Joe Sanda wants to get into his customers’ heads. The founder, president and CEO of Astute Solutions says that the only way to understand what your customers want is to ask them.
“We’re driven by listening to what some of the problems are with our customers and what their opportunities, needs and wants are,” Sanda says.
As head of the $12.8 million provider of software and solutions for consumer-focused companies, Sanda points to Astute’s work with British Airways. By paying attention to what the client’s needs were, the company recently created a prepaid debit card to compensate passengers at a point of failure, such as when baggage is lost, a concept that Sanda and his 65 employees hope to expand to other airlines.
Smart Business spoke with Sanda about how to create great concepts with your clients and deliver what they want.
Q. What are your keys to growing a successful company?
Focus on your customers. Try to understand what they want, what they think and what they feel. That’s something we really strive to do.
Q. How do you keep that focus on the customer?
First, we try to make sure we’re driving our product direction based on the market and the customers, not just internal R&D. A lot of product companies try to come up with a product, as opposed to listening to what customers are looking for and what the market’s looking for. We try to be customer-focused that way, and we get some of our best ideas from our clients and prospects.
Second, we try to get in touch with our customers’ feelings. We do that in a variety of ways, whether it is a focus group, an advisory council or customer surveys that go beyond a satisfaction survey actually listening to what they’re looking for and connecting with the voice of the customer. We try to understand what our customers are feeling, how well we’re doing, what we can do better and then provide feedback.
The third step is trying to make sure you have a customer feedback solution. Have some way of collecting data that’s actionable, and use that to improve what you’re doing based on what your customers are telling you.
Periodically, I’ve hired a consultant to talk to our customers about what they would like to see us do better or what we could do better with a product. It’s not to say that we don’t talk with our account managers and professional services people, as well, but we make sure we collect some independent input, where we might find out things we wouldn’t know otherwise. We’re not just counting on one channel.
Q. Why are those steps important?
High growth is based on meeting the needs of a market and meeting the needs of your customers. If you think you’re in touch with it but you’re really misconnecting, you’re missing opportunities for growth.
Some of our best product ideas come from our customers. They have some great ideas, but putting those ideas into motion and creating new products and services based on those is also a key to growth. It keeps you in touch.
Q. How can other business leaders apply those steps to their business?
Have a system to capture some of that information, what customers are asking for and looking for, in an actionable way. We take that information back to each of our respective departments ... and work on a continuous improvement program that allows us to be more responsive to our customer base. We put that in place systematically and close a loop with our customers.
Q. What happens if companies don’t follow up on client feedback?
Missed expectations by customers. Customers think that they’re listening, and when they don’t see action taking place, they actually get more disappointed with the company.
We developed a system for McDonald’s to capture some of this actionable information and then take it out to where it can make a difference again, the idea of continuous improvement all the way down to 15,000 franchise owners. It’s creating a solution that would actually get the information out of corporate and take it down to where it would make a difference, the local stores.
Q. How do you foster innovation among employees?
You have to set aggressive but achievable goals. I’m a firm believer in trying to raise the bar a little bit. Occasionally, we’ll miss a stretched goal, but I’d rather reach up a little bit and occasionally miss it than to never have tried.
It’s OK to fail trying to achieve something that’s a little better than average. I try to encourage that and try to run the company that way. If you never try to reach up a little higher, you’re never going to do it.
HOW TO REACH: Astute Solutions, (877) 769-3750 or www.astutesolutions.com
As one of 12 children in his family, Dennis Schoemehl learned early on the importance of compromising, listening and multitasking.
Those sibling survival skills became second nature to him growing up, and they continue to serve him today as a leader and a role model for his 120 employees.
The president and CEO of Logistics Management Solutions LLC formed his company in 1996 from a transportation logistics division at Monsanto. More than a decade later, the third-party logistics provider posted 2007 revenue of $94 million.
Smart Business spoke with Schoemehl about how he leads LMS’ work force using a delicate balance of understanding, communication, fearlessness and motivation.
Be thoughtful. You can’t just look at people as a number. People are people, and everybody pretty much has the same wants and needs.
If you’re going to get the most out of people, you’ve got to look at the world through their eyes. If one of their kids has a concert at 11:30, you want to give them the flexibility to get off to go see that. Things like that are very important if you’re going to get trust and enthusiasm out of them.
If you understand what their needs are, then they’re going to be understanding about what your needs are, especially if you communicate your needs.
Open up your books. Even though we’re a privately owned company, we still share numbers with employees. Then, we look, in return, to an open-door policy. If people need help with anything, they know they can always come in. If somebody gets into a bind and needs a couple hundred bucks, we set up a program that helps them get through the short times.
If somebody comes in and has a question and I take the time to answer it sincerely and help them work it out, that spreads word-of-mouth. When the next guy comes in with a question, everybody says, ‘You ought to go talk to Denny about that. He’ll have the answer for you.’ It’s the personal side and the business side.
Our two assets are our technology and our people. Technology usually doesn’t come knocking, saying, ‘I have an idea where we can think outside of the box,’ where people do. As long as we foster an environment that encourages creative thinking, that’s what we’re looking for.
Take risks. You have to be willing to not let failure affect you because you’re going to fail. And, when you make decisions, you have to make them as rapidly as your business changes. If your business has a lot of velocity, your decision-making has to have a lot of velocity to it also. If not, you’ll never grow.
Then you have to accept what those decisions are. If they don’t work out, you can’t dwell on those. Learn from your mistakes, and analyze those mistakes.
The old saying is, ‘Hindsight is 20/20,’ but not everybody has that crystal ball to see what’s there. When you make a decision, base it off factors you think will fall into place, and when they don’t fall into place, you have to look back and ask, ‘What was the driving force to make this fail?’
What you can’t do is look back on it and say, ‘I’ll never try something like that again,’ because sometimes you try it, and it turns out to be a great success.
Motivate your employees. There are two different motivators that drive employee productivity. It’s kind of like a bicycle.
The front wheel steers it; that’s motivation as a group. That’s having lunch brought in for everybody a couple times a month, having Johnny Cash Day where everybody gets to wear black, sponsoring softball teams. You’ve got to keep doing that ‘Hey, this is a neat place to work’ kind of thing.
Try to do some things that are much different than you could find anywhere else.
The back wheel is on the personal level. It is employees being able to pay their bills and having the flextime that they need. You have to provide bonuses down to a transactional individual level, give different goals to different people and let them drive their own behavior.
Hire the best. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. I check people out, and I talk to references and see what people have to say about them. You want to make sure that they’re well-respected and have the pedigree that you expect.
And don’t be afraid to compensate them fairly. If they’re going to make you money and make the company successful, then they should be compensated for it.
Establish professional alliances. Build strong relationships with a good accountant, attorney, insurance man and banker. Have dinner with them, and get to know them on a business and personal relationship because they’ll have a lot of good advice for you.
While they are suppliers, they are a vital support to your company. They are around business every day; they see what people are doing and what’s working and what’s not. There’s nothing wrong with running ideas by them on what you’re doing and getting their advice.
HOW TO REACH: Logistics Management Solutions LLC, (800) 355-2153 or www.lmslogistics.com
The co-owner and CEO of Visual Marking Systems Inc. makes sure his message is constantly in front of his employees. He puts posters in the cafeteria to illustrate the company’s strategic plan and action steps and posts whiteboards in each department to help his 105 employees keep score of goals and make note of issues to be resolved.
“If you put it in front of people and they read it every day, they’re going to do better at remembering what it is than if they just hear it,” he says.
Smart Business spoke with Kahle about how he educates employees to strengthen his $11.2 million graphic design and printing business.
Q. What are the keys to growing a successful company?
Strategic planning, a strong management team and education of all the employees and that’s twofold. One is training in their specific job, and two is education about the company’s strategic goals.
In 1982, when my father and I took over the company, we put together an annual business plan.
By the time I took over the company, I realized that to grow, I had to get the managers more involved in the planning. If you try and run everything by yourself as your company is growing, you will find that everything has to go through your desk.
Q. How do you get managers involved in the planning?
First, I had to train my managers better, but in particular, find which managers to grow with the company. That’s a difficult thing to do because you have people who have helped you get there, but they are not necessarily the people who are going to help you grow.
So in 2005, we started strategic planning off-site with the senior management team, with us all doing the planning. We look at our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Everybody is involved; we do our homework ahead of time, and we go off-site for two days and put together a strategic plan with specific action items.
The only way you’re going to grow an organization is to have everybody understand what the game plan is and buy in to it. They have to say, ‘We agree. This is the direction we want to go.’ I have a senior management team of eight people; that means that nine of us are running the company, not me.
Q. How do you get managers to contribute new ideas?
There’s an old phrase: If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got. The question is, what’s new out there? Find out what’s going on in the outside world. What are the techniques to help a manager grow? My managers can’t manage the same way today that they did back when we were small.
We have in our budget a specific amount of money set aside every year to educate all the employees. Every single employee should go through some kind of education.
Education is one of the most overlooked things in the United States. You could say, ‘I’ve got this great employee. He knows how to run his department. He’s got 25 years’ experience.’ No, he’s got 25 years of doing the same thing every year.
Q. How would you respond to leaders who say it’s too expensive to do that?
It’s too expensive not to do it. If you’re not going educate your employees, how are they going to make your company any better? Most of education is time; it’s not money. If you get one person who’s really good at something, you can teach the rest of the people.
Two years ago, I studied lean enterprise and read books on it. I got an outside expert to help me to understand a little bit more about it, and then I spent 2007 training every single employee on lean.
We put seminars together, and I trained 100 employees over a five-month window in multiple sessions. They went through a class just as if I was a professor, and every employee had to take a test at the end of the program and pass the test of multiple-choice questions.
A lot of them freaked. They said, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t taken a test since high school,’ and I said, ‘It’s an open-book test. Bring your notes in, and take it as many times as you need to pass the test. If you’re struggling after your second time, we’ll help you with the questions.’ It wasn’t there to scare them; it was there to educate them. Now, I’ve got a lean organization with employees who are looking every day at ways to eliminate waste and nonvalue-added time and material in our company, and they find it.
Q. What advice would you share with other business leaders who are trying to grow their company?
Hire smart people with the right attitude, not necessarily the right skills. If they’ve got that attitude and they’re open-minded, they’ll learn the skills.
HOW TO REACH: Visual Marking Systems Inc., (800) 321-1496 or www.vmsinc.com
Michael Perry not only believes in leadership by example, he lives it.
If you encourage employees to join community organizations or to serve on nonprofit boards, Perry says it is your responsibility to do the same. Perry, who serves as president of H.B.D. Construction Inc., a full-service general contracting firm, says the best way for leaders to communicate their corporate vision is through their actions: If they believe in something, they should pursue it. And it’s a philosophy he lives each day at H.B.D, a full-service general contracting firm that reported $128 million in 2007 revenue and employs 130 people.
Smart Business spoke with Perry about how to delegate responsibility, communicate with your staff and create an environment of positive attitudes.
Allow employees to think on their own. Delegate responsibility where applicable. You do that by assigning responsibilities throughout your process to your managers and holding them accountable for the performance of their project. We have review meetings, whereby the projects are analyzed on a monthly basis. We have yearly reviews for all staff, including administrative, and that’s where compensation comes into it.
I’ve only been president for four years, and delegating was a little difficult at first, only because I worked my way up through the chain here at the company and was, at one time, a project manager. When you realize that there’s way too much to do it all yourself, you’re forced into delegating, and you learn quickly.
When a person is first hired, give them small amounts of responsibilities, and then quickly ratchet that up as they perform. You wouldn’t have hired a person if you didn’t trust them out of the chute.
Our company has an established set of checks and balances on virtually every operation the way our costs are handled, our schedules, our procedures so I rely on those checks and balances. If a person is not representing my company well, I will certainly hear about it quickly.
Constantly communicate. When you have a problem, 98 percent of the time you can trace the source of that to either a mis-communication or a lack of communication between the two parties. To avoid those problems and to have smooth projects, you have to communicate internally and externally.
The best way to do that is to avoid sitting in the ivory tower, letting your employees handle all the problems. When a problem exists that your employees can’t handle, I want them to bring it to me, and then we’ll work toward a solution. To do that, you have to listen to your employees and allow them to bring things to you and not be fearful.
The proof is in the pudding. If you run around screaming at everybody and firing everybody, that will get out pretty quickly as your method of operation, and that’s not a successful one.
I believe in keeping things at a civil level. When problems arise, we learn from them, not only individually but as a company, and then we share those with each other and use them as a tool rather than a reason to get rid of somebody.
Any good leader needs to be a good communicator. If you can’t communicate with folks, you’re probably not going to be leading a company. If you’re a good communicator and you have an employee who’s not communicating well, focus on that with them and help them improve upon it.
Keep the ideas flowing. You can foster teamwork by having regular assemblies of your management team and fostering an idea-sharing environment, as opposed to working individually and not gaining knowledge from each other. I always say that our business is constantly learning because it continually evolves. Things change in business, particularly through technology; there’s always improvements made, so you need to keep up on those.
It’s too big of an arena for one person to think they’ve learned everything, including myself. You foster that by getting together and giving everybody the opportunity to speak up about things they’ve learned, problems they’ve had, and hope that you gain as a company from that.
Practice the art of positive thinking. No. 1, steer away from negative people and associate yourself with positive people.
No. 2, when you have a negative situation, create a way to turn it positive. You don’t want to have rose-colored glasses and walk around saying everything is wonderful when it’s not, but when you’re faced with a negative situation, deal with it, and then move back to a positive mode of thinking.
I was a bit of a negative thinker in my younger years, and I changed that around as I got older. I was preparing myself to take on a bigger role in our organization, and I realized that I was going to be faced with more problems and challenges than I had in my former position.
I did a checkup on myself, and that gave me a wake-up call: The business was the same, the company was the same, the only thing that changed was me.
Positive thinking has helped me to deal with things, and I try to pass that on to my employees. Positive attitudes are contagious.
HOW TO REACH: H.B.D. Construction Inc., (314) 781-8000 or www.hbdgc.com
Stephen Curtis has a pocketful of pink punch cards, and he’s not afraid to use them.
Once upon a time, the cards were used for data processing, but Curtis, the fifth president of Community College of Philadelphia, now uses them to jot down notes during meetings. The cards are easy to carry and their bright color makes it difficult to lose them, making the cards the ideal way for Curtis to keep track of what he has promised to follow up on for his employees or students. And they’ve become such a staple for him that his staff associates the pink cards with the guarantee of an official answer from him.
In addition to managing a $118.8 million budget, Curtis leads 1,600 full- and part-time employees. One-third of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents have entered the doors of this 43-year-old institution, and Curtis says that the college’s impact on the city as well as the pleasure he gains from watching lives transformed through education are what motivate him.
Smart Business spoke with Curtis on how he communicates with his constituents and how he encourages an innovative, entrepreneurial organization.
Adopt a collegial style. You have different constituent groups; in my case, it’s the faculty, administrators, classified staff, the students, the public and everybody else coming into the building and the campus.
You try to get people invested in the decision-making. It’s not that the buck doesn’t stop eventually with the president; it does, and that’s true with any CEO. You try to make the questions, the priorities and the decisions as transparent as possible.
In terms of senior staff, I certainly delegate decision-making authority. I don’t believe in investing it all at the top in the one person. I don’t think any one person has all that knowledge.
It’s not that you don’t know a lot of those things, but you rely on your senior staff to provide the expertise. Try to support them in the decisions that they need to make in order to be successful in their own areas.
We try to align those decisions through our strategic planning process and align all the annual objectives with that strategic planning. If you do that, then you have to give people who are accountable the leverage and the ability to make decisions on how to get there.
Trust your staff. I tell my senior management group upfront that I support their decisions. After that, actions speak louder than words. I have an obligation to stand behind what my senior managers do.
I can get the best out of them if I do that. I try not to look over their shoulder and try not to second-guess. I want our organization to be entrepreneurial and innovative.
There are moments we’ll try something that doesn’t work, and that’s OK. I’d rather give it the try. You’re taking relatively low risks sometimes, but you’ve thought it through, planned and tried to provide adequate resources. Inevitably, some things don’t work. That’s part of delegation and part of the confidence in the people that you’re working with. They need to know if something doesn’t work, that’s OK, and we will move in a different direction.
Share your message. You need strong interpersonal skills that enable you to deal with a whole range of constituencies that will allow you to motivate and bring people together toward a common goal.
To be successful, there has to be a vision, and you’ve got to be able to articulate that vision. You’ve got to be able to pull people together. Almost every challenge we face, at its core, has some kind of interpersonal issue attached to it.
Ask for advice. Every year, I hold open forums, and I usually make them specific to different groups within the college. I probably talk for five or 10 minutes. I want them briefly to hear me articulating in different ways where we’re heading and what’s going on.
I also want to hear back from them. Sometimes, it turns out to be a series of complaints; that’s the chance you take with these kinds of open sessions, but I’m ready to deal with that. A lot of times, it’s a brainstorming session, and that’s what I’m looking for because I don’t have all the answers.
I want people to be invested, so I use those forums as a major vehicle. I can’t spend a huge amount of time with everybody in the institution, but I’m obliged to find ways to have that kind of dialogue. Sometimes, it clears up confusion. We send out newsletters and announcements, but sometimes, there are things that people don’t understand.
When there are real critical issues in front of you, you want people to understand how you’re dealing with that and where you’re heading. We have changed the policy or instituted something new because of an occasional question or complaint or suggestion that has come out of those forums.
Be genuine. I’m never afraid to say that I don’t know the answer. I never make it up, and I never guess. I will tell people what I thought might be the potential cause, but I don’t know everything. You have to be direct, and you have to be honest.
We have employees that have been with us for 40 years. If people are going to spend their professional lives here, they deserve to know what the deal is. Another aspect of saying that you don’t know the answer to their question is also saying, ‘I’ll get back to you; you’ll get an answer.’ Now, sometimes the answer is still going to be no, and I’m not afraid to say that.
HOW TO REACH: Community College of Philadelphia, (215) 751-8010 or www.ccp.edu
Jim Coats understands what his employees want because he does something radical he asks them.
“We expect our employees to go above and beyond, and we should go above and beyond for them,” says the co-founder and managing director of Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co.
Coats says it’s your responsibility to exceed your employees’ expectations, and to do that, you need to ask for feedback. Through casual discussions and formal surveys, getting input has helped Coats grow the 100-employee accounting and consulting firm nearly every year since it was founded in 1986. Last year’s revenue exceeded $12 million.
Smart Business spoke with Coats about how he keeps the lines of communication open and why if you’re going to survey your employees, you’d better follow up on what they say.
Q. How do you effectively communicate with employees?
Seven or eight years ago, we did our first major employee survey, and the one area that the survey determined we needed to improve was communication. We were taken aback at first, but after thinking about it, we later appreciated it.
When you grow your firm, it really changes the way that information flows into a business. When you’re a small, 10-person firm, you can just yell down the hall, but we can’t do that anymore.
I present a ‘State of the Firm’ every January, with a 90-minute presentation of everything of significance that has happened at our company in the past year and what our plans are for the coming year. This meeting is off-site, and we provide food and drinks afterward so there’s socializing.
Technology has changed the way we communicate, too. Now, in addition to the regular e-mails on current company news, our employees produce an online newsletter that is kind of the social network of the firm.
Most recently, I’m coming to each desktop every other week via a three- to five-minute video that I tape in my office. I keep everyone informed and share the company’s philosophies and my philosophies. It’s a much better communication tool more personal and more nuanced than something in writing or e-mail, particularly when you’re talking about business philosophies and your approach.
Q. Why did you decide to start doing employee surveys?
As we grew, we were trying to get a handle of how everybody perceived things. We had our own thoughts on it, but the only way to be sure was to ask people. It was done by an outside consultant.
The survey asked a lot of pertinent questions, and it gave us a lot of insight in the communication area that we needed to address.
Q. How do you respond to survey results?
We formed a task force that was responsible for reacting and responding to the results of the survey. When we saw there was a weakness in communication, we formed a communications task force of members throughout the firm to come up with ways to improve communication.
Many of our communication tools the online newsletter and the ‘State of the Firm’ came from that dialogue.
Q. What happens if you don’t follow up?
If you don’t follow up on a survey, you’ve done more harm than good. If a company’s leaders have done a survey and haven’t responded to it, if I were an employee, I would think that there’s no substance in what they were trying to do. It would reflect poorly on management if they did not follow up.
Once you make the commitment to do a survey, it’s extremely important that you follow up. It serves to your benefit if the whole goal is to improve your organization. It’s all about improvement.
Status quo is not the place you want to be.
Q. How do you benefit from having good communication with employees?
You don’t know anything about people or their problems without asking and listening. Listening is underrated. I’ve never learned anything with my mouth open.
You have to understand what people’s issues and problems are for you to be able to respond to those issues and problems. You only gain that through listening.
Q. How do you make sure you’re listening?
It’s a matter of experience and training. Always try to keep the questions focused on whoever you’re talking to. It’s a matter of basic human psychology that if you listen to people and learn about them and their issues and problems, they’re going to like you.
People prefer to talk about themselves and what’s relevant to them. And that’s how you learn, by listening. Hopefully, from all that listening, you can offer a brilliant, if not a practical, solution to their issues.
There are no tricks; you have to be very sincere. Just be yourself, be caring, listen and pay attention. Then you can interpret that and see what you can offer in terms of a good outcome.
HOW TO REACH: Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co., (330) 864-6661 or www.bcgcompany.com
Businesses grow for a variety of reasons, but Geotechnical Consultants Inc. has expanded because its executives treat employees with respect, and they, in turn, build lasting relationships with their clients.
Although David Caprio was named president of the Westerville-based company just last year, he has been with the company for 15 years, not unlike many of his co-workers. Anniversary pins abound at the geotechnical engineering and environmental consulting firm, which also has offices in Boardman, Ohio, and Charlotte, N.C.
“We tend to give people at all levels a lot of responsibility and allow staff to make decisions,” Caprio says. “This makes them feel like they are part of the company and truly contribute to company growth.”
The 86 employees of Geotechnical Consultants Inc. have grown revenue from $6.4 million in 2004 to $8.4 million last year.
Smart Business spoke with Caprio about how he stays true to his staff members so they remain devoted to his company.
Q: How have you grown your company?
We have very loyal staff members who understand what we’re trying to do for our clients, and we are loyal back to them. We support their endeavors, on a personal level and on a business level. We believe in training, education and family.
In return, they are very loyal to us. They support us with their efforts, and they promote our company. Having a staff that believes in what the company does and portrays that to the client is really important.
Q: How do you create a staff that believes in your vision?
We keep telling them it’s all about service and doing a good job for the client. The client is our bread and butter.
We have a very open company with an open-door policy. Anybody can talk to anybody in our company and get advice on a professional level. If people have personal issues, we’re behind them, and we support them.
Q: How do you support your staff?
Education is really important, and it’s important to give people that opportunity. People come to us and say, ‘I’d like to take this course,’ so we work with them on that and encourage them. If they’re smarter and if they’ve got more knowledge that positions them to do their job better, we’re behind it.
Another thing we do to support our employees is at the end of the year, when we look at the revenue and the financial statements, we give a lot of money back to the employees. Every employee in this company gets bonuses twice a year, participates in profit-sharing and has an opportunity to buy stock. Those things help promote a loyal staff.
We have two parties a year, and at the summer picnic, we have given pins for five, 10, 15, 20 years of service. People come here, and we can’t get rid of them. I’m saying that jokingly, but to see 10-year or 15-year people here is not unusual because it’s a great place to work. We treat them right personally, and we treat them right financially because those are two things that are important to them.
We don’t work people to death here. Overtime is not a requirement for the professional staff. People know they have a job, and as long as they do their job, the company’s profitable and the client is happy, that’s what matters.
Q: How do you communicate your open-door policy to your staff?
We’re not a company of people who sit in cubicles and stay there eight hours to do their job. We’re a very interrelated and interactive company. I walk around the office all the time and talk to everybody.
My office literally does not have a door on it. When I was named president, this was my space, and I never changed because I like where I’m situated in the office.
I started as an engineer, so I had a relationship with a lot of people, and there was no reason for that to change. People have learned to respect the work I did, so they understand me professionally.
They know me as a person. I’m pretty level-headed professionally, and they know I’m not one to put the company in a position of liability.
Q: What advice would you share with other leaders of fast-growing companies?
The only thing I’ve regretted is handling a situation wrong. When a situation arises just like you do with e-mail sit back and think about it before hitting the ‘send’ key. Make sure it’s a good decision, and also think about it from a staff standpoint.
How will this decision affect other people? In the end, if you make a mistake or have wronged somebody, you’ve got to be able to admit it and change it.
We’re all people doing the best we can, and executives should treat everybody with respect and know that employees are no different than we are. That puts it all in perspective.
HOW TO REACH: Geotechnical Consultants Inc., (614) 895-1400 or www.gci2000.com
If you don’t believe in the power of the written word, Paul Bordner II has a book for you a book that changed the way his company does business.
Several years ago, his Gahanna-based company, Laser Reproductions, was growing fast, capturing good market share and becoming arrogant.
“Our customer service was lousy, and we had to grow up and look at how we were servicing customers,” Bordner says. “This book really hit the nail on the head.”
So how did the company’s president discover “Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless” by Jeffrey Gitomer the book that became required reading for his employees?
“One of our top customers sent us a copy and said, ‘I think you guys better read this,’” he says. “When we first got it, we didn’t realize what they were trying to say, but once we read it, we knew exactly what they were trying to say. They respected us enough that they thought, ‘We need to bring this to your attention. You guys need to do something about it if you want to keep us around.’”
That customer has remained loyal to Laser Reproductions, which specializes in rapid prototyping and product development. Bordner’s company now employs 45 people and has increased revenue from $4.9 million in 2004 to $6.75 million in 2006, with a strategic goal of reaching $20 million by 2012.
Smart Business spoke with Bordner about how he turns good advice into a growth strategy.
Q: How do you grow a company?
Utilize outside advisers in seeking advice and then implement the advice that they give. A lot of the advisers we have say it’s nice to finally have a company implement what they suggest.
That tells me that a lot of companies bring advisers in but don’t implement what’s in front of them. We strive for continuous improvement, and we can’t do it alone, so we seek outside advice.
Outside advisers share what works and what doesn’t work, and they give us different ideas to try. We try to create an atmosphere where it’s not a sin to fail, but you have to learn from your mistakes.
Q: How do you create and communicate that culture?
We award our weekly Helping Hand, which is given from peer to peer, to somebody who’s helped out or come up with a new idea. One of the simplest ideas was given by an employee years ago: differentiating products using different color folders. Something that simple is still with us today.
We also spend 10 to 15 minutes as a company in daily morning huddles. We stand up you’re not allowed to bring any food or drink to the huddle and we first read our mission and our vision statements. I would challenge anyone to come in our door and ask any of our employees what our mission or vision statement is, and they should know it.
Then, we’ll hand out the morning cartoon, which is typically work-related but funny. Then we’ll do our What’s Up review: what the salespeople are doing, is anyone touring the facility, who is sick or on vacation. It can be personal things, too. If somebody did something really exciting over the weekend, they can share it.
During the second portion of the meeting, we review financial numbers for the day. The more information you can feed the employees, the more they feel part of the decision-making. We used to get too detailed with the numbers, and they would walk away with the glazed-eye look like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are all these numbers?’ So we’ve really made it simple: We look at top-line numbers and bottom-line numbers; we don’t look at anything in between.
The last thing we do is the Information Funnel. Employees can bring anything to the huddle that may be a roadblock, something that’s keeping them from doing their job or ideas that may help them do their job better. Those will get logged, and then we try to eliminate the roadblocks on a daily basis.
Ninety percent of the huddle’s pre-typed and ready to go; everybody comes in, and we review everything. We’re not there to solve anything, just to spit out information and review it. The solving comes later.
Q: What advice would you share with leaders of other fast-growth companies?
To provide good service; you should always have a warm body answering the phone and willing to help whenever possible. Right after we read the Gitomer book, we hired a director of first impressions and got rid of our voice mail system.
The other rule of thumb here is, if a customer calls, and the management team is in a meeting, the customer is offered the first option of getting us out of that meeting if he needs to talk to us now. Sometimes the customer may need to take advantage of that, and it’s nice to give him that option.
HOW TO REACH: Laser Reproductions, (614) 552-6905 or www.laserrepro.com
When a company decides to implement changes to care for the environment, it’s not a one-time deal but an opportunity for continuous improvement.
Dr. A. Gus Kious, president of Huron Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic hospital, says the organization made a promise three years ago to “go green” at every turn and improve patient outcomes by enhancing the environment of care. A multidisciplinary Green Team was formed with the goal to reduce, recycle and redirect materials as well as to create an environment that is less toxic and more sustainable.
To achieve its green mandate, Cleveland Clinic Regional Hospitals’ President and CEO Fred DeGrandis says Huron Hospital developed a two-part pledge: “to create a healthy environment that will not cause harm to the individuals within our campus and community and to provide world-class care by becoming good stewards of our environment.”
Since 2005, Huron Hospital has become a leader among local medical facilities to enact sustainability and environmentally responsible programs.
It was the first hospital in Northeast Ohio to complete the first eight-month program provided by Entrepreneurs for Sustainability of Cleveland, a nonprofit group that teaches business leaders how to integrate people, planet and profit to create healthier, more prosperous businesses.
In addition to making the hospital a healthier place for patients and their visitors, Huron Hospital’s green programs have made it a healthier place to work and have had a positive effect on the local and global community.
Area recycling companies have experienced a significant increase in business as the hospital turns over more materials to be converted for other uses, and the hospital has donated toiletries, medical equipment, health care uniforms and other medical supplies to developing countries through international organizations.
DeGrandis says the hospital also has identified ways to reduce its carbon footprint. These plans include using renewable energy systems, like wind, geothermal and solar; installing new energy-efficient windows; and reducing office devices by 50 percent and replacing them with networked multifunction devices. Reducing paper use, recycling metal and construction debris, and installing low-flow showerheads and more dual-flush toilets are other efforts in the works.
HOW TO REACH: Huron Hospital, (216) 761-3300 or www.huronhospital.org
Rather than put all his eggs in one risky basket, Nelson Kohman prefers to diversify. By offering a diverse range of services from civil engineering and land surveying to environmental management, landscape architecture and land planning the president of Evans, Mechwart, Hambleton & Tilton Inc. says his company has the flexibility to adjust to changes in the market. With 400 employees and branch offices in Charlotte, N.C., Cincinnati and Indianapolis, EMH&T reported revenue of $44.6 million last year. Smart Business spoke with Kohman on how he conveys his message to his staff and builds friendship-based relationships with his clients.
Be a strong communicator. We’re a very hands-on, doors-open company. The ability to recognize and empower people to achieve their maximum is important. We try to provide direction and guidance to help clients achieve their objectives.
We try to be good listeners, as well. I spend a lot of my time going around the building and talking to the various service groups to see what their needs are and whether I can help. Collegiality is a big part of developing the sense of everyone working together. We try to do a good job of that by being available top to bottom.
We also try to provide a consistent and deliberate decision-making process. Technology changes so rapidly that we need to make sure that we consider all the aspects of our decision-making so we make the most cost-effective and beneficial decisions.
Build close client relationships. Ninety percent of our work is repeat business. People trust us to make good decisions, and we owe it to them to make sure that when we give them advice, we have looked at all aspects not only how we’ve done it in the past but how the technology in the market is changing to do things better in the future.
It’s a lot easier to keep a current client than it is to go find a new one, so client relationships are extremely important. We want clients to feel they can call us with a problem or a concern about our performance on a project. They know they’ll get an honest, direct answer. If there’s a problem, we’ll take the corrective action necessary to fix it; if not, we’ll explain why we did things the way we did. It becomes a friendship-based client relationship.
Listen to customer demand. Our clients said they needed more service in terms of environmentally sound, green initiatives. We had people in the company who had that ability, so we formed a team around those folks and developed a program. We recently held a full-day seminar where 200 of our clients from three states came into town, and we presented this whole green concept and initiative to them; it was very successful.
It’s a trend we have looked at for several years and decided now was a good time to offer that service. If you can have 200 clients come to a meeting to devote a full day to this on their time, there certainly is a demand out there for that service.
Just like when you expand your marketing programs, it’s an investment in the future. It doesn’t pay off Day One, but it’s certainly something that will reap benefits down the road.
Remember your leadership responsibility. We have 400 employees here who depend on us for their security and their happiness. They know that they have a job to come to, and they feel that they have security and the ability to stay at this company long term. That’s my key motivation.
Let employees choose. When people come in for an office interview, we have them meet with various groups throughout the company and try to understand our culture. Try to provide a comfortable work environment and show people they have opportunities to grow their own career.
We let them talk to employees who have experience working here they may talk to four or five people and because we have specialty areas of work, we let them get a feel for all the groups; then they tell us where they think they would most enjoy working. They’ll be more challenged if they’re doing something that interests them.
Motivate staff with independent work. We give people a lot of autonomy. We give them the ability to work independently and to identify a niche for themselves in the marketplace. By that, we have the opportunity to recognize their success and reward them financially as well as with job security. That’s the best motivation we can provide.
You have to be there to help when they have a problem or need input, but don’t necessarily give them the road map to operate. Give them the freedom to adjust to the people in the group, and make sure they’re comfortable working together toward the same goal.
Share information. We have a company town meeting every quarter, where we get all the employees together at the end of the work-day in our atrium and teleconference in our regional offices as well and give them the status of the company. We are communicating so they all feel that they are a part of the company.
It does a lot to establish the fact that we are one voice. We are trying to get the word out and do away with rumors. It gives people the opportunity to ask questions about the different aspects of our business.
Be open to words of wisdom. I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from previous partners in the company, which has all been very helpful to me, as well as from clients with whom I’ve developed relationships. I was able to discuss our issues and get a diversity of opinions.
One of our founders, Mr. [W.H.] Mechwart, encouraged me as a young engineer to continue to be forthright and dedicated to the success of the firm. I’ve surrounded myself with people who have that same quality, and today, our people are the key to our success.
HOW TO REACH: Evans, Mechwart, Hambleton & Tilton Inc., (614) 775-4500 or www.emht.com