When partners Steve Goodman and Craig Swill purchased Welcome Wagon International, Inc. in 2009, the business was still the world’s largest welcoming service for new homeowners at 82 years old. They decided to keep the company updated and relevant moving forward by refocusing the company completely on sales and marketing. The problem was, the company’s corporate culture was very negative and communication between the corporate and sales sides of the company was poor.
“You kind of had a sales versus corporate clash going on within the organization,” says Swill, the company’s CEO.
The corporate side cared more about technology and was insensitive to many sales-oriented issues. The sales employees felt cut off from many changes at the corporate level, with some of them working as individuals in remote parts of the country.
“When people do not have communication and are out in the field by themselves, they kind of get this paranoia. … So you have a lot of missed communication when there is lack of any communication,” Swill says.
To get employees re-engaged in the vision for Welcome Wagon, especially on the sales side, Swill and Goodman needed to reopen some lines of communication that hadn’t been open for decades.
Together, they went on a “world tour,” visiting every company region to give presentations for the sales teams and to discuss their vision and goals for the first 12 months of their leadership transition. Most of the people they talked to had never met anyone from the corporate office, much less the heads of the company.
“They were very touched that we felt enough to go out and really learn about their challenges in selling and about their challenges in the economy,” says Goodman, Welcome Wagon’s president.
“We asked them questions to learn what they were looking for within the organization. From the very beginning, we opened lines of communication between the corporate office and our field organization.”
They implemented weekly meetings to provide sales training for corporate employees, so they could better understand the experiences of their sales counterparts. On the sales side, they offered representatives and managers training opportunities to learn new technology and skill sets, giving them the resources needed to be most effective. Now, sales officers communicate weekly and daily with field officers to reinforce and align their goals.
After their one-year anniversary in 2010, Goodman and Swill did another world tour to discuss progress and go over their five-year strategic plan. Their reception this time around was a lot different. They’d grown sales every month, and in less than a year, they made Welcome Wagon a debt-free company.
“We started receiving hugs. Literally, people wanted to come and hug us,” Swill says… “We were able to check off bullet point by bullet point, page after page, all of the things we promised them, and we hit everything that we promised them. We were able to gain their trust, and that is huge.”
Today, Swill and Goodman continue to make themselves very accessible to the organization’s employees by talking on the phone to address sales problems, questions or issues, and always looking for ways to support the sales team with the resources they need to succeed.
“Some of the most negative people that I could give examples of a year ago were so positive this year and saying thank you for taking this organization and totally revamping it, turning it around, giving us products and giving us a company that we can now go out and truly be proud of in the way that we sell it every day,” Goodman says.
How to reach: Welcome Wagon, www.welcomewagon.com
Law of limits
According to Steve Goodman, successful strategic planning isn’t just about winning people over to your vision. That is one part of it, and so is communicating that vision effectively. But another key part of executing a strategic plan is recognizing and understanding other people’s limitations.
“You have to always understand, that just because we can get something done and we see things going from A to Z, that doesn’t mean that all of the people that you lead see things in the same way,” Goodman says. “Some people are really pigeonholed in what they do 100 percent; they don’t understand how to tie things together at different levels within the organization.”
As a business owner, CEO or entrepreneur who is used to fast-paced change and goal-setting, you may be tempted to push hard and move fast in carrying out your plan. However, leading people isn’t about pushing people in the direction you want them to go, it’s about guiding them, showing them you are aware of their capabilities, and giving them the resources needed to get there.
“It’s the ability to get people to see things in a way that makes sense as they move forward and to help them further their careers,” Goodman says.“You have to see people’s strengths and weaknesses to see how to move them.”
Jim Ousley looked at Savvis Inc. and saw a company that wasn’t growing as fast as he felt it should be.
“We came out of a recession like everybody did, and so, growth was stymied,” says Ousley, who has been chairman at the 2,600-employee company since May 2006. “But we knew we had issues at the top level, because the company was not growing as fast as our peers. You take that for a starter and you say, ‘Why not?’”
Ousley believed one of the problems was the acquisitions that Savvis made in recent years. While it grew the IT company from a physical standpoint, it also created a confusing culture that was focused more on operations and less on taking advantage of its new components to grow the business.
“It was more of an operational culture than a sales and support culture,” Ousley says. “We just started at the top and said, ‘We want to refocus this to where we’re making the age-old statement that the customer comes first instead of operational things coming first.’”
With that as his starting point, Ousley agreed that he was the best person to fix the problem and get Savvis back on a growth trajectory. So in March 2010, he added the role of CEO to his responsibilities.
Open the discussion
His first step was to comprehensively analyze the company’s sales and marketing leadership to determine what was or was not happening that was keeping the company down.
“Any time new management comes in, they have their own thoughts on what roles should be in the leadership of the company,” Ousley says. “I’m a great believer in going out and talking to the organization.”
Ousley had plenty of people around him who could provide a good report or summation of what they thought the problem was in the sales and marketing department at Savvis. But that wasn’t going to help him get to the root of the problem.
“I’m a great believer in touching the flesh and listening,” Ousley says. “One of the biggest challenges a new executive has is listening to the pulse of the company. You don’t do it by having it filtered through multiple layers of management. You have to go talk to everybody and you have to talk their talk. If you go down and listen to people and then you take some action, you really start to get people to enlist and get the organization to enlist.”
Ousley worked with his HR department to put together small group sessions with anywhere from four to 10 people from each group representing different areas of the company.
His focus was clearly on the sales and marketing department, but he wouldn’t do himself much good if the sales and marketing personnel were the only ones he spoke to.
“Let’s face it, sales management is biased,” Ousley says. “They have been living it at all levels. So I solicit from the sales organization but also the other support organizations and HR, finance and operations. I try to assimilate a lot of viewpoints, not just sales management’s viewpoints. Where do we have strong leadership in the sales organization? Where do we have strong talent? Where do we have weak talent?”
Break the ice in these sessions by opening up about yourself and encouraging others to do the same if they seem reluctant to speak up.
“You have a small group session of support engineers and you have 10 people who you have never met before,” Ousley says. “They are all nervous. So you just say, ‘OK, let’s go around the room. Introduce yourself. What do you like about Savvis? What don’t you like about Savvis?’ By the time you get around the table, everybody has gotten issues on the table.”
But it’s not enough to just hold meetings and expect that you’ll get all the answers to your problem. You have to work harder than that to see and hear what people are thinking.
Savvis put together an “Undercover Boss” day, a takeoff of the hit CBS television series in which CEOs get down in the trenches and experience what their employees do every day.
“My day was with the help desk,” Ousley says. “They get hundreds of calls every day. But I always knew that they put people in front of me who were the best people.”
Ousley wanted to hear from those people, but he made it a point to stray from the prearranged encounters and talk to other people, as well.
“So I’d sit in little cubicles with four or five people, and I’d be talking to one individual who would be showing me what they do, and then I’d lean over and talk to the other four that were close by and ask a question,” Ousley says. “Do you see the same problems? So there are ways to make sure you’re not just filtered to the most talented people and the noncomplainers.”
Ousley made it a point to quickly respond to each group after he had met with them and explain to them what he had taken from their meetings and discussions about the state of sales and marketing at Savvis.
“I try to crystallize it down to a few key messages that I heard,” Ousley says. “So maybe one or two, three maximum. I go back and I will send a note back to that group saying, ‘Here’s what I’ve done about this. Here’s who I have talked to.’ They have to see some visible business results if it’s something that’s important to them.”
You can’t afford to talk to every last person and group in your company, and then figure out what to do about it.
“You have to have some impact in the first six to 12 months or the organization just doesn’t believe you are going to have any impact,” Ousley says. “They just don’t believe.”
As Ousley began to get a clearer picture of what was happening at Savvis, he decided that some personnel changes needed to be made.
“We had to make some changes in the sales management both at the top as well as down,” Ousley says. “The first-level sales management is really critical in any company. They are the ones touching customers and prospects at the very first level of sales support people. We really looked very hard at the talent at the very first level of sales management and made a fair amount of changes. We did some extensive training and put some new training programs in place to educate the ones we felt did have the potential to excel.”
Ousley did make a change at the top of the sales department. But for the most part, you as the CEO should not be deciding who stays and who goes, no matter how thorough you were in your information-gathering sessions.
“You’re not that close to it down in the organization,” Ousley says. “If I’m getting e-mails from people complaining about this or clients saying we have quality problems or a service problem or a sales problem, I’m going to look at the quantitative data. I’m going to talk to people and talk to different support organizations and then tell the leadership, ‘We have some issues that need to be fixed. You need to tell me how you’re going to fix them.’”
One thing you do need to be sure of, however, is that a person who is taking a new position is better and more qualified than the person he or she is replacing.
“They have to be replaced by somebody that is perceived by the organization as better,” Ousley says. “If you have to let a district sales manager go and you replace him or her with someone that is perceived as better, the fear goes away. If you put someone in there who is perceived as not as good as the one you just terminated, then you get lots of fear and concern and frustration.”
It’s not always easy when you’re making changes to say, “Here’s where it starts and here’s where it’s going to end.” But you do owe it to your people to make sure they aren’t caught off-guard and that they understand when and why changes are being made.
“If you can communicate effectively why change needs to take place, then in general, people will say, ‘OK, I understand. That’s obvious. We had to do that. That person wasn’t part of the mission here,’” Ousley says. “It’s all about communication. If you can communicate why you’re changing this, the ones who want to understand it will. There will always be naysayers, and you can’t ever dispel all the fears. If you can communicate why things are being done, people can buy in to it.”
You also need to continue to show that there are open lines of communication between you and your employees and that the feedback they provided to you wasn’t for naught. They need to know that you’re using that feedback as changes are enacted.
“One of the things that became obvious to me in all these small group discussions was everybody was disgruntled over the lack of any merit increases for several years driven by the recession,” Ousley says.
Ousley felt like merit increases would accomplish at least two good things: They would show that he had heard employee concerns and was responding. They would also be perceived as a sign to employees that, “Hey, you’re part of our future. And here’s a bump in pay to prove it.”
“They are going to be rewarded for their energies,” Ousley says. “Then people have to look at themselves in the mirror. If I didn’t get a merit increase, why is that? That doesn’t make them any happier, of course, but if they are honest with themselves, it does have some impact.”
Ousley wanted employees to know that he didn’t view the changes he had led and implemented as the cure for everything that had been a problem at Savvis. So when employee surveys were conducted and revealed that some people still felt like there wasn’t enough communication, he openly talked about it.
“We had an employee meeting that I led and we showed the good, the bad and the ugly,” Ousley says. “Then I basically said, ‘We’re going to work on these three or four areas.’ That message gets across that, ‘OK, they are listening and they are going to do something about it. I can give my input.’”
As Savvis moves into 2011, the company is showing signs it’s on the right track. After posting $874 million in fiscal 2009 revenue, the company is on pace to build on that figure in fiscal 2010.
“The management team we put in place is leading this organization very effectively now, or much more effectively than in the past,” Ousley says. “So the changes we made in some of the senior leadership are working, so I feel good about that.”
Ousley says professional leadership training is one of the most important changes and will help maintain a culture focused on growing the business.
“You have to go listen to people and then you have to go do something,” Ousley says. “You have to show something visibly, show that you’re changing something. Those are a couple of the front-end leadership things that are pretty tried-and-true and work pretty effectively.”
How to reach: Savvis Inc., (800) 728-8471 or www.savvis.net
The Ousley file
chairman and CEO
Born: Burbank, Calif.
Education: Bachelor of science degree, business administration, University of Nebraska
What was your very first job?
I picked up golf balls on a golf range.
Who has been the most influential person in your life?
My grandfather in Lincoln, Neb. He started as an elevator operator in a little department store and ended up owning it. He was such a prince of a guy, and I learned so much from him. He was in Lincoln, which is where the university is, and later in life, I worked in his store. He had such a great combination of both corporate charity and church and just a combination that blended them all together.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Be patient. One of the best career things that ever happened was I got passed over for a very senior position in one of the companies when I was moving along rapidly in the high-technology industry.
I got very frustrated because I did not feel that the person who got put into the position was anywhere near my peer. I remember my boss sitting me down and telling me, not rationalizing why he made the decision, but saying, ‘Jim, be patient.’ I was going to quit but listened to him. I ended up being CEO of that company, Control Data Corp.
What one person would you most like to sit down and talk to?
The premier of (the State Council of the People’s Republic of China,) Wen Jiabao. I’d just like to understand how he is thinking about this explosive growth in China.
Mark Kirschner is in the moving business. When people need to go from Point A to Point B, he wants Wheaton Van Lines Inc. to be the company that gets them to their final destination as smoothly as possible.
So when the economy collapsed in 2008, it created a problem for Wheaton. Fewer people in the residential market were moving, and those who were often weren’t doing so by choice. And when you’ve just lost your house through a foreclosure, you’re probably not hiring a moving company to get you to your next place.
“So with that, cash flow decreased for our industry,” says Kirschner, the company’s CEO. “Not just Wheaton but the whole industry. So we had to find ways to be sure our agents were diversifying and finding new revenue streams.”
Kirschner believed in the service that the $160 million company provided to help families move and assist companies with corporate relocations. He knew that the company also specialized in government and military relocations, logistical services and special commodity shipments.
But he came to the conclusion that the company wasn’t doing enough to let potential customers know about the diversity of Wheaton’s offerings.
He began with a mandate to the company’s 120 employees and 250 agents across the nation who are affiliated with Wheaton. The message was simple: We’re going to work together to make sure everyone succeeds.
“We talked to everyone,” Kirschner says. “We enlarged our circle. We looked for new ways to reach our customers. We started to make a focus on the social media aspect of reaching out to our customers. We were trying to develop as many sales channels or sales windows as possible so the customers have access to us.”
Wheaton clearly had the wherewithal to diversify and keep the revenue coming in. The company just needed to do a better job of promoting itself and put more emphasis on the quality of service it provided and the advantages that service provided over the competition.
Sell your plan
Kirschner needed to galvanize his nationwide network of 250 agents behind this renewed commitment to quality and service so that Wheaton could sell that package to potential clients.
“We’re letting our service providers and agents know, ‘We’re going to make our brand more powerful through the service offerings we’re making available to you,’” Kirschner says.
He wanted to work with his agents to develop ways to provide even better customer service and address more of their needs. This wouldn’t be a plan that he would just force on people and tell them to go do it. It would have their fingerprints on it, too, giving them ownership in its outcome.
“Let people know that you’re open, that you care and that you want to hear what they have to say,” Kirschner says. “Let them know that you’re not afraid to fail or take chances and you’re not afraid for them to fail.”
His hope, however, was that through thorough discussions with his agency network, the company’s efforts would answer any questions and keep failure from being an issue.
“Usually, when we have a new proposal, we do a good job of stating, ‘What if this happens, what if this happens, and what if this happens? What happens if this doesn’t succeed? What are the ramifications? How much of a risk are we willing to take? Are we OK if we do this and fail?’” Kirschner says. “As long as you have those kinds of discussions and everyone’s voice is being heard and it’s not being ramrodded through, you’ll be OK.”
Kirschner made it a point to seek out those who he knew had resisted change or new ideas in the past. He wanted to know what they thought of the customer service that Wheaton provided.
“Every group is going to have some naysayers,” Kirschner says. “We’ll say, ‘Here’s a proposal. What do you think?’ If there’s a hole in it, they’ll find it. Address the resistance head on.”
You need to recognize the difference between someone who is trying to help you by pointing out concerns and someone who is just trying to be an obstacle to progress. The person who is trying to help can be a big asset to the selling of your plan.
“Are they there to resolve the problem or are they there to create a problem?” Kirschner says. “You’re going to know that by having face-to-face conversations with them. The most important thing is to look at it from their eyes, not your eyes. Find out why they are so passionately disagreeing with you.”
Fortunately, at Wheaton, most of Kirschner’s team jumped right on board with the effort to reel in more customers through its renewed focus on great service.
“You have to listen to the people that are working directly with the customers on a day-to-day basis,” Kirschner says. “You have to have a dialogue where it’s open and they can come to you and have a two-way conversation about what are the needs of your customer.”
Don’t get too hung up on titles and territories and who is responsible for what when you’re having these kinds of discussions. If someone has a great idea, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about where it came from.
“Don’t pigeonhole anybody or put them in a silo,” Kirschner says. “Everybody has an equal voice at the table. And as the CEO, you speak last. Your job is to listen more than it is to talk. You just create that environment where it’s supportive.”
Don’t try to do it all
If you have a hard time gaining trust when you launch a new initiative, it could be because you try to do it all yourself. Kirschner made a concerted effort to constantly get other people involved in his plan to bolster customer service at Wheaton.
“You have to have the support team in place and peers in place to support the change,” Kirschner says. “You have to have transparency. I don’t think you can think about change if you don’t have that relationship or that trust that has to be there in order to implement the change.”
Delegation is one of the best ways to engender trust. Kirschner’s challenge was letting go of his duties from being CFO before he became CEO.
“I had to be able to delegate as quickly as possible,” Kirschner says.
But it doesn’t have to be that kind of delegation to be effective.
“Put simply, if somebody else is capable of doing it, let them do it,” Kirschner says. “They’ll have more time and they’ll do a better job at it. What it also does is develop an individual. People want to be challenged. As long as you surround yourself with the right people, they’ll rise to the challenge. You don’t want people bored in their positions. You want to continuously challenge them.”
Get to know the members of your management team so that you can figure out what buttons to push to get the most use out of them to help your plan succeed.
“Know what drives them,” Kirschner says. “Some individuals may be driven by security. They want a lot of information before they make a decision. Some individuals may be driven by personal rewards. Some may be driven by wanting a lot of change. You have to understand what drives each individual.”
These are the kind of details that help make your business better.
“What I enjoy about that is when I think we have it all figured out, we’ll ask our agents or service providers and they’re going to see things differently,” Kirschner says. “They’ll have a different perspective.”
Analyze your execution
The analysis doesn’t stop when you begin to implement your plan. If you don’t ever follow up or track the success of the execution of your plan, the benefits are going to be tough to realize.
Talk to your customers and see how your employees are faring in carrying out your company’s plan.
“We survey our customers after each and every move,” Kirschner says. “We send them what we call the customer service report. It allows the customer to measure our service from the moment we call them to the time we deliver their shipment. Once we have that, it allows us to get the analytics to determine our level of service as perceived by the customer and not by us. Once you have that, you can see where your strengths and weaknesses are.”
Make sure that you respond to any feedback that you get.
“We’ll call them,” Kirschner says. “That’s what has really surprised a lot of customers. When they didn’t give us the feedback we would have desired, we have a department that will walk through the process and see where we could have done better. You just have to stay in touch with them.”
In other words, if you’re going to have customer surveys, you have to follow up. You need to make those surveys worthwhile and put some effort into it in order to gather feedback from the process.
That’s true for any business, whether you’re helping customers move or you’re manufacturing widgets. You need to know what your customers’ experience is like if you’re going to continue to make that experience as good as possible.
“It’s not as important when you meet with them that you explain your offerings and what you’re doing as much as you look to understand their business,” Kirschner says.
In the moving business, you’re trying to understand what people go through when they are moving. But every customer has his or her own unique challenges and you need to find out what they are.
“What are their pain points? What are they going through?” he says. “You have to understand where they are coming from. What do they need? You just have to keep asking questions as to where they are. If you’re always going to focus on yourself, you’re not going to be successful. If you’re not aware of what’s going on in their industry, you’re going to put yourself at a disadvantage.”
Throughout 2010, Wheaton saw a number of new companies join its network and expand its reach. Kirschner credits the laser focus that his company has put on providing great customer service for that success.
“Any time you do have change that does occur, reflect back and determine why it was successful,” Kirschner says. “Any type of change is possible provided you have the right message and people understand it. As long as the decision is true to your mission statement and true to your customers, you’re ready to go.” <<
How to reach: Wheaton Van Lines Inc., (800) 248-4810 or www.wheatonworldwide.com
The Kirschner file
Wheaton Van Lines Inc.
Education: Bachelor of science degree in accounting, Indiana University
What was your very first job?
Delivering the papers for the Indianapolis News. With an evening route, you knew you had to be on time to deliver the papers because they were expecting it. But you also knew if you smiled, you got a bigger tip.
Who has been the biggest influence on who you are today?
My father, Edward Kirschner. He taught me integrity and to be honest. He taught me early on, if you’re going to do a job, do it as best as you can to its highest level. He was a policeman and a very ethical person. He instilled that honesty and integrity to all of us at a very early age. If you do something wrong, admit it. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Give it your best every day.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My father told me, ‘You won’t know until you try.’ It was the way we were brought up. We were raised to be very independent and self-sufficient.
If you could have a conversation with anyone, whom would it be and why?
When you asked that, two people came to mind. One was my father. I’d have a conversation with my father on a lot of different things that are important to me. And Jesus Christ.
Mike Jackson was asked to bring some order to Adayana Inc. when he arrived nearly three years ago. The training outsourcing company had grown through numerous acquisitions, and the result was a cultural mishmash that left employees searching for an identity to latch on to.
“People wanted to have more rigor,” says Jackson, the 380-employee company’s president and CEO. “They wanted to understand how to do what we should be doing.”
Jackson began to work collaboratively with employees to develop a corporate framework that would provide everyone with a better sense of identity and purpose.
“I had some perceptions, but you can’t go only on perception,” Jackson says. “You need to validate. So I talked with some folks and just asked them how we could strengthen the company together.”
When you’re seeking feedback from employees, you need to make it personal.
“Don’t just talk with your employees or your leadership team or your direct reports about today’s business and what’s tactical and what’s on your plate,” Jackson says. “You have to ask them where they see both themselves and the company in three to five years. You have to do that regularly.”
If you don’t do this, you end up with the situation that faced Adayana: You have employees doing work without a clear idea of what it means or what it is leading them toward.
Jackson saw desire in his people and he saw energy to succeed. They just needed to know what their leaders wanted them to do to make that happen.
“If part of the aspirational vision for the company is to be a market leader, unpack what that means to individual behaviors,” Jackson says. “It’s about creating a tight linkage between the dreams of your employees and the aspirational vision for the company.”
Give employees a chance to contribute to how you’re going to accomplish your goal to become a market leader. Let them offer opinions on what needs to be done or what’s holding your company back from becoming a market leader.
“When you do that, you’re creating engagement, you’re building inclusion and you’re building ownership,” Jackson says. “‘The CEO is asking us to craft what we should be and what we should do.’ That’s powerful stuff. If you follow that activity with engaging others to actually build a tactical action plan to implement the strategy and initiatives that come from the senior leadership team, all of a sudden, you have a fully engaged team of employees who feel they are making a contribution to not only the what but the how. That’s where most employees live, anyway, in the how.”
It’s about putting an idea out there, such as becoming a market leader and letting your people play an important part in figuring out how to get there.
“You have to pass along that accountability and all the things that go with that,” Jackson says. “It’s about trusting people to pull it forward.”
Trust your people to carry some of the weight while you monitor their progress, break down barriers and offer assistance to help them achieve the big-picture goal. Show them that what they are doing is important.
“If I never ask how you are doing on progress toward that goal, you’re likely to believe that maybe it really wasn’t that important to begin with and it’s certainly not very important now,” Jackson says. “It’s the idea of creating feedback systems and making sure people are in the know about progress. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to empower anybody. You’re going to basically demotivate them because of inattention.”
Adayana has made progress toward becoming a market leader, evidenced by the growth in revenue from $20.8 million in fiscal 2007 to $44.2 million in fiscal 2009.
“There’s no magic. What there is,” Jackson says, “is execution.”
How to reach: Adayana Inc., (317) 415-0500 or www.adayana.com
Mike Jackson could hear the clock ticking as he assessed what was happening at Adayana Inc. Employees were part of the plan, offering him their feedback, but they also were eager to see results.
“You, as a CEO, have to act quickly to deal with the things that are patently ineffective in your company,” says Jackson, the 380-employee training outsourcing company’s president and CEO. “Fix those. If you don’t do that, after a period of time, employees will run out of the hopeful energy that you might have brought to them in the first few days, weeks or months you were walking around asking them how things were and what you should do to improve the company. You have to act.”
That doesn’t mean you should panic and make rash decisions.
“I’m saying once you get to an 80 percent confidence level that this is the right thing to do, do it,” Jackson says. “You actually put together a set of, ‘Here are the things that need to be done on a department-by-department and division-by-division basis.’ Make that part of the accountability of the respective manager so that he or she is able to see that you mean business.”
A few years ago, Tom Heinen found himself heading to Dick’s Sporting Goods to look for a last-minute Christmas gift on Dec. 23.
What the co-president of Heinen’s found when he got there was the best parking spaces were occupied by employee vehicles. But when he entered the store, there was no help to be found and the stock was sparse. Making his way to the checkout, there were two employees nearby, but neither seemed all that interested in helping him.
“Not either of those employees showed any sense of urgency to wait on me and get me out of the store,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’”
Fast-forward one year. Once again, Heinen was at Dick’s for a last-minute gift. His first thought: “Great, here we go again.” But this time, things were different.
An employee immediately asked him if he could help him find something. Surprised, he said yes and told him he was looking for a baseball bat. The employee proceeded to tell him what aisle it was in and explain that the store had different types and if he didn’t find what he was looking for, to let him know.
Skeptical and scarred by too many bad retail experiences, he headed to the aforementioned aisle, and sure enough, it was right where the employee said. When he made his way to the checkout area, there were now two televisions showing CNN and there were two people at the register, both highly engaged, who quickly checked him out in half the time from the prior year.
While he was relieved to avoid a repeat of his prior negative experience, there was something disturbing about the rapid change.
The problem for Heinen was that he didn’t see Dick’s as being a customer-service-centered business, but in just a year, it had completely changed his experience.
“If Dick’s, who isn’t even focusing on this, can get there, we have to do something differently,” he says. “That’s when we started to make a decision to distinguish ourselves on customer service at an entirely different level.”
It’s not that customer service wasn’t always the focus of Heinen’s; in fact, it’s always been one of the grocery retailer’s primary differentiators. But what the Dick’s experience showed was that if even the big box retailers could deliver a positive customer experience, Heinen’s was going to have to take the service provided by its 2,500 people up another notch.
And this is proven by the store’s own customer surveys that indicate a satisfied customer isn’t really all that loyal but a highly satisfied customer is.
“The value of highly satisfied customers, statistically, is that they’re virtually guaranteed to come back within two weeks,” he says. “A satisfied customer, the number is like 62 percent, so there’s this huge difference between having a satisfied and highly satisfied customer.
“You want to have everybody in that top box — highly satisfied — because they’re very subject to defection if they’re not.”
The challenge is, how do you go from being good at customer service — yielding satisfied customers — to being great at customer service — yielding those coveted loyal, highly satisfied customers?
It’s not the cost of a can of green beans. It’s not the color scheme in the deli department. It’s not whether the box of stuffing is on the top shelf or the bottom.
“If you really want to have a successful company, you have to have highly satisfied associates, which leads to highly satisfied customers, which leads to profit, which allows you to continually reinvest in the company, which includes the people,” Heinen says.
Choose your destiny
If you drive down Detroit Road in the western suburb of Avon, you’ll eventually be faced with a grocery store dilemma: On one side of the street is the low-cost, no-frills Marc’s, while on the other side of the street is the service-first Heinen’s. Each provides groceries, and in a lot of cases, the exact same groceries. But the two couldn’t have a more divergent strategy. One is focused only on price, the other is focused more on service.
When Tom and his brother, Jeff, the other half of the co-president duo, took over the business after the death of their father, one of the first things they focused on was to determine what their overarching strategy should be.
When you look at how to differentiate your business, Heinen says you have to consider three different models — operational efficiency, product leadership or customer service. Operational efficiency is similar to the Wal-Mart approach of being everything to everyone or competing on price. Product leadership refers to competing on your products — whether it be quality or selection — and customer service is a focus on providing the best experience for the people with whom you do business.
“The first thing you have to do is find where do you want to excel,” he says.
For Heinen and his brother, the decision was easy: customer service. Heinen’s reputation had been built on people and service, so it was just a matter of building on this foundation.
“You have got to decide, first of all, if that’s where you want to be,” he says. “I think Marc’s is one of the best-run businesses in Northeast Ohio. It’s not one that I aspire to be like, and it’s not one that I’d be personally proud to be a part of, because it’s not what we believe in, but it’s a great business model.
“The category killer stores like Dick’s or Staples or OfficeMax, they’re helpful, but they’re not winning any customer service awards, and they don’t care,” he says. “That’s not their strategy, and that’s fine. They’re still in business, and they have a heck of a lot more stores than Heinen’s does, so how can you argue their success? And Marc’s? Marc’s makes more money than Heinen’s will ever dream about making.”
When you decide how you’re going to market, you also have to look at whether the market can support your model or not. Right now, Heinen’s has 17 stores, and the market can support that based on the desire for quality products and service. Each location is carefully chosen based on demographics that show an affinity toward choosing service over just price.
“If you can imagine that the market didn’t exist for people who cared about high-quality food and a great experience in the store, if there weren’t those people, we wouldn’t have 17 stores,” he says. “We’d have 15 stores or whatever the market could support, or we’d have to build a different type of experience for the customer.”
Marc’s doesn’t invest a lot in its people, and the service is reflective of that. But because Marc’s isn’t built on service, it’s irrelevant. Heinen’s has to invest in its people, because that’s the whole key to the strategy. If your people aren’t your first priority in a customer-service strategy, it’s not going to work.
Prioritize your people
If customer service is your chosen path to success, then start by laying out expectations at every level of the business.
Heinen uses a service pyramid to illustrate where he wants his employees to be. At the bottom of the pyramid is a category called “nice, respectful.” Just above that is “helpful.” Above that is “knowledgeable,” and above that, at the very tip and where he strives for all employees to be, is “invaluable.” But there’s no silver bullet to get there.
“When people say, ‘What’s your secret?’ — it’s not a program,” he says. “Customer service commitment isn’t a program. It has to be — no matter how many classes you do, no matter how much training you do — woven into the cultural fabric of your organization so that when people come to our organization, they understand.”
It starts with placing a strong emphasis on your people, who, in turn, have to live out that culture. One of the first things you have to do is make sure that you and your company managers are communicating and clarifying on an ongoing basis.
“You have to clarify what your expectations are, and you have to provide feedback,” he says. … “Surveys will tell you that people want to know what their job is and what’s expected of them. They want to know how they’re doing and most companies are bad at both.”
A lot of companies have jobs that aren’t glamorous but are essential to success. The people in them may aspire to greater things, so it’s important to help employees find the roles that are best suited for their personalities and interests.
“The first thing we do is we try to help determine what their passions are, so if they come into work and they’re a cashier and they decide they love the bakery, we’re going to put them in the bakery, because if people are passionate about their work, they’re happier.”
And even if a particular job may not generate passion from anyone, challenge people by keeping their jobs fresh by moving them around.
For example, someone may be a cashier 80 percent of the time, but he or she may take on an extra role of being a customer service facilitator the other 20 percent of the time. In that role, the person would work with both new and seasoned employees, one on one, to help them understand how they can be better at customer service specifically in their department. Or someone may also work as a demo coordinator, so in addition to his or her regular role, he or she would oversee all the demos that go on in the stores.
“It’s not a full-time job, but it’s a way that if someone is interested in doing something different, ‘OK, here’s a way,’” Heinen says. “It could break up the monotony.”
There’s also the tried-and-true method of motivating employees toward customer service: Pay them for it.
Heinen’s supports its employees through a gain-sharing program, which began about three years ago. Each store has set goals, including financial goals, but they’re balanced by overall customer satisfaction scores, known as O-Sat. If the stores meet their goals and their O-Sat score stays at or above their six-month average, they qualify for gain-sharing. If the company makes more than its budget, that money is put into gain-sharing, and the money is split relative to how the store performed compared to other stores — so stores that did better get more money to split among employees.
“Fundamentally, you have to incent the behaviors you want, so we incent the business side,” he says.
It’s possible for one store to make its goals, but that’s not enough — the company has to make its profit goals too.
About half of the time it’s been offered, the employees have reached the levels needed to earn gain-share.
“What it does is it creates a focus in the stores around, ‘What do we have to do?’” he says.
One store really rallied around creating a great customer experience, and it earned gain-share by recording 10 points higher than what it had ever done before, which was a huge accomplishment.
“It can have a significant impact, but at the end of the day, no matter what tools that you put in place, it’s the culture that drives the experience for the customer day-in and day-out,” he says.
Every CEO thinks he or she has an organization that provides great customer service, but there’s only one person that knows the truth (and is usually willing to share it): the customer.
Heinen’s uses a customer survey that focuses on three areas: overall satisfaction, likelihood to recommend and likelihood to return.
From there, it breaks down into specific departments, and then into product selection and helpfulness of staff.
“Again, product side, people side,” he says. “I’ve got to win on the product side; got to win on the people side.”
Spend time thinking through what belongs on your customer satisfaction survey. For instance, price questions don’t always yield useful results, because everyone always wants lower prices.
And don’t overload your customers with lengthy surveys.
“We want to keep it to five minutes, because if it’s more than five minutes, you aggravate the customer, and we don’t want to do that,” Heinen says.
To increase participation rates, the customer gets a certificate for 5 percent off an order of their choice within a given time period. But even customer service incentives are areas that might need some additional customer service attention. Initially, the discount was off the customer’s next order, which really irritated some when their next order was only $10. When they can use it within a given period, they can plan a larger trip and maximize their savings. Customers should be highly satisfied, even when it comes to giving feedback about customer service itself.
The goal is to get 60 surveys per month per store, and an outside company manages the process.
The results allow Heinen to compare not just how his stores are performing but also compare his whole company to other supermarket chains that the survey company has as clients. This helps him see how he’s doing in the industry as a whole, which happens to be very well — competitors are around 63 percent on overall satisfaction, while Heinen’s is at about 80 percent.
Driving these numbers up plays a key role in Heinen’s overall business strategy.
“This is so much part of how we run our business, whereas other companies that we know that have them, they’ll say, ‘OK, yeah, that’s information,’ but they don’t introduce it into running the business at all the way we do. And the associates, when you talk to them, they say, ‘Yeah, that’s some survey we do,’” Heinen says. “It’s a big difference.”
Walk into any Heinen’s store and ask what its O-Sat is, all of the leaders and most of the associates will likely know what it is and what it means.
Much like customers, every CEO thinks he or she has satisfied and engaged employees. But in a similar fashion, you have to take the time to ask them if they are happy and what would need to change to improve their outlook. Grumpy employees rarely deliver exceptional service.
The employee survey is administered about every 18 months, often with a shorter, “pulse” survey at the nine-month mark just to get a quick gauge. This survey focuses on whether employees would recommend Heinen’s as a place to work, if they would recommend it as a place to shop, and they rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on how proud they are to work at Heinen’s.
Ninety percent of employees said they were satisfied or highly satisfied to work for the company. While it’s vital for customers to be in the “highly satisfied” category; for employees, “satisfied” is usually good enough. Why? Because customers have far more options and an easier time switching companies than an employee does, and most employees only leave a company when they are dissatisfied with how they are being treated.
The survey also delves into other issues related to employee satisfaction, such as how employees feel about their direct report, whether they feel valued, if they have the tools and equipment they need, does the manager accommodate their needs, how informed they are, how well their supervisor coaches them, how their manager values their opinion and how much clarity they have in their job.
“When we get these back, if we find out, for example, that we’re not doing a good job of coaching and that our managers aren’t communicating regularly, and they don’t understand coaching, then we say, ‘OK, this is an area we need to invest in,’” Heinen says. “It’s about taking the information and learning and applying it and putting it into place and really looking to get better. That process, we’re very married to.”
He says that as much as they want to improve things and make associates feel valued, if the store manager doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to improve, then nothing will happen.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the most important person in anyone’s life on all surveys, and that’s their direct report,” he says. “So whether you love or hate Jeff or Tom Heinen at Heinen’s, the truth is, the most important person is your department manager if you’re an associate. It’s building the relationships with them and coaching them with an effort to helping them get better, and it comes back to being as committed to their success as your own.”
Throughout all of this, Heinen has learned that it’s a long process to get improved results.
“If you strategically decide you’re going to differentiate yourself in the people arena, then that means that it’s all about, No. 1, believing and trusting in your people and then starting the journey that we started, and it takes a long time,” he says. “If you expect to see great results in a year, it’s not going to happen.
“You have to know what you’re trying to achieve, but I don’t think you ever get to the destination. You can take Nordstrom’s or any other really well recognized company for highly engaged associates, and I guarantee you that they never stop trying to get better, and they never think they’ve reached a destination. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
How to reach: Heinen’s, (216) 475-2300 or www.heinens.com.
Susan Johnson is clearly a cut above her workplace peers. Her ability to combine technical expertise and product knowledge with an innate gift for connecting with colleagues and clients is exceptional. What’s more is that as talented as Susan is, she is always asking people what they need and what they think, and she is hungry to listen and learn. Unfortunately, Susan is leaving her company. Why? It has been more than two years since a single executive has asked her what she needs.
A crucial part of navigating the turbulent waters of these economic times is to be sure you keep the right crew aboard to keep your ship afloat. Organizations tend to focus on those they can part ways with to cut overhead. However, this can often come at the expense of retaining the talented individuals most vital to future success. Here are five tips to be sure your high flyers are flying with you:
Determine the motivations of top talent
How do you do this? Ask. It is important to be specific and be sure that questions like the following are being answered by your top brass: Are you happy with where your career is headed? What would you like the next step in you career to be? How can I/we help you get there?
Exit interviews are not the time to determine these motivations. Find out what your future leaders need now and feed those who feed your machine. A pivotal point here is to follow through to confirm that what your future leaders say is being heard. You are better off not asking than not following up. Both are high risk.
Make individual meetings a standard
Another common fumble by companies is that they don’t make individual updates a cultural consistency. They do back flips for their clients, yet they don’t look inward and pay special attention to those who drive business and pump oxygen into their organization. Meeting with your folks individually recognizes their importance and provides a wonderful forum for discovering what they may not disclose in a group meeting. An added benefit is that trust, the baseline for all business opportunities, is much easier to build through one-on-one connections.
Delegate and give responsibility
One of the biggest challenges for executives is to let go. It’s tough because everything that happens under their jurisdiction is their responsibility. Remember that your emerging leaders want to be challenged and be given assignments that utilize their talent. This is how they learn. So let go. Prove that you can trust young talent and you will be surrounded with a higher-performing team that develops confidence while increasing performance results.
Become a teaching executive
Even the brightest executives have never been taught the fundamental rule of adult learning: Teaching hasn’t occurred until learning is confirmed. Telling isn’t teaching. Execs must know that even the brightest talent may process information differently than you do. Be sure you are patient and aligned as you develop and confirm that this understanding has happened. Most organizations that claim to be learning and teaching organizations do not live this as a core value. Teaching young talent must be a designated initiative, not a drive-by occurrence.
In the absence of feedback, people create their own, and it’s typically negative. Executives must keep their folks abreast of what’s going on, regularly. Provide knowledge, which is different from data. Data is merely “the what.” Knowledge is “the what, the why and the how they play a vital role to change and growth.” Keep your top talent informed and you will keep morale high and these key players passionate about sticking around.
Singing from the same sheet. Following the same path. Reading from the same page.
No matter what idiom you want to use, Stan Johnson’s message is the same to everyone at Veteran’s Affairs San Diego Healthcare System: He wants everyone aligned on delivering the best possible experience to the system’s customers — its patients.
“That is really leading a culture change in terms of working with all staff, informing the staff of what it means to provide patient-centered care,” says Johnson, the director of the 2,400-employee, La Jolla-based health care provider within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “A lot of what we do was already patient-centered care. But it was really looking at redesigning our delivery of care so it is geared toward meeting and exceeding the patient’s expectations.”
Johnson says changing a culture can be challenging and exciting at the same time. You are excited to implement a new way of thinking among your team, but at the same time, there will be bumps in the road as you rebuild processes from the ground up and try to uproot habit-entrenched employees and attempt to show them that the new way is a better way. It can be much more easily said than done.
At the VA San Diego system, the leaders put a template in place by becoming an affiliate of the Planetree Alliance — a nonprofit partnership of health care organizations that advocates for care that is centered on an overall positive experience for the patient. The alignment with Planetree gave Johnson a path to follow when he assumed control of the health care system in 2009. But Johnson had to bring the plan to life every day and coach more than 2,000 employees to do the same.
He did it by involving as many people as possible in the decisions that would affect the system’s future. He sought out the opinions and ideas of not just his employees but patients, as well.
“You really need to look at your organization through your customers’ or patients’ eyes,” Johnson says. “What we’ve done with some of our system design groups is involve many of our patients, because you have to know firsthand what the expectations and needs of your customers are.”
Engage your employees
You’ve probably heard it countless times in your career: Your culture isn’t what you say it is; it’s what your employees believe it is. You can preach all you want on your organizational principles, but if you don’t follow those words with like actions, your culture is going to wither, and distrust will seep into the hierarchy of your company.
One of the actions you need to take is opening a dialogue with your employees. If you are preparing to point your company in a new direction or alter your defining principles in any way, your employees will need opportunities to speak with you in person.
Johnson and his leadership team create those opportunities by getting many people together for a few days off-site, free from workday distractions, where employees can feel enabled to speak up, offer feedback and share ideas.
“About 85 percent of our staff has been on a retreat where they begin to understand what patient care is,” Johnson says. “They begin to individually understand what they individually could look at to improve the patient experience. As a leader, you want to listen to their ideas and suggestions and start to implement things that come out of that, so that it starts to be driven by them instead of being driven by upper management.”
Of course, you can’t implement every employee idea in the name of strengthening or changing your culture. But you can offer feedback on all ideas that come your way, and you can implement the ideas that make the most sense for where your organization is at that point in time. If you don’t at least do that much, you can expect the dialogue, and the wellspring of ideas that comes with it, to dry up .
“You can ask and you can listen, but unless you actually implement some of those suggestions and react fairly quickly to their good ideas, that will dissipate or go away fairly quickly,” Johnson says. “People simply will not continue to give you good ideas and suggestions if you’re not listening to them and implementing some of them. So what you really want is a mechanism to allow your people to make some of those suggestions but also to follow through on your end with the action and implementation of providing feedback and recognition.”
Recognition is another key cog in achieving buy-in on any new initiative. If you want your employees to embrace new cultural principles, reward their good behavior and hold your high performers aloft as an example for everyone else.
It’s something that Johnson emphasizes on a regular basis throughout the San Diego VA system.
“Recently, our communications work group had a patient call center that is about 16 staff members who take a lot of calls, schedule appointments, and the wait time for those calls was longer than we what we liked,” he says. “So those individuals worked with our system redesign staff, flow-mapped the process to see if there were steps that didn’t really add any value to the process any longer, and they were able to make significant improvements in about a two-month time frame.
“Myself and our leaders in that area went to that work area and personally recognized them with an in-person thank you as well as a cash bonus. Many times, it’s a combination of the personal recognition and financial reward that really helps keep employees engaged on that level.”
Stay close to customers
As a business leader, it is imperative that you maintain close relationships with your customers. Without customers, you don’t generate revenue, you don’t turn a profit, your employees don’t keep their jobs and, eventually, you go out of business.
With that in mind, you need to develop avenues to build and maintain customer relationships. Johnson takes it a step further, utilizing the vast amount of military technical training that his organization’s patients have absorbed, by encouraging patients to get involved in various initiatives throughout the system.
“One of the system redesign efforts right now is focused on communication, and a subset of that talent is telecommunications,” Johnson says. “We have a couple of individuals who use the VA for their care, and they have an area of expertise in telecommunications. They’re kind enough to volunteer their time to work with our work group.”
If you always keep it front of mind that your customers are your reason for being, you will be much more apt to seek out their opinions and input on how you run your business from a service standpoint.
“That is the key, to have constant feedback from the people you take care of,” Johnson says. “That is what we’re here for. You have to make sure you’re meeting their needs. It’s not just what we think they’re asking us for, it’s finding out what they’re truly challenged by in using your system.”
As with any other aspect of your business, customer interaction needs leadership with an eye toward continuous improvement. No matter how good you think your system is, no matter how well you think you stay in touch with the people you serve, it can always be done better, and you and your leadership team should constantly seek ways to build a better customer service mousetrap.
“It’s like anything else when you’re in a leadership position,” Johnson says. “You continually work at it. You take nothing for granted. Just because you’re doing something well now doesn’t mean that you’re not continually looking for improvements, how you can be more efficient and effective with what you’re doing. Just because it’s working well now doesn’t mean it can’t be done better.”
Johnson takes the reins when it comes to driving that mentality throughout the organization, but ultimately, he wants all of his employees to become self-starters in delivering an exceptional patient experience.
“It is the responsibility of every single person on our staff,” he says. “We’re here to provide a service to veterans who have served our country. Each one of us, each individual who works with the VA San Diego Healthcare System, can make sure that the patient experience exceeds their expectations. That is what we’re trying to instill in our patient-centered care and affiliation with Planetree, to make sure all staff understand that and can individually make a difference. That is why we want everyone to view it as their responsibility, all the way up to me.”
Once you have systems in place to allow for engagement of both employees and customers, you need to keep watering the ground with frequent communication. Johnson views continual communication and cultural reinforcement as one of the biggest challenges before him each day.
The challenge of delivering good communication each day is complicated by the fact that you can’t be in all places at all times. You have to have a network of managers and electronic interface points that allow you to keep your messages in front of both employees and customers when you can’t be there in person.
“Communication is another one of those things that you’re always striving to do better,” Johnson says. “What we try to do is communicate in multiple ways. For instance, we have electronic message boards up in elevator lobbies at clinics. We use them to share updates on what is going on at the facility, new information that we want to share, whether it be patient satisfaction or how we did with a recent survey.
“You’re also getting that information out there through e-mail, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, many different ways. Different methods of communication work for different people, and you have to use them all to communicate your strategies and your benchmarks that you have set or that have been set for you.”
But even after you’ve rolled out a new direction for your company, even after the meetings and dialogues with employees and customers, communication remains a two-way street. Feedback from multiple channels is the only way you can ensure that your message is reaching the people you want it to reach and if they are buying in to the message.
“You’re always kind of surveying people, both formally and as you talk with people throughout the day,” Johnson says. “We think we might be doing a good job of communicating, but until you hear it from your customers, patients or staff, you probably haven’t done a good enough job yet.”
How to reach: Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, (858) 552-8585 or www.sandiego.va.gov
The Johnson file
Veteran’s Affairs San Diego Healthcare System
Born: Bloomfield, Iowa
History: I joined the Navy and came to San Diego in 1972. I did my boot camp here and served here. I was in the Navy for four years, and they were kind enough to support my education and training, so after that, I went back to Iowa and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Iowa.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Listen to the patient. Involve your staff and your customers in your improvement efforts.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
The key is to develop good working relationships, be transparent and treat people fairly.
What is your definition of success?
For me, it boils down to hearing firsthand from our customers that we’ve done an outstanding job for them.
When the announcement came in November 2008 that DHL would discontinue its Express domestic services in the United States, there was a lot of uncertainty.
The division was asked to reduce its operating costs from $5.4 billion to below $1 billion, a decrease of more than 80 percent. Ground hubs would be closed and stations reduced from 412 to 103. It called for the loss of 9,500 jobs.
The one certainty was the end result of all the changes: return DHL Express USA to the company’s core competency of international shipping.
Difficult decisions are usually made when you’re going through a restructuring process. But as details are fleshed out, you and your employees can’t lose sight of the future.
Jack O’Neill understands this. As vice president of operations, he oversees all Express operations in the United States, including, air, hub, gateway, security, customs, engineering, fleet and customer. He led operations through the realignment, which included relocating its hub in Wilmington, Ohio, to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Additionally, O’Neill had to ensure his 2,300 operations employees stopped thinking about domestic products and services and learned the world of international shipping. In understanding the new direction, the company assumed the philosophy that every employee was a salesperson there to meet customer needs.
To accomplish the task, O’Neill used communication, education and reinforcement of the message and culture.
“It’s really an education. It’s awareness, it’s training, it’s making sure that everybody is engaged in understanding what it is we’re trying to provide to our customer base, what is the real priority and the objective of the organization,” he says. “With that, you engage each and every employee in every facet of the company and make them understand … everything that they do impacts the customer experience.”
The realignment was a major change for the organization, so management’s top priority was getting employees on board.
It should be no surprise that when you’re taking on a large initiative, communication is imperative from the beginning to the end.
“Even when you think you’ve overcommunicated, you probably haven’t communicated enough,” says O’Neill, who spends time in the field every week talking to employees.
O’Neill and the senior leadership team attacked communication from every angle. There were e-mails and bulletins, town-hall meetings and personal conversations. They found the best way to communicate employees’ roles in the realignment was in person because it allowed for providing clear information and receiving feedback.
“You really need to define the objective and your objective really needs to be crystal clear for that message to be concise,” O’Neill says. “If there’s any ambiguity in that objective or any ambiguity in the way you present that, the audience is going to have a hard time interpreting it and understanding it. Then you get mixed learnings or understandings out of that message.”
If multiple members of your leadership team are speaking to employees, you must make sure that the same message is being communicated.
Before conducting town-hall meetings, O’Neill and his team met to discuss their message about international shipping and customers. The company’s communications team helped craft the message and included a set of questions expected to be asked and answers of how to respond.
When you’re tackling complex issues, you need to be prepared and honest with your communication.
“Sometimes it’s a tough message, but you need to deliver those tough messages and be upfront about them,” O’Neill says. “In doing that, you gain the trust and confidence of your employees that you’re being forthright.”
Direct employee conversation is twofold, though. Town-hall and staff meetings are not just about what you want to say but what employees want to communicate.
O’Neill has been in town-hall meetings where employees can’t get enough questions in and others where the audience is silent. If he doesn’t get any questions right away, he starts talking informally about a topic that interests that particular group and asks for their advice.
“Once you ask them for advice on a question that relates more importantly to them, they begin to talk and open up about what we can do to help them,” O’Neill says. “Once that conversation starts to go, you generally get people feeling more comfortable, you get them feeling at ease, because they really feel like you’re there to learn something about them and how you can help them.”
Knowing employees are the crucial link to customers’ wants and needs and that employees need to be properly educated and equipped to do their jobs, O’Neill and the senior leadership took the feedback from the town-hall meetings and discussed it as a group. To better organize the information, they would provide the feedback to a point person who would consolidate it. O’Neill and the other executives would then prioritize the ideas as “easily actionable” or “needs more research.”
“It’s important if you really want the people to engage and rally around the organizational pride, in our case international shipping, you have to provide that closed-loop feedback cycle,” O’Neill says. “If you’re going to ask the employees for suggestions, we need to make sure we circle back and implement them or tell them why we’re not going to do it and make sure they understand the logic behind that.”
Once its determined if the idea is actionable or not, the feedback is either communicated by the direct supervisor or the senior leadership team in the next town-hall session.
“We communicate not only current events but, ‘These are some of the things we’ve heard from you, and these are some of the things we’re doing about it,’” O’Neill says. “It gets the ownership and buy-in that we really are listening to them. It’s one thing to listen; it’s another thing to really hear and understand what they’re saying.”
In communicating with employees, you need them to rally around the change.
As part of DHL’s realignment, all Express USA employees went through training to become a certified international specialist. Everyone from the front-line employee to the senior management team was required to attend classroom and online sessions geared toward international shipping, trade facilitation, processing shipments and clearance activities — all things that, at the end of the day, can affect customer service.
“Each and every employee needs to rally around their roles, what their responsibility is, how it aligns with the overall objective and how they really do impact the customer even though it may not be clearly visible,” O’Neill says. “(Training) is something we have undertaken that helps us make sure that everybody understands their role in satisfying the customers’ needs.”
The senior leadership team was actually the first to go through the certification, as should your team if you’re implementing a crucial companywide program.
“If we go through it first, we get a chance to assess the training and (evaluate) it,” O’Neill says. “By doing that, we can make sure that training is going to deliver what we really want it to deliver as an organization. What were our priorities when we first said we need to develop and deploy that training? Does it, in fact, meet those objectives?”
The second reason for the leadership team to partake in training is employee buy-in.
“You really have to walk the talk; as a leader, it’s one of the traits that is most critical,” O’Neill says. “If you deploy a major training platform and the senior leadership team doesn’t go through it, it sends an indirect message that it’s not that important. If you go through it, you send a couple of messages. One, you sponsor that training because you went through it yourself. Two, you send a critical message that it’s important for the organization to have that training.”
Along those same lines, the Express division’s training staff trains operations managers, supervisors and directors to deliver some of the programs to their employees.
“We support that, because it does make the training more believable,” O’Neill says. “If a manager delivers training, that manager has to support that training. He also knows what message has been delivered with that training with his employees versus a trainer coming in that works for another function. The messaging might not be the same as what the manager might deliver. Something might be skipped; something might be missed.”
The final aspect of company training is testing. O’Neill, along with every Express employee, had to score a 98 percent to become a certified international specialist. The test included questions like shipping requirements to clear customs and international capitals — essential information needed to send a customer’s package.
“Testing gives us knowledge of whether or not the employee really understands,” O’Neill says. “Do they have the information, and did they really hear it and understand it? Do they know how to apply it on their job? If you test them and they fail the test, then chances are, they’re not going to do their jobs the way they were intended to be done. What that means is we’re going to have delays in shipment processing. We’re going to have delays in service. Our customers aren’t going to appreciate that too much.”
You can communicate and you can educate, but that doesn’t mean employees understood the message.
“We think people hear what we say or interpret what we write, but it’s not necessarily the case,” O’Neill says. “You really have to listen carefully to see if people have gotten the message. If somebody hasn’t gotten the message, they’re going to create their own message and usually that’s not the message we want them to give. Listening and having some feedback mechanisms to make sure the message is clear and everybody does what needs to be done is crucial.”
How do you make sure employees heard what you said? You ask them point blank.
“‘What are our priorities? What are we focused on?’” O’Neill says. “You have to ask them those types of questions to make sure that the message has been heard.”
And you have to constantly reinforce your message. When O’Neill went into the organization a year and a half ago, employees couldn’t tell him the company’s core competency. Today, without hesitation, they say international shipping.
Another way to validate that your message has been heard is engaging with employees in their work. O’Neill and his senior leadership team spend days on the road with their couriers visiting customers or sitting next to customer service agents in the call center.
“We get to experience firsthand what our front-line employees are doing, and does it really support the message that we delivered?” he says. “Does it support the direction that we need to go in? Does it support the training we provided them? You really have to inspect what you expect.”
Because there can be a disconnect between top management and lower-level employees, O’Neill has found his staff members are appreciative when he spends time with them and they’re willing to share feedback on what can make their job easier and the tools they can use to better serve the customer.
If you’re spending time with your employees, though, the main thing to look for when it comes to whether or not they understood your message is engagement.
Since the realignment, DHL Express USA has seen more engagement from customers and employees. The business has stabilized and is actually growing. Returning to its core business has meant an improvement in services, which has translated into greater customer retention and growth. For employees, it has given them a sense of confidence in a strategy moving forward.
“The employee that is engaged in the organization has an interest in it,” O’Neill says. “You can tell when somebody is just doing a job because it’s a job, and that’s OK. But we really want people to be engaged in the organization. You know they’re engaged if they’re asking questions. You know they’re engaged if they’re performing the job the way they were trained to do the job. You know they’re engaged if they have a good relationship with the customer. Once again, that customer touch point is so critical, so it’s those types of things that we really try to observe.”
How to reach: DHL Express USA, (800) 225-5345 or www.dhl-usa.com
The O'Neill fileJack O'Neill
Vice president of operations
DHL Express USABorn: Saugus, Mass.
What was your first job?
The first job I ever had was actually a salesman in an electronics department of a department store. It was an interesting job for me, because I never sold anything nor did I know anything about electronics at the time.
What did the experience teach you?
I learned that sales and marketing are critical to success. In this department store in the electronics group, we sold a set of stereo headphones, and we used to sell them for $9.99. They were low quality; it was the cheapest set of headphones we had. We couldn’t sell them. We couldn’t get them off the shelf.
We were having a sale one weekend, so we thought we would put an ad in the paper and try to get them sold for $5.99 and deplete our inventory. In printing the ad, a mistake was made. The mistake said this was a set of stereo head phones, normally sold for $19.99 on sale for $15.99. Oddly enough, the first day of the sale — we must have had 80 sets of these headphones in the store — they flew off the shelf. Customers came in; they thought they were getting a great bargain.
The whole positioning of how a consumer hears a message to me was definitely one of the learnings I took out of that role and that particular experience I had.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I enjoy being on the front line. I don’t enjoy sitting in business meetings. I don’t enjoy that part of the job; I know it’s a necessity. I’m an operations person at heart. I grew up in the business unloading trucks as my first job within the logistics industry. I really have appreciation for the front-line employee and what they do for the organization.
Weatherchem Corp. considered itself a sustainable manufacturing company long before Jennifer Altstadt arrived. But when Altstadt, the president, began using the buzzword “sustainability,” she received some pushback.
“We had a few managers talking about, ‘We have a lot to do to take orders and ship our products; we don’t have time to be tree huggers,’” she says. “That has the wrong context that sustainability is something you do separate from business. With the training and the discussions that are involved, sustainability is how we do business; it’s not separate from business.”
You, your managers and your employees all have to buy in to the idea of implementing sustainability initiatives in order for your company to see any success. So when you suggest forming a company mindset around sustainability, your staff has to recognize the direct link.
“Where we focused first was internally,” says Altstadt, who has about 100 employees. “You can get caught up in the, ‘What does it mean to the outside world?’ It goes beyond the scorecard that large customers might be asking for. To begin, you really have to look internally and create the basics. A basic recycling program has to be in existence. Start small, start simple and see where that goes.
“It’s really been the employees who start to come up with the ideas, and it’s listening to employees where they want to take it. Are they interested in doing more with the community? Are they interested in doing more with wellness? With that mindset, then as you are just doing normal operating, buying equipment, you think, ‘How do we do it a little more different?’ We do start thinking about energy and long-term effects.”
Your employees can’t just show interest, they have to take ownership in the initiative. Instead of forcing ideas, ask them where in the business they think efficiencies can be found. Along with direct conversation, put in place feedback mechanisms specifically for sustainable ideas.
“No. 1 is you just have to listen,” Altstadt says. “That sounds simple, but you have to make time to be available. It’s simply making sure that it’s not only I or the management team that agrees that this is something important. We listen to the ideas. We do have a formal suggestion box that we take seriously. Our vice president of operations, for the most part, is the person who reads those and makes sure they’re implemented.”
No matter how you’re gathering employee feedback, you have to provide individuals with suggestions or a response. Altstadt is informed of who made a suggestion so that she can personally take time to thank that employee.
With a response, Weatherchem also provides small recognition for the idea, usually a gift card for groceries or gas between $25 and $100. The instant recognition encourages employees, even those beyond sustainability, to participate with the suggestion box.
Weatherchem’s sustainability initiatives include going landfill free, making all recyclable products and using a chiller that uses naturally cold air from outside to cool its manufacturing space. The chiller generates energy savings of about 40 to 45 percent compared to previous equipment.
To keep ideas and momentum going, you also need to set measurements where possible and update employees on the progress being made.
“The word ‘sustainability’ makes people feel good. It’s not about cost cutting. At times, that’s one of the benefits, but when you talk about leaving the world a better place and what can we do to help ourselves and help the world, it’s something that makes people feel good,” Altstadt says. “So involvement becomes natural.”
How to reach: Weatherchem Corp., (330) 425-4206 or www.weatherchem.com
Find a champion
Glimpsing at the positions companies are hiring for these days, many of the titles include sustainability manager or sustainability director.
Whether you’re a large company that can hire a full-time employee to implement sustainable measures or a small company increasing your commitment as you grow, you need to have a champion or champions if you want to see continuous improvement.
“You do need a dedicated resource, especially at the very beginning of the program,” says Anna Frolova-Levi, a vice president at Weatherchem Corp.
That resource may be a person or persons. Depending on the size and structure of your company, as long as every top and middle manager has bought in to the program, designating a single person might not be necessary.
The main reason for dedicated resources is that, before you can implement any processes, there are the responsibilities of research, setting metrics and explaining to employees what a company culture based on sustainable measures really means.
Either way, putting people, time and funding behind projects is usually a signal to employees that the focus is important to the company.
“It’s all about people in the end,” Frolova-Levi says. “You have to bring people with you to get excited about the whole concept.”