Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:08

Real property

You don’t earn a place among the nation’s largest real estate closing law firms by innovation and originality only. You have to accompany those qualities with superior customer service ? by following the basics.

That’s the philosophy of Morris|Hardwick|Schneider residential real estate law firm. Managing Partner Nat Hardwick meets with each employee annually to communicate those basics as well as a hidden system strategy and expectations of the position.

Ranging from treating everyone with courtesy and respect to returning all phone calls within two hours to going the “extra mile” to close transactions, the 14-point road map of basics also forms a large part of the firm’s core values.

The firm’s hidden strategy is designed to engage and motivate employees to understand how customer satisfaction and retention are key goals to success. Among the six points in the hidden system strategy are be a person of action, be persistent, be compassionate and be a team player.

While actively participating in area law school recruitment and job fairs, the firm also relies on its reputation of being professional, courteous and having servant leadership to draw new talent. New employees are trained through a 12-month mentoring program with a partner. Those who have completed the mentoring program are encouraged to mentor with a managing partner. New workers are also offered continuous training through WebEx, teleconference or one-on-one training in their office.

The top service team member is designated to serve as director of employee engagement, whose role is to foster a mindset of continuous improvement and culture in regard to customer service and the firm’s brand.

In addition to its internal focus on customer service and leadership, the firm established the LandCastle Foundation as a way to give back to local communities. Employees volunteer their time, talents and financial resources to the foundation’s charitable efforts.

How to reach: Morris|Hardwick|Schneider, (678) 298-2100 or www.closingsource.net

Published in Atlanta
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:16

Background check

At InfoMart, customers do not get the one-size-fits-all treatment for their background screenings that larger competitors may provide ? they get personalized service to make sure all their needs are addressed.

Customers know that price is not the most important factor in choosing a pre-employment screening provider. They can be confident that they get the highest degree of experience along with the best service, technology and price from one company.

President and Chair Tammy Cohen knows that in the challenging business world it may be difficult to land new customers, but it is far easier to keep existing ones by being responsive to their needs.

Several systems are in place to help provide world-class customer service. Phone lines are open extended weekday hours, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are multiple connection methods, such as phone, e-mail, fax or online chat. Online ordering is easy, with flexible information request and delivery options. Applicant profiles are customized to fit clients’ needs. Clients receive free training on services and systems for the duration of their account. The company stands behind its services with a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.

To achieve a philosophy of “Do it right the first time,” the company seeks thoughtful, entrepreneurial employees who strive for excellence in all that they do. InfoMart’s best customer service representatives are cultivated from within its processing departments. Employees that have first-hand experience and knowledge conducting background checks fit in well; if it is necessary to hire from the outside, candidates are chosen based on their excellent customer service skills and knowledge of the industry.

All of InfoMart’s departments are staffed with professionals that have specifically relevant experience. This ranges from human resources and criminal justice to drug screening and loss prevention, and it helps guarantee that clients get the proper attention, expertise and service that experience brings.

How to reach: InfoMart, (770) 984-2727 or www.infomart-usa.com

Published in Atlanta
Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:06

Cool stuff

When plans were being made for “The Phantom of the Opera” grand opening at The Venetian in Las Vegas, an exclusive piece of merchandise was needed to celebrate the event and promote the brand. The Icebox, which had a previous relationship with Alternative Apparel, a leading lifestyle apparel brand, was called upon to deliver the goods.

A challenge arose when the artist designed a T-shirt with an all-over print that wrapped around the sleeves and shoulders. A solution was reached to print on cut pieces of fabric which were then shipped to a special printer and reassembled. A worldwide committee approved the process. A final touch was a coating of crystalline, which further complicated the sewing process. The result was a beautiful garment unparalleled by traditional screen printers.

That’s an example of the customer service offered by The Icebox under the leadership of CEO Jordy Gamson ? and a validation that companies can trust the quality of the products The Icebox provides.

But a company doesn’t have to have a Las Vegas presence to do business with The Icebox. Each customer relationship is valued and receives a “cool” experience regardless of size. Every customer receives a completely consultative experience to matching products based on actual needs.

It’s also not just enough to deliver “cool stuff.” If The Icebox delivers “cool” products but a bad experience, it’s considered a failure. Likewise, if a “cool” experience was delivered but with bad products, it’s a flop, as well.

All account representatives are empowered to discuss possible resolutions when something goes wrong, and they offer customers the option of having it fixed/replaced or an alternation solution.

Over the company’s 10 years it has had an excellent employee retention ratio and often attracts new candidates through clients and a reputation for being a “cool” place.

How to reach: The Icebox, (404) 522-2665 or www.iceboxonline.com

Published in Atlanta

Over the last few years, Gary Sasso saw his law firm facing two substantial and markedly unique challenges. The first was universal: a worldwide economic downturn that impacted markets and businesses all over the globe, including his company, Carlton Fields, and its clients. Though the second challenge was limited to his firm, it was equally disconcerting.

“Maybe the most significant challenge to continuing to grow is one that people don’t talk about very much, but it’s complacency,” says Sasso, president and CEO. “It’s being satisfied with past success. We had been successful before the downturn and during the downturn, and there’s a temptation to be satisfied with that and complacent, but this is not a destination. It’s not about hitting this growth target or that growth target. It’s a journey. It’s about being committed to continual improvement.”

Sasso realized it was the combination of these challenges — the external economy and internal complacency — that had the real potential to hold Carlton Fields back from continued success. He also realized that while the two problems were different in nature, they in fact shared a common solution: growth.

Rather than retrench, Sasso led Carlton Fields to focus on growing throughout the recession. As a result, the firm’s significant growth in 2009 made it an economic success story and one of nation’s fastest-growing companies on the Inc. 5000 list that year. In 2010, Carlton Fields generated $154 million in revenue. Now, in 2011, Sasso still hasn’t lowered his sights.

“We’re a fairly small piece of the overall economy and we don’t need that much more than our share to be successful,” he says. “So we just stay focused on growth relentlessly.”

Focus on service

Coming into the downturn, Carlton Fields was fortunate to be in a position of strength. Yet one drawback of having financial security is that employees can get into a comfort zone and they don’t feel driven to adapt and be proactive.

So rather than have people focus on the larger goal of growth, Sasso kept his team rallied around the more tangible goals of providing best-in-class service and adding value for clients.

“The economic climate can provide obstacles but also opportunities, because all of our clients are struggling to deal with the downturn and they need help,” Sasso says. “The firm that steps up to the plate to provide that help has an opportunity, and that’s the way we’ve chosen to look at it.

“Our overarching goal is really to provide best-in-class service in every area where we practice and to have the best of all worlds, not to accept false tradeoffs among our clients and shareholders and employees. That’s a guiding light for us and we test our goals against that vision. We do that first and foremost by talking to our clients to make sure that we understand their businesses and their needs.”

To furnish value-added solutions for clients whose businesses were impacted by the economy, Sasso encouraged Carlton Fields’ attorneys and staff to utilize internal meetings and sessions with clients to brainstorm creative ways to handle client issues. Providing these opportunities for employees to be resourceful and collaborative supports the kind of proactive, idea-driven culture that enables growth.

“When you’re in the midst of such change and evolving economic and legal circumstances, you have to be innovative to tackle new problems and new challenges,” Sasso says.

“We spent a great deal of time talking to our clients, meeting with our clients, asking them about their business, asking them how they were being affected by the downturn and taking the time and trouble to change the services that we provided to meet our client’s evolving needs.”

When you frame goals for your team around improving services and developing client relationships, you ensure there is never a point where people feel like they’ve maxed out opportunities to grow. At Carlton Fields, having best-in-class service is a goal that requires continuous improvement because to meet client needs better than a competitor, the firm has to adapt as those needs are constantly changing.

“When I talk about growth I’m not talking just about growth in revenues or numbers of people or numbers of offices,” Sasso says. “When we talk about growth here, we’re really talking about growing the strength, depth and quality of our firm, which can be reflected in numbers, but it’s not just about numbers. It’s about quality.

“We looked at what was happening in the economy from our client’s point of view and asked how was this affecting what they needed from us? We launched a full court press to anticipate what our clients’ needs were and we undertook to meet those needs.”

Don’t compromise people

Engaging employees in success is one of the key ways to affect growth. Although Carlton Fields has incentives in place to recognize and reward exceptional performance from team members, Sasso says that nonmonetary motivators such as job security, inclusiveness and transparency are just as important if not more so in keeping people committed to the vision and striving for excellence.

“We’ve tried to motivate employees by being successful as a business and as a result of that we have not had to engage in layoffs of staff or attorneys, which makes us relatively unique among law firms I believe,” Sasso says. “And that’s a big motivator — where we can provide a secure place of employment for our employees.

“We motivate people by means other than money or economics. We try to engage everybody in the success of the firm. We value everybody here. We reach out to everybody and include them in discussions about how the firm is doing.”

Making sure people feel recognized and valued is vital if you want them to give their best efforts and drive growth. When people don’t feel appreciated, it’s not long before dispirited becomes dissatisfied and they are doing the bare minimum to collect their paychecks.

To fight complacency at Carlton Fields, Sasso shows his team that security and growth can go hand in hand by letting them know that even though growth is the goal, they are the priority. He refuses to make tradeoffs for growth — financial or otherwise — that come at the expense of the firm’s employees. That’s one reason why, by each category on the whole, Carlton Fields’ shareholders, associates, special staff and all employees have been able to maintain or improve their compensation through the years, even through the economic downturn.

“We reject false tradeoffs among clients, shareholders and employees,” Sasso says. “There are some who argue that you can only promote the interests of your clients, your shareholders or your employees, but not all at the same time, and we reject that. We have to be attentive to the needs of all of them and then we’ll be able to serve each of them.

“I think you have to try to ask and understand what are your goals for each. What is a home run in each area? And then work hard to find ways to advance in each area without compromising another. Sometimes accepting a tradeoff results from just not thinking hard enough about how to balance all of them, giving up too soon. But I think if you work hard enough and probe deeply enough, there isn’t necessarily a tradeoff. All of the things can be working together.”

Invest in growth

No matter what challenges your business is facing, Sasso says growth should always be part of the criteria for CEOs when making financial or strategic decisions. Continuous improvement needs to be an ongoing investment. When leaders dwell too much on short-term problems and lose focus on continuous improvement, it can have stifling consequences on a company’s profitability and long-term success.

“I think that it’s a mistake to lose your focus and overreact to negative events and retrench,” Sasso says. “You can’t grow by cutting. Notwithstanding that, you do have to achieve operational efficiency. Sometimes controlling or cutting costs is necessary, but you can overreact. We’ve invested during the downturn to position ourselves to come out of it in a strong position. I think it’s important to stay focused on growth and not to panic and to continue to mind the fundamentals of your business.

“If you do nothing you are taking a risk. If you do something you are taking a risk. So you have to kind of get it out of your mind that you can function without taking risks. Then once you understand that, whatever the issue, you look at the options, you gather the facts, you analyze the options and you bring people together who have knowledge and value to contribute to making a decision. You make your best judgment and you move forward. And then you know whatever risks you’ve taken, you’ve taken with good information, with good analysis, with good input.”

As the economy sees signs of recovery, Sasso continues to take risks and invest in opportunities to position Carlton Fields’ for continuous improvement. In his view, even a misstep forward is an advantage over companies who are taking no steps forward at all.

“If you stay focused on the goal on the horizon, once in a while you are going to hit a bump or hit an obstacle, and we sometimes can call it a failure, but it’s just more information,” he says. “It may mean that that particular tactic or strategy is not working at that moment, so you sit back and say, ‘Well, what can we do to get over this bump?’ And the next attempt may even be better and more effective and smarter. So a failure can simply be an opportunity to do something better the next time.

“There’s no such thing as getting to a goal and stopping. I think that’s a mistake. If you are committed to continual growth and continual improvement then you have to keep taking risks to continue to grow.”

Today, Sasso sets his sights on growing Carlton Fields in size and strength, but also in the quality and value it provides clients. By emphasizing continuous improvement in all areas, Sasso keeps complacency in check and his team focused on where the firm can get better, stronger and more efficient. And in today’s business environment, the opportunities are unlimited for companies who set their sights the highest.

“I love the challenge of having to navigate through the economic climate that we’ve been facing,” Sasso says. “I’m excited about the opportunities we face. There’s a temptation to focus on the obstacles being presented by the current economy, but I see so much opportunity for our firm and for this profession. I think we’re really just getting started on what we can achieve as a law firm.”

HOW TO REACH: Carlton Fields, (813) 223-7000 or www.carltonfields.com

The Sasso File

Gary Sasso

President and CEO

Carlton Fields

Born: Miami, Fla.

Education: Bachelor’s in economics, Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School — graduating at the head of his class. While in law school, Gary was editor-in-chief of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. He spent his first year after graduation as a clerk for Judge Spottswood Robinson III on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and his second year as a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

Who are the leaders you look to for advice and questions?

I have the opportunity to work with many fine business leaders in the Tampa Bay area, and I often bounce ideas off of my colleagues at the Tampa Bay partnership and United Way. We have a client advisory board, which consists of CEOs and general counsel and we brainstorm with them too.

What do you like most about your job?

What I like most is the time I spend with high-quality people in our community, among our clients and inside our firm.

What is the best business advice you’ve received?

I think it’s probably something that I came across in my first year as a CEO, when I was trying to grapple with the idea of taking risk and what kind of risk and how much risk. I read what I could get my hands on about the job, talked to as many people as I could about the job and one piece of advice that I received is at the end of your first year, if you look back and you haven’t made a number of mistakes, you’re not doing your job well, because you’re not taking enough risks.

Published in Florida

Usually when your natural gas provider decides to replace thousands of miles of pipeline, it spells potential inconvenience for customers. But when you’re working with Columbia Gas of Ohio, they’re one step ahead. That’s because President Jack Partridge keeps the company’s customers front-of-mind – which is pretty innovative in the regulated utility industry. 

Because of this, Smart Business, US Bank and Blue Technologies named Partridge to the 2011 class of Columbus Smart Leader honorees. He told us how he maneuvers challenges like these with communication, setting his company apart with innovative service.

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

The Challenge: Several years ago, in the interest of safety and reliability, we knew we needed to significantly accelerate the replacement of major portions of our 20,000-mile natural gas pipeline system in our 61-county service territory (capital spend of more than $2 billion during the next 20 years). We knew we were going to be in customers’ backyards and busting up pavement on the streets of the communities we serve more than ever before. We also realized we needed our regulators to authorize us to recover this investment of major capital in Ohio.

The Solution: We launched a proactive, comprehensive communication/education plan targeted to all our stakeholders – from one-on-one meetings with community and government leaders to presentations for civic organizations to bill stuffers and door hangers and news releases – all with the same message: ‘Yes, we are going to be visible in your community. We will minimize disruptions.  The benefits are: first, safety and reliability, more jobs, property tax benefits to the community, economic development benefits, better sizing pipe to growth areas, less leaks, lower O&M expenses, etc.’

In terms of our regulators, we conveyed we will be investing more capital in Ohio than ever before, and the investment will enable us to keep our costs down.

To date, this program has been extremely effective. We have seen no material increase in complaints. I credit this to effective communication and very effective operations planning and execution.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We are innovators in the utility industry in terms of how we maximize value in a regulated environment and how we work with our customers.

Utility companies, being regulated, typically file rate cases to recover their costs from customers. This usually involves nine months or more of litigation (beating your customers up, in a legal sense, in a hearing room). We have adopted an innovative approach to this combative, unproductive process. We gather all our stakeholders around a table in a collaborative fashion prior to filing a rate case to find out what their needs are, be candid about our needs, and negotiate true win-wins. Our objective is to file a settlement with the PUCO for approval – ideally a multi-year agreement that’s agreed to by all parties. We have been successful – our most recent rate case was in 2008 and resulted in a settlement approved by the PUCO. This has allowed us to establish more positive relationships with our customers and regulators.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

We serve the entire Central Ohio region and realize we have an obligation to not only supply customers with reasonably priced natural gas every day, but to be good community partners in terms of providing corporate, philanthropic and employee participation contributions. In terms of direct economic impact, natural gas prices are the lowest they have been in the last eight to 10 years. This has a huge positive impact on residential, commercial and industrial customers.

I personally serve as chairman of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce board, and I am a member of the Columbus2020 board and the Columbus Partnership. These require a great deal of time, but it’s time well spent. The Columbus2020 Economic Development initiative is for real and will provide great value for the investment in our Central Ohio region.

How to reach: Columbia Gas of Ohio, www.columbiagasohio.com

Published in Columbus
Sunday, 31 July 2011 20:01

John Allen on customer loyalty

Today, having customers simply satisfied isn’t enough. We want customers to feel an undying sense of loyalty to our company and its products, but like any relationship, building that level of devotion is hard work. It requires a service-oriented company culture with employees who are relentlessly committed to delivering exceptional care.

I am not a customer service expert, but as co-owner of a company that recently overhauled its customer service protocol, I now understand the difference between simply addressing clients’ needs and demonstrating genuine care during every client interaction.

Top-down culture and commitment

Leaders don’t always recognize the significant role they play, but they are implicitly responsible for fostering a caring culture that embraces service as a platform. Employees rally behind initiatives that executives endorse, because those will be perceived to be the most strategic endeavors. When an initiative is not outwardly supported by top leaders, it is perceived as less important.

Identify internal champions

Successfully effectuating cultural change requires top-level commitment, but implementing related process and procedural changes takes something more. When our company recently revamped its customer service protocols, we first researched and tested a new service system. More importantly though, we trained a team of qualified people who were not only knowledgeable about our business but also excited about the service role they would perform. To oversee a project of this magnitude, we identified an internal champion who was personally committed to customer service and also had the passion and conviction to motivate others.

Commit resources

If you are truly committed to improving your company’s level of customer care, you are going to have to give more than mere lip service. Delivering exceptional service requires teams of talented people who are equipped with progressive technology and top-notch tools, so be prepared to commit dollars and resources to the initiative.

Hire the right people

Whenever someone recounts a story about customer service, a large part of his or her experience relates to the person whom he or she had the pleasure, or displeasure, of dealing with — an especially engaging flight attendant, a sales associate who went out of his or her way to locate an item, an inattentive waiter. Because one person can make or break a customer encounter, it’s critical that the right people are working for your company. Identify service-oriented people during the hiring process. Whether you are hiring a sales rep or a receptionist, ask interview questions that gage an applicant’s level of customer care.

Empower employees

A few years ago, an employee contacted me about sending flowers to a client whose mother had passed away. At first I was frustrated that she felt it necessary to ask my permission to do something so appropriate, but I realized I had failed to properly empower her. Guidelines are useful and monetary limits are often warranted, but your employees deliver front-line customer service. Empower them to overwhelm your customers.

Make training a priority

Our company needs front-line customer service representatives who understand our business and are well-versed in all aspects of our service offering so they can address client concerns that are often complex or technical in nature. As a result, we’ve made training a priority to ensure that our customer service representatives are capable of dealing with the most complicated customer issues. It is equally important that we train our front line representatives to effectively deal with people under the most delicate of circumstances.

You don’t need to be an expert to know that keeping loyal customers by delivering exceptional service is smart business. Customer service, however, isn’t a box that can be checked off a “to do” list. New protocols and systems are not enough. Delivering remarkable service requires ongoing companywide commitment and continuous attention.

John Allen is president and COO of G&A Partners, a Texas-based human resources and administrative services company that manages human resources, benefits, payroll, accounting and risk management for growing businesses. To reach him, go to www.gnapartners.com.

Published in Houston

Stuart Aitken admits that he has an eclectic background in business. He has tried his hand at making a fortune in Silicon Valley, he’s been a vice president of marketing for the grocery chain Safeway, and he was chief marketing officer for the arts and crafts store Michaels. His background is what brought him to dunnhumbyUSA, a consumer data analytics company.

In 2009, Aitken was hired by dunnhumbyUSA as COO and was promoted to CEO of the $245 million company a year later. His experience with consumer data made him the logical choice to lead the company after former CEO Simon Hay was promoted to lead the London operations.

“If you look at my background, there is a lot of IT and a lot of loyalty marketing in my background largely with the work I did at Safeway for 10 years and the work I did at Michaels,” Aitken says. “For me, this was the perfect fit of bringing my technology background with my marketing background to a company that fundamentally believes in the data and the customer, and for me, I had admired dunnhumby for many years. In fact, I recall trying to emulate some of what they were doing. This was a fantastic opportunity to join a company I feel is on the forefront of customer understanding and customer behavior.”

Aitken has helped to further dunnhumbyUSA’s focus on customer loyalty and retention all while growing operations to better serve its clients. Here’s how he helps dunnhumbyUSA and clients like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Kroger Co. and Macy’s succeed through a focus on the loyal consumer.

Focus on customer retention

Everyone in business knows that gaining loyal customers and having a high customer retention rate is extremely valuable. However, not many companies aim to please loyal customers.

“We have a fundamental belief that companies, regardless of who you are from a company perspective, and it can be any organization, has a monomaniacal focus on the customer and understanding the customer and not just any customer, but loyal customers,” Aitken says. “We fundamentally believe that you have to focus on loyal shoppers to be successful. It sounds like a principle that most companies would adopt and adhere to. But what we’ve found is that very, very few do. You talk to companies and the vast majority of companies talk about bringing in new customers, new clients, etc. versus saying, ‘Who are my loyal customers, what’s my headroom with those customers and how do I reward those customers for being loyal to me, my retail organization and my brand?’ Whether you’re a (consumer packaged goods company) or a retailer, very few companies think about customers in that way. It’s a different philosophy and that’s what makes it successful.”

Not only does dunnhumbyUSA advise its clients to focus on loyal customers, but it also adheres to those same principles.

“Our business model is very different, too,” he says. “We are exclusive with the retailers we work with. Because we work with Kroger, we will not work with other grocers in the U.S. Because we work with Macy’s, we will not work with other department stores in the U.S. We are exclusive and therefore it means we’re trusted. We’re not like any of the other big consulting firms who can help with strategy with competing retailers. For us, we just do not go there.”

Aitken realizes that by focusing more on existing and loyal customers, companies are limiting the number of clients, but there’s a reason this method works.

“What’s interesting to me is that there are many, many white papers out there and educational institutions produce it all the time, that it costs X times more to bring in a new customer than it does to retain an existing customer,” he says. “It’s likely something like six or 10 times more. But very few companies do that and focus on that and I liken it to a bucket of customers. Most companies are focusing on trying to find another faucet to fill that bucket of customers and very, very few are focused on plugging the hole that is in the bucket.

“You would need to win 12 new customers on average, we’ve found, to replace one loyal shopper. What we’ve also found is that with loyal shoppers the headroom with them, even with your most loyal shopper, you’ll likely have a 50 percent share of wallet, which gives you enormous headroom with those customers.”

Weigh your options

Without full understanding of your customers, companies miss out on vital ways to reach core customers that can provide more revenue than new customers.

“The other thing with us is we believe in behavioral data,” Aitken says. “Attitudinal data is very helpful and insightful, but what people say and what people do are two very different things. Understanding behavior through data is what we do so well. Where the rubber really hits the road is taking that data, taking those insights and giving them to the decision-makers and disseminating all of that knowledge and insight to the decision-makers across the business such that we put the customer at the heart of all business decisions. So when people are making even the smallest decision, they’re doing it with the customer in mind and with the loyal customer at the heart of those decisions.”

Even with data to back up the logic of focusing on loyal customers, some companies continue to reach for new consumers. The leaders of those companies need to examine the pros and cons of their customer base.

“I would ask those individuals to create a list of all those activities you’re doing to bring in new customers and create a list of all those activities you’re doing to retain existing customers and your loyal customers,” Aitken says. “Compare those lists and those costs and the return that you’re getting on those two lists. At the bottom of those two lists write down the percent of revenue and profit you are getting from those two customers or segments. Then ask yourself is that where I should be investing my time, my energy, based off of what that ratio looks like. Nine times out of 10, you’ll find the ratio is swayed enormously toward bringing in new customers.”

When companies put an emphasis on going after new customers, they are rewarding behavior that a company wouldn’t want from its own customers; they are advocating that customers leave and join a better company.

“Just think about any cable company or satellite company and the ads on TV saying, ‘Join now for the next 12 months and here’s an incredible deal for you,’” he says. “Then you’ve got somebody sitting watching that same ad who’s likely been loyal to that brand for six years or eight years, never moved and they’re basically being slapped in the face and would be better off moving to a different provider than staying with the existing provider. That’s a great example of not rewarding the behavior you seek but rewarding a behavior that is detrimental to your loyal customers.”

Aitken has continued dunnhumbyUSA’s practice-what-we-preach approach. The strategy has worked for the business and for clients of the firm.

“We’re telling our clients to reward the behavior you seek and make sure you go after your loyal customers,” he says. “In the same way, we need to do the same. We’re putting great talent on existing clients versus putting them on recruiting additional clients. Let’s put our great talent where it matters. Let’s make an impact on those businesses and the growth will come from that. That has been a big key.”

Change your thinking

When things are going well in business, companies tend to keep doing more of the same. However, it’s the companies that challenge the status quo that find ways to continue growing and overcome adversity.

“I feel we challenge the status quo and some of the myths in business,” Aitken says. “Whenever we hear, ‘That’s how we’ve always done it.’ That is a key red flag to say, ‘Well, is that the right way to do it? Is that good for customers?’ It’s always easier to do it the same way. If you want to fundamentally change the trajectory of your organization, if you want to truly start focusing on the customer and you know in your heart that you haven’t in the past, then you have to challenge all norms and beliefs. I think it was Darwin who said it’s only those who change and evolve who will survive. If you stick with your norms, are you changing and will you survive?”

Numbers don’t lie, and if you find that a change in your business operations will help your company survive, you have to commit to that change.

“In a downturn economy, that’s when companies realize they need to do something different,” he says. “They need a different strategy and a different perspective on things. When things are going incredibly well very few companies go, ‘Well maybe I need to change strategy or think about the future.’ So in a downturn that’s when you see companies going, ‘OK now I need to change and what does that change look like.’ Don’t get me wrong. We’ve had a couple of clients who were flying high and said, ‘Listen, we want to continue to fly high and in order to do so we need to look beyond the next two years and where our growth is going to come from in the future.’ Those are tremendously forward-looking individuals and organizations.”

Whether your company needs to consider a change or not, it is important that the change you implement doesn’t stray too far from what made the company successful.

“You can never forget what made you successful in the first place,” he says. “Make sure as you grow that your principles and your values never change. It’s always good to go back and double check that when you look at your strategies and your growth plans for the future that they very much have your core principles that made you successful in the first place still in place and the values that you look for from employees still in place.”

Oftentimes the hardest thing for leaders to grasp is that doing right by customers will ultimately prove successful for the business. You have to understand that what’s right for the business isn’t always good for customers.

“Results help drive customer satisfaction enormously,” Aitken says. “What’s interesting is when you challenge, when you push back, typically your satisfaction scores go down because you’re not doing exactly what the client wants but you’re doing what you believe is right for customers. Those two things don’t always align and you have to be courageous when you see those results. Are you doing the right thing for the client or are you doing the right thing for the customers? If you’re doing the right thing for the customers then the results will come and the satisfaction scores will turn.”

HOW TO REACH: dunnhumbyUSA, (513) 632-1020 or www.dunnhumby.com/us/

The Aitken File

Born: South Africa. He considers himself Scottish because he grew up in Scotland after moving there when he was 10.

Education: BA in information management, Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh; Masters, University of Strathclyde in Glasgow

What was your first job, and what did you take away from that experience?

I bent metal for gutters on industrial buildings. Because it was such a manual-labor-type job, I look back at how hard those guys work and what they put their bodies through for little pay and that drove me to make sure I got a further education to get the best job I could.

I was also paid to play rugby. I was a young man playing rugby and from a leadership standpoint that taught me about teamwork and that no person can do a job by themselves.

My position was flanker/wing forward. I played from when I was 6 until I was 34. In the process, I had a disc removed from my back, I broke my neck, I’ve broken multiple fingers and it is something that will be with me forever. I truly love the game. I was the youngest rugby captain of my team in Scotland. At age 19, they voted me as captain, so I was telling 20-, 30- and 40-year-old men what to do. I love the sport and love the camaraderie. It’s a very unique sport that relies on teamwork and team spirit and trust and all those things I love as part of business.

What’s something you miss from Scotland that you wish you had in Cincinnati?

Aside from friends and family, my answer would be haggis and fish and chips. However, Cincinnati has tremendous curry houses.

Published in Cincinnati

Since he joined First Watch Restaurants Inc. more than 20 years ago, Ken Pendery has grown the company to 83 locations across 12 states. Though he’s significantly expanded the footprint of the breakfast-focused restaurant concept, he is less concerned with his own tracks than he is of the customers going in and out of his restaurants.

“I think the biggest challenge of the last couple years has just been traffic,” says Pendery, who is the president and CEO of the Bradenton, Fla.-based company. “I felt that working with the challenges of what we now look back on as the bubble — where there were just a lot of restaurants opening and we were competing for traffic — it was just more and more competition.”

Yet even with the added challenge of a turbulent economy, Pendery has avoided making any major changes at his restaurants. He reinforces customer loyalty by doing what he’s always done — keep First Watch employees focused on providing consistent, quality customer service.

“We’ve really just wanted to maintain value and service and make sure we give the same experience, if not better, than people have grown to expect,” Pendery says.

“We have not changed our recipes. We have not cut back on food, meaning we have tried to continue to deliver the excellent service that we’re known for at the same price without cutting anything. We’ve been very adamant that we’re not going to take something away, that we’re going to make sure that people find us of the same or greater value.”

The result of this service-focused philosophy is tried and true. Today, First Watch is the largest, privately owned, daytime-only restaurant nationwide with more locations being added every year.

Here’s how Pendery leads his team of 2,000 employees to deliver top service for First Watch customers across the country.

Communicate your values

To ensure execution across national locations, a CEO needs capable managers who can motivate service excellence and handle customer issues successfully at the local level. Though Pendery splits his time between the corporate office and First Watch restaurants, his visits to different locations aren’t about micromanaging employees. He sees them as an opportunity to keep the company’s service mission and values front of mind through clear and regular communication.

“They are there every day,” he says. “Just because I get to every restaurant two or three times a year on average … really is fairly meaningless. But I think for them to see and know that I travel that much is meaningful to the fact that we do what we say we’re going to do and let’s keep the focus on our service.

“We have monthly service meetings and we talk about our five steps of service and we talk about our ten commandments. We constantly talk about it. We don’t just post it on the wall and say, ‘Yeah, we believe in this.’ We talk about the speed of our service and the friendliness of our service constantly.”

Providing opportunities for employees and management to routinely communicate creates a natural pipeline for identifying and delegating customer issues more effectively.

“We communicate a lot, and I think communication brings focus and that focus brings the commitment to our speed of service and the quality of our food,” Pendery says.

“There could be a break down in food. There could be a snowstorm coming. There could be a customer comment about reservations or no reservations. Whatever it may be, that’s talked about at a weekly meeting, a monthly meeting, a server meeting and theoretically all that gets pushed uphill so that we have conversations about it.”

If you develop strong organization wide communication, information flows more efficiently from managers to team members but also from team members to management. Ultimately, you and your managers will have a more accurate picture of the customer experience and how it can be improved at the national and local levels.

“[I] love to have servers who give me feedback on what does or does not work,” Pendery says. “I keep extensive notes, and I’m always referring back to that. We just had our regional vice president meeting last week and I brought out two years worth of notes, things that we’ve covered in the last year, highlights, things that we’ve done and reacted to well or things that we forgot about or things that, ‘Well, we didn’t push this one very far.’ But again, it’s all meant to be a strong collaborative nature.

Be dependable

Creating a great customer experience comes down to more than having a great product or service. It’s about delivering that great product or service on a consistent basis. Pendery recognizes that First Watch’s customer loyalty doesn’t come from meeting people’s expectations one time or even most times, but every time.

“The reason we have our degree of success is that people have grown to count on us for our level of quality food and our level of service,” Pendery says. “I always tell people in presentations, that’s why we go back to the dry cleaner in our neighborhood or the place that works on our car. We go back to places that we can count on, for whatever service we have, and I think they go back to restaurants or they go back to First Watch — they being our customer — because they have grown to count on us for our performance.”

But no matter how many good experiences customers have with your business, one bad experience can change their whole perception of whether or not they can count on you. Day to day, there are always things that can wrong, so it’s up to the CEO to keep people committed to doing the right things.

“You always have a staff member that breaks down,” Pendery says. “There are human errors that happen and people have a bad day or something like that. I’m not suggesting for a moment that our staff of people is perfect or that we don’t have a fundamental flaw that can happen. But I will argue, and I would support, that day in and day out we execute very, very well. I think that my style is to compliment that execution and to encourage a collaborative nature in our challenges and feedback and things that come our way that we have to pay attention to.”

Even though Pendery wants to please the majority of customers, he’s also careful about pursuing trends that could compromise First Watch’s service promise. When it comes to how people like their food, customer feedback is obviously mixed.

“We’re 27 years old,” Pendery says. “So people will tell us don’t change a thing, because they don’t want to see something change, and on the other hand, people will say the trend is turkey bacon or something like that. But that can be a little bit misleading.

“It all sounds and reads really well, but how much can you enact or do tomorrow morning? Is the trend short term or long term, and is it really meaningful? Years ago you might remember that everybody just jumped on the Atkins diet. Everybody wanted to put it on the menu, and six months later, it comes off the menu.”

That’s why it’s important to make sure the consumer’s perceived interest is real before fully committing resources to a new product or trend. To find out if a new menu item has the potential for long-term success, Pendery first puts it on the First Watch specials menu to see how customers respond.

“We run it through our specials category and if it’s successful, we’ll do it more as a special, and if it’s really successful we run it onto our menu because it’s so popular,” he says. “We’ve always done it that way and we continue to do it that way.”

If you begin facing ongoing challenges related to consistency, it may be because you’re pursuing an idea or strategy that doesn’t fit with who you are as a business. When something isn’t working, you need to re-examine whether it aligns your company’s core values and mission.

“We just have to understand what we’re in business to do,” Pendery says. “There are just some things that First Watch — we probably can’t do. Not that we haven’t talked about it for a gazillion years, but we don’t do espresso for instance. … We don’t think we can execute espresso. It takes too much time and probably drives the average check too high, as an example. So we can’t be everything to all people.”

Know your customer

While Pendery won’t change his philosophy on service, he understands the value of being flexible to give his customers what they want. He knows that when it comes to breakfast, people can be more specific about what they like and don’t like. That’s why at First Watch customers are encouraged to customize their orders any way they can. More than half of the orders from diners have some variation from the original menu item, whether it’s adding cheese or skimping on the bacon.

“Very simply I think we reinforce well: ‘If we can, we will,’” Pendery says. “When a customer says, ‘Can I?’ Almost when those words come out of their mouth — if we have it, we’ll do it. And I think the service staff and the kitchen is well trained and communicates well with the consumer. If they want it and we have the ability to do it, then it’s simply done. That’s how it happens.

“I think that proves the point that people like to have it their way, and we do that well. We fit into the marketplace well and we’re considered local, because we execute that special request to their liking.”

By staying attuned to who you are and who you aren’t as a company, you’ll be able to highlight your areas of strength and eliminate your weaknesses. Pendery says it’s not about following the trend but examining the trend and educating yourself on what it means for your business.

“Luckily, we have a tendency to look at things and not react too quickly,” he says. “Maybe that’s part of our weakness that we don’t react too quickly, or maybe it’s part of our strength.

“I stand pretty tough on the methods by which we’ve been successful: our 10 commandments, our five steps of service, the speed of our food, the quality of our food, the cleanliness of our restaurants. This is not space science here. This is service.”

By establishing First Watch’s reputation for consistent, quality, customer-focused service, Pendery keeps loyal customers coming back while adding new ones every day. In 2011, he hopes to reach the milestone of opening First Watch’s 100th restaurant.

“I think the best advice is always set is stay true to your core values and stay true to your mission,” Pendery says. “I work really hard to run a business with integrity. I work really hard to live up to the promises we make to our employees, our management, our leadership and our customers.

“At the end of the day there are a lot of great restaurants serving omelets and pancakes and salads and sandwiches and chimichangas, specialty items like we have. There’s a lot of a restaurants that do that and do it well, but I think the reason we are successful with it and the reason we do it well is because A, we’re very consistent or we work very hard to be very consistent, and you earn a reputation on that consistency. You earn a reputation on the speed of service, the friendliness of service and the quality of your food on the most consistent basis. That’s what people come back for because they can count on you.”

How to reach: First Watch Restaurants Inc., (941) 907-9800 or www.firstwatch.com

The Pendery File

Ken Pendery

President and CEO

First Watch Restaurants Inc.

Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio

Education: B.A. from Indiana University

Favorite First Watch menu item: eggs benedict

On problem-solving: I think the biggest thing that a lot of times companies do, and we certainly have done it from time to time as well, is we try to fix things with a fix rather than go back to the base or the fundamental or the foundation of the decision. It’s fix things with a Band-Aid whether than go back and really understand where the true root of the challenge is, and in the restaurant business, I always feel that the root of the challenge is always back to the base, which is the food, what you manufacturer. If we are having problems with pancakes or we’re having problems with eggs or we’re having problems with bacon, go back to the root of the cooking. Go back to the root of the product. Find what the challenge may be and then understand it from that. Don’t just make a switch or put a patch on something, but really understand the base of the problem.

Published in Florida

As the founder, president and CEO of TradeFirst.com, Fred Detwiler maintains an organized bartering system among his client businesses. His clients offer their services to the TradeFirst.com community, and accumulate points that they can use to purchase services from other members.

But the system wouldn’t work without building and maintaining customer relationships, both between TradeFirst.com and its clients, and between the clients themselves.

Smart Business spoke with Detwiler about how he maintains relationships at his $40 million company, and how you can do the same.

How have you addressed building and maintaining client relationships?

As a bank, which is what we sort of are, working with our clients to help them is one of our biggest challenges. If you’re a bookseller or a printer and somebody doesn’t pay you, barter is never more than two to five percent of somebody’s business. It’s the gravy part of it, but they still need to make sure they have cash flow. We have been able to assist companies to stay in business, because a lot of the overhead expenses can be converted into trade. That saves cash in their checkbooks.

We started in 1978. So right after we started, we had hyperinflation and oil embargoes. We’ve been through a fair number of cycles, and what has been interesting is the nature of business, people dealing with each other through our system, they use our services and sell products on a daily, weekly, monthly basis — but in the latest economic downturn, there are companies going out of business.

Somebody starts up, they’re going, somebody doesn’t pay them and suddenly they go out of business. So we tend to lose accounts, but we’ve also been able to continually grow and expand, so that has more than made up for it.

What would you tell other business leaders about staying close to customers?

How can you stay close to your customers if you don’t stay close to your customers? You know what I mean? You need to have a dedicated staff to do it, you need to review it, you need to make sure you’re getting to all customers.

We try to use technology to assist customer service people, so that no one is being left behind.  What I tell my staff is if you’re a school teacher and have 40 people in your class, and you have your 10 people who are in the front and always raising their hands, it’s easy to focus on them and forget about everyone else. So you need to make sure you’re bringing out clients who may not have focused on what we’re doing. They may have joined because they thought it was a good idea, but they never put the understanding into how it works. They never educated their staff.

How do you educate your staff on customer service?

Our customer service brokers, the goal is to give those people the tools so they know that all clients are being serviced. We have members that start out with us, they get business, they spend it — life is good. Then we sort of have people who don’t get business and everyone forgets about them. They don’t get business because they may have given us the wrong information. They may be a print magazine but somehow put on their application that they’re an online publication. Because they didn’t fill out their application right, they weren’t marketed properly.

So how do you do it?  If you don’t create opportunities for face time, to get out and visit with your clients, you have problems. In this digital society, everyone wants to do everything electronically. But I do know that people still like to do business with people. If you are not personally involved, you’re leaving money on the table and your long term relationships aren’t formed.

How to reach: TradeFirst.com, www.tradefirst.com or (248) 544-1350

Published in Detroit

While 2009 was a tough year for Tom O’Shea at Wasp Barcode Technologies, 2010 was a different story. The company, which manufactures barcode software and solutions, saw 12 percent growth in revenue last year.

“We target sub-100-employee companies with our products and design them for that customer set,” the general manager says. “I think, coming out of the economic crisis that we had, small businesses were looking for things to improve productivity. They weren’t ready to hire a bunch of people back, so they found value in the products we had to offer.”

O’Shea saw this opportunity and worked to capitalize on it by focusing on these customers and engaging his 50 employees to do the same.

“We want to have a laser focus on the customer,” he says. “Make it a clear message — ‘What we’re trying to achieve is this,’ this year, and not have four or five or six different things, so everybody can get behind it.”

Smart Business spoke with O’Shea about how he focused on customers to continue growing the business.

How do you get in touch with customers in order to spur growth?

Talk to your customers and find out what they are looking for. We try to talk to customers a lot in terms of surveys, follow-up calls, that type of thing. What features do they like? What features do we need to add? We constantly ask them where are they buying software-related products from, so we understand where do we need to be. Where do we need to spend our marketing advertising dollars?

Also, talk internally. Your employees have some great ideas in terms of what the customers are asking for. We have an internal discussion forum where whenever someone is talking, they get an idea on the product.

How do you stay focused on your customers?

One of the things we try to do is challenge our value proposition to our customers. Almost annually in our planning, we’ll put that slide up there and say, ‘Are these the right things that we should be doing, and what are we missing here?’ Continuing to try to challenge and grow and expand the value proposition you have is a real important step.

Listen to the customer. Do voice-of-the-customer studies. Get out and talk to the customers. Survey them. Ask them questions. A lot of times customers are more than willing to give you feedback on what they like and what they don’t like, and listen to them on that side of things.

That was one of the keys that we came up with a free training offering. Customers were saying, ‘We need to be able to use your products quickly and easily, and if you had some training for us, that would be valuable.’ So we put that together and launched that, and it’s been very successful.

How do you determine things you can work on or add and things you can’t?

We’re a small company, too, so we can’t handle everything. We try to look at what we feel will give the most differentiation out there in our customer space. We’ll try to gauge what seems to be the most popular feature-set request for our products.

If someone continues to ask for a certain thing, that boils to the top, and we need to get that in the next time. There’s no real science to doing that — it’s more of trying to understand what the customers are asking for the most. We try to make things not too complicated, so a lot of times, we’ll shy away from things that will overcomplicate the product. In our experience with the small businesses, if it’s overcomplicated, and if it’s going to take a lot of time to use, then it may not be utilized. They want to get something installed and move on to the next thing because they have problem after problem after problem, so if it’s going to take a long time to learn or install or change their processes a lot, they tend to shy away from that.

 How to reach: Wasp Barcode Technologies, (866) 547-9277 or www.waspbarcode.com

Published in Dallas