Maybe Regis Philbin wouldn’t convert your prospects to customers by confirming their final answers. But Amanda Lannert thinks your business could benefit by borrowing some philosophies from interactive games.
Lannert is president at The Jellyvision Lab Inc. a sibling company to Jellyvision Games, known for its best-selling games “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “You Don’t Know Jack.” She’s taking interactive conversations beyond gaming to help companies better communicate with customers, replacing virtual game show hosts with virtual insurance agents, enterprise IT salespeople and even guidance counselors.
“Find ways to ask questions to let people self-select into the information they want, versus just piling a bunch of information on your website and making people have to do the legwork of understanding it all so that they can then match the product to their needs,” says Lannert, who has about 50 employees. “Try to help people narrow down to the information they need at a level in which they can understand.”
Smart Business spoke with Lannert about turning prospects into customers with interactive conversation.
Be respectfully relevant. The best salespeople that we see in all industries ask questions first. They make it about you, the buyer, not about the product first. The salesperson doesn’t come up [in a store] and say, ‘Oh, the texture of the chiffon is so lovely.’ They say, ‘Where are you going to wear the dress?’ and then they put the product into the context of what the user cares about versus just blathering on about the product. They’re engaging and not pushy.
We’ll ask stuff like, ‘What keeps you up at night? What problems are you interested in solving?’ and we’ll lay out four or so options on the screen. … People click and then you can focus on that and know that you’re dealing with their top issue.
Be relevant and respectful of your audience and their time. … It’s about having an editorial perspective that allows you to know what you’re talking about but not speak in a way that’s mired in industry lingo or corporate gobbledygook. Being clear, being conversational is respectful to your audience.
Just remember, people read and think and process best in conversational English versus jargon or lingo or corporate-speak. Try to read your copy out loud. If it’s not what you would say to a human being, rewrite it. Call your husband or your wife or your mother and read it to them, and just have them raise their hand when they start to get a little tricky.
Take it slow. Interactive conversations are a touch-point in a very long and complex sales cycle. Our philosophy is that, for complex sales and transactions, you need to take a long-term dating focus. You don’t want to move too quickly on the first date.
You need to set up a strategy of providing valuable advice and service over time, sometimes when it has nothing to do with actually selling your product. Sometimes, it just has to do with proving that you’re a credible, reliable, helpful person. That will pay dividends.
The best way we’ve found to build and maintain relationships is patience. … You accrue brand equity the same way you build interest in dating: You build intrigue by being patient.
Our goal is usually to get people to move from being a website researcher to being an active lead on the phone with a representative who can configure a solution. So we say, ‘All right, would you like to speak with a rep?’ Can we capture a lead right away? They say, ‘Oh, I’m not ready to be sold to.’ ‘Well, that’s OK. Can we send you a white paper on blank that you already told me that you’re interested in?’
Provide options. Instead of, ‘Can I close? Yes or no,’ it’s, ‘Would you like to close? Would you like to learn more?’
You can set up stuff in marketing automation. … And then two weeks later, you have an automatic e-mail that says, ‘Hey, there’s a new webinar.’ Two weeks later, ‘Here’s an interesting article I read that might be germane to your business about how this solution has helped other companies.’
You continue to provide resources and advice that has nothing to do with (selling) that allows people to get more comfortable with your solution over time. A white paper may not actually advance your sale, but it builds your credibility so that when someone actually is ready to move toward your solution, they’re more likely to remember you, more likely to give you a call.
Match needs to inventory. The great thing about the Web is you are not limited by physical space in terms of the amount of inventory you can cover. And the bad thing about the Web is that you’re not limited by physical space (for) the inventory you can cover.
That’s why consumer decision support tools are so important, particularly when you’re selling something complex. You don’t want to force your prospect to have to become a category expert. You just want them to have to understand their business, their pain and their situation and then you want to say, ‘I get the products. I understand the background of everything we offer. Based on what you said, I’m going to recommend this, and I’m going to tell you why based on what I’ve learned about you.’ So you take the onus of expertise off of the prospect who’s doing research and all they have to know is what they know already: their own situation.
People so often forget the ‘and why.’ … That’s how you build confidence in the sale. When (other interactive decision support tools) get to the recommendation, they drop people off at page because to present produced recommendations for your entire inventory could bankrupt the company. Well, don’t produce the whole inventory. Narrow the coverage you need to provide and invest in a recommendation. Invest in saying, ‘Hey, customer, I hear you. I know what you’re looking for, and based on what you told me, this is what I recommend and here’s why.’
How to reach: The Jellyvision Lab Inc., (888) 387-4446 or http://www.jellyvisionlab.com/
Reynolds C. Bish’s newest position began with a pretty overwhelming week.
For starters, he never imagined he’d be CEO of the company that became Kofax plc (LSE:KFX) mainly because he founded and served as president and CEO of Captiva Software Corp., its largest competitor.
Bish sold Captiva in 2005 and then took a 16-month sabbatical. Around the time he was re-entering the job market, Kofax still known as DICOM Group plc and based in Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K. was looking for a new leader.
In October 2007, after several meetings with the board, Bish agreed to join the provider of document-driven business process automation solutions. Still, he hadn’t met anyone else inside the company.
“The first thing I had to do on my first day of work, which was Saturday, Nov. 5, was introduce myself to the executive management team,” he says. “Then on the following Monday morning, which was Nov. 7, I had to introduce myself to all the employees on a large, companywide conference call we had arranged. In doing both of those things, I really had to try to (alleviate) a lot of potential anxiety or stress that people would have not only because they had a new CEO but also because I had previously been CEO of their No. 1 competitor.”
To top it off, Bish knew serious changes were in store. Revenue wasn’t growing, market share was dwindling and more than 25 acquisitions had left the company in need of unification.
Bish’s challenge was to build trust with 1,161 employees to make the series of changes smoother for them.
“Certainly, there was a lot of speculation and fear, uncertainty and doubt about my motives and some of my decisions,” Bish says. “I had to focus on getting people to understand that, coming in, I was a rational businessperson and was going to exercise good, prudent judgment in all my decision-making.”Check the pulse
Whether you’re new to a company like Bish or just keeping your finger on the pulse of yours, change starts with communication.
In his first two months as CEO, Bish traveled across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific to meet employees and hear their perspectives. It’s more than a feel-good move when you ask them why the company is in its current state and what potential solutions they see. In reality, you need their input to help you understand the company and decide how to change it.
For that exchange to happen, you need to create an open environment.
“I would begin the dialogue with reintroducing myself to the group, talking a little bit about my background, sharing about what I was going to be doing in the first few months and also beginning to share some of my personal observations about what I had seen so far,” Bish says. “And then open it up to dialogue.
“[It was] asking people for their opinions about what was working, what wasn’t. Questioning some of their assumptions about the business and their views of the marketplace. Just having a very open, honest, frank, candid conversation about some of my perceptions, their perceptions.”
But those were big questions, especially for a reluctant audience. Bish began noticing something at these meetings a signal that he needed to do more to engage employees.
“I usually point it out to the audience that nobody likes to sit in the front of the room,” he says. “And when I open things to questions, there are very few questions and people are always hesitant to ask them. Most people tend to be a little reserved and shy, particularly when they’re interacting with somebody in a position of authority. Sometimes, you really have to drag information out of them and assure them that it’s OK to be open and frank, that you’re not going to have an adverse reaction to something that they say that you don’t necessarily agree with.”
If it’s still quiet after that invitation, Bish throws out his own answers.
Because the basis of a conversation is give-and-take, you need to contribute. By then, Bish had already formed his own knowledge of what was going on largely from his experience at Captiva. He also conducted additional research through DICOM’s published financial information and market data from various industry analysts, learning that revenue wasn’t growing and market share was dwindling.
“When I was standing up in front of a group and there was any kind of reluctance to talk, I would throw out some statistics from one of these industry analysts or refer to the financial data and tell people, ‘You know, here are my initial thoughts on why that might be happening. What do you think about that? Are these real issues?’” he says. “People are … not completely immune or blind to what’s going on in a company. Once you start that dialogue, they tend to all open up and come forward and engage in it because they see a lot of the things that you do.”
By approaching discussions as a peer of your employees rather than an executive you begin building trust and opening the flow of feedback.
“You have to talk to people, not at them,” Bish says. “When you do that in a peer-like manner as opposed to from a position of authority, the dialogue and the openness of people tends to develop pretty quickly and then they feel comfortable.”Hire agents of change
Sure, you communicate to everyone and try to get all of your employees on board but not everyone will respond the same way. When you’re driving big changes through an organization, not all employees will survive the shift.
“No. 1, not everybody’s going to make it through that change,” Bish says. “There’s going to be some people that simply aren’t capable of it and don’t have the strength or the experience or the talent to function in the new culture. They’re either going to be terminated or they’re going to quit.
“In addition to that, there are going to be people that certainly could adapt and contribute, but, for whatever reason, they don’t really want to. They’re also probably going to leave you, and usually that’s because they feel more comfortable in a different kind of culture.”
Identify the feet-draggers as soon as you can. Usually, it’s apparent early on who’s adjusting to the change and who’s bucking it.
“Either they’re adapting to it and buying in to it and enthusiastically dealing with the change and modifying their behavior in their day-to-day work or they’re not,” Bish says. “Either they’re doing it in a productive manner or they’re slow to adapt, they’re voicing negativity, they’re coming in late, leaving early and all that.”
When you acknowledge not everyone can make it or should you’ll be better prepared to manage the shifting work force.
“You have to recognize that you’re probably going to experience a higher than normal level of turnover in the employee base as you go through this change,” Bish says. “Certainly, you don’t want the wheels to fall off the car as you drive forward and make these changes, and you’ve got to be sensitive to that. But at the same time, you have to be realistic and recognize that … not everybody is capable or wants to make that kind of a change.”
The sooner you accept that, the more quickly you can focus on hiring change-savvy staff to replace those who leave.
When adding several experienced senior executives to the Kofax team, Bish learned the difference between staffing a static company and a changing one. Instead of plugging candidates into an existing strategy, he needed people who would help reinvent the company.
First, he looked for backgrounds that involved organizational change.
“You have to look at their resume or their career, their experience grid and what they’ve been through at previous jobs,” Bish says. “Does that give them the kind of experience that will be valuable in them relying upon as they come into the company and help you effect all this change or not? And secondly, and probably even more important, is: Are they comfortable with effecting significant change in a company?”
Of course, you can ask those questions in the interview. But for an even more accurate picture, conduct heavy reference checks. Because Bish had contacts in the marketplace before he came on board, he used his network to find extra resources.
“Attempt to talk to not only references that they provide but also some people that they haven’t referred you to,” he says. “You can maybe through networks and other people that you know find your way to a more open, honest and candid opinion of their abilities and their experience.”
If you want candidates to be honest with you, be honest with them. There’s probably uncertainty in a changing company, and there are certainly challenges. Be up front about those during the interview.
“You need to be completely honest with them about the state of the company, the challenges it’s facing, some of the strengths that it has and also the changes that need to be implemented,” Bish says. “Go through that in detail so that they know what they’re coming into. They know where they’re going to have to focus their efforts. They know where some of the challenges are going to be, so they come into the company very well-positioned to hit the ground running.”Report on progress
Bish instigated a significant domino effect of changes across Kofax. But the key, through it all, is that he kept communicating.
“Throughout that whole process, you really need to optimize communications with all your constituencies which would include, certainly, your employees, your board of directors, your shareholders, your channel partners and also your end-user customers,” Bish says. “Report back to them on a very regular basis about your progress in terms of effecting all that change and where you’re succeeding, where you’re facing some challenges, and changes that you’re going to make in light of that.”
Bish meets with employees at least quarterly. Well, technically, everyone at Kofax’s new operating headquarters in Irvine gathers in a room, then the rest of the company dials in. In other time zones, they can access the PowerPoint and a recording of the call via their intranet later.
Bish’s presentation is pretty simple and straightforward.
“You tell people what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it,” he says. “As you execute on each of those initiatives or each of those actions, you report back that we hit one of the milestones so that they know what’s getting done and what isn’t.”
To better illustrate progress to employees, track it with some concrete numbers. Bish uses benchmarked metrics to show how Kofax is faring in the big picture of the marketplace.
“Set up some key performance indicators that you can track and measure against,” he says. “In our case, for example, it was referring to the industry analyst data or information about competitors: Are we growing faster or slower than our competition or the marketplace? Are we gaining market share as a result or losing market share? Are our revenues growing across various segments of our business or declining on a year-over-year basis?”
As he continued to keep employees in the loop of change, Bish began chiseling away at their skepticism. Now, they can focus fully on making the company successful not worrying about their leader’s motives.
Bish built up the trust necessary to rebrand and rename DICOM as Kofax, restructure it around global business functions, realign and focus the sales resources, hire experienced senior executives, and relocate the operating headquarters across the globe along with a flurry of other changes. Kofax reported revenue of $298.2 million for fiscal 2009, ending June 30. Industry analysts project fiscal 2010 revenue of about $330 million.
“The important thing is to communicate on a regular, consistent, open, honest and frank basis with the employees,” Bish says. “If you can establish that level of open dialogue and trust that comes as a result of that, it’s a much easier process to go through. If you do that over time, I think you build that level of trust and convince people that you’re really sincere in your motivations.”
How to reach: Kofax plc, (949) 727-1733 or http://www.kofax.com/
If you’ve ever stepped into Alexandre Chemla’s office, you’ve seen it. You could call it a symbol of his continued growth from small beginnings. But it’s just a long, wooden conference table — kind of.
“Everyone tells me how smart the idea to have a conference table here in my office is,” says Chemla, the president and owner of ALTOUR. “I try to explain to them that I was not smart at all. It was my dining room table. I didn’t have money to buy a desk so I brought it up.”
On June 15, 1991, that table moved into a 20-square-foot office at 4 Park Ave., when Chemla founded the luxury and midmarket travel agency. He had left his native France for the U.S. with a friend who was being moved to New York to run the North American operations for Club Med. Then Chemla, after about a decade working with his friend, branched out on his own.
His friend called him crazy for opening a business in the midst of the Gulf War and a recession.
“When I started my company, I did not have much to start a company on,” Chemla says in a still-thick accent. “But [I] wanted to accomplish one of my dreams, which was to put the best people together. … That’s what the company is built on — people and respect. It has been one thing I took from my previous job, which was to try to treat people well and grow it as a family.”
He’d seen that atmosphere at Club Med. When he went to Bangkok, for example, one of the Club Med employees would be waiting at the airport for him, even though he or she had never met him before.
So the table brings Chemla back to his roots. Because he maintained the same atmosphere ever since those first days and first few employees, he’s kept growing throughout the years — on average, 20 percent annually. ALTOUR opened a West Coast headquarters in Los Angeles in 1993. Last year, it doubled in size thanks to a joint agreement with American Express Travel, along with the acquisition of 12 of its offices.
Today, with its 75 offices and more than 1,000 employees, ALTOUR has a travel volume, which includes gross invoiced sales for all travel-related services, of more than $800 million — $205 million in L.A. alone.
“Dollars are very important and that’s what makes or breaks a company, but you will not earn the dollar if you don’t treat your people well and if you don’t respect them as much as you respect your clients — if not even more,” Chemla says. “There’s a lot of mistakes that one can do, but … building a company without creating some foundation to it, it’s like putting a building up without any foundation. Then, you know what, it could very easily collapse. Make sure that your foundation is strong … and then you can build whatever you want because you’re on the solid ground.”
Here’s how Chemla builds respect with employees and clients through an open-door environment.
Build teamwork with respect
The more ALTOUR grows, the more Chemla realizes how important teamwork is. He needs more employees to do more work, obviously, but needs to keep the connection between them strong so that work remains consistent.
“The biggest challenge I have faced as the company has grown is, in fact, to make sure that we keep what we have … that we keep this team spirit because that’s what brings a company together,” Chemla says. “That’s what creates an incredible foundation and the trust with each other and the respect of each other.”
Strong teamwork starts with mutual respect, and the leader has to be the one to instigate it.
“Respect your employees as much, if not more, than you’re respecting your clients,” Chemla says. “You earn their respect by respecting them.”
You build that respect simply by giving employees time and interest. Chemla has done that with an open-door policy that means more than just being available. To give employees fewer hoops to jump through before they get to him, he encourages walk-ins instead of appointments.
“There are no appointments within the company … so anyone can — as long as I am here and I am not on the phone — if someone wants to come up and sit down and talk to me, it’s not an issue,” Chemla says. “That is very well known in our company.”
Since the days that ALTOUR consisted of only a couple of employees, he has encouraged them to come in and talk to him, and now, his longtime managers feel comfortable chatting. They set the example for other, newer employees, showing them it’s OK to approach someone senior.
“My door is, in general, always open, and when people pass by and they see a manager sitting at my desk and talking to me, you know he didn’t ask for an appointment,” he says.
But really driving that open, available concept through the whole company means not everyone has to come to you.
“If sometimes they don’t want to come walk to my office because they maybe feel intimidated, they will have no problem to go to the manager of the office or to the CFO because we all have the same type of courtesy,” he says. “We all have the same type of spirit: being there for them when they need us.”
When you cascade that openness across the organization, you also must encourage the response — willingly helping those who ask for it.
“Anyone who needs anything at any time can always find someone else to help them, and it doesn’t have to be management, and that is teamwork,” Chemla says. “It could be the person next to you, and it could be a person who has nothing to do with your specialty. But if you have care, they will help you because they’re part of the company and they’re part of the team.”
Chemla has even eliminated certain negative responses from the company’s vocabulary.
“You will never hear, ‘This is not my job,’” he says. “This does not exist for us. And ‘impossibility’ is a word that … I try to take it out of our dictionary because we don’t believe in that.”
The key, though, is that you don’t talk about wanting an open-door policy too often, because hearing about it isn’t going to make employees believe it. They have to see it in action.
“I don’t have to tell them anything. … They just realize it themselves,” Chemla says. “They realize the kind of environment they’re in. They see how their colleagues have been treated, and they see how they have been treated. A lot of companies talk about it, but putting it in action, it’s a total different story.
“If we are available to them, we give them the time of the world, they know that they can reach us at any time for anything, I think this (goes a) very long way. You cannot fake that. You cannot say, ‘Yeah, we are family. We believe in team spirit,’ and then do nothing about it. You face reality when an employee comes to you and needs something and when it’s not a good time to do it and you’re still doing it because you want to help.”
That open-door attitude transcends beyond Chemla’s employees and applies to customers and the external marketplace, as well.
Fortunately, Chemla travels a lot. He gets to travel across his global ma
rketplace weekly — meaning he also gets to experience the services that his company provides. Maybe you can’t do that en route to a business meeting, but the point is that you do find a way to see things from your customers’ perspective.
“I could describe to you every seat of every airplane in any airline,” Chemla says. “We know very well which hotel is good, which hotel is not good. Because of our buying power and because of our reputation, we know the room number that our client should have when they walk in [any] hotel. We know which cabin they should have when they go to a cruise ship. So basically, it’s knowledge. That’s what makes you very different [than competitors] is to have the knowledge of what you’re providing your clients.”
Who knows, you may even encounter a business opportunity when you’re playing your customers’ role. For example, during a recent trip with one of his executive vice presidents, Chemla left the airport, got lost and landed in a new line of business.
“I got out of the airport and the driver did not know where he was going,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘If this was one of our clients, we would be the ones responsible for it.’”
So Chemla opened ALTOUR Limousine, providing reliable ground transportation for his clients after they get to their destinations.
In addition to taking on the perspective of a client, you should also learn the client’s preferences. Chemla tracks how his customers travel so he can keep offering them the most reasonable services.
“In general, we know where the clients have been before. We know what they like to do,” he says. “We know if they prefer land, if they prefer sea. We have their experience, we have their profile, we know what they like. And based on that, we make sure that we offer them the best possible package vacation.”
Then, he follows up to make sure that the experience was up to par. Although he does conduct some surveys on ALTOUR’s internal customer service, the key is that Chemla doesn’t wait for customers to bring feedback to him.
“When they come back from a trip, we call them to see how the trip was,” he says. “We ask questions and that’s when we know, in general, what really happened. No, we don’t wait for them to tell us.”
By staying actively in touch with customers throughout the process, you can also encounter other opportunities through their requests.
“We realized very quickly that our clients were using private jets a lot,” Chemla says. “Unfortunately, on private jets, very often you have multiple brokers. So you don’t really know the type of equipment you’re getting. You don’t really know the service you’re getting or know the airplane either.”
Because it was a service that complemented and expanded what ALTOUR already did, Chemla decided it made sense to step in and provide it. So two years ago, he started ALTOUR Air, the company’s own private jet line.
“This is on line with our business, but it is not our core business,” he says. “We [opened] that to make sure that our clients were getting the best possible service, and we wanted to make sure that the quality of the type of equipment they were using was at the top.
“[Those] businesses are not my core business, but they help me to provide to my client the service and the quality that they expect from us. When we feel that the service is not there and when we feel that the control is not in our hands and that we cannot get the proper service, then we decide we have to try and go alone. … So the measuring stick, if you wish, is experience with other vendors. When they cannot provide what we expect, then [we] provide.”
What it really boils down to is that you’re willing to consider any potential opportunity you find to improve the customer’s experience. Even if it doesn’t work for your company, it may lead to something else — even if that just means a better understanding of where opportunities are.
“When the train passes by, you have to jump [on],” Chemla says. “If you miss a train, [you can’t] be sure that it’s going to pass again. It’s not to miss any opportunity and to look at all of them. Keep the door open to any opportunity that’s not exactly in your line of business because these may lead you to something else.”
How to reach: ALTOUR, (800) 878-5847 or http://www.altour.com/
In James E. Boone’s vocabulary, there’s no such thing as work force. Yet, as president and CEO of CORESTAFF Services Inc., he manages his own employees and tens of thousands of others.
But to him, “work force” is an oversimplification like “automobile.”
“There’s virtually all types of automobiles, from small compacts to luxury vehicles,” Boone says. “There’s a mistake in that some organizations look at people as a unified entity and, of course, they’re not.”
In addition to managing his own 292 full-time employees, Boone issued 21,789 W-2s to temporary employees last year. Because he places that many employees in occupations as varied as accounting and engineering, in offices from Boulder to Boston and beyond, Boone can’t approach hiring as a simple function of plug-and-play.
When it comes to filling internal positions at CORESTAFF, he takes each candidate as an individual to determine who is right for the job. Some words of wisdom from Cecil Dye, his former district manager at Digital Equipment Corp., revealed what a challenge that can be.
“He said, ‘When you’re interviewing people for positions, the obvious A’s the ones that clearly have all the boxes checked that’s about 10 percent, and those are easy decisions,’” Boone says. “‘Likewise, the people that are obviously not right for the position, that 10 percent is also extremely easy. It’s the other 80 percent that will determine whether you’re going to be successful or not.’
“What I gleaned from that is judgment is going to be a major factor as a manager. You have to really trust your innate skills and abilities when you’re speaking with people because ultimately you will answer for those decisions.”
Boone has honed his judgment abilities when it comes to hiring and developed a disciplined interview process to usher the right people into position.Prepare to fill positions
Some preparation is necessary before the search even begins. Boone meets with his senior vice president of human resources to write a job description that reflects both professional skills and personal characteristics that would make someone successful in that position.
While the description is important, it shouldn’t be too prescriptive.
“I like a position description to only be 85 percent accurate because the individual coming in the door provides the other 15 percent,” Boone says. “People will have different skills, experiences and knowledge from various positions of responsibility they have had. If you have a position description that’s so detailed down to a cookbook approach and all you’ve got to do is follow the recipe to be successful, you’re missing the whole wonderful experience of human behavior.”
The 85 percent comes mostly from the technical side of the position. Leave more leeway when it comes to personal interests. You probably won’t reject candidates who aren’t involved in their children’s activities, for example although discovering that later in the process may better illustrate someone’s makeup.
Next, Boone targets certain groups when recruiting. Thanks to technology, this is easier than ever.
“There’s just so many different ways that you can reach out to a constituent group, either through LinkedIn or Facebook and obviously job boards,” he says. “Market segmentation is becoming increasingly more sophisticated today.
“If we’re looking at a position in accounting, for instance, then we will certainly target organizations that are geared toward the accounting profession starting with associations, networking with accounting firms, job postings in publications that those types of individuals would read. We’re diligently reaching out to a constituent group we think could introduce us to the right type of person versus just a blanket ad.”Narrow the field
Once the job is posted, the key tool for narrowing the field of candidates is the resume. Boone considers resumes to be career blueprints, devoting much more time to them than cover letters.
“Obviously, no one’s going to write a resume that’s detrimental to them,” he says. “So you’re looking at what, in this person’s view, is their best face. So that right there tells you something. If you see a resume that’s inconsistent or it’s incomplete, then you’re going, ‘Wow, if this is their best presentation skills, I wonder what their worst is.’ Likewise, if you see a resume that is concise, logical, demonstrates the person’s responsibilities and achievements and it really strikes home the essence of what this person brings to the table, then this is someone I want to meet.”
Look for resumes that are complete and thorough and don’t skip over early positions.
“If they’ve had several years of experience, they start deleting their early years,” Boone says. “I want to see what those formative years were like because that period when people get out of college really is the foundation for the rest of their careers. That’s where they’re going to experience, hopefully, some of their larger errors.”
For example, people’s first several years in the job field can cement their work ethic and their preferences for corporate culture. Seeing their early responsibilities and achievements can reveal those hits and misses.
For a resume to be thorough, it also must be factual. Technology has also made this process easier by providing access to backgrounds for double-checking claims.
“It’s amazing to me how many people will fudge on resumes and somehow don’t think they’ll be caught,” Boone says. “But in this day and age with technology … there’s very little excuse not to catch someone if they’ve lied about a degree or if they have fabricated a position. It’s just all there in the public domain.”
Boone also requests releases from candidates so he can confirm through references as well as civil and criminal background checks.
Showing that level of particularity can also set the stage for honesty through the rest of the process.
“That gives people a good comfort that you’re very serious about their role in the company,” Boone says. “It sends a clear message about the expectations you’re setting for them when they’re interviewing.”Look for a fit
After resumes suggest who makes it to the interview phase, look for more signals that indicate a good match.
Before you start scheduling appointments, spend more time preparing by revisiting the job description.
“When individuals are interviewing an individual, they have that position description in front of them,” Boone says. “I ask them to make sure they reread it before they start the interview so they’re asking questions against the specs.
“What happens with many organizations is they don’t nail down exactly what they’re looking for to begin with. Then they start interviewing people and the old saying, ‘When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do’ they’re not exactly sure what they’re looking for. Then something really catches your eye and you tend to ignore some of the other things that would demonstrate that this person isn’t the best fit for that role.”
Similarly, make sure candidates have done their homework with the job description. To gauge their preparedness, Boone asks why they’d be a good fit for the role.
“I’ve had people actually hand me typed papers where they’ve taken the job descriptions and, under each bullet, they’ve typed maybe in a different color why they think they’re an excellent fit for that role,” he says. “Other people just articulate it. But the key is being very specific on what you’re looking for and then having that person interview to the specifics. Then the results increase dramatically for success.”
Boone spends the first 10 or 15 minutes discussing the position, filling in details that may not have been covered by the description.
“There is no opportunity at any company that’s all hunky-dory and high fives,” he says. “There are going to be negatives in any position. Most people would like to know the good, bad and ugly. You have to establish a bond of honesty and integrity on both sides of the desk.”
So, for example, Boone shares CORESTAFF’s aspirations and potential roadblocks. He also drills into specifics about the position’s potential for helping the company overcome obstacles, illustrating that the candidate would play an important role in achieving success.
By starting with that mutually familiar topic of the position, Boone hopes to relax candidates.
“You have to ask open-ended questions, certainly things that don’t generate a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ to get them talking,” he says. “You want to create an environment where they feel comfortable speaking. If someone is in that mode, sometimes they may say something they inadvertently didn’t mean to say if they had been more guarded.”
Then the questioning begins. Boone asks about candidates’ proudest professional achievements and how they handled challenges, adversity and failure. Whether they overcame it or it overtook them, you can reap valuable insights about their demeanor and how they learn from experiences.
“Ask and then be quiet,” he says. “Too many senior executives, if it’s an hour interview, they will spend 40 to 45 minutes talking. That is a huge mistake. The candidate should be doing the vast majority of the speaking.”
Obviously, listen to their responses but also stay keen to clues beyond the audible answers.
“First, it’s just body language,” Boone says. “When someone comes through the door, … the first thing to look at is just their demeanor, their approach to you, their style. Do they have energy in their voice? Are they pretty excited about being there? Are they somewhat defeated?”
Then, piece things together. Don’t be afraid to put candidates to the consistency test, using them to check their own claims.
“If you say, ‘I increased sales 150 percent when I was vice president of sales at XYZ company,’ then I say, ‘Tell me how you did that. What specifically did you do versus the other individuals?’” Boone says. “Just keep boring down into more and more specific information and see if this person can ride with you.
“People that have done what they say can match you toe-to-toe as you go through that interviewing process. People that may have been on the periphery of something and not really in the decision-making part will run out of steam at some point.”
If candidates get fuzzy when you push for details, red flags should shoot up. Boone also looks for consistency when he compares the written reports of everyone who interviews a candidate which usually includes him, his senior vice president of human resources and peers to the position.Sell the position
True, you’re looking for the ideal peg to fit in your company. But the decision isn’t entirely up to you; it must be a fit for the candidate, as well.
“I also encourage the individual that it’s a two-way street, that they’re interviewing us, as well,” Boone says, and he reiterates that with other interviewers. “They’re not an applicant; they are a professional in their own right and they’re sizing us up. … You should wear both a buying hat and a selling hat when you’re speaking to someone. Too many executives always wear that buying hat and they try to create an environment of such exclusivity and, at some point, will give you the secret handshake and let you in the door.”
Consider how you treat candidates. You’re not just filling a position; you’re representing the company to potential employees who are looking for jobs.
“You’re sending direct messages to the candidate as to how you treat them throughout the interview process,” Boone says. “Remember, their antenna is up. They certainly want to join an organization that also embodies their values. How you treat them, how you respond to them, your timeliness they’re going to measure that against what you’re saying in the interview.”
Some executives selectively turn on the sell switch when they realize a candidate could add value. Boone tries to sell the position to all candidates, whether or not they’re right for the role.
“I want them to feel good about the time they spent with CORESTAFF because they are a professional,” he says. “While they may not be right [for the] role at this particular time, one never knows. They may be a future customer some day. It’s just professional courtesy to treat everyone in a manner in which you’d like to be treated.”
So far, Boone has been pretty successful bringing in the right employees, who took CORESTAFF to 2009 revenue of $258 million.
“In the end, you still have to rely on your innate judgment ability,” Boone says. “But it’s not just willy-nilly, off-the-cuff; it’s a regimented process of interviewing someone.”
How to reach: CORESTAFF Services Inc., (713) 438-1400 or http://www.corestaff.com/
When Jonathan Congdon threw a party in 2001, he wasn’t sure if anyone would show up.
The “party” was actually an online forum for customers of Product Partners LLC — the parent company of Beachbody and its in-home fitness and weight loss programs like Power 90 and P90X — where Congdon serves as president. There were plenty of customers, but he felt the way an anxious party planner feels after sending invitations.
“I just remember nervously watching those forums and wondering if anybody was going to come on and ask anything or start talking to each other,” Congdon says. “We realized we had people that were doing our program who needed to talk to other people who were doing it and needed to talk to us. We saw people coming on the [message] boards and very actively posting and speaking to each other and asking questions, giving incredible support to each other — better than we could have done.”
Soon after Congdon founded Product Partners in 1998 with Carl Daikeler — who’s now chairman and CEO — they realized they were good at creating comprehensive DVD-based weight loss programs and clearly articulating what customers could expect from them. But not until those message boards started filling up did they realize they were good at something else, too: building relationships with customers beyond the product.
“What we became was a company … that provides a community for people to interact with each other, which probably quintuples the likelihood that they’re actually going to do the program all the way through to the end,” Congdon says. “If you’ve got five times as many customers doing the program as you would have if you weren’t good at creating community for them, you then have five times the number of satisfied customers who are willing to buy more from you. And then you’ve increased the odds that some of those people are going to become evangelists for your brand.”
Congdon learned the secret to satisfying customers is offering support then staying out of the way so they can use it.
“Our job is to make sure that the customer experience is top-notch, that we deliver products really quickly, that when they call and have a complaint, that we handle it really quickly, and that we’re just a well-oiled machine,” he says.
Find service stars
With 70,000 new customers jumping on the Beachbody bandwagon weekly, Product Partners’ 300 employees can’t handle the sales volume — which totaled $350 million in 2009. The company also uses third-party vendors for giant spikes in demand, especially during infomercials.
Whether or not your customer-facing forces are full-time employees, the key is training everyone to the same standards for a consistent customer experience. But first, make sure you’re training the right people — ones who care about your customers and your standards.
“One of the keys to our success is that we’ve worked hard with our vendors to make them better so we’re better,” Congdon says. “We don’t just farm out work to our third-party vendors. We create standards … and we choose vendors who are willing to work with us like that. I almost said, ‘be managed like that,’ but really, that’s not the way it is. You’ve got to find a vendor who wants to work with you.”
It starts with a clear explanation of what you expect. That will weed out the self-selecting few who know they don’t match and secure a better fit with the rest.
“It’s really common for a vendor to tell you that they’re beating industry standard,” Congdon says. “And then we have to say, ‘We just don’t care what the industry standard is because we’re trying to create a new industry. We’re in the industry that wants a zero percent [error rate].”
Explain why those expectations are important. When searching for people who will serve your customers best, that means answering why your standards matter to customers.
“We need to have a zero-error environment because … if they let themselves get to a point where they have 70 pounds to lose, they are very quick to find any excuse not to work with a company that’s going to ask them to work hard to lose that 70 pounds,” Congdon tells candidates. “So we have to get out of the way. The product coming late or somebody rude on the phone or whatever and they’re gone.”
The second step in identifying customer service stars is an attitude check. Optimists are the best match for the customer-centric culture at Beachbody because that upbeat positivity translates into a more enjoyable interaction for the customer.
“You’re not going to have somebody say, ‘Eh, I don’t like life,’ in an interview,” he says. “The pessimist is going to tell you what was wrong with every company they’ve been to and how what they tried to do couldn’t get done and it was always somebody else’s fault.
“Hopefully they’re willing to share a little bit of the blame. I’m perfectly willing to hear from somebody how they’ve learned from their mistakes. But the people who seem to have never made any mistakes, those are the dangerous ones.”
People who share the blame for past mistakes are more likely to take initiative in solving future problems for the sake of the customer.
“We don’t accept anything less than 100 percent,” Congdon says. “It’s easy to say we are great because we’re 99 percent, but if you’re thinking about the customer then you’re thinking about the 1 percent who didn’t get the product as quickly as they were supposed to.”
Train employees to believe
You can spend that effort finding upbeat employees who are passionate about customers, but it’s moot if you don’t get them to believe in your company and what it does.
“It’s a paradigm shift in the way customer service thinks,” Congdon says. “We’re not trying to get them to [buy] the product so we’ll make more money. We’re trying to get them to [buy] the product because they need to improve their life, and the way they’re going to do that is by using our product. ”
That’s easy for him to say, right? His products actually help people get healthy — thus improving lives. But that same strategy can apply to any company, regardless of what product or service you offer. Just focus on the benefit you provide customers, even if that’s as simple as making a task more convenient for them.
“The point is: If you believe in the product that you’re selling, you should know how you’re affecting people and why the company exists, why it’s good,” he says.
But employees won’t fall in step automatically.
“You have to train people on what the product does and why it’s better than something that’s comparable,” Congdon says.
At least that’s the idea if you manufacture a product. If not, then the training should cover what’s special about whatever it is you do. Maybe that comes down to the experience customers have with your company.
“If I’m a Best Buy, I can’t train all my [employees] on every single product that I sell,” he says. “But I can train them on the Best Buy experience, on what happens when somebody walks in the store, on the fact that I’d rather walk into that store than some other elec
tronic widget and music retailer. So I might be training somebody on the experience and the customer service and the prices and everything else that I consider the best thing about my company.”
So in addition to teaching employees about Beachbody’s programs, there’s also a service aspect. That training involves explaining the expectations and metrics that define great service, down to what phone calls should sound like.
It starts with some of the basics, like: The customer’s always right — and when they’re not, don’t correct them.
“We realized that … when somebody called to say something and they were incorrect, it wasn’t our job to let them know that they were incorrect,” Congdon says. “If their expectation was the product should have gotten there in four days, it didn’t really matter if we said, ‘Well, if you’ll go to the Web site, you’ll notice that it says five to seven business days.’ There was absolutely no upside in showing them that their expectations were off.
“Ignore the fact that you’re right and the customer’s wrong. Just ask them what you can do to make it better. We’ve found that returns went down based on that.”
Congdon also wants customers to hang up the phone feeling like their issue was handled. The only way to know is to ask.
“Even if the call didn’t feel good and was a little tense, you have to, at the end of the call, basically ask, ‘Have I taken care of what you were concerned with?’ and ‘Is there anything else I can help you with today?’” he says. “We must ask that question and then we must say whether the person said, ‘Yes, my issue has been handled,’ or, ‘No, it hasn’t been handled yet; I’m not satisfied,’ which then can create more conversation. We will get them to the point where they say yes.”
Look beyond statistics
Congdon is surrounded by customers every day. It’s not just the ones who tour headquarters daily; the office walls are covered with thousands of customers’ before and after pictures.
“You cannot get away from the customer in our company,” he says. “I am shocked when I go to other companies that sell direct like we do and I realize that there is no sense of the customer inside those offices.”
If you make fan belts, you’re probably not going to have photos of people who love your product plastering your office. But to keep the focus on customers, you can make heroes of people who create a positive experience for them.
You’ll only recognize who’s doing that if you have ways to measure it. That starts with the expectations you set in training, but you won’t always know initially if those will have tangible, measurable effects.
“Do I try to make improvements without knowing how I’m going to measure them but because I know it’s better for the customer? Yes,” Congdon says. “Does it usually turn out that I’ve got something measurable that happens as a result of hitting that mark? Yes.”
For example, Congdon realized shipping products on time — within five to seven business days — wasn’t good enough. Customers expected the low end of the range, and they’d start calling on day four to ask where their product was. They’d whittled down the official deadline.
So Congdon set the internal deadline on day five to meet that expectation and realized it reduced canceled orders by 50 percent, returns by 40 percent and “where’s-my-order” calls by 80 percent.
Although he didn’t set out to, he can monitor when shipments go out as well as what effect that has on other statistics.
Those statistics can also contribute to your broader understanding of whether your expectations are resonating with employees.
“Certainly, it pays off in the reactions of your customers and the number of complaints that you get or the number of positive letters that you get,” he says.
Plus, the unresolved complaints go straight to the top for Congdon and Daikeler to handle.
“I’ve had people that were a little frustrated after they say that 99 percent of the products went out in 24 hours and then I respond with, ‘Well, what happened with the 1 percent?’” Congdon says. “(That) sounds great, but not if you’re one of the customers that fell into the (1) percent. You can look at statistics generally and go, ‘Wow, that looks like an A+,’ … but always think about individuals rather than the stats. We feel that 1 percent because those are the complaints that come to us.”
While the company has gotten good at dealing with those, it doesn’t have as many because complaints have dwindled. Instead, Congdon and his team are getting a lot of unsolicited praise, as more than half of their sales are now sparked through word-of-mouth recommendations from other customers.
“My job is making sure that we don’t get in the way of that and that our operations literally remove any barrier to that word-of-mouth transaction occurring,” Congdon says. “What we do is we try to give our customers all the tools possible … and let our customers be our best spokespeople and our best salespeople.”
HOW TO REACH: Product Partners LLC, (800) 714-7254 or www.beachbody.com
Visit Beachbody’s online community: www.teambeachbody.com
It’s not the metaphor you’d expect to hear from Jim R. Miller. You’d anticipate some building terms from the president of the South Central region of JE Dunn Construction Co.
But no — Miller looks to music to illustrate leadership.
“We’re kind of like an orchestra,” Miller says. “We have a conductor — that’s our leadership team — and our job is to lead this whole team. The leaders [are] those that can put a team of a bunch of different people together with a bunch of different agendas, those that can get everybody on the same page and get all the pieces of the band playing the same music.”
With about 30 years of experience in the industry — all at JE Dunn — Miller has seen plenty of tempo changes. He now oversees Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas from the region’s Houston headquarters, and the recent recession has been the first dip many employees there have experienced. So maintaining their focus is a fresh challenge.
“It’s keeping all the employees moving in the same direction where there is friction due to the economy,” he says. “Communicating with that leadership team and making sure that those leaders communicate with the entire staff is very important. Today, more than ever, communication is very important to make sure that everyone feels like they know what’s going on and what direction the company is proceeding.”
Miller knows that keeping employees headed toward — and achieving — goals is a continuous and collaborative process of communication.
“If we can create the vision or the process or the game plan, then it’s identifying assignments and making sure everybody understands their role and then providing a check, an oversight to make sure that it’s happening the way it needs to happen,” Miller says.
Get goal-setting consensus
If you wait until your goals are set to start communicating, it’s too late. At least bring in your leadership team to collaboratively develop a path.
Miller gets his team together annually to set goals. JE Dunn uses a balanced scorecard focused on four areas: customer satisfaction, financial metrics, standard operating procedures, and employee growth and learning. By relying on corporate parameters, they begin the goal-setting process on common ground.
Even then, landing on the same page can be a struggle.
The first step is creating an open environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing.
“You have to prove that everybody has a say in it,” Miller says. “You have to demonstrate that, and people will eventually follow because it works.”
Do that by providing examples of other people’s ideas you’ve implemented.
“Everybody on our team has come up with ideas that we have incorporated,” Miller says.
“When we take those ideas and we turn them into reality, everybody sees it and says, ‘Gosh, it really does work. I can provide an idea and we’ll really do something about it.’ That’s what I mean by demonstrating that it works: You make sure people know where the idea came from. It’s not my idea; I was just smart enough to incorporate it.”
Once ideas start flowing, keep debate healthy. Miller has a systematic way for doing that.
“You’ve got to have a time limit,” he says. “We try to limit our meetings to an hour. If an item gets out of hand, you just have to step in and stop it and regroup later. If you see there’s progress being made, you keep it going. If you see you’re just beating up on the same issue and you’re not making any progress, then you’ve got to cut it off. You’ve got to think about it; you’ve got to come back in a smaller group or you’ve got to come back with a better idea.”
For example, because JE Dunn does diverse types of work, a common debate with Miller’s team is deciding which projects will best utilize available resources. When he realized they were going back and forth unproductively, he decided to develop a more black-and-white process of matching their strengths to a project’s needs.
“As opposed to just having one of these ferocious debates, we put that into some positive energy and made people more accountable to identify the real facts of the project so we could make an intelligent decision based on our strengths,” he says.
If you openly welcome ideas from everyone and keep debate healthy, Miller has found that the rest usually falls into place. But to assist that, he set an expectation that once most people agree, the rest will get on board.
“That’s what building a team is all about,” he says. “So even if one person may not totally agree and he may have another idea, at some point, you just have to say, ‘That’s it. Everybody [else] is on board. Let’s go.’
“Having a true team, that’s what you do … is express your opinion, we’ll debate it, we’ll (discuss) it, we’ll do our best to figure out the right solution. After going through a healthy discussion, you end up with the best idea. Once you have a general consensus in it, then you all agree to move forward.”
It may take individual meetings with resisters to ask for support, explaining that the team believes it’s the best solution for the company.
“You have one or two that are going another way, then you fall apart,” Miller says.
Break down goals
After building consensus on his leadership team, Miller still has to bring the rest of his 390 employees on board.
“I like to break it down into bite-size pieces, creating a vision that people can really understand,” he says.
His leadership team clearly assigns individual roles while setting goals.
“We try to make it as clear as possible where one role stops and another starts,” he says. “We sit down and identify specifically on a project: ‘Somebody’s handling that component, somebody else is handling that component, somebody else’s job is to focus on another.’”
Those roles may shift as you get into a project and watch it play out, but the key is clearly communicating what you expect up front as well as any changes in that along the way.
“Be open enough to identify if there’s a gap or if there’s a duplication,” Miller says.
While he can assign roles broadly, he lets direct reports and managers flesh those out for their teams.
Gregg Lynch, the executive vice president who oversees the southern part of the South Central region — including Houston, Austin and Louisiana, says clear communication is the key to trickling down goals.
“Delegation really only works when the responsibilities of each individual are clearly defined and communicated, not only to that individual but others down the chain,” Lynch says.
After the annual regional leadership meeting, group leaders meet quarterly to monitor goals and objectives. Monthly, each office offers further updates on their progress. In between all of those meetings, managers reiterate goals with their employees and constantly review their progress.
For example, under the broad goal of safety, one person may be responsible for administering safety talks for other employees and measured on the quality of his talks and how many people attend. The project manager may be in charge of keeping that employee on task and getting subcontractors to participate. And the superintendent may be roaming the site looking for safety adjustments to make during the project.
“So it’s the one goal: Be safe,” Lynch says. “But everybody has a different role to make sure that happens.”
The catch that comes with defining and delegating roles is that you have to stay out of the way and let employees perform.
“You have to trust your people,” Lynch says. “Their authority must be backed up by you and supported by you. So if I have a guy that makes a wrong decision, I can’t hold that decision against him. I put him in the place to make that decision and I’ll support it. I can give [him] advice, but I really can’t second-guess that decision.”
It becomes important to monitor employees along the way so you can keep them on the right path before they veer off.
JE Dunn’s mission is especially relevant when it comes to monitoring and evaluating employees’ progress toward goals.
It reads: In pursuit of building perfection.
“We’re in pursuit of building perfection, so anything that doesn’t quite meet the standards, we talk about how to improve it,” Miller says.
Beyond just tracking results, there are plenty of opportunities for Miller and other executives to see how employees are faring. Teams within each office meet weekly to share what’s going well and not so well, the offices share updates with each other monthly, employees are formally evaluated twice a year, and there’s also an assessment after each project is completed — not to mention the informal temperature-taking in between.
Simply observing presentations in those meetings can help you evaluate employees.
“Each individual is given a responsibility and they also are given the opportunity to report on how they’re progressing toward their responsibility,” Lynch says. “When those team members come in and they’re prepared, they’re anticipating our questions, you know that they’re on top of their game.”
Lynch knows they’re enthusiastic about the goal if they’ve planned for all possibilities. Beyond that, he likes to see that they’re actually excited to talk about their plans to overcome obstacles, rather than dreading potential pitfalls.
Of course, it’s not just how they present but what they present — and how you react to it.
“You really praise in public and criticize in private,” says Miller, who rewards performance with anything from recognition to plaques to money. “It’s important to … reinforce the good behavior, and it works. People say, ‘Gosh, look at what happened to him. I’m going to try to do the same thing.’ People get turned on by that.
“But on the other hand, if somebody doesn’t do a good job, it can be pretty deflating to a person to be criticized in public. So he really needs to be pulled aside and a strategy — an employment improvement program of some sort — needs to be laid out where he can try to improve whatever he’s doing wrong.”
Lynch’s approach, for example, is to start on a good note then remind employees he’s there to help with the problem — both of which can encourage them to come forward with issues next time.
“I always like to start off with a positive before I bring in the negative,” Lynch says. “But [when] things aren’t going right, then I like to be direct and very open: ‘How do we solve this together?’ I think that holds a lot more weight than carrying a big stick. You get more buy-in from them wanting to solve their problem.”
For Miller, it’s about clearly communicating the steps toward a solution.
“It’s identifying, A, what’s not occurring that should be occurring, and then B, really identifying the steps that need to be taken and providing examples of what should be occurring and leaving the employee with a time frame,” he says.
The key is tackling that as soon as you notice an issue.
“That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned, is don’t procrastinate when it comes to addressing something that needs to be fixed,” Miller says. “Don’t ride dead horses. Identify whatever is broken and get into it [through] those that are involved. You need to constantly be looking for areas of improvement and then identifying the best way to improve that situation and move on.”
By constantly communicating from the goal-setting until success, Miller kept his employees aligned through the recession to achieve 2009 revenue of $244 million for his region, contributing to companywide revenue of $2.3 billion.
“The conductor of this orchestra needs to be paying attention to make sure that there’s the right number of trombones and they’re playing at the right time,” Miller says. “And if the trombone’s not there, he needs to step up and identify it.”
HOW TO REACH: JE Dunn Construction Co., South Central Region, (713) 521-4664 or www.jedunn.com
There’s no formula for providing great customer service. But when Northeast Ohio’s leaders came together for the World Class Customer Service Awards VIP Reception at Metro-Lexus, they shared what works for them. We spoke with them about their methods for providing an award-worthy customer experience.
Customers at Ambiance, the Store for Lovers, for example, see that service as soon as they walk in.
“First of all, we greet them with a non-businesslike greeting and we ask them questions to get a rapport with them,” says Jennifer Downey, president. “And then once we do, that’s when we start getting into what are they really shopping for today.”
But by then, Ambiance employees have already gone through 30-day training to practice responding to potential customer queries. Through that role-playing, employees learn to think like customers TLC, as it’s called at Ambiance.
A. Ray Dalton also gives his PartsSource employees some tools for understanding customers. It starts with different mindset for looking at what you do for them.
“We don’t wake up every morning thinking that we’re going to sell 5,500 parts or do $500,000,” says Dalton, president and CEO. “We think about lowering the cost of healthcare. We think about access to health care. We think about getting equipment up and running so that people can be treated. When you break your product down and humanize it, all of a sudden it makes it a more important job that you do.”
Humanizing your product can mean simply building relationships with your customers. By getting to know them, you can identify ways that your services can meet their needs.
Bill Botkin, a sales consultant at Today’s Business Products, says his job isn’t just learning about new products as they come out. He also has to understand customers well enough to match products to their needs.
“The best advice I could give would be to develop the relationship within the client’s business,” Botkin says. “It’s a matter of knowing who the decision makers are and knowing what initiatives the client has that are important to them. What’s their mission? How can you help them accomplish their mission?”
But be prepared once you ask the questions, the answers will keep flowing, bringing buckets of ideas for how you can improve your service. A network of consultants for Prentke Romich Co. stays in touch with customers to find out what’s working for them and what’s not. Ideas and suggestions bubble through them to a list in research and development.
When Russell Cross, vice president of product development, looks at that list to decide which ideas to implement, he subjects the suggestions to some metrics.
“At that point, what we do is to look at how many people we can affect by making a change and how much that will change their lives,” he says. “How will that affect the lives of their caregivers? Also, what does it take us in terms of manpower and resource to do it? The trick that we have is … to get a mix of finding opportunities that will give us the maximum output for the most people but using as few of the resources that we have available.”
Because those resources are limited, you won’t be able to go after every opportunity and you shouldn’t, says Carmella Calta, founder and CEO of Staffing Solutions Enterprises.
“[It’s] really understanding your customer base, really making sure that your core competencies are shored up and that you don’t move too far away from the core of your business,” Calta says. “It’s very attractive; you hear about all of these different opportunities and it seems very easy to go into a new business line or whatever. But if your core business isn’t strong, sometimes especially as a small business owner you’re spreading your resources out too thinly.”
For more coverage of the World Class Customer Service Awards, read about all 31 nominees.
You take typical safety precautions with your business, from locking the doors at night to trademarking your brand. Craig S. Horbus, Esq. attorney at Witschey, Witschey & Firestine Co. LPA, wonders why you aren’t doing the same to protect yourself online.
“For a company to have a successful online presence, they really have to start thinking about protecting their online reputation as much as they protect their real-world reputation,” says Horbus, who specializes in e-business law.
Because it’s a binding legal contract, drafting one without a law license is asking for trouble. Seek expert advice from an attorney.
“The problem I see is these companies try to wing it themselves,” he says. “It’s not created with any legal significance, review or guidance as it pertains to that company’s specific needs.”
Horbus starts with a Web site audit that assesses the overall look and feel of the site as well as target audience, purpose and content. He also looks behind the scenes, considering whether you use data-tracking tools like cookies and Google Analytics and what happens to data after it’s collected.
For example, you need to disclose Google Analytics because it collects information about your users’ traffic patterns. Your users should also know whether their data gets buried in a basement server or gets printed out for your daily review.
Online security also echoes how you protect your real-world image.
“If you take steps to protect the business by filing a copyright or trademark over a brand in the brick-and-mortar world, then you should also take those steps if you are in the online world,” Horbus says.
The Web offers additional tools for watching over your brand. You can’t have ears in every conversation to hear what everyone says about your company, but it’s easy to listen online. Monitoring tools, such as Google Alerts, let you know when your company name is mentioned for better or worse.
“By going online, businesses open their doors to the entire world, whether they like it or not,” Horbus says. “Sound security practices for business revolve around regular risk assessment … and then a prompt response to new developments within the technology world.”
Threats can range from the ever-present “digital gangsters,” as Horbus calls them hackers and spammers who may be more attracted to your business as your online reputation grows or internal threats like a disgruntled ex-employee.
“You’ve got to understand the threats when it comes to the world of security,” Horbus says.
The only way to stay on top of that is by reviewing your policy and any technology or legal changes that might impact it. Quarterly reviews may be three months late, so look at it as a constant endeavor that will be easier with proactive action now.
“By spending an amount upfront to make sure that systems are intact and security protocols are in place, [you] will save a tremendous amount of money down the road,” Horbus says. “Kind of the old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Speak the same language
The first step to making your business tech-savvy seems simple. In fact, Craig S. Horbus can boil it down to one word: knowledge.
“From a practical business operation standpoint, understanding what technology your business already has in place is a vital step,” says Horbus, an attorney at Witschey, Witschey & Firestine Co. LPA. “If you don’t know what you already have in place, you’ll never utilize it and you’ll never be secure in that technology.”
Understanding what’s going on in your IT department can be like translating foreign tongues. On one side, you have IT gurus who understand technology. Across the table, you have executives who understand day-to-day business operations but aren’t typically tech-savvy.
“The technology gap is big in the business world today,” Horbus says. “Trying to bridge that gap is really trying to [find] the people that can speak both languages.”
Many companies are hiring chief information officers or chief information security officers who excel in both realms. Others bring in online consultants. Others look to young employees who have online talents to tap in an in-house tech group.
“Business leaders need to assimilate a group of individuals who are not only competent in the world of technology but who can understand these emerging issues, assess the risks and then be proactive in preparing or responding to this changing landscape,” he says.
How to reach: Witschey, Witschey & Firestine Co. LPA, (330) 665-5117 or http://www.witscheylaw.com/
Alex G. Sciulli isn’t afraid to ask questions, especially when it helps him get to know employees and customers.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, if I ask a question, they’re going to think I’m really dumb,” says the president and chief operating officer of RJ Lee Group Inc. “It’s a good thing to be aware that you’re not going to know every answer.”
Through questions, Sciulli investigates people’s personalities — a mindset not far off for the $35 million company, which he calls an “industrial CSI” because his 250 employees are investigators in materials characterization and forensic engineering.
Smart Business spoke to Sciulli about how locker-room chemistry affects the game.
Q. What skills do leaders need?
What makes a good leader is not IQ but EQ, or emotional quotient. Let’s face it, Mr. Spock was a valuable asset on the Starship Enterprise, but he had no emotions, little empathy. Leaders need to exhibit a self-awareness of their skills and limitations. They must have the interpersonal and social skills to address the needs of the customer and the key staff providing the service.
You have to be a good listener. How does the customer differentiate your company from another company? The first way is through your interpersonal skills. You have to pass that test first. Then the second thing is that you have to take their problem on as your own.
Q. How do you teach employees to interact with clients?
When I’ve gone on sales calls with junior people, they want to say something about the company or something they’ve done previously. What the customer really wants is, ‘Tell me how you would solve that problem.’ You wouldn’t be sitting here if they didn’t think you were qualified. So at that point, you turn off the sales pitch and you’re on execute mode. Ask a lot of questions about how do you define the problem, what are the biggest issues that you face, what keeps you up at night, if you had a perfect world, what would you do?
You try to get [employees] exposed to how you approach a customer. Sometimes it’s as simple as when you’re in a client’s office, you have to be very observant. You have to look at the pictures on the wall. You have to look at the degrees. What did the client think was important to put on his wall: a hole-in-one certificate or pictures of the family? These things start conversations, and then you start to become a confidant.
… I tell [employees], ‘When the customer begins to talk, let them finish. When the customer mentioned the following, that was a good opportunity for you to interject about this.’ So it’s coaching done in a constructive fashion. You give them some encouragement and you say, ‘Here’s some things I would have done maybe a little differently,’ and then they grow.
Q. How do you interact with employees?
I get my cup of coffee and walk around, knock on your cubicle and start a conversation. Recently, I went into an employee’s cubicle and noticed a picture of Oprah Winfrey. I said, ‘Tell me what your connection is.’ Her sister works on [Oprah’s] staff. So it led to, ‘What do you like about Oprah?’
Or [it] might be a picture of kids with a soccer ball or something. I get to know the employees, what makes them go, what organizations are they a part of, why [they’re] involved. It just helps me get to know who they are and how I can help them in the everyday business environment.
Q. What’s the benefit of connecting with employees?
When I asked this one highly acclaimed CEO, ‘What do you attribute your success to?’ he said, ‘Lots of people wanted me to succeed.’ Sometimes one of the main benefits is people want to do this for you. They want you to be successful and, of course, they’re counting on you, that you’ll be looking out for them, as well.
Chemistry in the locker room has a great deal to do with how people will react on the field. If you care about your teammate, you have more of a tendency to work as a team.
Watch the interaction in meetings. You gauge how one person may propose an idea; what’s the reaction from the rest of the group? Does the rest of the group react, ‘Oh, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,’ or do they react by adding to the idea?
A lot of people have learned over time to work very independently and sometimes very autonomously. I try to break that down through group discussions about a particular project; I always bring other people in to get involved.
People will watch how I react to a question, saying, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. What do you suggest?’ Sort of like follow the leader — ‘Oh, he wants to have a very open meeting; anybody can give a suggestion.’
Q. How do employee relationships affect client relationships?
You have to understand who’s best to be in front of the customer. You have to obviously understand who your customer is. Some customers are so technically oriented [that] they only want to talk to somebody who is on the same technical level. I have certain customers that wouldn’t know a test tube from a tire iron. They don’t want the scientist; they want somebody who’s going to be their account manager.
Part of the business acumen of how this all comes together is as you get to know your staff and you get to know the personalities, you can tell who you should bring to the meeting for a particular client.
Ernie L. Danner asks a lot of questions.
Whether he’s trying to find out what customers really want, what employees are going through to meet those needs or how he can poise the company to make both sides happy, he’s going to ask plenty of other people what they think before landing at an answer.
“Most of the time it is just asking 4 million questions in 4 million ways so that you try to get it out of them,” says Danner, president and CEO of both Exterran Holdings Inc. and Exterran Partners LP.
Danner sees his role as the path-setter for the company, which has 10,000 employees providing oil and gas infrastructure products across more than 30 countries. Ultimately, his goal is to set a vision that will guide the company toward growth. But he can’t do it alone.
It takes a lot of input from employees and customers to set a vision in the right direction and, later, to gauge whether employees are on board with it.
“First, you’ve got to make a lot of visits to employees in the fields,” says Danner, who became CEO in June 2009 after serving as president and chief operating officer since October 2008. “You’ve got to get out of your office and you’ve got to go. The second is you provide the employees ways of getting you feedback. So I’m going out and asking. I give them a place to talk to me.”
By involving others in the vision he sets, Danner strives to make it a collective goal that everyone plays a part in achieving. He rallied employees together to increase 2006 revenue of $1.6 billion to $2.9 billion in 2009.
“To be a good leader, you really do just have to set the path for the organization that you’re leading. And to effectively set the path, you have to set the vision for the future,” Danner says. “And if you can combine that vision with great people, you can have success.”Create customer value
Your vision begins with the reason you’re in business: your customers. More specifically, it stems from what you do for them.
“You’ve got to find your niche in the marketplace, and then you have to build what differentiates you from the competitors, what value you’re going to bring,” Danner says. “Define what creates the most value for your customer and the organization, and you tailor your vision around that.”
It takes curiosity to find that value, which means you have to ask a lot of questions. You’re really examining past successes and failures to find future opportunities.
With employees, you’re asking about their previous interactions with customers: Why did the customer call? Did we meet that need?
When you’re talking to customers, it goes beyond the basic question of: How are we doing?
“You have to ask those, but then as you get into the future and trying to create value, you start delving into, increasingly, what are they frustrated about, both with us and with other vendors,” Danner says. “What are they having the hardest time accomplishing in the space that we’re providing them services? You just keep digging around their frustrations and ultimately you get to your opportunity.”
Even if the customer says your service is great, keep digging. Ask what you could do differently to get more business.
“Since customers want to solve their problems, they want to find partners that will solve their problems,” Danner says. “If all you ever do is just show up and ask them a thousand questions and never give them any solutions, they’ll get tired of you fairly quickly. But as long as you’re working together and creating value and they can see where this is going, sure, they’ll talk to you forever.”
Customers might not be able to pinpoint the big-picture problem. But they may know, for example, that they’re confused by your invoices. Even that’s a starting point to improve your service.
“You circle back and you solve the invoicing question which is really not the key part of the service you’re providing, but by doing so, it makes the company easier to do business with and you’ve solved a customer’s problem,” Danner says. “So it’s an example of how asking questions can lead to a better opportunity.”Prioritize opportunities
Once you’ve adopted that opportunity-seeking mindset, the digging expeditions get easier because the feedback starts coming voluntarily. Then, your challenge is just prioritizing the input you get.
“You take this list of opportunities and you start measuring them both on what creates the most value for the customer and what creates the most value for the company,” Danner says. “If you get too big of a list, you freeze. So narrow it down on value and narrow it down on what’s achievable. And then you turn that into the vision and then the strategies to achieve that vision.”
Identifying what’s doable is a risk assessment that involves anticipating obstacles you might hit. Danner constantly revisits what goes right and wrong with each project, building a keener ability to predict future barriers.
“If you’ve done your work on analyzing what goes right, what goes wrong on existing projects as you’ve grown, then those barriers and the potential pitfalls fall out through continuous improvement [or] some people would call it post-mortems on projects,” he says. “It’s just always examining what goes right and what goes wrong and striving to improve.”
Ideally, after each project, have your team debrief with group self-evaluations that weigh results against the goals of both the company and the customer. Don’t stop at what happened also think about why.
“You go, ‘What were the keys to us getting [those results]?’” Danner says. “Or if you missed and you were late or over budget, you break it down into a root cause analysis as to what went wrong.
“You’re always examining what you did. Did I do what I said I would do? Did the team do what we said we would do? And you’re holding yourself accountable to those pluses and minuses.”
With that background knowledge, you’ll build your foresight of future potential pitfalls. You probably won’t build your company around a solution buried behind too many barriers, so you’ll be able to prioritize which opportunities hold the most value and therefore, which ones to build your vision around.
“Try to think about what you’re going to do to knock down the barriers,” Danner says. “Are those barriers within your control, or are you really going to have to rely on a third party? If you’ve got to go outside to rely on that third party, those opportunities probably go to the back end of this analysis. You keep going to the ones you can control or, in some ways, you can get control of.”Secure commitment
Identifying opportunities and obstacles is crucial, but it’s moot if you stop there.
Even if you’ve already included input from others in your vision-setting process, the key to driving it through your organization is securing commitment.
“Once you’ve set the vision … you’ve got to bring it down to the level of what do I each individual in the organization what do I do and how do I fit into that long-term vision?” Danner says. “They’re going to have to be communicated with. They’re going to have to understand and share the vision. And if you can combine that vision with great people, you can have success.”
Instead of putting the emphasis on ever-important communication, Danner focuses on the receivers.
“It can’t be just communicating the vision,” he says. “It has to be getting people to understand the vision and why it’s important and what their role in it is. As the leader, you can only set this and communicate as much as you can. You cannot communicate to every employee. So to really drive the vision, you have to have people who are committed to that.”
Start by hiring employees who already buy in to the idea that each person is an important player helping the whole team succeed. Try to identify whether they’re looking out for themselves or their team by watching how they interact with others.
“They have to really value all employees and treat them with respect,” Danner says. “Are they people who want a big office? Then they probably aren’t respecting everybody else. Are they people that, as they come in the building, are holding the door open for the janitor? Well, now they’re respecting everybody. So I look for it in the little ways that people interact with each other when I’m looking for a new employee.”
You also want employees who see their role in the entire company’s success, rather than merely satisfying a job description.
“The whole organization has to pull together so you’ve got to hire people that aren’t just the old style of ‘I’ll tell you what to do and then you’ll know what to do,’” Danner says. “People have to understand they can’t create value if they’re just doing what they’re told to do. If they draw the line right there, then we won’t be successful.”
If employees can think beyond scripted responsibilities, that will translate into their ability to break the broader vision down into individual goals. That means you can focus on setting a high-level vision, long-term strategies and annual priorities for your company to focus on, then rely on employees to set narrower group and individual goals to support those.
Obviously, entrusting employees to set their own goals also requires that you hold them accountable. Danner has his employees meet with their managers at least every six months for progress updates and an opportunity to discuss what support, training and education they need to fit in with the year’s plan.
“It is about trying to put it in a small enough package that everybody can see for themselves how they fit in, so they’re driving that process more than we are telling them exactly, ‘Here’s what your role is,’” he says. “They understand the road map well enough that they can drive their role.”Monitor commitment
If you’re trusting employees to break the vision down into their specific roles, their understanding of that vision is automatically being tested. But that doesn’t mean you can just assume everyone is on board. Constantly examine your employees’ commitment.
“The easiest sign you see is in employee turnover,” Danner says, adding that by the time they quit, something is very wrong. “That means they’re not buying in to the vision or that the company is not sharing the rewards of that vision with the employees.”
To try to catch commitment issues before it’s too late, Danner uses Gallup’s employee engagement surveys. They measure whether employees feel like they’re in sync with their company by asking questions like: Do you have a best friend at work? Do you understand what’s expected of you? Do you feel like your job’s important?
But you can’t sit in your office and wait for survey results or even worse wait for people to leave. The best way to measure whether employees are on board is to get out and talk to them. You reinforce the vision by reiterating it directly, and you give employees an opportunity to respond at least, you should.
“First, you’ve got to smile a lot,” Danner says. “If you’re smiling then it sends the message that you’re willing to talk to somebody. As a leader, you have to pay attention to your demeanor because it’s sending a message all the time.
“Actually looking at the person when you talk to them is crucial. If you are fidgeting or looking at your BlackBerry and trying to hold a conversation, they’re not going to give you good feedback. If you are looking them in the eye and you are smiling at them and you respect them and their presence and their advice, then they’ll give you the feedback you need.”
Danner solicits and uses that feedback throughout the process, both to help him build the vision and to make sure employees stay in sync with it.
“It takes both great people and it takes the great people having a common platform to pull,” he says. “And you’re not going to achieve it without either.”
How to reach: Exterran Holdings Inc., (281) 836-7000 or www.exterran.com