Amish Mills Inc. began as a small operation, a company making high-quality Amish furniture with a work force of 12 craftsmen. Since then, the company has grown its revenue, customer base and employees — close to 100 today — year after year by developing its niche as a national retailer of quality, authentic Amish furniture.

When Chairman Christopher Karman bought Amish Mills in 2003, he realized that while the company’s product quality was impeccable, the problem was that the company’s niche of Amish handcrafted curios was no longer very profitable. The real strength of the business was the company’s team of skilled employees, who made beautiful, one-of-a-kind furniture. Karman saw an opportunity for the company to broaden the product selection, go after high-quality retailers outside of Ohio and serve a more diverse base of customers nationwide.

Karman sat down with his craftsmen and started designing new furniture. He assembled a team of driven sales representatives and expanded the product line to include all of the major furniture segments, from office furniture to bedroom suites. And before long, Amish Mills had secured a high-quality list of accounts throughout the United States.

Despite its nationwide growth, Amish Mills still maintains strong ties to the local Amish community today, whether it is employees volunteering their time and services or the company offering use of its facilities to raise money for a good cause. The company also benefits the local economy by purchasing most its raw materials locally.

As the company continues to grow, Karman encourages employees to be creative and always be trying new things to make the products the best they can be. Whenever an employee submits a furniture design idea that is put in the catalog, the employee gets 100 percent of the money from the first product sold. A focus on quality people, products and service is what drives Amish Mills toward future growth.

How to reach: Amish Mills Inc., (330) 359-0400 or www.amishmills.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Since it was founded in 1997, Americas International Inc. has grown from its local roots in Akron, to today representing some of the world’s leading chemical companies from the United States, Europe and Asia. Under the leadership of President Wayne Stair, Americas has continued to build its reputation as a leading North American distributor of rubber and rubber chemicals by always going beyond meeting customer expectations and aiming to exceed them.

With a focus on value, personal service and innovative problem-solving solutions, Americas’ company culture keeps employees driven to provide solutions that always result in customer satisfaction. Employees at America know that customer satisfaction is the direct result of being able to deliver the company’s products and services in a timely and cost-effective manner for clients. In order to ensure its deliveries are always on time, with the right product always at the right place, Americas has grown its network of warehouse operations to include regional offices in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

By having the right inventory for clients in warehouses around the country, Americas positions itself to always meet the requirements of suppliers and customers, ensuring their satisfaction and the company’s future success. As a result of its technical product expertise, dedicated customer service staff and top logistical support, Americas has been able to create a loyal base of customers while increasing its sales and optimizing long-term growth opportunities for the business.

From 2006 to 2007, the company generated a sales increase of 43 percent, and from 2007 to 2008, the company increased sales nearly 100 percent. Although sales dollars decreased in 2009 — a result of Americas’ products being tied to the price of oil — sales volumes actually increased from the previous year. By 2010, sales had taken off once again, and the result was another sales increase of more than 100 percent.

How to reach: Americas International Inc., (330) 920-9330 or www.americasinternational.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Larry Lawson, president and CEO of eCardio Diagnostics LLC, a provider of cardiac monitoring products and services, has had to check his own pulse once or twice because of the rapid growth his company has seen in the past few years. ECardio has been one of the fastest-growing companies in Houston and has no plans to slow down.

“We’ve continued to experience solid growth,” Lawson says of the $44.8 million, 350-employee company. “That growth has come from our ability to continue to meet the needs of our customer base through the suite of products and services that we offer. We are rapidly becoming the No. 1 company in the world doing what we do.”

From excellent customer relationships to innovative products and a drive to be the best, eCardio is positioned to achieve great things.

Smart Business spoke to Lawson about how he keeps growing a company that’s already at the top of its game.

Develop a vision. You have to provide a vision. You have to listen to your senior leadership team on how to carry out the vision and listen to each of the teams about their daily implementation and what it takes to meet the needs of the customer. Sometimes the things that you hear back will provide you with an opportunity to expand your vision, which will further enhance your strategies. It not only gives employees a sense of contribution, but it also can be an important element to future success.

Once you provide the vision of your company, you need to listen to your senior leadership on how to carry out that vision. Many times, that senior leadership will bring things to the table from previous employment and previous opportunities they’ve had in the past. It’s very important for a CEO to listen to his senior team about these opportunities. A lot of CEOs think they have all the answers and they don’t do a lot of listening and I think that’s a huge mistake. The more successful CEOs do exactly that. They have the initial vision, but they rely upon their executive team and their senior leadership teams to carry out that vision and to come up with the incentivizing programs that will give them the results they are looking for.

Look to other industries. I think it’s important for every CEO out there to see beyond their industry that they’re in today. Even though our primary focus is in remote cardiac monitoring, we see technology trends in other companies that have been helpful for us to work with as we develop our technology. All CEOs need to look beyond their industry and look at all technologies beyond their industry.

You have to go to seminars outside of your own industry. Attend seminars that deal with the financial culture of their business and learn from other industry leaders, other key opinion leaders of other industries. I think that’s really beneficial to CEOs to get outside of their own forest so they can see how other trees are grown. CEOs need to look to other areas of high growth where they could extrapolate from.

Communicate with customers. We listen to our customers. That’s how we started our company, by listening to our customers, what they wanted and needed most. The cardiologists and electro-physiologists who are ordering our monitoring diagnostic tests for their patients know what tools they need to provide to get the best diagnosis possible. That technology stems from our ability to work with and understand our clients’ needs and our physicians’ needs.

One thing that we do that our competition doesn’t do is that we have very close conversations with our customers and clients. How we know that we are going above and beyond what our competition is doing is the physicians are telling us that we are. They’re collaborating with us and helping us develop processes and controls. That’s how we know we are exceeding our competition. We are continuing to grow and exceed year after year in our business where our competition isn’t.

You have to stay in constant contact with your customers and listen to your customers. You have to stay in touch with all those clients who are ordering your products. They know the tools that are needed and you have to listen to them and give them the tools. That’s how you know whether you’re keeping up with the change needed by adapting and innovating.

HOW TO REACH: eCardio Diagnostics, (888) 747-1442 or www.ecardio.com

Published in Houston

Because it meant coming out of retirement to take the reins at MSC Cruises (USA) Inc., Richard Sasso did have some reservations when the company first asked him to lead its North American expansion in 2004. Yet with his track record in the industry — and having served as the president of his own cruise line, Celebrity Cruises, in the past — it didn’t take long for those reservations to give way to excitement. First of all, Sasso realized he already had a great product and brand to build on with the MSC parent company.

“We think that the product itself is the one thing that will always be your ally,” says Sasso, the president and CEO of MSC Cruises (USA). “So if you have a strong product, you not only can sell the product easier, but you can also have referrals and repeat guests.”

Yet to achieve fast success in a new market, the company needed to set itself apart from competitors with its service, as well. That’s why Sasso’s strategy for growing the brand began first and foremost with a foundation of customer service excellence.

“The cruise sector is very much a product, but it is about the customer and customer service. … At the end of the day, if we don’t have a customer and we don’t satisfy him, then they’ll be an end of the road for us,” he says.

“We want to have our best foot forward 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s much more important for an emerging brand to follow the customer and the experience of the customer than an established brand that may already have its own accolades or its own position in the market.”

Drawing from his long career in the cruising industry, Sasso focuses on this objective at the company by ensuring every one of his 70 corporate employees as well as thousands of offshore team members are aligned toward improving and enhancing the guest experience. Consequently, the 36-year cruising veteran is now heading up the fastest-growing cruise line in the world — in fact, the fastest-growing cruise line in the history of cruising. Last year, the Fort Lauderdale- based company sailed with more than one million passengers.

Hire the right people

No matter what the product or service you’re selling, the real predictor of a company’s success or failure begins and ends with your people. By making sure you hire people who have the tools to succeed in a customer-service-driven organization, you set the groundwork for a highly successful service culture.

“This is a professional business, and we need to find the right caliber of people,” Sasso says. “Age is never a factor. It’s if they have the right characteristics to be a good customer service representative. Those characteristics are a lot in the speaking skills, language skills and technology skills … and do they have a customer service mentality? So one is you find the candidate.

“We’ve been at 100 percent occupancy since day one, and with very few exceptions, we’ve been able to fill every ship we’ve brought out and increase our presence around the world at the same time. So it’s been a challenge, but one we’ve been able to manage because from the beginning, we’ve had the right people in the right seats.”

One way to find people with specific traits is through targeted recruiting. While experience is important for senior leadership positions, the recruiting process can help identify other intrinsic qualities people have, such as attitude, communication skills and friendliness.

“You always need to make sure you have the most talented, qualified, enthusiastic people running your company. The guy who is the CEO or the guy who’s the president, he may get all the accolades and all the awards for stellar performance, for a company’s growth and all of that, but at the end of the day, it’s the result of everybody in the organization and in our case, it’s support staff and shore-side staff. We have to have great customer service on both ends of that.”

To recruit team members that excel in specific roles, Sasso enlists the help of agencies all around the world to locate qualified people that fit MSC’s criteria for characteristics such as enthusiasm, professionalism and the ability to adapt and solve problems creatively.

“So you’re constantly looking for ways to improve and be the best you can or better than the competition in almost every area of your business,” he says. “We encourage our management on a strategic level to have those kinds of thought processes.

“We constantly have our executives in each area thinking outside of the box to figure out what is the best way for us to get our message out, what’s the most cost-efficient way, how would you do that and which technology would you use to do it.”

In addition to a strong skill set, Sasso looks to fill leadership positions with people who can demonstrate a history of effective leadership. To determine this in an interview, Sasso says the best question to ask is if the person can provide references of former employees rather than former bosses.

“I want to know more about what the employee who worked for him says about him than somebody he worked for,” Sasso says. “Think about that. If you ask John to give me references and he gives you his boss as a reference, well, of course, he was brownnosing the boss all the time and was there. But I want to know what Mary Lou says about John and how he was as a boss. That is one of the first questions I ask in an interview to help weed out the kind of people I want working in the organization.”

Be forward-thinking

The long-term test of a company’s customer service doesn’t come from just being able to meet the needs of today’s customers. You also have to meet the needs of future customers. When it comes to customer service, it’s important to make sure that your organization is positioned to anticipate customer needs and be able to adapt to meet them effectively. To keep MSC customers happy, Sasso knows he always needs to be thinking one step ahead.

“Change is so fast nowadays, you’ve got to keep on top of things,” he says. “Even though you don’t think it’s broken, look at it again and see if you can make it better. Some companies fail to do that, particularly when it comes to addressing the customer’s needs. If you’re not addressing the customer’s needs of what you think he’ll want from you tomorrow and not just today, you’re going to start losing some ground.”

To plan for what customers are going to want, you need to stay attuned to how their needs and interests are changing. Utilizing feedback forms that measure and track consumer trends over time can help your organization make knowledgeable decisions on how to adjust and grow. MSC relies heavily on its comprehensive customer comment forms — passed out by ship management — to identify where its services can be improved in the future. Sasso then uses a two- or three-year cycle of strategic planning to evaluate improvements in areas such as entertainment, ship remodels and adding new destinations or services.

“We really dissect the experience through the comment form,” Sasso says.

“Then we take those forms within one week of the cruise being finished — we analyze all of those forms and look for trends. We look for positive trends and we look for negative trends. If there’s something that looks like it’s producing some negative comments, we look to fix it immediately. So we’re able within a week to measure everything that’s happened on board with our ships in terms of the quality experience.”

By taking swift action to analyze and categorize the feedback, the company is able to head off smaller issues as they arise while staying abreast of larger trends.

“In order to keep ahead of the curve you always have to be looking out,” Sasso says. “You’ve got to be thinking about what might be the next phenomenon or the next type of on-board service people are expecting. Twenty-five years ago, spas on cruise ships were just small rooms with some dumbbells and a couple of bicycles. Today, those ships that we’re building have 20,000-square-foot spas. And why did that happen? [It’s] because we started to forecast the consumer’s appetite was starting to be a little bit more pampering, a little bit more spa driven, and we started to make sure that our ships could now accommodate that desire.

“We have some of the finest spas in the world on our cruise ships, but that would have been too late to think about it today. You needed to think about it three to five years in advance of that. So that’s how we plan the future.”

Reinforce accountability

Helping employees succeed as ambassadors of MSC customer service is the overarching goal for Sasso. Yet even when you hire and train the best people as quality representatives for your brand, there is always room for improvement. It’s important to provide clear goals and feedback for employees about their performance.

Leading a culture of accountability from the top down is an important aspect of that. Sasso makes himself and his senior leadership team available and open to assist and mentor employees. In addition, there are several levels of managers whose job on board the ships is in large part to oversee the execution of customer service.

“Their job is to witness the process and to try and intervene in the process if it’s not working,” Sasso says. “They also do reports that will tell management what’s going on on board and what we may want to think about to improve the guest experience.”

On the ships, MSC also uses its customer comment forms to keep tabs on its service execution. Because they take time and effort, Sasso encourages the ship staff and management try to give the forms out to guests at times where they are most engaged, including during on-board entertainment and surprise events. When you approach people in these appealing environments, they are often in a better mood and may be more uninhibited in offering their opinions. Once guests receive the comment form, they are able to assess everything from employee performance, housekeeping, food entertainment, quality, management and cleanliness to the overall cruise experience.

“If we look at something that’s producing some very high-level positive comments, we look to improve on that and to do more of it,” Sasso says. “That goes down to every skill set. If it’s about a crew member, we might even look in detail if this crew member is getting a few complaints about not serving properly or the housekeeper wasn’t attending to the cabin as sufficiently as we have in our protocol. We’re able to pinpoint it right down to an employee.”

Once on the ship, the feedback is customer-driven, but on shore, Sasso utilizes technology-driven metrics to monitor individual performance.

“On the shore side, we are able to monitor every phone call,” Sasso says. “We have supervisors and manager-trained people who do a lot of phone interviewing where we can listen to the caliber of conversation. We can listen to the techniques. We have performance skill metrics that are technology-driven. We know how long they were on the call, what the benchmark is for the time they should have been on that call, so are they being efficient? How many sales they convert on a call is benchmarked through technology.”

The goal of performance metrics isn’t to police employees, but rather, give everyone tangible goals by highlighting areas where they can enhance skills or improve through training. Having ongoing feedback about how your service culture is performing keeps everyone accountable to its continued success.

“You can never think you’ve done it all,” Sasso says. “I’ve had phrase in my vocabulary for many, many years, and it’s a takeoff on that phrase that says, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. My phrase is, if it’s not broken, make it better. I think some companies become complacent if they are doing well and not getting complaints and they’re just kind of rolling along. That’s complacency that doesn’t fit today.”

How to reach: MSC Cruises (USA), www.msccruisesusa.com

The Sasso File

Rick Sasso

president and CEO

MSC Cruises (USA)

Born: Bronx, New York

Education: Miami Dade College

Residence: Delray Beach, Fla.

First job: During college, I was the special service representative for British Airways in Miami Airport. At the time, it was called British Overseas Airways Corporation.

What are the characteristics of good leadership?

I have been in this business for 39 years. I’ve been the president of two cruise lines and been a senior manager running an office since 1979, 30 years actually running an office and being a leader. The characteristic that I have always deployed and one I will never not deploy is you need to make sure that all of your employees realize that they can make a mistake. They will make a mistake. Just be honest about it and let us know so we can fix it together.

I always have that conversation with anybody that works for me. And the other is that I’m always there to be with them. The CEO should not be behind a closed door. He should answer his own phone. … He should never exclude himself from anything in the office and he needs to be part of the process with the open door. Answer the phone when somebody calls.

Published in Florida
Friday, 30 September 2011 20:04

Appetizing offering

As a bariatric physician, Dr. Sasson Moulavi — known by his patients as “Dr. Sass” — builds strong, lasting relationships with them based on sincerity, openness and honesty. So it makes sense that as the founder and CEO of his own weight management business, he believes the way to gain customers long term isn’t through flashy advertising or gimmicks but though the same philosophy of putting client needs first. Since launching Smart for Life Weight Management Centers in 2003, Moulavi has grown the company and his popular “cookie diet” to $70 million in revenue in 2010.

Smart Business spoke with Moulavi about the keys to creating and marketing a product offering that resonates with customers and results in long-term sales success.

Prioritize quality over marketing. We spend a lot more money on research and development than we do on marketing and making the product look really cool, because I believe that’s where the money should go. It’s first of all to make a really good product. Don’t sell your customers garbage.

The way we communicate is by delivering results. …We just want to get people to try it, and we know that once they try us, they will then see the results and then they will believe in us. They will not say, ‘Oh they are just another gimmick — I just wasted another $100,’ which is what happens to a lot of companies. And then they go on to the next one. Our reorder rate is 60 to 70 percent because people who use us, stick with us.

Keep the message straightforward. When I started dealing with people, I hired people who were marketing experts, advertising experts, media experts and PR experts. It was very hard sometimes to tell them, ‘Let’s just keep the message as plain as we can with the most truthfulness that we can give in a short message. Build trust in our customers. Over time, that’s going to pay off.’ And that’s what happened. [It’s] getting everybody to believe that telling our clients the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is the best way to go. Rather than giving them lots of advertising and gimmicks and trickery, just lay it out, plain and simple. The customer is very smart and they’ll understand it. Once people figure out who’s lying to them and who isn’t, then we get the customer to trust us and it’s a lot easier to do business with our customer, because now you are dealing with a trusting relationship.

Meet the customers’ price point. In this economy, you can have a good product, you can have good marketing, but if it’s overpriced, you’re not going to sell any. As we got bigger, we were able to bring our cost down. We were $12 a day three years ago. Now we are $10 a day.

A lot of businesses right now will tell you that they make a lot of their sales when they have a special sale and that’s where you see the successful companies like Groupon and Living Social. When they reduce the price, their sales just go through the roof. We did a sale with one of these companies and we had almost a 2,000 percent increase in our sales because the price was so much lower. People are very price sensitive these days.

Be willing to change. If a client’s unhappy with something, we take it very seriously, even if it’s one client. Some of the clients I call back myself because I want to know what’s going on. Doing that has helped the team and I understand where the client is, what do they want, what are the problems and what kind of products they want.

Generally, if people are criticizing you, they are doing it because they like you, love you and want to help you. People don’t typically criticize their enemies to their faces. Anybody who is criticizing you to your face — that’s a good sign. That means they like you. So whenever a client comes up to me and tells me, ‘I really hate that. It doesn’t taste good,’ I don’t take offense to it. I say, ‘Well, how can I make it better?’ I find that if you listen to your clients and you don’t take their criticism and get sensitive about it, you just keep improving and getting better.

How to reach: Smart for Life Weight Management Centers, (561) 394-5300 or www.smartforlife.com

Published in Florida
Friday, 30 September 2011 20:01

Mark Lloyd’s service investment strategy

As a retirement and estate planning specialist who spends a lot of time talking to my

clients about being savvy investors — and as someone who has relied heavily on a long-term commitment to personal, attentive and committed customer service to grow my own business — I’ve come to realize more and more over the years that smart investing and great customer service have the same professional DNA.

The bottom line is this: Building a portfolio is like building a relationship. Both take hard work, insight and understanding. Both grow stronger if you are flexible, thoughtful and committed, and both benefit from the ability to listen closely and communicate clearly.

Guiding principles and helpful reminders are all the more important during transitional periods on Wall Street. Nearly two years after a bull market began on Wall Street, there is plenty of concern out there regarding volatile events overseas. The tenuous nature of the economic recovery, in conjunction with natural disasters, political turmoil and economic uncertainties abroad leads plenty of investors to wonder if this positive trend can continue. It is during times like these when it is helpful for even the most confident investors to get a little clarity by getting back to basics.

Treat challenges as opportunities

As a growing business, tough times in the marketplace can be unsettling, but for those who can take advantage and stand out from the crowd, a challenge can be leveraged into a valuable opportunity. There is no better way to distinguish yourself from the competition than by taking the initiative with proactive customer service. In essence, it is a “strike while the iron is not” approach, the same basic “buy low, sell high” strategy that reminds us of the potential rewards out there for those with the confidence and vision to make bold moves. It’s a great way to build a business and a great way to build a portfolio, as well.

Take the time to listen

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to improve customer service is simple: listen. And don’t just go through the motions; listen to what your clients are saying. Clear, consistent and timely communication is key, not only to improving client relationships but to helping provide the kind of solutions that will pay dividends for you and your clients over time. That same level of open-minded accessibility and willingness to absorb new information that makes a great leader is an important characteristic of a great investor, as well.

Don’t be in a rush

Building a rapport with a client is about much more than just getting them to sign on the dotted line. Asking the right questions and avoiding artificial timelines is a great way to establish trust and confidence. Similarly, savvy investors will adopt a balanced, unhurried investment approach, with an emphasis on proper asset allocation. Avoid making hurried decisions and taking unnecessary gambles. The right asset — like the right client relationship — will pay long-term dividends.

Stick to your strategy

While every client is different, a strategic, disciplined approach is the best way to ensure that you can be an effective listener and provide them with sound counsel. By the same token, as an investor, avoiding a temptation to time the market, staying away from bubbles and buying high, often requires a similar level of discipline and strategic planning. Investing is like being on a diet: discipline is essential. The best investors invest academically and not emotionally. As with customer service, the details of the strategy may vary — but the underlying fundamentals remain the same. If you stay true to your principles — both in your investments and your commitment to your business providing great customer service — your professional relationships and your portfolio will both reap the benefits.

Mark Lloyd founded The Lloyd Group Inc. in 1994. The company serves the distinctive financial needs of those nearing retirement and those already retired. To learn more about The Lloyd Group Inc. visit www.thelloydgroupinc.com.

Published in Atlanta

Would one of your customers recommend your company to a friend or colleague? In the telecommunications industry, client satisfaction is historically very poor. Ken Williams, vice president of client services at Simplify Inc., says the key to breaking that trend is to fill the gap and bring a high level of service to the customer.

“Client retention comes down to serving your clients well — putting your clients’ success first,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Williams about how to improve customer service and satisfaction.

What are the keys to improving client loyalty?

I think of them in two broad categories: job performance and behavioral competency. Job performance is the service you provide, the quantifiable, measurable actions a company is looking for in its telecom partner — the ‘hard’ skills. Behavioral competency represents the more qualitative, but equally important ‘soft’ skills: emotional intelligence, communication skills and interpersonal ability. Behavioral competency is driven more by the culture and values of the organization.

Every company needs both. They need quality, dependable service on all fronts and a truly professional partner they can trust.

What ‘hard’ skills need to be honed to improve customer satisfaction?

First is cost. All companies are looking to reduce costs in this extremely competitive, ever-changing business environment. Telecom costs can be a somewhat hidden goldmine of potential cost reductions. As the telecom industry faces constant consolidation and price reductions, a savvy consulting partner will find lower cost providers for its clients. But the partner must be vendor neutral. Consider the insurance industry. When an agent works with only one insurance company, you have no idea if you are getting the best pricing because the agent is only bringing one provider to the table. Companies looking to reduce telecom costs should look for a trusted adviser who is vendor neutral and sees their relationship as being with the customer, not a particular carrier. Look for an adviser whose fees are primarily paid by the carriers to avoid another layer of expense in your cost structure.

Second is speed. Enterprises who are starting new locations or moving locations cannot afford to delay openings. Consider a retail company that is opening 50 or 100 new stores a year. They sign a lease, put people on payroll, connect their utilities, start paying insurance on the location — so the quicker they get the store open, the quicker revenue starts coming in to recoup these expenses and generate a profit.

We see enterprise companies who consistently have openings delayed by 10, 20, 50 days — that’s a lot of lost revenue. Multiply that by 100 new stores per year, and it becomes a very substantial amount to the bottom line. So it is paramount to find a partner that understands carrier processes, has good installation processes, provides specialized software tools to manage the telecomplexity, and can be a productive part of a team with real estate, construction and project management to ensure facilities open on time.

The third area is responsiveness. If you are a multi-location service provider, or if your business depends on your data circuits, data network or voice lines, responsiveness is crucial. Say you are a multi-location auto parts store chain and you have a lot of repair shops calling in orders. If your phone lines go down, every minute that goes by is lost revenue. Mean time to repair for telecom services becomes incredibly important. If you want to minimize business downtime due to telecom outages, it’s important to find a partner who understands the carrier processes, has the volume to demand the best repair escalation paths with telecom carriers, and has its own team of people who work with the carrier to get issues fixed as quickly as possible. Businesses who attempt to simply go straight to the carrier for repair issues typically get lost in the morass of processes and departments and do not have insider contacts to expedite repairs. Businesses need a trusted partner to navigate that for them.

The fourth client satisfaction driver is accuracy. There are tons of horror stories of lines and data circuits being delivered to the wrong address, creating weeks or months of delays. Businesses need a partner who knows the potential mistakes that can be made, and has the processes and software in place to help identify the errors before they become critical and can catch them on the front end instead of on the back end.

What ‘soft’ skills can improve client loyalty?

First, trust is essential. Revisiting the insurance agent comparison, if you know the person works for one insurance agency, and only one, it’s hard to trust him. Is he here to help me get the best insurance I can at the best rate, or is he here to make a sale? You have to find someone independent, carrier-neutral, vendor-neutral, there to serve you and make sacrifices. When a company trusts its partner, client satisfaction goes up significantly.

Next is servant focus, which is the mindset that the biggest reward for a trusted adviser comes when its clients are doing well. Everyone claims to provide good service; not many will make sacrifices to ensure their client’s success. Of course, serving your clients will pay off in the end with solid client loyalty, but you need to start with a giving mindset and let the benefits flow back to you naturally.

Third is a sense of urgency. A business owner never wants to call a partner or carrier and tell them his store is down, the business is losing revenue every minute, and get a lackadaisical, ‘we’ll see what we can do,’ and ‘are you sure it’s our issue?’ finger-pointing. They want to hear that the carrier knows the business and has the connections to get this fixed as soon as possible.

Last is honesty. When it comes to telecom, like most technologies, most people don’t understand it. It’s easy to mask facts or place blame elsewhere. You want a partner that owns its mistakes. If they do something wrong, they will admit it and do everything they can to make it right for you.

Ken Williams is vice president of client services for Simplify Inc. Reach him at Ken.Williams@simplifycorp.com.

Published in Dallas

CEO Dennis Allen has grown Hattie Larlham from a small operation to a large, multifaceted organization, meeting new challenges with innovative, entrepreneurial solutions to expand the company’s mission of caring for people with developmental disabilities.

As care improves, people with developmental disabilities are living longer, healthier lives, resulting in additional educational and socialization needs. Allen has led Hattie Larlham in creating social enterprises to employee people with developmental disabilities, providing them with skills, job experience and confidence to succeed in the work force. The latest social enterprise undertaken by the company is Hattie’s Garden, launched in January of this year. The gardening vocational program expands Hattie Larlham’s vocational training options into the realm of sustainable agriculture and also expands its services to people with autism.

Among the other social enterprises started under Allen’s leadership to employ and train people with developmental disabilities are Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care & Boarding, a cage-free pet boarding operation offering training in animal care; Hattie’s Café & Gifts, a chain of nine local coffee shops; Creative Arts, a program facilitating artistic expression; and Hattie’s Vending Co., a vending company that services 79 machines in Akron and surrounding areas.

Allen’s dedication of vision has propelled Hattie Larlham to new heights. He has helped substantially grow the operating budget and scope of services of the organization in the last 23 years, taking the organization from a $7 million annual budget to a $32 million budget. The number of people Hattie Larlham can extend care to has also expanded under Allen’s direction, from 180 families receiving care when he started to more than 1,500 children and adults currently. Allen has significantly enhanced the organization’s ability to innovatively improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities.

How to reach: Hattie Larlham, (330) 274-2272 or www.hattielarlham.org

Published in Akron/Canton

When Stacey Gillman Wimbish was named president of The Gillman Cos. in 2008, she didn’t have much time to enjoy being named to her new position. She took over right at the height of the economic recession, and in just one day in November, she had to let go of 150 of the company’s then 900 employees. The recession’s full force had fallen on the automotive industry. The Big Three, Ford, GM and Chrysler, were all in financial trouble and that meant that dealerships would suffer, too.

“That’s what faced us during the recession and our reaction was to cut expenses, and that meant employee count, and it was really, really hard rebuilding,” Gillman Wimbish says. “There was nothing we could do about it.”

Although it seemed like nothing was going right in the auto industry, Gillman Wimbish remained focused and rallied her employees to adapt to changes in order to push forward and leave the past in the past.

The $500 million 760-employee owner and operator of 14 car dealerships has had to fight through unprecedented recessionary times as well as inventory setbacks due to the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan earlier this year.

Here’s how Gillman Wimbish pushed through the recession and an uncertain industry to keep The Gillman Cos. performing as one of the top car dealerships in Texas.

Brace for change

To say the condition of the auto industry wasn’t good in 2008 and 2009 is an understatement. The industry was severely underperforming and the companies at the forefront were in the midst of federal bailouts. In an industry that is hot one minute and cold the next, you have to be ready for change.

“During the recession here in Texas, we had two direct-hit hurricanes on our business, we had $4 gas, at least 70 to 80 percent of all customers financed their cars and lenders stopped lending,” Gillman Wimbish says. “General Motors went bankrupt, and we have two General Motors stores. Pontiac dissolved. Dealers were getting letters in the mail saying we’re not going to renew your sales and service agreements. Thankfully, Gillman didn’t get one of those letters, but it was a very high-stress time.”

When chaos is happening all around you, you have to have a plan ready to move forward and be able to communicate that plan throughout your organization.

“Today, we say, ‘Let’s work; don’t worry,’” she says. “These times demand change. You have change whether it’s natural disasters or poor economic conditions or internal management restructuring; change is hard on your employees. The best way to approach it is to have a plan. You can make mistakes along the way but have a plan [and] communicate the plan: ‘This is what we’re going to do to get through this.’ Lay out expectations and be consistent with your message. Make sure you stay the course and don’t bounce around with your plan. If you can do that, then the best part is at the end when you can thank your team for making it through.”

A plan is only good if it accomplishes the goals you have set to achieve. Make sure that what you plan to do can be measured and improved upon year after year.

“It’s always best to keep it simple,” she says. “Whatever you decide to do, whatever plan you come up with, you have to make sure you measure it so you can tell if the plan is working. When you ask folks to change their routine, it is a matter of presenting your plan and training them on how you want it done, defining expectations and then constantly measuring. My weapon of choice is hard facts. We measure ourselves against everything — against other car dealers, other name plates and, of course, fierce and fun internal rankings. If you can measure it, then you can improve it. That’s how you can monitor what changes you’re trying to instill.”

Change is an ongoing process that your entire organization has to be on board with in order for your company to be able to ride the fluctuations of an uncertain industry.

“You can never stop changing,” she says. “The times are moving too fast to relax. If it’s not hurricane readiness or economic meltdowns or $4 gas coming back or a tsunami on the other side of the world, you have to react and go faster. You have to have folks that will change. If you have employees too set in their ways, then they need to go. We don’t do anything the old way. Old wisdom serves you well, but new technology will make you better and stronger and faster. You can never stop changing and looking for ways to go faster. At the same time, you have to be able to keep calm and carry on. You have to breathe when these curveballs come up. Don’t lose control and don’t give up.”

Learn from experiences

Over the past year and a half, the auto industry has made a big comeback. However, it wasn’t long until some car dealers had to withstand inventory shortages due to the natural disasters that struck Japan in early 2011.

“In this environment, it’s been very nice to have some diversity,” Gillman Wimbish says of having both domestic and import dealerships. “The recession is over so the most recent challenge has been the tsunami and the earthquake that happened on the other side of the world. The ripple effect is production of these cars and that means that our summer inventories are going to be very low. Instead of selling 1,300 new cars, we’ll probably be down to 1,000. So we’re going to be down 30 percent. Through the first four months of 2011, we’ve been on a post-recession high. It’s been an exciting 25 percent increase over last year, but now we have another setback to last year’s sales levels, and sadly, that’s going to rob us of the best-selling months of the year.”

What The Gillman Cos. endured three years ago will play a big role in how the company gets through any future tough times. Just realizing that change is a crucial part of your business can make adaptation easier.

“We’re not planning to just turn off our marketing or suffer through the lack of sales volume,” she says. “We did that during the recession, but we’re not doing that now. In fact, we’re going to do exactly the opposite. We’re going to press on, and we are going to have to change a little bit and sell both new and used cars. We’re going to provide a clear path, stay the course, and offer a lot of reassurance that the dealership is financially strong, and together, we can handle all these curveballs.”

That mentality in a leader is critical in order to be resilient. However, that mentality has to carry throughout the company in order for employees to know they can help.

“I have a great team at the top, but I can’t do it all,” she says. “If you involve more people and you involve them in your recovery plan, that will help make you more efficient. If you tell your employees and managers the challenges that you’re facing, they can be part of the solution. They will offer to step up and help and that will bring you closer together. When you all pull together, it becomes that much easier to pull through.”

Part of pulling together and getting help from the employees around you is being honest and open with them about what is happening in the company.

“One of the things that we have done really well through these hardships is we disclose,” Gillman Wimbish says. “There are a lot of companies out there that hide a lot of their financial statements. We disclose our financial statements and encourage department managers to dig in and find ways that we can be more efficient. There’s not an account within Gillman Cos. that’s a secret. If you create a culture of, ‘They don’t need to know,’ that’s not using the tools you have at your disposal. You need as many eyeballs helping you as you can or else you’re limiting your success. You’re limiting yourself if you don’t disclose your hardships, successes and challenges.

“You should also tell the truth. Employees get worried and they don’t want to hear what’s happening from the ‘Today Show,’ they’d rather hear it from you. Tell the truth, whether it’s good or bad, don’t cover anything up. It’s important, and it’s actually reassuring to them. I’m amazed at how many team members step up and help us through something because they want to feel like they are part of the solution.”

Look through the customer’s lens

Change is not and cannot be the only way a company gets past tough times. A company has to also look at what it is best at and continue to do that and improve it. For Gillman, that meant customer service.

“You have to look at things through the customer’s lens,” Gillman Wimbish says. “I want to treat every customer as if they were my neighbor. They need to get a quality product that you stand behind, sold with honesty and integrity, follow up after the sale and have sincere appreciation for their business. There is a ton of competition out there and the only thing that sets you apart is the service you provide.”

Gillman not only wants to make new customers, but prides itself on having repeat business. If your company doesn’t emphasize customer service and process improvement, you will lose out to companies that do.

“If you treat everyone as if they were your neighbor that you’re going to see everyday … and your neighbor is happy with you, then they will send you more customers,” she says. “You can’t be hiding behind the bushes trying to avoid things. You need to see your processes and customer touch points through the customer’s eyes. You can always do a much, much better job of this. Have customer touch point meetings within your management. You may think your website is clear and full of all the data that is relevant, but is that what the customer is looking for? You need to do more think tanks about the customers’ needs and wants.”

While putting yourself in the shoes of your customers is a crucial part of improving service, you have to also make sure that employees are enjoying the work that they do.

“Another thing that CEOs have to understand is that employee satisfaction equals customer satisfaction,” she says. “We have 760 employees, and if the one employee that you encounter has a bad attitude that day, then you translate that as a poor reflection on the whole face of Gillman. So you need to sincerely have solid employee satisfaction in order to provide a good reflection and a good impression on your customers. You want your employees to be proud of where they work and you want them to have clear direction in their job and confidence in management. If your employees take pride in where they work, they will perform there jobs with confidence.”

Improving the levels of satisfaction among customers and employees takes measuring and monitoring. Competition is what will let you know whether improvement is needed.

“We love competition,” she says. “We love to win, and we’re not afraid of our results, even if we’re in last place in a certain ranking. I won’t ever hide from that, and through awareness of that and getting my teams input, we’ll climb the ladder and improve. In order to monitor, you have to measure. No matter where you are, if you can measure it and keep the awareness in front of folks, you can improve. Don’t try and do too much all at once. Break it up into pieces.”

Climbing the ranking ladder comes back to the satisfaction of your customers and employees. It has to be your top priority to stay out in front of your competitors.

“It’s a fun, happy environment that you have to try and create, because happy employees will equal happy customers,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask the customers. Ask them where they’re having problems or where the clogs are and then try to modify based on that feedback. You may think you have the greatest processes in place. You need to have a few meetings specifically pretending to be a customer and try to gauge how they feel about that. You have to challenge yourself to think through their lens.”

HOW TO REACH: The Gillman Cos., (713) 776-7000 or www.gillmanauto.com

The Gillman Wimbish File

Stacey Gillman Wimbish

President

The Gillman Cos.

Born: Houston

Education: Attended the University of Texas

What is the first car you ever had?

A red 1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am.

If you could choose one car on your lot to drive, what would you choose?

I’m driving a Nissan Armada because it holds kids and dogs.

Who is somebody that you admire in business?

My dad, Ramsay Gillman, and my former boss and former COO, Jay Gould. Both of them allowed me to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them.

Remembering Ramsay Gillman: It is with deep sadness and regret that I must announce the death of Ramsay Gillman, my father and our board chairman. Ramsay died at age 67 at his home on Friday, June 3. We miss his guidance, wisdom, affection and humor. He was an inspiration to me, my brothers and my co-workers.

Ramsay followed his father into the car business starting at Frank Gillman Pontiac GMC in downtown Houston. He grew our company from one dealership to 14 in five different cities across our great state. His vision and determination will be hard to match.

My dad’s strong discipline and customer service excellence has been instilled in our dealerships and will continue to guide us in the future. His principles of honesty and integrity will continue to lead us as we move forward.

One card I received read, ‘We will never be the same as we were before this loss, but we are ever so much better for having had something so great to lose.

Published in Houston

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Published in Akron/Canton