Carolyn LaWell

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Showing the way

Building strong employee relationships starts with showing respect for your employees and the jobs they do, says Doug Sibila.

And to help employees better understand your vision for the company, you have to tell them why their actions are important, interact with them in their environment and put yourself in their shoes, says Sibila, president and CEO of the warehouse, distribution and transportation company Peoples Services Inc.

“There’s been a lot of talk of what motivates the younger generation versus older generation,” Sibila says. “Although you need to have some flexibility, to me, most of this is timeless and cross-generational.”

Sibila’s communication has paid off in employee loyalty, as most of the company’s hires come from staff referrals, and its turnover rate on the transportation side is five times less than the industry’s national average.

Smart Business spoke with Sibila about how to communicate to employees the importance of what they do.

Communicate the ‘why’ to employees. Try to engage all different levels so they feel they have a voice. We have this grandiose vision, but what does it mean to the guy that is loading and unloading the trucks for the customers?

It’s not up to them to translate your vision to their language. It’s the CEO’s responsibility to translate his vision into their language.

Try to meet with them in an environment where they’re comfortable — which may be as you are sometimes walking around sharing parts of that vision on why they’re doing what they’re doing — is important.

There are books out there that [advise] a leader who does what by when. What we like to add is ‘why.’ If they understand why they’re doing it, then the ownership of that activity becomes easier to understand.

I think that’s a good way. We try to show that. Why is it necessary for the truck to be clean? Why is it in the driver’s best interest to make sure his truck has been washed?

Even though that may take extra time, it may help him. It’s looked favorably upon when you go to an inspection station and your unit is clean.

We don’t have a product, we have a service, so that image of that service is reflected upon what does your equipment look like.

Verify that employees understand what you’re trying to communicate. Walk around asking questions. There’s still a tendency for people to tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. Sometimes the only way, as we like to say in our organization, is trust but verify.

Did they understand what you were talking about? If they completed a report that you requested, have them show it to you. Ask them questions to make sure they understand the ‘why’ of what they were doing as opposed to were they just filling in the information because you asked for it.

Ask an open-ended question to see if they really do understand what you were really trying to communicate as opposed to yes, no. Of course they’re going to say yes.

Reach employees in their workplace. Try to talk to as many as you can. Make a point to step out of your comfort zone and cross paths with them as best as you can in their environment — not in your environment, in their environment.

You say hello to them, get to know them, maybe what some of their hobbies are.

It shows that you’re willing to reach out to them.

For example, we have locations in multiple states. I was in three locations in West Virginia. I talked to several employees one on one and a whole group of employees.

We had had some layoffs, which obviously impacted some people, and understand that those are unpleasant things to have happened. However, it’s in the best interest of the company and everybody else because it strengthens their position.

I didn’t tell them anything they didn’t know. But the fact is that we weren’t running away from our responsibilities, [we were] taking them head on, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant.

Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. I’ve done most of the jobs in the company, so you go back on that experience and try to remember what it was like.

You may have that passion or ownership interest, but to an employee, it may be a paycheck. So how do you get through to them? It allows them to do the things that they enjoy.

Some companies actually put some of their managers or people through a rotation, encouraging your managers to be out there. For example, we encourage our managers and dispatchers to ride with the drivers and even our salespeople, so they see what it’s like. If they see the manager willing to do the same things they’re doing, I think that sends a good signal, whether it’s the CEO or a manager or anybody.

It doesn’t mean the CEO should be out sweeping the floor. But, for example, if I’m walking through a warehouse and I see a piece of a pallet sitting in the aisle, I pick it up because I would expect my managers, if they were walking through the warehouse, to do the same thing.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Part of that may be humility and understanding. Just because you say it doesn’t make it so.

How to reach: Peoples Services Inc., (330) 453-3709 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Brand new

When Joe Steiner saw a headline that read, “Reinvent or die,” the phrase hit him so hard that he went to his top management and proposed that they rebrand the company.

When they were done, the company had a new vision for growth and would soon have a new name — Color Art Integrated Interiors Inc. Steiner, chairman and CEO of the office interiors dealer, walked the company through the rebranding process nearly seven years ago, and the company continues to grow: Color Art posted 2007 revenue of $92 million and anticipates $115 million for 2008.

“You have to constantly reinvent yourself and do things differently in the market, or the competition will either catch up or pass you,” Steiner says.

The rebranding process starts with understanding your clients and the market needs, evaluating your vision and then educating your employees and the marketplace about the changes, he says.

Smart Business spoke with Steiner about how to craft and implement a new brand for your company.

Evaluate your vision.
We go through a process of making sure where we’re going is still in alignment with our vision.

The vision meetings have some structure to them, but we don’t try to limit any thought or input or idea that somebody has because basically, our vision is as broad or as focused as we make it.

We don’t talk anything about numbers or goals or objectives. We just talk about where we want to go as an organization — looking at different ways to grow our business.

If you don’t do something differently, it’s just so hard to grow.

We keep ourselves wide open, and after we come out of the meeting with ideas and thoughts and where we want to go, we put it up on the whiteboard and say, ‘Is this in line with our vision?’

Align your new brand with customer and market needs.
As you look at your core competencies, you have to say, ‘Who is your customer?’ You try to take a look at your core competencies versus what your customer is really asking for.

That requires face-to-face visits with customers. It also requires taking a look at what they do and trying to cater your services around their needs.

I think it needs to be well thought out; that’s why we went out and hired a firm to help us through the process.

We hired a firm, and the firm basically did a marketing study on all the various businesses we were in and took all of our competitors and our strengths and our weaknesses and our threats and our opportunities and kind of brought that back and said, ‘How does the marketplace currently look at us, and ideally, how do we want them to look at us?’

[Ask], who are you? How does the marketplace perceive you? How do you want the marketplace to perceive you? And, if those are different, how are you going to change it?

Educate your employees.
First of all, we went through an extensive six-month process within our organization to help everybody understand what our vision was, how they fit in to the vision and what we were going to be doing and how that would make us different.

We had a booklet made up. We told them how we were changing our name, told them how we were branding ourselves going forward, and what the expected and the desired results of those were.

If employees don’t understand how we’re different and why we’re different, then it’s hard for them to envision how they play in to that, and everybody has to play in to it.

When I talk about our employees, I’m talking about every employee in our organization and how they have to understand.

We had a multidisciplined team that went down throughout the organization. We tried to seek input with every level of the organization to not only confirm we were on the right track but to gauge what their understanding level was and try to get a feeling of how they were going to be able to understand it and take it to the marketplace.

Your people have to understand the vision and the process thoroughly before you can take it to the market.

Inform the marketplace.
I’m a strong believer in core competency, and the way we define core competency is being able to do something that nobody else in the market can do. There may be others that say they can do it, but they can’t. And then taking that core competency, branding it and taking it to the market so that the marketplace knows how you’re different and why you’re different.

The significance is as an example: When we went out and researched the marketplace, the marketplace thought of us as an office furniture dealership. We already knew we were much more than that.

If we had all of this and we were trying to accomplish a certain thing in the marketplace but the marketplace only viewed us as an office furniture dealership, then we would have to do something to tell the marketplace how we were different, why were different, why we were better.

As we went through this whole rebranding process, we first of all ran two advertising campaigns. We went out and told the marketplace how we were different, which was basically expounding upon our core competencies.

After the first year of advertising, then we went into another campaign that basically said, ‘We’ve been telling you how we were different. Here are the results of that.’ We had customer testimonials, we had projects that we did and customers commented on.

HOW TO REACH: Color Art Integrated Interiors Inc., (314) 432-3000 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Moving ahead

Motivating employees is easier said than done, says Steve O’Kane. And while it can be difficult, it’s an issue leaders strive to manage.

Over his career as an executive, the president of trucking company A. Duie Pyle Inc. says his greatest challenge has been empowering staff members. The key, he’s found, is a process that starts with gaining credibility and trust and is then maintained by recognizing employee achievements and, more important, by good communication.

“Employees, I think overall, just love communication,” O’Kane says. “They thirst for communication.”

For A. Duie Pyle, which posted 2007 revenue of $223 million, that has meant tailoring its communication process to the needs of its employees, the majority of whom are constantly crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada. So every six to eight weeks, the company puts out CDs that include information about what’s happening in the company and the industry to keep those on the road connected.

Smart Business spoke with O’Kane about the steps you can take to help motivate your employees.

Gain standing.
First off, you need credibility to be able to do it, and you gain credibility over the years with a little bit of a record of success. When you try things and they work and people around you see them, it helps you motivate them to do the things that the company requires for that success.

On the flip side of that is when you make mistakes — and I’ve made more than my share in my time — you have to own up to them. A, you have to fix them and do it quickly, and B, own up to them publicly and get it behind you and move on.

You have to correct it, and those that are around or involved in the implementation — that are part of the execution team of whatever mistake you made — then it’s important to revisit with them what was done incorrectly, how it was fixed, how you go forward from here, and you want to admit your role in the error.

If you do those things, you get credibility with the people you work with, and I think that puts you in a position where you can use standard techniques to keep them motivated.

Open the lines of communication to engage and inform employees.
If you really focus on the employees, keep them engaged, listen to their concerns and, when warranted, adjust a little bit, they stay motivated, they stay engaged.

Keys to employee communication are all consistent with the keys to all communication.

One, talk about what matters most to the employees. Whenever I interact with employees, in a formal or totally informal setting, I invite the employee to ask questions.

I would rather talk about what is on the employee’s mind than what is on my mind.

Now, there is likely an agenda or a motivation for the interaction, so I will deliver the desired message but try never to close without inviting questions.

Two is honesty. Employees appreciate direct answers. Even if the answer to a question or request is no, it is better to give them a direct response than to try to escape with a vague, ‘We’ll consider that,’ or, ‘Maybe,’ and have the issue fester.

If something employees want is simply not going to happen, better to meet the issue head on and try to end the discussion. Of course, when the answer is yes, you must make sure you follow through on what has now become a commitment.

Three, ‘why’ is often as important as the ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ When an answer has to be no, it is worth taking time to explain why a negative answer is necessary. Employees really do understand the business more than some leaders may realize.

Four, small groups work best. If I have a choice — and often there isn’t one — I prefer to talk to employees in small groups. Several informal discussions on a regular basis are often far more meaningful and controllable than one big meeting. Plus, the employees really appreciate the personal attention they feel from such meetings.

Five is results. At the end of the day, employees have a great sense as to whether or not leadership is making good decisions. They may not agree with every decision, but if they feel that leadership is moving the organization in a good direction for their future, then communication becomes an exchange of viewpoints and explanation of direction.

Without good strategy and leadership, the best communication possible will not be well received by the employee population. Good communication can reinforce a well-thought-out business plan, but without the good plan, even great communication will be viewed as ineffective and insincere.

Recognize and reward.
Essentially, everybody wants to do a good job, I believe. So when they feel that they’ve been given the tools to excel, when they’ve been given the environment where excellence is recognized and then when they’ve been recognized for an excellent performance, they are all motivated.

While it does sound simple, it really does work.

There’s a variety of ways depending on where in the organization they lie. There are some people that respond to praise. Try to do that. Nobody ever does enough of that.

Personally, I send cards to people’s homes. Just little thank-yous or recognitions for specific things where they’ve done well.

Then, on our management group, I think it’s important that there be a financial incentive, an income system that rewards excellence.

HOW TO REACH: A. Duie Pyle Inc., (800) 523-5020 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Finding potential

The secret behind any successful company is having the right people, says Tom Lipar. As founder and CEO of LGI Development, a land and home sales and developing company, Lipar says that he struggles with hiring and retaining quality employees.

You can implement an extensive interviewing process, which LGI has, but that’s just the start, says Lipar, who has 105 employees. Once you hire the right employees, you need to give them the tools to do their job. To create a healthy, successful work force, you have to give employees the tools to do their jobs, educate them and help them find ways to meet both personal and company goals.

LGI Development, which posted 2007 revenue of $118.3 million, has been successful largely because of its sales training program, which Lipar carried over from a previous job, where he was charged with creating a similar program.

Smart Business spoke with Lipar about ways to help employees maximize their potential and, in return, the potential of your company.

Involve employees in setting goals.
All of our people in our company do goal setting. It’s a true goal-planning process. It starts from the top down; it starts from the business plan. We do that on an annual basis for one-year goals. Then, every month, everybody in the company meets with their directs and goes through monthly business and personal goals so that we’re all on the same page with objectives that the company wants.

The employee doesn’t just write the goals down and bring them to the company. It’s a goal-planning session where the manager sits with the employee and they discuss what’s going on in the company, what the employees need to do to achieve his personal goals as well as the company goals.

When they’re discussed, if the employee sets it too high, then the manager should know enough and say, ‘I think you’re a little bit too aggressive; we need to probably pull it back because one thing we don’t want you to do is seek failure and not reach your goals.’ We try to be realistic.

The principles of goal setting are they have to be realistic. They have to be written, and if you don’t reach them, they should be changed.

It definitely works. No. 1, the people who work for you have to know what the job is. They have to know how to do the job, and they have to know what they can do to achieve results in the job.

You should have a mutual expectation between management and their directs, so the manager knows what’s expected from their employees and the direct knows what to expect from their manager. And they should know what the overall objective of the company is, what their financial goals are, what the production goals are. Then, the employee can determine how he can effect that objective — be effective on that objective — to achieve through his own goals.

They know what the company’s goals are, and they then have the opportunity to say, ‘Well, I’m going to be this part of that company goal; I’m going to do this much to achieve that overall company goal.’ In other words, ‘I’m going to reach my goals, which, in turn, will help the company reach their goals.’

Give employees the right training.
We’re constantly looking internally for people that we can teach our system to so when the opportunity or a project comes up, we have the people to do it.

There’s two parts to training. Education is where you sit somebody down and they read things, they listen to tapes, they listen to lectures, they learn about what the job is and how to do the job. Training for sales-people is 100 days ... 30 days of classroom training, lectures, tapes, myself, the president of the company, different people in different departments.

The second part of training, and the most critical, is when the salesperson goes out to the field. They’re not put right in front of a customer. Their manager does on-the-job training. They show them how to clothe. They show them how to do a presentation. As the salesperson gets better, they’re given more time with the customer.

Promote for the right reasons.
You have to hire the good people, the good employees, but also you’ve got to make sure you have the right people doing the right jobs. I think that’s where a lot of companies fail. They promote people into a job as a reward rather than promoting people that can really do the job.

A good manager has to have certain qualities. The most important one they have to have is the ability to promote, demote or fire people without emotion.

When you promote somebody into a different job or a new job, they have to be qualified for that job. They have to be the right fit for the job, they have to be the right person for the job, otherwise you’re doing both the company and yourself a disservice because if they are not the right person for the job, obviously, they’ll fail.

When you’re promoting somebody to a new job, it’s like hiring a new person. You’ve got to know them, you’ve got to make sure they’re the right personality for the job, you’ve got to make sure they know how to do the job and that they’ll be successful in the job. It’s not just a reward.

HOW TO REACH: LGI Development, (281) 362-8998 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Producing change

When Tom Stofac accepted the position of CEO at Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio in 2005, one of his first priorities was getting employees to laugh.

Adding laughter to the work environment was part of Stofac’s plan to change the organization’s corporate culture from one based on fear to one based on trust, he says.

The revamped culture at LSSCO has led to more productivity from Stofac’s 750 employees and a greater focus on the organization’s mission of people in need. And while changing a culture may sound simple, Stofac says it takes discipline as you start by recognizing what your current culture is, then establish a new one and get employees to buy in to it.

“Clearly define the culture that you want, what you expect and ways in which and examples of which that would play itself out,” he says. “Then, go and communicate that to people. At the same time, listen to how they might want to make their lives better in the work world, and deliver.”

Smart Business spoke with Stofac about how to change your culture.

Recognize the culture.
The biggest thing is you have to recognize that there is a culture, whether you want to create it [or] shift it. But a culture is going to be created, with or without you as the CEO. So you need to just recognize it and then develop the culture that you want because it’s going to be created one way or another.

Culture really comes down to, in its most basic format, a trust-based culture or a fear-based culture. In a fear-based culture, people are not willing to make decisions even for fear that they might get fired or get written up. They’re paralyzed.

That’s the first key piece of what a culture can be: Is it trust-based, or is it fear-based?

A simple way to recognize the culture of your organization is to walk around. During the walk-around, listen and take in all the behaviors and attitudes that exist. In essence, observe your culture with your ears, eyes and mind. Look for behaviors that will tell you how people are communicating.

As you talk with people, look for how they react to you as the leader. Are they comfortable? Are they genuine? And most importantly, are they enjoying what they are doing?

If you don’t hear any laughter, it might be a good sign you live in a fear-based culture and people are not having fun. Then turnover is probably around the corner.

Gain employee confidence in your leadership to produce change.
Establishing the baseline of trust begins with the leader trusting his or her own ability to lead as well as being comfortable with who they are as a person. Then the process becomes easy.

Meet with groups of staff, ask what could make the organization better, and pick the ones that work best and do them. Also, be available to meet with your employees. But most importantly, trust begins and ends with how your organization’s employees see you act, talk and respond to different situations.

Once you establish a trust-based culture, then you can pick up other pieces of that culture, like I expect everybody to talk to one another and communicate between departments. And how do you do that? You model that as the CEO.

As the CEO, I always get out. I’m forever out in our programs or out and around the corporate office talking to different people and getting different people to talk to one another. That creates again, that trust-based culture that goes beyond one that people can have more trust between departments and share that vision.

Be honest about the changes.
The first thing I did was say, ‘Everybody get out of the suit and tie. You can all go business casual now.’ That just sent a little message to everybody that, ‘OK, it’s a different day now.’ Everybody can get a little more relaxed.

I pulled everybody in and told them, ‘Here’s the decisions I’m making, this is why we have to make them, this is what we’re going to do, and I’m asking you to try to support me through this and stay on this bus. Here’s the vision; here’s what we’ve got to do to get through this.’

You establish quick, open, honest communication to all levels of your staff as quickly as possible, as openly as possible. And yet [you have to] truly understand and know the boundaries of not throwing them all away but understand and communicate where the boundaries are and where they’re not.

Involve employees in the continual process.
Undersell and overde-liver. By that I mean, you go and you ask what can make it better for them. What can make their lives better?

You don’t promise them the world. You don’t promise them to fix everything at once. You don’t promise to do everything they ask.

You listen to what they have to say to make things better. Then, you take steps and you get a couple quick wins to be able to say, ‘Yeah, see, I have listened. And, yes, things are going to get better.’

I just kept encouraging people: ‘Thank you, you need to give me that feedback. I need to know.’

(Managers) have modeled that behavior after I did that here, of going back and saying, ‘What do you need; what will make it better?’

You continue to do that, and you meet with them on a regular basis. That’s how you can create and shepherd that culture.

HOW TO REACH: Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio, (614) 228-5200 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Assembling a team

If you look for George Thomas Contractor Inc. in the phone book, you won’t find it. In fact, you won’t find the company advertised anywhere.

That’s because George Thomas, founder, president and CEO, has built his $8 million construction company on sheer reputation.

Part of that is doing good work, says Thomas. But it starts with being selective and hiring the right people.

“We make it very difficult to get into the company because we get a better class of worker,” Thomas says.

Smart Business spoke with Thomas about how to interview to find the right employees are right for your team.

Q. How do you know when a job candidate is right for your company?

For me, it starts with looking a man or a woman in the eye and quickly building a first impression.

There are often things that people will say to you or write on their resume or application. As the CEO, you must know what to listen for and study the application to see if there are inconsistencies. Sometimes it’s not what a prospective employee says; it’s what he doesn’t say.

Q. How do you spot inconsistencies during the interviewing process?

For example, if I would look at their resume and it says, ‘I worked for so-and-so from this period to that period, and for so-and-so from this period to that period,’ then in the conversation, something else comes up that they worked, for but it’s not in that time frame nor is the name mentioned. To me, that’s an inconsistency as to why didn’t you mention that.

Then I would probe a little bit into, ‘Well, I’m looking at your resume, but it doesn’t mention this particular thing that you did for three years. Why is that? Did you forget it?’

It may be that they got fired or they had a bad experience. It may not be their fault, or it may be something they want to forget. But they didn’t put it down.

When you’re looking this person in the eye, most seasoned or better entrepreneurs or employers, after looking at the resume and the qualifications, they kind of get a sense of the rightness and the truthfulness of what they’re dealing with. I look for that.

Then, in some cases, I sense that they are just very forthright, open, honest people.

Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little bit of a line, and that causes me to look more carefully at the information that they’ve given me. It also tips me to ask questions that I might not otherwise ask — probably knowledge that I have in the more difficult areas of running a job.

Most people, because I’m older, don’t realize that I was in the field for many years when I was younger. They don’t understand that I know construction extremely well.

I will ask questions directly pertaining, which kind of catches them off guard, about more difficult things like, can you do a rafter cut. Then, all of a sudden, I’ll know pretty quickly if they’re running me a story or if they really know.

I don’t try to catch them off guard. I listen to what they tell me, and if it doesn’t seem completely correct or as if I’m not getting a totally truthful story about their abilities, I will probe.

Then that’s a whole different set of questions, which go directly to the quality of the product. Most CEOs don’t know how to do that, they’re just CEOs. They didn’t spend 12 years in the field with a belt on.

Q. How do you recognize in the short period of an interview whether the person possesses the qualities you’re looking?

I think it really just comes from asking the right questions.

When you look a person in the eye, people are usually excited about their interview, they’re nervous about their interview, they’re complacent, they’re down, they’re depressed. I think you just have to pay attention to their body language.

The most important thing in any interview is your ability to listen and not to talk.

I listen very carefully when they’re talking. It sends me in all kinds of directions mentally.

Don’t think about what you want to say or your questions. Once you’ve asked it, be all ears. Be listening to what the person says.

I’m constantly searching for an upbeat, teamwork mentality, a sense of honesty, a strong desire to do what is right.

Q. Once someone’s on board, how do you then foster that sense of teamwork and honesty among employees?

I think it’s the whole air of your company — the openness of it, the willingness to let people know how you’re doing financially, be it good or negative.

Once you make them a part of that honesty and openness, they become part of worrying about it. If they’re worrying about or happy about the financial situation of the company, they get drawn into the company, and they start to treat the company as if it’s their own.

HOW TO REACH: George Thomas Contractor Inc., or (614) 870-1950

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

The place to be

Andy Medley has seen one too many executives model a culture after that of another company and then watch it fail because it didn’t fit the organization.

To eliminate that potential problem at his three companies, the president of Trace Communications LLC and his partner, Scott Hill, decided to separate their companies from under one roof. That transition left them with the challenge of redefining a culture for the 35 employees at the printing company, which helps newspaper customers generate revenue.

“The initial thing was looking at what are the things that are most important to us and what do we want to hold true,” Medley says.

Smart Business spoke with Medley about how to implement a corporate culture that will work for your company.

Q. How do you create a company culture?

Figure out what you want and figure out what you think is going to make the business do well. Make it a place where people are going to want to work.

The first step my partner and I did was sit down and say, ‘Let’s create an environment that, if we were in the marketplace looking for a job, we would pick this place. What types of things does that look like?’

After you decide that, it’s got to fit you. It needs to fit your personality. It needs to fit the strategy for what you’re trying to accomplish.

The easiest way is to look around your company and get a good sense of what motivates them and what they like about the company.

Empowering employees and educating them on how they can affect the company positively or negatively is the first place to start. One of the employees brought me research on dress codes, and basically he was trying to get me to change the dress code. We sat down and talked, and he gave me a proposal. I read it and said, ‘Yes, this makes 100 percent sense.’

This is where the fit comes in. He and I are agreeing that this dress code works.

But why does it work?

Let’s explore the reasons that we think that it’s OK for us to dress this particular way.

It’s something as simple as that.

Q. How do you implement a cultural change?

It’s little bitty steps that are slowly making change. If I came in and changed the way we did business and changed the way we interacted, it’s not going to work. People are going to come in and see it as fake.

You try and move as quickly as you can, but not so fast that people feel like it’s out of control or they don’t have any say in what’s getting done.

You can’t just step in front of people and say, ‘We’re going to change this, this and this.’

The one thing to recognize is that it wasn’t perfect at first.

You’ve got to be comfortable with the fact that when you go into it, you’re going to make some mistakes, and things aren’t going to be well received.

Q. How do you get employees to buy in to the culture and give you feedback?

Constant communication. I’ve never stood up in front of the group and said, ‘This is what our culture is about.’ It’s more along the lines of talking about the business specifically and what we, as a company, can do to improve ourselves.

I try to walk around and joke with people in the company just to see where they’re at. See what the overall mood is, see what the activity is. Make sure people feel like they’re appreciated for the work they’re doing. Make sure you’re creating the behind-the-scenes relationships that presidents sometimes take for granted.

The buy-in is not always going to be 100 percent. You want to make sure that the overwhelming feeling of the company is buying in to what it is you’re trying to do. Hopefully, because that sentiment is so strong, it dramatically outweighs and, more importantly, silences the people in the company who might not feel the same way.

We get feedback from anybody who wants to give it. There are people in the company that I have a good relationship with that feel comfortable with me sharing honestly and candidly about things that are taking place beyond the scenes. So when we’re rolling something out, I talk to somebody about what’s a good way to do this, or, ‘Can you help get me some buy-in behind the scenes when there are conversations when I’m not around and you can explain why we’re doing these things?’

You try to get key influential people in the company, who have a lot of buy-in from the rest of the team, in on what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s not that you’re trying to manipulate that, you’re trying to help them make the decisions that you’re making better.

If you’re getting constant feedback from them, but at the same time, you leave the door open for anybody to give feedback, you’re typically going to get a good mix and have a pulse of where the company is at.

HOW TO REACH: Trace Communications LLC, (317) 644-5800 or

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Client contentment

Ensuring customer satisfaction is the key to any company’s growth, says Chuck Rotuno.

Since OEConnection’s inception in 2000, the president and CEO has formulated procedures to gauge and refine the client satisfaction rate at the automotive technology company.

“The more data you collect, the more you listen to your customers, the better off you will be,” Rotuno says.

By using client feedback on a daily basis, Rotuno continues to grow OEConnection, which this year expects to increase its staff of 185 to more than 200 and expand its customer list of 13,000 dealerships and 14 automobile makers.

Smart Business spoke with Rotuno about how to ensure customer satisfaction.

Q. How do you measure customer satisfaction?

We do formal surveys annually with our customers on product satisfaction to make sure we understand the overall satisfaction with products, their utilization, how often they’re being used, our overall list of things we can do better.

Try to listen to the customer. Try to identify enhancements.

On a weekly basis in our customer care organization, we perform surveys with our existing customers to make sure our service organization is performing to a level that meets their expectations.

One of the key questions is, would they recommend our services and solutions to somebody else? Another one is, are they getting enough personalized assistance? At the end of the day, customers expect a level of care and support that is very important.

It’s understanding the quality of your service on a regular basis, how they feel about your solution, would they recommend you to someone else.

Q. How often do you review customer satisfaction and feedback?

Continually is the only answer. We like to believe our customer satisfaction process is a continuum in every way we interface with a customer.

That can be in a lot of different ways. Anytime you touch a customer, you have to start with, do they like you, first, and are they getting value out of what you’re doing.

We have sales reps, who call upon customers. They’re in the field; they’re on the phone.

They’re constantly measuring satisfaction and giving feedback.

When they’re generally trying to pitch or sell something else, they start with, ‘Hey, I see you’re a subscriber with one application. How is that going for you? Do you like it? Let’s talk about what else we can do for you.’

Our product marketing organization is constantly surveying users for what’s next. What else can we do?

It’s really a day-to-day process. You can never have too much feedback. If customers give you a lot of feedback, you respond to the feedback by continually enhancing your product and people continue to buy it, then I think you have all of the elements of a successful initiative.

The worst thing you can do is do a survey or ask somebody what they think and then ignore them. That doesn’t mean we implement every suggestion you get from customers. But we clearly listen and understand, and if the evidence supports that there’s an opportunity to improve, we act upon it.

My recommendation would be to analyze the feedback and determine what actions need to be taken to address the items in order of importance.

Q. How do you tie customer satisfaction into the overall growth plan of a company?

It ties in by the strategy that with greater customer satisfaction comes a greater likelihood of additional purchase behavior. We’ve set seven key strategic objectives as a company, and I don’t have a problem sharing them because I think it’s all logical. We have three financial objectives: revenue, earning and cash flow growth. We have four nonfinancial objectives that we measure religiously because they’re the key. They are customer retention, customer satisfaction, associate retention and associate satisfaction.

At the end of the day, having happy employees and happy customers who are using your products is pretty much a winning formula. I think any company out there can make it that simple and succeed.

Q. What should company leaders keep in mind when it comes to measuring customer and employee satisfaction?

Continuous improvement. Measuring where you stand on a metric like customer satisfaction or associate satisfaction is a touch point, but it’s what you do with the data to continually improve.

So if we have an associate satisfaction survey that highlights a particular area or concern, what are we doing to improve upon that, and then how do we measure progress. That’s an important element.

We measure the progress a couple ways: follow-up surveys with the associates, informal focus groups. For example, ‘We heard you say in the last associate survey that we’re not doing enough on internal training. Here are some of the things we’ve done. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about doing. What do you think?’

HOW TO REACH: OEConnection, (888) 776-5792 or

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

Know your business

Dave Spence likes to live in what he calls a state of paranoia to help him avoid the stages of complacency and arrogance he’s seen competitors run into.

As president and CEO of Alpha Packaging, a bottle manufacturing company, that has meant maintaining momentum and sticking to the foundations of what is best for the company.

“The one thing I always say about our company is the only thing stopping us is us,” Spence says. “There’s nobody putting artificial roadblocks in front of us.”

And there’s been little stopping Alpha Packaging. The company grew revenue from $18 million in 2001 to $107 million in 2007, it’s Spence’s goal to reach $150 million without acquisitions in the next two years. The keys to growth, says Spence, have been choosing the right customers and employees and staying flexible in a changing marketplace.

Smart Business spoke with Spence about how to attract the right people to your company and how to identify your marketplace.

Know who you want to do business with and gain their trust. We’ve grown more organically, and that is developing relationships with customers and then expanding those relationships once we start.

I’m a believer that your best source of new business is going to be your new customers. Everybody is always looking for a sale they don’t have. But if you concentrate on your existing customers, it will grow quicker.

It’s a matter of trust. I think people like to do business with people that they generally like. They’re going to try to do business with people they’ve done business with in the past.

I think, good news or bad news, always be there. Be honest and be forthright; I swear that works. People want to know that you’re going to be around and you’re consistent.

Stick with your core competencies. I don’t think every piece of business is made for you. You want to make sure you can bring a level of competitive advantage to it. In other words, is it in your core strengths?

We don’t want to chase rainbows. You can chase rainbows and do some things outside of your strength, and you typically aren’t going to do well at that. We want to make sure it fits geographically, it fits mate-rialwise, it fits capabilitieswise. If it fits three of four characteristics and it’s a company you want to do business with.

A lot of people are trying to reinvent themselves too much. You’ve got to stick with what works.

There’s no way you’re going to be everything to everybody. If you’re going to step out of your comfort zone, make sure

it’s with a customer that understands that this is a new venture for you.

Review goals often and stay flexible. The parameters in our industry are constantly moving, and so we need to make sure we’re answering those.

Those people who do a five-year plan, it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. I think having a five-year plan in today’s world is useless. It moves too fast, too many variables change, markets change.

We have rolling goals, so some stuff is by the day. But every six months, we’re updating the macro goals.

I think that you have to stay close to what’s going on in your industry and your company. You constantly have to reinvent yourself. Just because it worked last year doesn’t mean it’s going to work this year.

If you look back and don’t keep changing the way you do things for the better every day, I think you’re going to get lost and you’re going to get passed over.

Your customers will coach you quite a bit, and I think you need to stay close to them.

A lot of people don’t give a forum for improvement in the company, and I think there’s a lot of people who care and want to be heard. A lot of people don’t seek advice from the people who do jobs every day, and they’re the ones that do it the best.

Hire good personality fits. My philosophy is you surround yourself with good people and get the heck out of their way.

It’s pretty obvious as you grow that there’s some people that will rise to the challenge and some people that will not. When they don’t rise to the challenge, you decide if you’re going to keep them or move them aside and bring in people that you think can bring in new energy and new ideas.

I’m looking for people that aren’t going to get stagnant. People that want to continue to get out of bed every day with fire in their belly and want to continue to push the company.

I tailor each interview toward the position. You want to have personalities that fit with the personality of the company. One person can ruin the chemistry, especially if you have a lot of interaction with them.

First of all, do you generally like that person, do you mesh with them. We want to make sure they haven’t come from a company where complacency is accepted.

We’ve gone to personality testing. Every time I try to say those tests are wrong, it comes back to bite me. You like somebody and you say, ‘Well, it’s a good fit; we should hire them.’ Then you get the testing back, and it says it’s not a good fit. Those tests don’t lie. I do think personality testing is important because a bad hire can cost you money, as well.

HOW TO REACH: Alpha Packaging, (314) 427-4300 or

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