Ted Werth stays close to customers as PlumChoice grows

Ted Werth got frustrated trying to solve his father’s technology problems in Washington, D.C., over the phone from Boston. So he started PlumChoice Online PC Services Inc. in 2001 to provide 24-7 remote repair and support for digital devices.

Early on, Werth interacted with most of the customers. But as the company grew, his 650 employees began to handle most of the direct contact.

“One of the biggest issues with companies as they grow is that the people who are making decisions get further and further separated from the actual customer,” says Werth, chairman and CEO. “Once you get removed from the customers … it’s become more of a theoretical process than a real process of how you work with customers.”

To maintain that connection with customers, consistently expose yourself to them and their reactions to your service.

Werth does this by monitoring calls between employees and customers at least weekly — sometimes even participating.

Not only does that give you insight into customers’ issues, but it also lets you monitor how employees are providing solutions.

“You’re looking for patience, how they communicate, effectiveness of the service that’s being delivered, … time that it takes to solve problems,” Werth says. “And then, of course, we look at the customer surveys: How satisfied is the customer with the result of the work that was done, and why?”

Surviving the cycle

Ted Bernstein, Co-founder, Co-owner and President, Life Insurance Concepts

Ted Bernstein, Co-founder, Co-owner and President, Life Insurance Concepts

Ted Bernstein remembers when the Internet bubble burst. And more important, he remembers that when it did, the world didn’t end.

The co-founder, co-owner and president of Life Insurance Concepts uses past crises as a reminder that his company can survive through tough times.

“Just at the time when you think it’s the most bleak, all of a sudden, it begins to turn around,” he says. “You have to have the vision that this is temporary.”

Bernstein stays calm through economic swings at his life insurance agency by seeking help with his decisions and by helping employees make their own. So when the credit crisis hit, his company was prepared. And thanks to his crisis survival skills, Bernstein expects Life Insurance Concepts — which
posted 2007 revenue of about $50 million — to not only survive but to flourish.

Smart Business spoke with Bernstein about how to plan for a crisis and how to deal with one when it strikes.

Plan for the worst. Being consistent in your style and your approach is critical. You want to see that the people you look to for guidance — when it is a crazy time — are just what they say they are when things are not crazy: that they’re analytical, they’re thinking things through. You get the opportunity when there is no crisis to remind them that the reason that we’re thinking this through from all angles right now — even though it doesn’t look like all angles really need to be explored — is because that’s how you think through issues.

You’ve got to assume that, at any second, the status quo can change. Have a contingency plan ready to roll. Operate your business as if a crisis going to hit you tomorrow from nowhere.

It doesn’t seem to be consistent with optimism. If you’re optimistic, why would you want to be prepared for a crisis that isn’t even looming? It’s just that discipline that you have to or else you’re going to get caught off guard. When you have a big overhead and you have 50 people depending on you, you can’t get caught off guard. You better have a plan to deal with being off guard.

Whether it be diversified sources of capital, diversified vendors, whatever your business is dependent upon to be successful, have diversified sources of it because you just never know what’s going to happen to your bank, your accounting firm, your law firm, your source of capital.

Don’t go it alone. It’s important in crisis time to collaborate. You may have to make quick decisions. You don’t have that luxury to contemplate.

I find myself jumping out of my seat and looking for the person here that I trust to collaborate with. When you’re in that situation, check your quick gut reaction against those people that you know are dependable sounding boards.

Those are people inside and outside your organization. My father [and partner, Simon Bernstein] is one of those trusted resources because he’s been through more than me. Department heads are all really knowledgeable, valuable people. Then, of course, we have outside consultants [like] our CPA.