Jack O'Neill makes decisions at DHL Express USA Featured

11:47pm EDT February 19, 2011
Jack O'Neill, vice president of operations, DHL Express USA Jack O'Neill, vice president of operations, DHL Express USA

When the announcement came in November 2008 that DHL would discontinue its Express domestic services in the United States, there was a lot of uncertainty.

The division was asked to reduce its operating costs from $5.4 billion to below $1 billion, a decrease of more than 80 percent. Ground hubs would be closed and stations reduced from 412 to 103. It called for the loss of 9,500 jobs.

The one certainty was the end result of all the changes: return DHL Express USA to the company’s core competency of international shipping.

Difficult decisions are usually made when you’re going through a restructuring process. But as details are fleshed out, you and your employees can’t lose sight of the future.

Jack O’Neill understands this. As vice president of operations, he oversees all Express operations in the United States, including, air, hub, gateway, security, customs, engineering, fleet and customer. He led operations through the realignment, which included relocating its hub in Wilmington, Ohio, to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Additionally, O’Neill had to ensure his 2,300 operations employees stopped thinking about domestic products and services and learned the world of international shipping. In understanding the new direction, the company assumed the philosophy that every employee was a salesperson there to meet customer needs.

To accomplish the task, O’Neill used communication, education and reinforcement of the message and culture.

“It’s really an education. It’s awareness, it’s training, it’s making sure that everybody is engaged in understanding what it is we’re trying to provide to our customer base, what is the real priority and the objective of the organization,” he says. “With that, you engage each and every employee in every facet of the company and make them understand … everything that they do impacts the customer experience.”

Constantly communicate

The realignment was a major change for the organization, so management’s top priority was getting employees on board.

It should be no surprise that when you’re taking on a large initiative, communication is imperative from the beginning to the end.

“Even when you think you’ve overcommunicated, you probably haven’t communicated enough,” says O’Neill, who spends time in the field every week talking to employees.

O’Neill and the senior leadership team attacked communication from every angle. There were e-mails and bulletins, town-hall meetings and personal conversations. They found the best way to communicate employees’ roles in the realignment was in person because it allowed for providing clear information and receiving feedback.

“You really need to define the objective and your objective really needs to be crystal clear for that message to be concise,” O’Neill says. “If there’s any ambiguity in that objective or any ambiguity in the way you present that, the audience is going to have a hard time interpreting it and understanding it. Then you get mixed learnings or understandings out of that message.”

If multiple members of your leadership team are speaking to employees, you must make sure that the same message is being communicated.

Before conducting town-hall meetings, O’Neill and his team met to discuss their message about international shipping and customers. The company’s communications team helped craft the message and included a set of questions expected to be asked and answers of how to respond.

When you’re tackling complex issues, you need to be prepared and honest with your communication.

“Sometimes it’s a tough message, but you need to deliver those tough messages and be upfront about them,” O’Neill says. “In doing that, you gain the trust and confidence of your employees that you’re being forthright.”

Direct employee conversation is twofold, though. Town-hall and staff meetings are not just about what you want to say but what employees want to communicate.

O’Neill has been in town-hall meetings where employees can’t get enough questions in and others where the audience is silent. If he doesn’t get any questions right away, he starts talking informally about a topic that interests that particular group and asks for their advice.

“Once you ask them for advice on a question that relates more importantly to them, they begin to talk and open up about what we can do to help them,” O’Neill says. “Once that conversation starts to go, you generally get people feeling more comfortable, you get them feeling at ease, because they really feel like you’re there to learn something about them and how you can help them.”

Knowing employees are the crucial link to customers’ wants and needs and that employees need to be properly educated and equipped to do their jobs, O’Neill and the senior leadership took the feedback from the town-hall meetings and discussed it as a group. To better organize the information, they would provide the feedback to a point person who would consolidate it. O’Neill and the other executives would then prioritize the ideas as “easily actionable” or “needs more research.”

“It’s important if you really want the people to engage and rally around the organizational pride, in our case international shipping, you have to provide that closed-loop feedback cycle,” O’Neill says. “If you’re going to ask the employees for suggestions, we need to make sure we circle back and implement them or tell them why we’re not going to do it and make sure they understand the logic behind that.”

Once its determined if the idea is actionable or not, the feedback is either communicated by the direct supervisor or the senior leadership team in the next town-hall session.

“We communicate not only current events but, ‘These are some of the things we’ve heard from you, and these are some of the things we’re doing about it,’” O’Neill says. “It gets the ownership and buy-in that we really are listening to them. It’s one thing to listen; it’s another thing to really hear and understand what they’re saying.”

Educate employees

In communicating with employees, you need them to rally around the change.

As part of DHL’s realignment, all Express USA employees went through training to become a certified international specialist. Everyone from the front-line employee to the senior management team was required to attend classroom and online sessions geared toward international shipping, trade facilitation, processing shipments and clearance activities — all things that, at the end of the day, can affect customer service.

“Each and every employee needs to rally around their roles, what their responsibility is, how it aligns with the overall objective and how they really do impact the customer even though it may not be clearly visible,” O’Neill says. “(Training) is something we have undertaken that helps us make sure that everybody understands their role in satisfying the customers’ needs.”

The senior leadership team was actually the first to go through the certification, as should your team if you’re implementing a crucial companywide program.

“If we go through it first, we get a chance to assess the training and (evaluate) it,” O’Neill says. “By doing that, we can make sure that training is going to deliver what we really want it to deliver as an organization. What were our priorities when we first said we need to develop and deploy that training? Does it, in fact, meet those objectives?”

The second reason for the leadership team to partake in training is employee buy-in.

“You really have to walk the talk; as a leader, it’s one of the traits that is most critical,” O’Neill says. “If you deploy a major training platform and the senior leadership team doesn’t go through it, it sends an indirect message that it’s not that important. If you go through it, you send a couple of messages. One, you sponsor that training because you went through it yourself. Two, you send a critical message that it’s important for the organization to have that training.”

Along those same lines, the Express division’s training staff trains operations managers, supervisors and directors to deliver some of the programs to their employees.

“We support that, because it does make the training more believable,” O’Neill says. “If a manager delivers training, that manager has to support that training. He also knows what message has been delivered with that training with his employees versus a trainer coming in that works for another function. The messaging might not be the same as what the manager might deliver. Something might be skipped; something might be missed.”

The final aspect of company training is testing. O’Neill, along with every Express employee, had to score a 98 percent to become a certified international specialist. The test included questions like shipping requirements to clear customs and international capitals — essential information needed to send a customer’s package.

“Testing gives us knowledge of whether or not the employee really understands,” O’Neill says. “Do they have the information, and did they really hear it and understand it? Do they know how to apply it on their job? If you test them and they fail the test, then chances are, they’re not going to do their jobs the way they were intended to be done. What that means is we’re going to have delays in shipment processing. We’re going to have delays in service. Our customers aren’t going to appreciate that too much.”

Follow up

You can communicate and you can educate, but that doesn’t mean employees understood the message.

“We think people hear what we say or interpret what we write, but it’s not necessarily the case,” O’Neill says. “You really have to listen carefully to see if people have gotten the message. If somebody hasn’t gotten the message, they’re going to create their own message and usually that’s not the message we want them to give. Listening and having some feedback mechanisms to make sure the message is clear and everybody does what needs to be done is crucial.”

How do you make sure employees heard what you said? You ask them point blank.

“‘What are our priorities? What are we focused on?’” O’Neill says. “You have to ask them those types of questions to make sure that the message has been heard.”

And you have to constantly reinforce your message. When O’Neill went into the organization a year and a half ago, employees couldn’t tell him the company’s core competency. Today, without hesitation, they say international shipping.

Another way to validate that your message has been heard is engaging with employees in their work. O’Neill and his senior leadership team spend days on the road with their couriers visiting customers or sitting next to customer service agents in the call center.

“We get to experience firsthand what our front-line employees are doing, and does it really support the message that we delivered?” he says. “Does it support the direction that we need to go in? Does it support the training we provided them? You really have to inspect what you expect.”

Because there can be a disconnect between top management and lower-level employees, O’Neill has found his staff members are appreciative when he spends time with them and they’re willing to share feedback on what can make their job easier and the tools they can use to better serve the customer.

If you’re spending time with your employees, though, the main thing to look for when it comes to whether or not they understood your message is engagement.

Since the realignment, DHL Express USA has seen more engagement from customers and employees. The business has stabilized and is actually growing. Returning to its core business has meant an improvement in services, which has translated into greater customer retention and growth. For employees, it has given them a sense of confidence in a strategy moving forward.

“The employee that is engaged in the organization has an interest in it,” O’Neill says. “You can tell when somebody is just doing a job because it’s a job, and that’s OK. But we really want people to be engaged in the organization. You know they’re engaged if they’re asking questions. You know they’re engaged if they’re performing the job the way they were trained to do the job. You know they’re engaged if they have a good relationship with the customer. Once again, that customer touch point is so critical, so it’s those types of things that we really try to observe.”

How to reach: DHL Express USA, (800) 225-5345 or www.dhl-usa.com

The O'Neill fileJack O'Neill

Vice president of operations

DHL Express USA

Born: Saugus, Mass.

What was your first job?

The first job I ever had was actually a salesman in an electronics department of a department store. It was an interesting job for me, because I never sold anything nor did I know anything about electronics at the time.

What did the experience teach you?

I learned that sales and marketing are critical to success. In this department store in the electronics group, we sold a set of stereo headphones, and we used to sell them for $9.99. They were low quality; it was the cheapest set of headphones we had. We couldn’t sell them. We couldn’t get them off the shelf.

We were having a sale one weekend, so we thought we would put an ad in the paper and try to get them sold for $5.99 and deplete our inventory. In printing the ad, a mistake was made. The mistake said this was a set of stereo head phones, normally sold for $19.99 on sale for $15.99. Oddly enough, the first day of the sale — we must have had 80 sets of these headphones in the store — they flew off the shelf. Customers came in; they thought they were getting a great bargain.

The whole positioning of how a consumer hears a message to me was definitely one of the learnings I took out of that role and that particular experience I had.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I enjoy being on the front line. I don’t enjoy sitting in business meetings. I don’t enjoy that part of the job; I know it’s a necessity. I’m an operations person at heart. I grew up in the business unloading trucks as my first job within the logistics industry. I really have appreciation for the front-line employee and what they do for the organization.