It was during those early years of coaching that Friedman noticed his players were often less discouraged about their performance than he was.
We would lose a game and I would be demoralized, recalls Friedman, founder and owner of Captain Tonys Pizza and Pasta Emporium. I would be devastated, while my players would shower up and go party with their girlfriends. I wondered how come they didnt get upset.
I learned a long time ago they didnt have as much invested as I did. Coaching was my career. To them, it was a game.
Learning how to motivate his players ultimately led Friedman to coaching success at Clevelands small Dyke College, which has since become David N. Myers College. It also served as a powerful business proving ground.
So when Friedman left coaching more than 10 years ago to open his first Captain Tonys at Shaker Square, he knew he would have to inspire his team of employees in much the same way he inspired his players. Though the opponents were bigger and the stakes were higher, the concept of competition was the same.
Today, Friedman owns six restaurants and boasts an annual turnover rate of 8 percent in an industry in which more than 100 percent is not unusual. Meanwhile, he has mentally and financially prepared six of his former employees to start their own restaurants.
I would say I transferred my passion for dealing with people that made me successful as a coach into a different discipline, he says. Now, I play for profits instead of wins.
Friedmans secret is not the salaries he offers, because very often the Pizza Hut down the street pays more. Instead, he trains his employees how to be business owners and offers ownership opportunities to the ones that prove to be good students.
Here are the strategies that have helped Friedman grow a stronger and more loyal crop of employees than his larger competitors.
Be a good listener
Recruiting the right kind of employee is the first and most crucial step in Friedmans process. Too often, he says, employers spend the entire interview telling a prospect about the company rather than finding out what truly makes that person tick.
Friedman lets the candidates do most of the talking, all the while looking for clues he can use to motivate them to succeed.
The first question I ask everybody is what do you like doing when youre not working, says Friedman. Its a very powerful question. If you cant be passionate about your interests, what are you going to be about working 40 hours a week for me?
Candidates who criticize their former employers set off warning bells.
If they criticize their ex-employer, its another red flag, he says. I want someone who was loyal to his last employer, no matter how bad it was, because Im going to be their next employer.
Fire up your employees
A long-standing business axiom is that owners must personally oversee their operations. For Friedman, who spends most of his time working behind the counter at his East 9th Street Captain Tonys location, keeping a constant eye on his five other restaurants just isnt possible.
To remedy that, Friedman schedules two meetings every week for each restaurant, where he can praise good work, gauge sales and remind his employees what kind of service he expects.
Good managers are fine, but I had to create a culture of what I call employee ownership, he says. I need the employees and the managers to behave like me. When I walk out the door, I want the person in front to be like me, to watch the register like me, to take care of the customers like me and keep the place clean like me.
Friedman gets employees and managers to take an emotional stake in the company by letting them make decisions about every aspect of the business, including hours of operation and even expansion judgments usually reserved for the owner.
What happens in regular restaurants is the employees gripe behind the owners back and everything festers, says Friedman. So I let them have tremendous decision-making power.
Create a carrot
All the motivation in the world, however, isnt going to translate into a strong work force unless there is a light at the end of the tunnel. To spur his employees, Friedman points to the six successful restaurateurs who started behind the counter at Captain Tonys.
Friedman created this carrot in 1991, when he sold 20 percent of his first Captain Tonys to four employees. Now he routinely lets his most dedicated employees buy stock in the business once he believes they are ready. Last summer, Friedman partnered with an employee to open a Captain Tonys in Beachwood.
His five other graduates have opted for business ventures separate of Friedmans gourmet pizza chain.
These werent chefs, these werent culinary experts, says Friedman. These were people who came up through the ranks as delivery drivers and kitchen help. A 21-year-old kid without a college degree who busts his ass making pizzas, he needs something like that or else he is going to leave me.
How to reach: Michael Friedman, Captain Tonys Pizza and Pasta Emporium, (216) 781-8669
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor at SBN.
Unicare Corp. understands the power of giving. Executives there know that urging their employees to tutor grade school students can change the lives of both the children and their workers.
In fact, Unicare pays each of its employees to spend a portion of their week volunteering in the community.
As a health care reimbursement company, Unicare comes in contact with many people who need help in its everyday business dealings. The company often helps find health care coverage for the uninsured and assistance for the hungry or poor through local organizations.
In 1993, it established a nonprofit organization to take this commitment a step further. The Unicare Family Foundation was created to help low-income families beyond its own client population with the purchase of prescription medications. Since then, the company has contributed $72,000 to the fund, which has provided prescription assistance to more than 1,000 people.
But Unicare is doing more than setting money aside for charity work. Through the community outreach arm of the company, it works closely with organizations striving to make long-term community improvements.
“We want to do things out in the community that will make a big difference in the long run,” says Bob Graff, Unicare’s community outreach coordinator. “As we started community outreach, the idea was more around getting our associates involved in the community and creating good will as a part of individual and corporate citizenship.
“I think what has happened over the past three years, since we’ve formalized our community outreach position, is we realized a lot of the social issues need more of a long-term solution and that is more and more of our focus.”
Unicare is actively involved with the Coalition for Greater Cleveland’s Children, and is the only business that has a seat at the table during the coalition’s bi-monthly meetings. Graff says the hands-on role the company plays allows it a clear view of what issues shape the state of the community, and where long-term improvements need to be made.
“We’ve chosen to become actively involved in subcommittees so we can learn what the issues are and the things that have to happen in the community to improve the lives of all children,” says Graff. “You get one type of impact by touching one child at a time through tutoring, you get another impact by taking on the long-term issues.”
Graff’s hope is that Unicare’s involvement in bringing change through helping other organizations will afford the company’s employees the opportunity to look back in a decade and see the evidence of their efforts.
“It’s sometimes the more long-term issues which may not provide you with the immediate satisfaction, but when you look at the part you’ve played for those organizations, it does feel good,” says Graff. “It’s something we struggle with, but we want to look back in 10 years and say, ‘This is the difference we’ve made.’”
How to reach: Unicare Corp, (216) 431-5200
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is an associate editor at SBN.
With nearly every business laying out their e-commerce strategy, Yesterday Corp. President Tom Sincharge says too many business owners look at the Internet as a cure to whatever ails their companies.
“I remember how many rushed to the Internet to sell products before realizing it was best used as a way to keep your own clients rather than generate new ones,” he says.
When he first looked at the Internet as his company’s main communication tool, he wondered if his workers would buy into abandoning their telephones and fax machines to embrace the company’s intranet. He wondered if it would be too impersonal, if it would really improve efficiency and productivity, and if it would indeed save the company money.
“I could just imagine myself investing in all this new technology, and then finding out it really isn’t that big of an advantage,” recalls Sincharge. “But after talking to a few people about it, I began thinking it might be a viable concept. I decided it was worth a look.”
One of the first people he contacted was Mark Geyman, the marketing director for Beachwood-based Netforce Development. A year earlier, Geyman helped Yesterday research how to take customer orders over the Web.
Geyman understood Sincharge’s concern. Although computer companies and related industries had known the power of a connected work force for many years, it has taken other industries a little longer to warm to the idea.
“Now you hear more and more it from the manufacturing type companies,” he says. “They are finally starting to make that curve.”
Access to information
One of the biggest advantages of linking remote employees using the Internet is the incredible flexibility and access to information the format allows.
“Although sales reps may be distributed all over the country, even all over the world, if they have Internet access, they can (view) inventory and things of that nature,” says Geyman.
If a salesman in the field needs to see whether his company can meet a customer’s special order, he quickly logs onto the intranet and checks inventory, whether he is in a conference room or the middle of a cornfield. All he really needs is a dependable Internet connection.
Once remote employees buy into the intranet, Geyman says long distance and fax machine use usually drops off substantially. Although companies must first absorb the cost of making a sales force Internet-ready, Geyman says many business owners are realizing the long-term cost savings associated with an Internet-savvy work force.
“People are taking a look now and seeing where they can save money out there vs. making a phone call or other means of communication that are a little more costly,” he says. “So, internally, there is definitely a cost reduction.”
Administrative time savings
Once an employee intranet is in place, it is no longer necessary to copy employee memos and send them to satellite offices via the fax machine. Instead, Geyman says once employees become comfortable with the intranet, it often becomes a main communication tool between all employees, whether across the hall or on the other side of the country.
“Maybe you need to send out a general bulletin to all employees,” says Geyman. “You can easily send that out over the Internet rather than faxing it out or other methods of getting communication out.”
One-stop employee resource
On the other hand, if an employee in San Francisco is hoping to get a simple question about her insurance plan answered by an HR manager in Cleveland, she will likely either call or send an e-mail. Although either choice would take just a few minutes for the HR manager to answer, a string of routine questions can quickly take its toll on her productivity.
Geyman says many companies use their corporate intranet as a one-stop resource for employees looking for information about topics ranging from the company’s stock performance to vacations to insurance benefits. It sets the HR manager free to focus on other tasks and weeds out the number of calls and e-mails from employees.
“Being able to access that information whenever they want and the turnaround time as far as getting access to information, it speeds up the whole process,” says Geyman. “It makes everything more efficient that way.”
How to reach: Netforce Development, (216) 378-0600
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN.
There is a statistic floating around that claims you are three times more likely to be hauled into court than stay overnight at your local hospital.
Although it may be just another sign of our litigious times, it is also the statistic legal insurance providers quickly roll out when asked why their industry has experienced such a boom in the past several years.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, legal insurance is similar to an HMO in the health care industry. It first became available in the United States when Oklahoma-based Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. set up shop in 1972. More recently, it is popping up as an employee benefit, alongside traditional health and dental insurance plans.
“I see it as a thing that’s going to become as common as health or disability,” says Benjamin Spofford, a Hudson-based Pre-Paid Legal Services affiliate. “There is a group benefit discount, plus an employer really wants it because the employee cannot use it against him.”
If there’s any doubt about the viability of the legal insurance industry, consider this: Pre-Paid Legal Services finished No. 13 on Money magazine’s list of top stocks of the 1990s, while Microsoft finished four spots behind at No. 17. Some quick research also reveals competitors are cropping up in the legal insurance market, with American Express’ basic $9 a month plan one of the most recent entrants.
Typically, legal insurance is purchased for individuals, businesses or as an employee benefit. The provider firm screens and contracts with attorneys, who provide their services when legal troubles arise, for a relatively inexpensive monthly premium.
Where shopping for legal insurance plans becomes complicated, however, is when it comes time to determine what services you get. Telephone consultation and the review of business documents are built into most, but many have limits on the amount of work conducted during each 30-day period. If you are named as a defendant in a civil or criminal matter, the plans usually covers your initial representation in court. But attorney fees could end up coming directly from your pockets as the case evolves.
Spofford readily admits the limits, but points out that legal insurance is most valuable when it is used to prevent a legal misstep. In essence, he argues more people doing better research could combat the glut of lawsuits heard in the courts each year.
“The real secret behind a good legal defense is to know the risks ahead of time, before you do that thing that could end you up in court,” he says. “Call the attorney to see if you’re right or wrong about an issue. That’s one of the greatest benefits of it, to just to protect yourself ahead of time.”
How to reach: Benjamin Spofford, Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., (330) 656-3488
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is an associate editor at SBN.
There were countless products all making the same promises: Get driving directions, check e-mail and make travel reservations on the way to the airport. The novelty was gripping, but Tom Sincharge needed to figure out whether any of these products was worth buying.
“Sure, I’d liked to check sports scores on the fly, but that’s not a big perk when looking for a way to increase employee productivity,” says Sincharge, president of Yesterday Corp. “I really questioned whether any of these products could offer the solid Internet connection we needed.”
After weeding through countless Web pages and promotional brochures, Sincharge plucked some of the more popular candidates out of the pack for a closer look. Here’s what he found.
The compact Motorola i700plus hit the United States market during the last quarter of 1999, but Sincharge was quick to check out whether the compact multi-functional communication device would be a good investment for Yesterday. The unit is outfitted with a microbrowser, like many of its competitors, offering stock quotes, sports scores and travel directions at the touch of a button.
But the biggest perk Sincharge found in the i700 was that when connected to a laptop computer, the handset functioned as a wireless modem to send and receive faxes and two-way e-mail and access Yesterday’s computer network. Peter Aloumanis, director of U.S. market operations for Motorola’s iDEN subscriber group, says that access to company information is one of the strongest benefits of the product.
“It enables mobile workers to make more informed decisions,” he says. “(It) can increase productivity, reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction.”
Sincharge was no stranger to 3Com’s Palm line of products he’d bitten the bullet in June and bought a Palm IIIx to help him organize his busy schedule and contact file. So when the Palm VII hit the shelves in October with a $500 price tag, he couldn’t help but check out whether it might be the right mobile Internet connection for Yesterday’s sales force.
Like Motorola, 3Com had struck some crucial affiliations, pulling Amazon.com and Fidelity Investments on board with text-only versions of their Web sites for Palm VII users. The Web clipping technology, which blocks graphics, made for quick downloading, but Sincharge’s main question was whether an employee on the road could connect with Yesterday’s network using the Palm VII.
Since the product was created using standard Internet and data center technologies familiar to most Web and IT managers, Sincharge learned his IS department could, without much trouble, set up a server outside Yesterday’s firewall that would give Palm VII users access to the company’s intranet.
Sprint PCS Wireless Web
Similar to 3Com’s Palm Products, Sprint PCS struck some high-profile deals with Yahoo and CNN to provide content easily viewed on the telephone’s miniature Internet browser. But much like the Motorola i700plus, the Sprint PCS Wireless Web option also can be used as a wireless modem when hooked to a laptop computer.
Although the content available on the telephones imbedded browser is useful, Claire List, field operations district director for Sprint PCS, says the real power from the product is its ability to allow sales people to browse inventory and even place a customer order from their laptop computers, no matter where they physically are.
“If you’re a sales person on the road making sales calls, one of your customers may say, ‘I’m happy to see you, but I need to be sure you can get me this order,’” says List. “You can log on quickly, to first of all make sure the warehouse has the product, then you can enter the order while you’re at the clients office.”
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN
There are people who buy automobiles from John Honiotes without ever straying far from the warm glow of their personal computers. Instead, they visit Autonation USA’s Web site, browse through digital pictures of Hondas, Volkswagens and Chevrolets, and, if they wish, have one delivered to their home for a test drive.
Then, if they like what they see, they apply for a car loan online, receive an answer within 30 seconds and ring an Autonation USA sales person, who cruises out to help close the deal in the comfort of their own living rooms.
Honiotes, former national sales director for www.autobytel.com far and away the most successful Internet company when it comes to matching potential car buyers with local dealerships does not try to argue this is the future of automobile sales. Instead, he describes it as a top-notch example of how the Web can revolutionize traditional businesses.
“Today, that type of customer is a very small percentage of our business,” explains Honiotes, sitting at a monstrous conference table inside Autonation USA’s Rockside Road dealership, the newest addition to the sea of chrome, steel and glass better known as the Bedford Auto Mile. “We think that will grow to be a full 20 percent of our business. But the way we look at it, for that one customer or two or 10 who want it that way, it’s a very important part.”
Last year, Cleveland businessman Lee Seidman convinced Honiotes to trade sunny California for wintry Northeast Ohio and help build the first Autonation USA franchise with a focus on using the Internet to make the business more efficient. Before Seidman’s operation, every Autonation USA dealership was corporate owned, including the six Northeast Ohio dealerships under the Mullinax and John Lance names.
But even with his extensive background in online car sales, Honiotes does not see the traditional, physical car dealership fading away anytime soon. Instead, he says, the Web can do the most good when it’s used to streamline and improve existing business models. The value Honiotes places on an outstanding physical location is evident in the spacious 35,000-square-foot Autonation USA dealership he helped design, which is equipped with its own coffee bar, dozens of Internet kiosks and a service department that encourages customers to take a look around.
Honiotes, who describes Cleveland as “not even high up on the pole” when it comes to overall Internet literacy, says only about one out of every three people who walk through the doors of Autonation’s Bedford dealership has Internet access in their homes. Nevertheless, he believes once the Internet learning curve is conquered, the Bedford “virtual dealership” will emerge as an industry leader when it comes to integrating the Web with the traditional car-shopping experience.
“In some ways, we have a little more work to do here than expected,” Honiotes says with a confident tone. “But we’re really comfortable that when it’s all said and done, we will be recognized as the first place to go when looking to do business using the Internet.”
It is common for car dealers who want to be players in a certain market to put 1,000 cars on a 20-acre lot and try to rule through sheer size of inventory. At first, Autonation USA was no different, and the huge investment very often filtered down to the customer.
“In the early days, they would throw 1,000 cars on the lot and the problem was the buyers had no incentive to go out and buy them,” Honiotes explains. “The customers would say, ‘Well I see all these great cars, but if I have to spend more, not less, there’s something wrong with this picture.’”
The Internet, however, allowed Honiotes to avoid this cash trap when he built Siedman’s Autonation USA dealership and freed money that would have previously been sunk into stocking the lot. Instead of 1,000 cars, Honiotes stocks about 300 vehicles on Autonation USA’s nine acre site.
He can get away with this because of the way customers are directed to shop for cars. Even those who visit the dealership without touching a computer end up browsing for vehicles at one of the many Internet kiosks throughout the building. If they’re not familiar with how to use them, there are plenty of sales guides to walk them through the process.
If customers cannot find an automobile they like on site, they can browse Autonation USA affiliated dealerships or send Honiotes and his staff out to find the car they want. Since the staff does a lot of its shopping for vehicles online, it can, many times, easily find the automobile the customer wants.
“The customer can instruct us to go out and buy a Honda Prelude, for example, based on a range of years, miles and colors,” explains Honiotes. “Right now, 10 percent of the vehicles we sell today are a result of customers asking us to go out and buy a different kind of car for them.”
Because of Autonation USA’s no-haggle pricing policy, it usually takes customers a few rounds of browsing before they are ready to buy a car. But once they are introduced to shopping via the Internet during that first visit, Honiotes says, customers often do not return to the dealership until they spot something they are interested in while browsing the Web.
“About one-third of our customers have Internet access,” says Honiotes. “Does that mean that they complete the transaction on the Internet? No. What it means is, in trying to shrink down their thought process, they went on the Internet just to see what’s out there. “
This do-it-yourself process frees Autonation USA’s sales guides to focus their efforts on new shoppers who drop by the dealership to look around. Meanwhile, the low-pressure browsing from home and no-haggle pricing structure very often set the stage for an easier sale when those customers who have been browsing online return to the dealership.
“The earlier you get the customer involved, the greater success you will have with that customer,” says Honiotes. “If they go on the Internet and look for vehicles before they get here, they dramatically shrink the amount of time it takes them to do business with us.”
The lush interior of the Autonation USA’s Bedford dealership is proof that Honiotes wants to make the traditional car shopper feel at home. However, he says the majority of shoppers he encounters is mostly interested in taking care of the process quickly.
“We’re happy to have someone spend the day with us if that’s what they want to do,” he says. “But very few people think it’s a vacation to spend an entire day at a dealership.”
One of the most frustrating aspects of the car-shopping experience for the customer is the deal that gets away. When a shopper is quoted a price on a vehicle, then walks out the door without buying, Honiotes says, there is a good chance he or she may not get that same price on their next visit.
“You may walk back in ready to go in your mind and you say, ‘Hi, is Joe working today?’’” explains Honiotes. “Well, maybe Joe quit, or he’s off today . . . There is no way in hell they’re going to find your deal. You have to start all over again if you want to buy that car, and that, to me, seems pretty silly.”
Honiotes will soon introduce a Smart Card application at his Bedford dealership, in which customers are issued small plastic cards with embedded computer chips that store information about a certain deal if they need a few days to think about the purchase.
Storing customer information is also used on the administrative side to speed up the mountains of paperwork that accompany each sale. Once a customer’s name and personal information are entered into the system, they can be accessed for use on any paperwork that is part of the current purchase or, for that matter, any future buys.
“Single entry is the secret to the future of the business,” says Honiotes. “The way we see it, if I capture information in the front end of the store as part of the sale, when a customer comes back in, we’re not fishing to find out who they are.”
Honiotes is talking to a few major Cleveland banks about setting up a beta test site at the Bedford dealership for the first paperless car transaction. He expects that will happen later this year. Although customers will receive paperwork, the entire transaction between dealership and bank will take place electronically.
“Our goal,” he says, “is to take as much paper out of this business as possible.”
Also on the drawing board is software that will allow customers to schedule service appointments through the Web and automatically order any parts needed for that job that are not in stock.
Where many businesses get hung up when it comes to using the Internet in business, explains Honiotes, is what they expect from the new technology. Too often, business owners view the Internet as a portal through which, if they are doing everything right, new revenue should flow. Where Autonation USA is ahead of the game, Honiotes believes, is its use of the Internet as an intricate tool for research and communication on both sides of the deal.
“Where we think we’re remarkably different than any place in the country is that most dealerships are still trying to figure out one side of the equation,” he says. “They’re just looking for something being pushed to them in terms of the Internet and we recognize the real value of the Internet is pushing and pulling.”
How to reach: Autonation USA, (440) 232-9900 or www.autonationusa.com
When Northcoast Business Systems opened its doors in a 2,600-square-foot building 15 years ago, it would be fair to say company President Sonny Kumar was starting from scratch.
We had no customers at all, he recalls. Our first order was $37, and that was the first month of work. It was a zero customer situation.
A litany of smart decisions spurred growth over the years, leading Kumar to his current 40,000-square-foot building in Valley Views Hub Park. Kumar attributes the growth of his copier sales business to hard work and a little luck, but admits a steady stream of referrals made a big impact on his current customer base of 9,000 clients.
He attributes those referrals to a practice of staying in touch with his customers.
There are a lot of touches we try to make with the customer, he says. Its not just sending one letter out and forgetting about them.
Here are some ways Kumar builds solid customer relationships:
Ask for feedback
Every time a sale is made, Kumar sends a letter to each decision maker asking for honest thoughts on their experience with his company. The idea is to learn everything he can about how each client views Northcoast Business Systems.
I want them to let me know what we did right and what we did wrong, he says. I have at least 7,000 that have come back from customers. I have a sales meeting once a month and I go in and make copies of those for the entire sales staff.
Assign company contacts
Once a sale is made, a customer service representative is dispatched to train workers on how to use their companys new machine. That person then serves as the customers contact with Northcoast Business Systems for the remainder of the business relationship.
As soon as they are introduced, that customer service representative is in contact with that client, if not once a month, at least every 45 days, says Kumar.
Require sales staff follow-up calls
Kumar also requires his sales staff to place follow up calls to their customers on a regular basis to ensure the copiers are meeting their needs.
Its not OK to say, Here, have a machine, heres your sales invoice, Kumar explains. Our sales reps are required to call customers consistently. Every eight to 10 weeks they have to be in touch.
How to reach: Northcoast Business Systems, (216) 642-7555
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is an associate editor at SBN.
When Damon Hacker launched his Help in a Flash card, he knew his Westlake-based IT firm had a great product on its hands.
The only problem was finding a way to let small business owners know it existed. The card promised affordable, pre-paid technical support, but Hacker discovered that marketing it through traditional channels was a logistical nightmare.
In order to get the small- and mid-sized companies, we werent going to be able to pick up the phone and make a whole bunch of cold calls, says Hacker, president and CEO of F1. Theres just too many of them. So what we really focused on was developing a marketing and distribution channel.
Changes in the accounting profession, in which CPAs are reinventing themselves as one-stop business advisers, seemed fertile ground for a marketing push. Instead of peddling the cards directly to small business owners, F1 pitched the product to the CPAs very often anointed a small companys computer guru when problems arise.
In most small businesses, the first place owners turn to find an IT person is their accountant, explains Hacker. What ends up happening is a lot of CPAs take that burden on even though its not necessarily what they do. But because they are advising (their clients), they feel a necessity to do it.
Hacker says his goal was for accountants to either refer their clients to F1s product or simply buy it themselves and serve as an all-knowing computer consultant the next time one hit a computer glitch and picked up the phone in search of advice.
If there was ever any doubt about how accountants would react to the card, all worries were extinguished earlier this year when Hacker exhibited the product at the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants conference. He ran a promotion in which attendees were asked to throw a dollar in a goldfish bowl for a Help In a Flash card that provided one technical support call to F1. By the end of the two-day event, the fish bowl was brimming with singles and Hacker had a long list of sales leads.
Now Hacker is working with the OHCPA on a deal to provide members with a price break on the product in exchange for the opportunity to reach an even wider audience.
Never in the two days we were there did one person say they didnt have a buck or didnt want to take part, says Hacker. I had people more worried that they didnt have a business card to give me.
How to reach: F1, www.f1-4help.com
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor at SBN.
Denny Proux witnessed the hand wringing that accompanied the creation of General Motors Saturn subsidiary as a member of the team that conceived it.
The new, innovative way to sell cars made some uncomfortable because it challenged the stodgy, yet proven, corporate culture GM had known for years. Despite initial fears, the Saturn concept was ultimately given the green light, and the first car rolled off the assembly line in 1990.
Today, Proux says, Saturn executives are once again struggling to free themselves from the grip of GMs corporate culture. He points to five years of declining sales down 17 percent from 1994 and lagging customer satisfaction as proof that the revolutionary Saturn concept may be running on empty. Proux says its one more sign that creativity is fleeting, and even honest attempts at change can be derailed if everyone in an organization is not focused on the same goal.
The principles upon which Saturn was built were good internally, but there was always the danger GM would get its hand on it, he says. That has been tragic. Saturn is quickly becoming more (like) GM every day.
Proux, chairman and CEO of Hudson-based Changing Places Inc., is also a stakeholder in six other companies worldwide in a variety of industries that range from banking to entertainment to the Internet. He is a board member of Clevelands nonprofit Institute for Creative Living, which helps companies build better teams and inspire creativity through physical problem solving.
He recently sat down with SBN to discuss the power of building a more creative and productive work force.
How did you get involved with Saturn and what did you bring to the table?
I was doing consulting for General Motors and was dealing with some people who were part of the initial start-up of the Saturn concept. They had a lot of people who were brilliant but had very poor communication and human relations skills.
So there was this constant tension and conflict. They had hired really great engineers and business minds, but they couldnt function. They couldnt hold meetings and they couldnt get things done. So, I began to work with that part of it and a lot of it went over to Saturn, where they did more teambuilding and focused more on communication skills.
I brought Stephen Coveys book (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) to GM and, at first, they didnt want it. I had to buy the first 220 books with my own money. Today, its required (reading). Everybody at GM has to go through the Covey course.
What did you take away from that experience?
I met some wonderful people. They allowed people in who were not strictly car or engineering experts and that had a great impact. There were some wonderful people who began to influence a very old culture and helped it loosen up and be a little more open.
That was a great personal experience for me, but I recognized there was a clash of cultures. You always knew that GM culture would ultimately win out, that they would not fully accept the Saturn way.
You are a board member of the Institute for Creative Living in Cleveland. How did you become interested in this type of teambuilding?
When I was with the General Motors group, the Institute for Creative Living came there and I really liked their principles, their values and ideals. They werent pie-in-the-sky, they were talking about the real dynamics of how you create productive groups and how you produce leadership that makes sense. In other words, how to achieve goals and build human beings.
I saw the impact in a really hardened group of people from GM who just hated the thought of turning company. I watched that group turn around and go back to the plant and become involved, actually loving their work instead of dreading it and watching the clock.
There was this genuine thread of human interaction that had some real power to it.
Is there a type of management mindset that helps spur innovation and productivity?
Yes, and its kind of radical. When I work with an employer, I try to introduce to them the idea that the employee is the center of their own universe. Everybody is the center of their own universe. People are motivated if they believe there is some benefit to themselves.
So, the idea is for business owners to help each and every worker have the sense that employment at this company is in their best interest. The employer should try to grow them, give them every opportunity and, if life would be better for that person at another company, give them the skills and opportunities to move on.
If your company has the reputation that its a great place to work because employees are cared about first and foremost, then people are going to contribute at a higher level. You should help everyone feel like an entrepreneur in the system. Give them as much authority and as much latitude as you can.
If you hired somebody you have to watch over, youve hired the wrong person.
What are the first steps business owners can take to build creative employees?
If employees know they have total freedom to go out there and find out just what it is about them that brings meaning to their world and how they can get a different edge or focus, that really gets the juices flowing. If their job looks exactly like it did yesterday, then the employee starts saying, Theres got to be a better way to spend the next 30 years.
If you want creativity from someone, help that person to feel absolutely free, because the human spirit cant be contained.
How to reach: Changing Places Inc, (330) 688-2360
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is an associate editor at SBN.
Applied Laser Technologies was growing fast and Dov Nisman was losing sleep.
Despite nearly a decade of solid success, the owner of the Garfield Heights-based toner cartridge recycling company often found himself wondering if his employees were treating ALTs customers the same way he would.
Obviously, as business owners, we were always concerned about customer service, says Nisman, who owns and operates the company with his wife, Judy Harshman. Weve always wrestled with the idea of how do we take our culture, our feeling about how we should deal with the customer, and spread it to our employees so they can carry our vision.
So 18 months ago, the couple embarked on a new customer service strategy. They enlisted consultant Jeanne Coughlin of the Cleveland-based Coughlin Group Inc. to help them draft a plan to bring everyone in the organization on board with their vision.
Though Nisman readily admits it is difficult to gauge exactly how effective these kind of initiatives are, sales rose 35 percent in 1999, far surpassing his goal of 15 percent.
I really attribute our customer service to a big portion of this, he says. There has really been a tremendous improvement in our company pulling together as a team.
The plan was multifaceted, but here are four ways Nisman and Harshman focus their employees attention on customer service.
Share your vision
To launch the plan, Nisman set up a meeting for his employees at a local hotel where they could escape the usual office distractions. They ate dinner and socialized before diving into an educational program focused on the importance of customer service.
It was a social gathering where youre out of the day-to-day rat race of the office, explains Nisman. This whole process helped us with not only providing better service, but it also helped us to be together as a team.
Reinforce the message
As a result of the initial success, Nisman and Harshman now schedule an off-site meeting once every 90 days, where employees and management gather to discuss different customer service strategies.
We learn about relationships and people and a lot of the different psychology that goes into customer service, says Harshman. Its not one of these seminars where you go downtown for three hours and learn about customer service. These things need to be repeated over and over again. Thats why we continue this and we learn more and more every time.
Give your employees a voice
Nisman uses these quarterly meetings to ask his employees what ALT could do to improve customer service. Workers are also encouraged to make suggestions at any time if they see something that could be done better.
A lot of the ideas come from employees rather than just us, he says. We discuss together what we can do to improve customer service.
Reward good work
Nisman and Harshman reward their staff for positive feedback from clients, but it is not always monetary. Individual recognition in the weekly company newsletter often inspires employees to put in the extra effort necessary to make a customer happy.
People arent always happy in their jobs by how much money they receive, says Harshman. Its how theyre appreciated.
When employees see these (comment cards) come in, they are really inspired and motivated to do an excellent job.
How to reach: Applied Laser Technologies, (216) 663-8181
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN magazine.