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Driving innovation Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010

Just a few weeks ago, Carl Albright did something innovative at InfoCision Management Corp.

He didn’t roll out the next iPad.

He didn’t cure cancer.

Instead, the president and CEO made most of his employees salaried instead of hourly.

Doesn’t sound revolutionary to you? Well, the majority of his employees are telemarketers, and the position is, industrywide, usually paid hourly, but study after study proved that a 22-year-old employee was better than a 19-year-old and a 25-year-old was better than a 22-year-old, and someone who stayed six months was better than someone who stayed three months. With the research screaming that tenure was critical to the industry, he wanted to change his approach so he could get his employees to stay.

So he decided to make those people salaried. And it doesn’t sound like rocket science because it isn’t, but that’s the point. Innovation doesn’t have to come in huge packages.

“It’s tough,” says Albright, a 2009 Innovation honoree. “We, as people and workers and employees and employers, we get caught up in our day to day — we have to deliver, we have a deadline, we have to meet this, but we also have to keep our clients and keep growing in any industry and diversify what we’re doing. We have to get better, and we have to come up with new and innovative and creative ways to get better.

“The only way to do that is to think differently and try something else. Even if it’s working now, is there a better way? A newer way? A faster way? A more efficient way to deliver what we’ve been delivering for our clients?”

Driving innovation is a simple process that starts with knowing your customers.

“The biggest key is understanding your clients’ needs and how they relate to your business,” Albright says. “A lot of us don’t do that well. We get caught up in what we think is good and what we think is needed, but at the end of the day, our goal is to make our clients profitable and happy.”

Tom Morley, president of The Lube Stop Inc., understands this, as well. As a fellow 2009 Innovation honoree, he’s also getting in better touch with his customers. Recently, he’s equipped each of his quick-oil-change locations with an HD flip-cam to do short — about one-minute-long — interviews with customers.

“All they do is ask a simple, straightforward question — ‘What brought you to Lube Stop, why do you like Lube Stop, and what could Lube Stop do better?’” Morley says.

He then uses those responses to drive new ways of thinking about how they can be better — and he’s got video testimonials to use as marketing pieces, as well.

The key here is taking the time to ask customers what their needs are.

“You say, ‘What are you looking for, why are you looking for this, and what time are you looking for this?’ and making sure you have a collaborative effort to get to those goals,” Albright says. “… It’s like anything in life or communications, if I don’t ask you what you need or want, whether it’s in a relationship or business venture, and I can’t process it, and I don’t understand that that’s what you’re looking to get to, then I’m going to have a difficult time.”

You also have to talk to employees to drive innovation.

“That’s as simple as making sure people are comfortable shooting me an e-mail when they have an idea or concern and making sure they don’t feel like they’re stepping out of bounds on something,” Morley says. “What I always say here is 250 minds are a lot more powerful than one. If you put together mechanisms and processes to foster ideas from all those people, you’re going to be a lot better off.”

If the thought of employees sending you e-mails on a regular basis makes you cringe, hear Morley out.

“Some companies may be pretty wrapped up in the whole chain-of-command thing — this concept of chain of command has its place,” he says.

For example, if someone had a scheduling conflict or issue at the store level, then that would go to the district manager first, but large-scale or companywide ideas can come straight to him.

If you’re not one who encourages employees to talk to you about ideas, you have to start in order for this to be effective. Morley should know. When he started with Lube Stop in 2004, there had been a fundamental breakdown between the corporate office and the field employees, and it had created distrust. Nearly immediately, he put together a paper survey and 15 percent of his employees responded in the first three days.

“They had a lot to say — they didn’t have a way to say it,” he says.

He took their feedback and created a section in the newsletter where he addressed their questions, concerns and ideas. Things that were easy to fix or implement, he did, while others were tabled for further discussion and review.

“It was demonstrating, very clearly, that employee comments were being heard, and to the extent that they were being acted on, they were being acted on,” Morley says.

Because he took the time to do those initiatives early on, he created trust with his employees, so now they do solicit him with their ideas, and those ideas drive innovative efforts in the business, such as his sustainability initiatives. He cautions executives to be prepared for a barrage of ideas, though, when they first reach out to employees.

“Once you get over the hump of doing this initially, then the ideas and concepts slow to more of a trickle, but initially, be prepared for a lot of feedback if you structure it right,” Morley says.

Once you get ideas from employees and customers, then you have to implement them. Albright has a three-pronged approach to deciding if he should pursue something.

“In the long run, is it good for your clients, is it good for your company, is it good for your employees?” he says. “You can’t do things that aren’t good for all three.”

He says sometimes people do something for employees, but it hurts the company or the clients, or vice versa and you do something for your clients that hurts your employees or the company as a whole.

And lastly you have to get buy-in when you’re trying new things. When Morley introduced sustainable initiatives, he explained to people that oil from one oil change could contaminate a million gallons of water — it resonated well with people in Northeast Ohio because of Lake Erie.

Morley says, “To give them a way to make them feel like they’re making a difference in their communities on a daily basis is a way to appeal to that emotional, personal side of this and get buy-in that way, as opposed to mandating it or trying to create a whole bunch of buy-in through financial incentives.”

The more you go through this process, the better your company will become — every little innovation you drive will make a difference.