Sure thing Featured

8:00pm EDT August 28, 2006
 At SurePayroll, employees win money for making mistakes.

Although this approach may seem a little backwards, Michael Alter, president of the payroll provider, says the only way to continue to grow is to change and try new things.

“We’re just not that good that everything we try is going to work,” says Alter. “We’re going to make mistakes. We’re trying to build a culture here where it is OK to make a mistake.”

Alter says the key to the company’s fast growth — SurePayroll has a three-year growth rate of 1,302 percent — is having a product and services that are simple for customers to use and empowering employees to go above and beyond what is expected of them.

Smart Business spoke with Alter about how he measures success and the one thing that can thwart a company’s growth.

How do you measure success?
We have a management dashboard that all of the mangers of the company meet every other week to go through and discuss. On that dashboard are the key metrics that drive how well we are doing in terms of our customers, so it has customer satisfaction scores, hold times, number of escalations anywhere else in the company.

If I am 99 percent correct in what I do, that’s not acceptable in our business, because that means that one in 100 paychecks is wrong. And you can’t have that.

To put that in another perspective, if you think about electricity, you walk in, you hit the switch and the lights go on. If the lights don’t go on, then you scream and yell and get upset.

But very rarely do people call the electric company and say, ‘I’m really impressed. The last 300 days my electricity has been on.’

We have to have metrics in place to give us a balanced perspective of what’s going on both with our customers and their satisfaction rates, their retention rates.

How has using metrics contributed to SurePayroll’s growth?
What the dashboards allow us to do is on a weekly basis — some we even use on a daily basis — get a clear sense of what’s going on in our operations and plan so we can staff accordingly and correct things before they happen.

As an example, one of the things that came out of our early dashboards is we sat back and said on those days that are the busiest days of the month for us ... it really matters to have more reps on the phone. So we created this thing we call money days. There are six days a month which are the money days, and those are the days when our customers are trying to move money and they need us the most.

We tell our customer care folks and our sales reps, if you have to be absent or you have to schedule a regular dentist cleaning or something, go ahead and do that, just don’t do it on a money day. That allows us to have more customers on the phone, which gives us lower hold times, which allows us to answer questions faster, which keeps customers happier, which gives us more revenue, which allows us to grow, which allows us to employ more people. It’s sort of a wheel.

To reinforce this, one of our senior managers walks around ... on money days with a silver tray that has mini Payday bars and 100 Grand bars. We give a candy bar to every single employee and look them in the eye and remind them it’s a money day.

It may seem like a silly little gimmick, but our dashboards show that the days we walk around and hand out the candy, we have better results in our metrics —in our hold times, in our customer response, etc. — than the days we don’t if it’s a money day. It’s all about awareness and focus.

What one thing can prevent growth or bring a company down?
Getting too comfortable. Whatever we’re doing today that is making us successful, we are going to need to have a different variation on that a year from now, three years from now and five years from now because the world will change.

Our competitors are smart. They are going to keep making their businesses better. Customers’ needs and desires and technology change.

One of the things that will kill a company is an inward focus. The minute you get fat and happy and start focusing internally is when you’re going to lose the lead. You need to look externally and use the external world as your benchmark.

The fact that we have the best service and the most satisfied customers in the payroll industry is nice, but there are service organizations out there that serve consumers and are better at it than we are. We need to benchmark ourselves against them and get as good as them.

HOW TO REACH: SurePayroll,