On the road Featured

8:00pm EDT October 28, 2006
 Sometimes high-level executives get so bogged down in the day-to-day details of their business, they tend to forget their company’s higher purpose, their goals for the future and their path to achieving those goals. Ted Cowie, president and chief operating officer of Safety Today, finds that his best reality check is spending some quality time with his company’s customers and suppliers. His Groveport-based distribution company provides safety equipment for the utilities, steel, automotive, food processing, government and construction industries. With nine locations in the United States and one in Canada, Safety Today’s team includes 80 employees and a reported $43 million in 2005 sales. Cowie expects this year’s revenue to reach the $50 million mark. Smart Business spoke with Cowie about how he refreshes his corporate vision by talking with the people who use his company’s products and services — not in their boardroom but at their work site.

Go away to refocus.
I like to spend a lot of time out in the field, visiting with customers and suppliers and working occasionally with our field specialists, because that’s really where the business happens. Things are greatly simplified out in the field.

Get out of the office and see the customer at the detail level, the point at which your product and service touches the customer. That hands-on review clarifies things.

When you’re back in the office fighting fires, everything seems complicated. Get out and remind yourself that if you just listen to your customers, attend to their needs and get it done according to their expectations, life’s not that hard.

Empower your employees.
There’s more that we can do to empower employees, especially when dealing with customers. We want any employee to be able to make a decision that satisfies a customer.

Nine times out of 10, we’re going to be doing the right thing. If it turns out to be the wrong decision, we’ll learn from it, and the next time around, they’ll likely make a better decision.

Provide the right tools.
It’s one thing to be empowered, but if you’re not provided any information, then it’s kind of like giving somebody a Ferrari with an empty fuel tank.

Ask employees what additional tools — information-wise or training-wise or resource-wise — they need to be able to do their jobs to the expectation you have for superior customer service and efficient operations. (Executives) assume what somebody needs to do their job, but that’s only according to the way they approach an issue. Some folks approach problem-solving differently, so a tool that works for one person may not be something another person even thinks about.

Seek outside advice.
I encourage the management team to utilize expert help and not feel that we have to solve every problem ourselves; that’s not what we’re always paid for. Good managers are paid to find the right answers — no matter where they might be — and get them implemented successfully.

We started doing customer satisfaction surveys a couple of years ago, and the project languished for months and never went anywhere. Even though it should have been a high priority, nobody had experience in doing surveys. So we went out and contracted with a market research firm, and inside a week-and-a-half, we had a survey which we were able to quickly review, edit, make some changes, add ideas and get it done.

Be a role model for personal commitments.
You’ve always got some employees who are still there at work at 6:30, and you know they’ve got a kid at home. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Hey, go home. This place is not your only life. I want you to have some personal time, too.’

I get my daughter’s lacrosse and soccer schedules in my calendar and do my best to see to it that I get to as many games as I reasonably can. It’s even harder nowadays with the technology tools we all have. It’s very easy to be working 24/7 no matter where you are, even on vacation. People are over-wired, and that definitely is what kills balance in folks.

You have to listen to the requests from the family, like, ‘Get off the phone’ or ‘Don’t think about going near that e-mail.’ Those are hints that you’re probably pushing the balance meter too far to the other side.

Don’t try to juggle.
Multitasking is not necessarily a good thing. I’ve found when I’m multitasking, something’s getting short-changed. If I’m talking on the phone and trying to stay up with e-mails that are coming in, something gets lost in translation.

Either I’m not giving 100 percent feedback and response on the phone, or I’m half-reading the e-mails, and I might miss something important there and don’t recognize it until somebody calls me and says, ‘Did you see that?’ Then I realize, ‘Uh-oh, I didn’t really read it.’

If I’ve got an employee or a customer who walks through the door or calls on the phone to talk about something, that’s what I should be focused on...

That’s hard because when you hear that little ding that you have something in your inbox, everybody’s first inclination is, ‘Somebody sent me something, I have to check it.’ But if you’re in the middle of something else, that’s where you should be.

Know when to turn it off.
One of the rules that we have, which seems like a no-brainer rule, is when you’re in meetings with customers and suppliers, cell phones should be on vibrate and ignored, just flat turned off or left in your office. I’m amazed at how many times people, in rather important meetings, receive calls.

A friend told me that there’s a term for it: the BlackBerry droop. If you’re up front presenting in a large meeting room, and you see all these people with their heads down, you might think they’re asleep, but actually they’ve got their BlackBerry just below the table so you can’t see it. They’re reading and sending e-mails, which also means they aren’t actively listening to a damn thing that’s being said.

Communication is the single biggest success determiner. You can screw up more stuff with wrong, inaccurate or incomplete communication. With customers and suppliers, that’s critical because that’s where the business and profits are won and lost.

The more efficient you can be with your communication, the more likely you are to have some success.

HOW TO REACH: Safety Today, (800) 837-5900 or www.safetytoday.com