying so the voice of the customer is quite audible to our people.”

Getting this type of feedback and measurement is very valuable, but you can’t keep doing the same old thing once you have that information.

“Everybody can always challenge themselves around are you getting the basics right,” she says. “Just getting the basics right can be challenging, but you really have to understand the customer needs as deeply as you possibly can. We’ve historically thought about our customers according to the volume of consumption, but within those categories there are different needs and wants. It’s really taking that understanding of customer needs and customer requirements to a much deeper level and thinking about it almost like a consumer product as opposed to a commodity or a necessary evil.”

To get that customer interface to a deeper level you have to share what feedback you are getting from your customers.

“You have to try and bring this to life,” Clark says. “When you leave something in a spreadsheet or even if you leave something in a metric, it’s good to have everybody focused on the metric that ends up impacting your bonus, but to me the thing that brings it to life is to read the verbatims and read what customers have to say about you or what they experienced when they sat down with a sales person. It’s even better to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. People should be trying to get right to that customer interface as best they can to really not lose sight of how important that is.”

Turn feedback into growth

With the valuable information you can gain from your customers and your other satisfaction measurements, you have to use that to help your business grow.

“In terms of growth in the past, we’ve done a pretty good job of being in the right markets and having really good products to sell to our customers and we’ve got a fantastic front-end sales force and we’ve not gotten complacent around fixing the basics and making the customer experience a good one,” Clark says. “Ours is a business where you don’t necessarily have to be the first mover, but you definitely need to be where the action is and you need to be nimble enough to be able to capture some of those opportunities. We’ve managed to get to the right markets and get to the right customers with good products.”

In order to grow your business, you have to look for those opportunities to get into new markets or reach a new consumer.

“The area that we’ve really been focusing on quite recently is creating an offer or a value proposition to the small business customer,” she says. “In our space, the poor small business customer has really been ill-served, because most competitive retailers have kind of a plain vanilla offer that would go to a residential customer. The small business customer is really being neglected because some of the products and services you might offer to a larger customer would also not really resonate necessarily with a small business customer, so they’ve been lost in the middle. We have put quite a bit of effort into basically creating an offer and a customer experience that will meet the distinct needs of the small business customer.”

It’s these types of products or services that reach a demographic or customer that others haven’t paid any attention to that will help your business grow and get an edge on competition. You have to make sure you balance what you’ve always done with new initiatives.

“Balance is the right word,” Clark says. “You can’t get complacent just focusing on the basics. This is a really dynamic, competitive part of the energy world so you can’t just be inwardly focused and focused on the issues of today. We carve out time to think and explore ideas that might take off in the future rather than what’s relevant today. You have to make sure that you’re focused on the present and the future.”

As with products or services you develop today, what you are looking to in the future has to also have a customer focus.

“You’ve got to really be understanding of how your customer is thinking and really understand what’s important to them and try to proactively determine a product or a service that can really add value to that customer,” she says. “It has to be customer led because if it’s just something that we think is kind of nifty and doesn’t resonate with the customer, it’s not going to do any good.”

HOW TO REACH: Direct Energy Business, (412) 667-5100 or www.directenergybusiness.com

Takeaways

-          Differentiate your business from your competition.

-          Create ways for customers to give you feedback.

-          Use feedback to help grow your business and create opportunity.

The Clark File

Maura Clark

President

Direct Energy Business

Born: Ottawa, Canada

Education: Attended Queens University in Kingston and earned a bachelors degree in economics.

What was your very first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

My first job was as a bank teller. What that taught me was that I was not very good at repetitive tasks.

Who is somebody that you admire in business?

Howard Shultz from Starbucks. He is a guy who obviously had tremendous success in a business that’s gone off the rails and he had to really challenge what was important to the business and important to the company that he was building. He seems to be quite humble about his learnings and he’s also given back a fair amount to his communities. He’s been successful in a multifaceted kind of way.

What are you looking forward to in the energy industry?

One of the things about this space is it’s gotten sexy all of a sudden, which I think is fantastic. It’s got tentacles into climate change, innovation, technology, transportation, so I like the fact that it’s complex, dynamic, and a global business.

What do you miss about Canada that you don’t have in Pittsburgh?

I miss Tim Horton’s and peameal bacon sandwiches, but we do have pretty good hockey though, so that makes up for it.

Published in Pittsburgh
Saturday, 31 March 2012 20:11

Ron Seide: The takeway

I started in the computer industry when screens were green and the web is what captured insects behind your $5,000 desktop PC. In 1989, I became the 17th employee at a start-up called Kingston Technology in California. When I left Kingston nine years later, the company had more than 700 employees and revenue in excess of $1 billion. Today — more than 20 years later — the company remains an industry leader.

Early on, I realized that I was in the middle of an extraordinary company and set out to learn as much as I could from the founders, John Tu and David Sun — true industry giants. There were many lessons, but one in particular stays with me today. Maybe it’s because it came as such a surprise:

At Kingston, the customer isn’t No. 1. In fact, the customer isn’t even No. 2. The customer is No. 3.

As John and Dave would explain, at Kingston the employee is No. 1 and the vendors are No. 2. At the same time, being third with this company was better than being first at any other. Here’s why.

Kingston focuses on computer memory, a commodity that can be differentiated mostly through service. And to provide extraordinary service, you need happy, motivated employees. Kingston was famous for employee perks: an ocean cruise to Mexico, a weekend gambling junket in Las Vegas, catered lunch on Fridays, free drinks and snacks, and competitive although not excessive, compensation. Just as importantly, if a customer was out of line with an employee, Kingston would do the right thing rather than the expedient thing. This produced a team of nearly fanatic employees providing customer service that was anything but third rate.

Customers aren’t happy when shipments are missed and lines go down as a result. As companies become increasingly virtualized and distributed, a well-functioning supply chain becomes a prerequisite for customer satisfaction, customer retention and even corporate survival. While a company can usually survive the loss of a major customer, the loss of a key vendor can often be fatal. Accordingly, Kingston would enter into long-term contracts with suppliers, often overpaying in a volatile commodity market. The company always paid on time and would even pay early at the mere request of a vendor short on cash. When negotiating, it was always important to “leave something on the table for the other guy.” The result was a reliable supply of products when competitors were often stocked out.

Today, my partners and I try to emulate Kingston’s philosophy and maybe even a small measure of their success. At Summit, drinks and snacks are always free — a small price to pay knowing that computer programs come as a direct result of ramen noodles and Mountain Dew. Our teammates schedule their work around their lives and families. They work from home when they want or need to, even in one case when home is a mobile command center (the biggest RV you’ve ever seen). We pay our vendors on time, prepay orders when we need to and always remember that it’s in our best interest to be a profitable account for our vendors. We ask favors only as a last resort.

The Takeaway

Little things mean a lot. It seems that when times get tough, the first things to go are the perks that make a job more of a career than a chore. Ramen noodles and pop are an inexpensive way to let people know that they’re valued, particularly in difficult times.

The customer isn’t always right. So trying to satisfy customers at the expense of employee morale isn’t in their best long-term interests, or yours.

Treating vendors like commodities is so 20th century. With increasingly distributed business models, vendors are an extension of your company and every bit as vital to your customers’ satisfaction, and as a result, your success.

Ron Seide is the president of Summit Data Communications Inc., a wireless technology company headquartered in downtown Akron. Reach him at reside@summitdata.com.

Published in Akron/Canton