A few years ago, when one of Rafi Holtzman’s employees called him from Europe and said she forgot her bright pink suit pants she needed for a trade show she was attending, he went to her house and, not wanting them to get crumpled in his suitcase, carried them by hand on the plane. He got odd looks, but it was just one way the CEO of Luidia Inc., a creator of interactive whiteboard technologies, showed his employee that he cared about her.

Holtzman also drinks his coffee with employees so he can talk to them, and he bought employees expensive ergonomic chairs so they would be comfortable. And when any of his nearly 100 employees have family emergencies, he says he’ll see them when it’s over instead of expecting them to work during the crisis.

“Even if you’re a cold-hearted capitalist, you still want to act like this because it buys you the thing that money can’t buy — it’s the personal responsibility, it’s the self-motivation — salaries will not do that for you,” he says. “Salaries are short-term sugar highs. If people understand you’re there for the long-run … it goes a long way.”

Smart Business spoke with Holtzman about how values affect a company.

What role do values play in an organization?

There are two kinds of motivation in human life — and it’s basically falling into two buckets. One of them is fear and the other one is love. Fear is a great motivator for a short-term burst — if you’re running away from a wild animal or doing a very fast project that you need to do right now and kill yourself to finish it. But if you really want to sustain growth, creativity, teamwork for the long run, then you have to be highly motivated to continue this for the long run, and the only way I know how to do that is personal involvement. I’m using the term love, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a combination of respect and personal responsibility and taking things really personal.

It helps a lot if you believe in that. You can fake it and do pep talks. A lot of companies will say that people are their strongest assets. But from my experience, not a lot really do mean it on the basic level. If you can really believe in that, you’re a large part of the way there.

How does showing care to employees help the business itself?

You have to go really outside the box to get support that will last for years. Most organizations manage to keep the people they don’t want to keep — we like to keep the people we do want to keep.

Changing employees is bad for you. It’s also hideously expensive. A stabilized company is always good rather than changing employees all the time — this going up and down and the learning curve and the hiring process puts stress on everybody.

How do you hire well the first time so you have a stable company?

Don’t compromise. Wait a bit more and don’t compromise. As a matter of compensation, it’s not always the highest monetary compensation that brings you the best candidate. You really have to see if there’s a fit on the vision both in the day-to-day activity and in the long run. People who fit in with the company values and, at the end of the day, are proud of their work, get significant points over somebody who just thinks of work as work.

What questions do you ask to get a good match?

The top question I ask is, ‘Tell me about the project you are proud of.’ I remember one candidate going, ‘Look, I started this, I made the proposal to the department of defense, I developed the process, I went all the way from idea to actually selling it, and it was a great thing because the company sold a lot of them. What I got from this I got taking ownership from one end to another.’ He had pride of ownership that he did a good product — he was really high on my list.

The other question is, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ You find out a lot about people when they answer this question — there’s only one good answer and that’s I don’t want to grow up. One of them said chocolate taster — that was a good answer.

How to reach: Luidia Inc., (650) 413-7500 or www.e-beam.com

Published in Northern California

At Tony Conway’s special events business, A Legendary Event, when any employee answers the phone, he or she is automatically responsible for whatever is on the other end. There’s no passing it off to anyone else — the person has to take ownership of it. Taking this approach to customer service is just one way that the company successfully puts on more than 2,500 events each year, which have garnered the company $15 million in revenue and more than 300 awards.

Smart Business spoke with Conway, the company’s owner and president, about how to have strong customer service.

What’s the key to strong customer service?

For leaders, they first have to make sure they’re listening to their customers and that they’re listening to their team. That’s a real key. They have to hear what their team has to say about what they’re dealing with with the customers and what the customers are asking about.

I would say, as well, if you’re going to make the decision to be a leader in any business, make sure you understand every job that everyone in your company has — what they go through, how they do it — so you can have that dialogue with them. If you come in as a leader and you spend no time with your product or your business or with what your talent is providing, you as a leader aren’t going to be effective. You can’t talk about something being hot if you don’t know where the heat comes from. You can’t talk about things being beautiful or fresh if you don’t know how it gets there and how it’s ordered and what the cost is.

There are many leaders out there who say, ‘Well, that’s why I hire the people with the strengths.’ It’s still something that leaders have to be a part of. Someone with that strength will, somewhere along the line, need some help. They’ll need guidance. They’ll need direction. They’ll need an opinion, and if you don’t understand what it is they do, how can you give that opinion? If you’re at the forefront and have no idea what your team does on a daily basis to make that happen, you’re really an ineffective leader.

How do you learn all those facets of the job?

You have to schedule the time, and go and do the job that your team does. You can’t schedule it one time. You have to constantly schedule that. It has to be a part of your calendar.

So if I decide I want to go in and work with the chefs because I want to know a new recipe, I need to schedule that with them. Get in, talk about first where is it ordered, how much it costs, what’s it being sold for, how do we prep it, how do we hold it, will those temperatures hold in a setting where we are. Same with the floral division — going in and saying, ‘Let’s talk about where in Colombia are these flowers coming from? What is the process for getting them here? If we run into a problem, what is our backup in how we will take care of the opportunity?’ [It’s the] simplest things with our team — making them stop and think through the logistics of what we do.

How do you effectively listen?

It’s listening and then repeating that question and stating, ‘If I’m hearing you correctly, what you would like to do is this and this and this. Am I correct? If I understand you correctly, you would like this to be a bright orange instead of a light orange, and I’d like to show you a couple photographs, so we’re making sure we’re on the same level.’

It’s not just listening but following up with that listening and then coming back to that client or employee and saying, ‘In this, did I answer your question, and did we achieve what you were trying to accomplish?’ so you’re really taking it full circle. If they say, ‘No,’ we haven’t solved that, so we go back through that process of coming to an agreement. You have to make sure that you’ve heard them correctly, so ask the question, shut up and let them talk.

We do 2,500 events a year. I can’t remember everything that a customer tells me, so we keep an incredible database. We repeat what we talked about. We send a note and say, ‘It was great meeting with you today, and it was great we talked about this and this and this.’ We’re building this trust and building that understanding.

How to reach: A Legendary Event, (404) 869-8858 or www.legendaryevents.com

Published in Atlanta

When Rebecca O. Bagley took over as president and CEO of NorTech, her biggest challenge was learning not only the dynamics of the company but also of the community. This was critical because NorTech is a nonprofit, technology-based economic development organization that serves 21 counties in Northeast Ohio. To overcome this challenge, communication was absolutely critical as she got to know her staff as well as the various constituents in the community that her organization served and worked with. Smart Business spoke with Bagley about how she communicated with her employees and key stakeholders.

What were the keys to effectively communicating when you started?

Being very clear with whether you’re learning and asking questions or you’ve decided on a direction and you’re getting people on board or understanding that direction. It’s important to be clear and concise in your communication and be honest about what you’re thinking at that time. That typically endears people to the organization and gets people on board with what you’re doing.

How do you make sure you’re clear in your communication?

It’s a combination of time and effort spent with the team and what words mean to different people and then going out and bouncing that off of a couple of people who are less familiar with the (organization) or the work.

The biggest thing that I see as an opportunity for lots of people to increase the effectiveness of communication is remember who you’re talking to. It sounds very simple, but talking as a CEO of a larger organization, I don’t typically bring in my PowerPoint presentation. I’ll think of a couple of things I want to talk with them about. Yet if you’re talking to someone who wants to understand more of the detail, make sure you’re giving them that level of detail.

It’s crafting the message for the person who’s listening to it and putting yourself in their shoes in preparation for that and making sure you’re spending a few minutes before the meeting about what the best way to approach it is and not just doing your normal pitch.

You’re not changing the core, but it’s important to be able to do that.

How do you make sure that what you perceive matches up with what they actually hear?

It sounds cliché, but listening is a huge part of that and asking questions — you don’t say, ‘What did you hear me say?’ but you can craft questions as the dialogue goes that can help you understand whether they’re getting it or not. Reading people’s facial expressions and body language makes a big effort — it’s emotional intelligence and making sure you’re picking up on the cues and paying attention to whether people are understanding you. When they start bringing a different topic, it shows that they’re not quite understanding what you’re talking about and that’s why they’re taking it in a different language.

How do you listen effectively?

Most of it is just honestly a commitment to pay attention to what you’re doing at the time and compartmentalizing — this half-hour is for this person. When you scheduled it, you thought it was important enough to schedule, so focus on it. It is important to this person. That level of focus and attention in a hectic environment helps to make the person feel heard. And you learn things because you’re paying attention to the person in front of you. Whether it’s at a networking event or a meeting in the office, focus on the person you’re talking to — and then move on to the next thing. It takes practice though.

[It’s hard] especially depending on what you’ve got going on. You have to leave for your flight in a half hour, so do you want to be listening, or are you thinking of if you have everything in your bag? It’s a challenge sometimes.

How to reach: NorTech, (216) 363-6883 or www.nortech.org

Published in Cleveland
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

DVA finds and keeps customers online

Because Ryan Kugler sought new outlets online, Distribution Video & Audio Inc. stayed cutting edge during the recession. He didn’t know the Internet would also boost his customer service.

DVA, which purchases CD and DVD inventory excess from studios and labels to resell, moved online by selling to other Internet resellers. By finding new ways to expand and attend to his customer base, Kugler — president and co-owner with brother Brad, CEO — has grown DVA to 35 employees, selling 20 million units per year to 350 accounts with 24,000 storefronts, which totaled $24 million in business last year.

Kugler spoke with Smart Business about finding and keeping customers online.

How has technology changed your business?

It has changed the way that we do business because when you’re dealing on the Internet, you’re dealing with people who are not multimillion-dollar companies like Target or Big Lots. You’re dealing with a whole different species of an animal — someone who might complain more, to be honest with you. You need to have a little bit more customer service when you’re dealing with Internet resellers.

No. 1 rule [of customer service is] get back to every single person that reaches out to us … within 24 hours. Even if we don’t have an answer to their question, say, ‘We are researching it. We will get you the answer, give us a minute.’

On Amazon, if you don’t get back to (customers) you get a bad rating. Technology has helped us (stay in touch) because we want to keep a good rating with Amazon; otherwise, you’re kicked off.

How do you handle your marketing?

The biggest challenge … is finding new customers. We are always marketing. We buy mailing lists. We send out letters. We send out postcards. We send out e-mails. We place ads in trade magazines.

If you cut your marketing, you’re not going to get new customers. Now, you can cut marketing as far as keep marketing to the same amount of people at a lower price. Instead of sending out a letter with an envelope — which, with a first-class stamp, might cost you 60 cents — you can go to a postcard, which will cost you 32 cents. You’re still mailing to the customer, and that’s the whole point. Never cut the outflow.

My advice is: Do not cut marketing. Find another area to cut. Cut your water usage. Cut your coffee usage. You need new customers because that’s what’s going to sustain you during a rough economic period. There’s little things you can cut (instead of) marketing.

Is the customer always right?

It doesn’t matter if it’s true. If the customer says this, we just try to work it with that. We want to close the sale. If doesn’t work financially or if it’s going to put us out of business, then we just say, ‘Sorry, can’t do it.’

We will do anything the customer wants as long as it’s legal. If a customer wants a banana taped to each DVD, I’ll say, ‘Sure, we can do it, but here’s the price.’ I’ll apply to the Food and Drug Administration to attach something perishable to a DVD. It’s just going to cost the customer money, and we always tell them that. That’s why I’m still here doing business, because we’ll do whatever the customer wants.

Is there a pitfall to that approach?

My board will complain, saying, ‘Hey, the margin was low on that deal.’ But then I’ll say, ‘What goes around comes around,’ meaning I might have sold something at a low margin, but that customer’s going to order from me again because I did what they wanted.

That’s the whole key. The more attention you put on (customers) and the more you do what they want, the more likely you’re going to get the business again.

HOW TO REACH: Distribution Video & Audio Inc., (818) 848-6111 or www.dva.com

Published in Los Angeles

Chris Ryan, president of Geo-Solutions Inc. has been experiencing a problem all businesses would like to have. His soil and groundwater construction solutions company has been experiencing rapid growth. Growth is what every business wants to achieve, but with growth comes a lot of added responsibilities.

“We have experienced some very rapid growth,” says Ryan whose company saw revenue of $18 million in 2010. “The biggest [challenge] has been trying to manage growth and get personnel into the company.”

The company’s rapid expansion over the past few years has kept Ryan looking for ways to continue the success.

Smart Business spoke to Ryan about how he manages to keep up with the growth his company has seen.

How do you plan for growth?

You have to take stock of your resources in every level that you need to achieve the types of work that you’re planning to do. You have to determine where your weaknesses are and fill those weaknesses before you try and do the work.

You have to have good communication within your company and with your senior people. You have to determine what your needs are and plan ahead before you’re in a crunch of having to do something.

How do you grow within a niche market?

We’ve set our vision in a certain niche market, which is the treatment of soil and groundwater. Anything that’s in that niche, we will take on.

Your niche has to match the expertise of the key people in your company. Anybody who is looking to get into a business or grow a business needs to determine what it is that distinguishes them from the majority of the competition. That will improve your chances of making a dent in the marketplace.

The businesses that do well in our market are the ones that identify what they’re good at and perform it well and gain reputations to get people to come back over and over again.

Do you hire before you grow in anticipation of it or after growth?

The first scenario is obviously preferable that you’ve planned properly and you’re prepared. We have done a certain amount of that and I have certainly experienced the second scenario where you’re completely out of people, and it’s really not a good situation. Everybody becomes busy, that’s for sure.

We had that situation a few years ago and what really scared me was if anybody had any major issue like an illness to themselves or their family or anything that would put somebody out of the mix for an extended period of time, it would have been a disaster for us.

How do you prepare yourself or guard against that?

You have to try and foresee what is happening in your marketplace. You have to make some kind of judgment as to what the level of business will be.

What do you look for when you’re hiring people?

You have to find what’s important in terms of skills and education for the person you’re trying to hire. Then you have to try and find a person that matches those requirements. With companies like ours and others that are in a niche market, all those similar companies are competing for the same people.

How do you attract those people and beat the competition?

The best way is to be the leader in your business or to be the market leader. If you do that, you become the place that people want to work, because they want to work for the best company. That would be number one, but obviously competitive pay and opportunity to participate in ownership and all those benefits are very important to attracting people to a job as well.

What are some other struggles of rapid growth?

As you grow rapidly you’re constantly changing your profile with your lending institution. You have to maintain good relationships with your bank and keep them well advised of what’s going on. It’s really about maintaining good communication.

HOW TO REACH: Geo-Solutions Inc., (724) 335-7273 or www.geo-solutions.com

Published in Pittsburgh

Since Sushil Jain, founder, president and CEO of Empyrean Services LLC, started his engineering management and technical consulting business in 2000, he has had a very collaborative and consultative leadership style. Using that style to build trust and respect with his employees and clients, Jain has developed a culture that puts people first.

“The more participative culture with focus on teamwork makes people feel more involved, more empowered and they feel more a part of the company versus just being an employee,” Jain says. “That quality is very important particularly in a small business.”

That culture has helped Jain grow Empyrean Services LLC to annual revenue of $20 million in 2010.

Smart Business spoke with Jain about how he focuses on people to grow his business.

What have been key factors behind your company’s growth?

Fifty to 60 percent of growth in the business over the last several years is attributed to the people that have worked for me. We go out of our way to treat them with respect. Whatever their needs are, we fulfill them. You have to work with people and work for people. Be firm and fair. Lay out the cards the way they are and people will understand that you are treating them with respect.

How can someone make their culture people-oriented?

If people are working together, it makes for a very cost-effective and efficient organization. You should have an open-door policy and make sure people feel comfortable that they can come and talk to you about anything. You have to build the level of respect and trust in the organization so that people trust not only you as a leader but also trust each other. You have to really take the time to listen to the employees. Everybody talks about having an open-door policy, but people have to really see that in action. You have to take the time to walk the floors and sit down at people’s cubicles and start to talk to them. Talk to them about what’s going well and what’s not going well.

How do you get employees to come to you?

When people come and talk to you and they have an issue, you listen and you do something about it. In a majority of cases, you’re able to do something about it, but in some cases, you’re not. You have to go back to them and say, “I know you had told me this or you had talked about this or you requested this, but this is the reason I cannot do it or this is where I am with this and it may or may not happen because of this or that.” People really appreciate that. You have to explain the reason for your decision.

As you grow up in management as you become a CEO, you are faced with making a lot of decisions on a daily basis. Some of those decisions are going to be unpopular. You have to communicate to the affected department or individuals why you are deciding it that way. Some folks may not fully agree or endorse that decision, but they respect the fact that you took the time to explain why you came to that decision. You have to take full ownership and accountability in your decision. That goes a long way toward building trust and respect in the organization.

How do you align culture with who you look to hire?

I think chemistry is very important. You don’t want to bring in a person who has a very different management style than what the organizational culture is because that can be very disruptive. The person may have the best work ethics, the person may have the best intelligence and knowledge, but they do not fit with the team and it could be like a bull in a china shop. That can create a lot of disruption with the team and their contributions could actually be negative rather than positive. The fit with the organizational culture is very important.

How to reach: Empyrean Services LLC, (412) 528-1573 or www.empyreanonline.com

Published in Pittsburgh

Sometimes, in the pursuit of success, you begin to fail your company.

That’s the position that Mike Gauthier found himself in at his $24 million company, Save on Everything, the brand name of Mike’s Market Share Coupons Inc.

Gauthier, the company’s founder and president, answered a period of rapid growth by altering the structure of his company and constructing a leadership team of outside hires. But in the process, he allowed his company to get away from the culture that had made it a success in the first place.

So Gauthier had to bring his company full circle, bringing it back to a culture that valued internal growth and promoting the ideas of its people.

Smart Business spoke with Gauthier about how to bring your company back to what it does best.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve recently faced in your role?

One of our biggest challenges was a culture change we went through a few years back. We grew substantially, and that brought in a bunch of smart people with their own policies and procedural habits. Although those things are a necessity, one of the things we lost was the essence of who we are as a company, what I like to term our ‘saga’ — what are we about, why are we here. We forgot about that and started making policies and procedures more important than who we are.

So I’ve had to do a huge shift back to what our company was about. We had lost really good people during that time, and I had to end up replacing the management to have more my style and my feel of how a company should run. So we really had to reinvent ourselves, change our products, add new products, and we’ve done that pretty successfully.

What does a business need to have in order to not be bogged down in procedures?

Culture has to be a shared environment. People have to know what is going on within the company. If you’re keeping them in the dark, you’re not going to build a very good culture. I try to bring in more of a family-type culture here, even though it’s tougher to do that as you get into being a larger company. Right now, we’re at about 120 employees, so it’s manageable. But it’s having that daily involvement of your people. We have daily updates so that people know what is going on in the company, what is going on in sales, how we’re doing against our measurements and so forth.

Cultures also tend to flourish when people have a reason more than a job. They have to know that their ideas are valued and viewed as critical to success. They have to see changes will be made if they come up with good ideas. And you have to not punish them for making mistakes. You have to let them try things.

How do you allow your people to try new things, but still stay on goal?

It takes good ideas. You have to ask for them. With our sales staff, we’ll come up with new products from one of the sales members. They’ll see something, and they’ll tell us whether they think it can work in our organization. Instead of blowing it off, we’ll take the idea and see if it actually could work for us. We try to take ideas and work with them. We allow people on the production side to come up with new looks, new covers for the magazines we do. We tell them ‘Here is what we’re looking for; you come up with the product. You design it and come up with the idea.’ That gives them ownership. They take ownership and pride in what the product is going to look like. Then it starts to become more than a job.

How do you find people who are a good cultural match?

That is a tough part of the job. We went through all the scientific methodology and all of the other aptitude programs that are out there. They give you some idea, but in reality it’s all about who wants to step up to the plate. The trouble is, I’ve found that when you bring someone in from the outside, a lot of them are anesthetized from the neck up. They haven’t been cultured to think for themselves. So if you’re running a culture like ours, it takes a while to change that. Ultimately, it’s up to them. If they feel like it’s important, that they want to change and work hard, they’ll do it.

HOW TO REACH: Save on Everything, (248) 362-9119 or www.saveoneverything.com

Published in Detroit

Charles Hammontree believes in following his leadership instincts and giving his employees what they need to succeed. His instincts have been leading Hammontree & Associates Ltd., a civil engineering firm, for many years now. Through his experiences and his success, Hammontree, president and CEO, has helped the 51-employee firm continue its steady growth.

“As I mature in this position, my instincts seem to be paying off,” Hammontree says. “Part of it was seeing some opportunities that competitors didn’t see and delivering a service and expertise on a level that’s hard to match.”

The combination of his leadership instincts and his company’s ability to follow his lead and back up his plans with results has proven successful and led the firm to their best year yet in 2010.

Smart Business spoke with Hammontree about how to successfully grow your company.

What can a leader do to differentiate their business?

Don’t follow the crowd; follow your own instincts. Find out what the crowd or your competitors are doing and do something different or sometimes do the opposite. If they’re going after one market sector and they’re all competing and the odds are low that you’re going to make an impact, go to a different area and find another source for your services. Go where the probability is better that you’ll succeed.

How can a leader of a company help its staff be successful at their jobs?

You have to lead by example; you can’t just talk. You can’t just tell people what to do. You have to go in when something’s hard to do, and [employees] have to see that you’re willing to do what’s hard for the benefit of the firm and the group. You’ve got to be responsive to your team, and if there’s something that they need to succeed, you have to see that they get it. I like to give all my people the tools to succeed rather than have any excuses not to. My staff comes to me with recommendations and my philosophy is to say yes and give them what they ask for more so than to say no. I trust them and put the onus on them to deliver with what they think they need to succeed, and more times than not, that pays off and we get a return on those investments.

What are ways to grow a business once it is doing well?

If I have a section or a sector of business that’s doing well, I like to use our resources to reinvest into that sector and make it even stronger. I will invest some resources in less profitable sectors but not the lion’s share. You don’t want to use your resources to invest in something that’s less likely to have an immediate or even a long-term return on that investment. What you’re doing well in, you should keep doing and keep investing in and play on that strength. Focus on what you do well and invest in that and do more of it and do it even better and expand on it rather than trying to beat the dead horse with something that’s struggling.

How can a business plan for growth and new possibilities?

As the CEO you have the overall picture. You have to bring your team members together who have different parts of a solution to a new offering. You have to build confidence in the staff that they can deliver and approach that market. It’s about networking your own team members and having the overall picture. You have to think about bringing in good capable people who like to work and like the work that you have for them to do. If you can get those two ingredients, that’s a good formula for success.

How can a CEO keep in touch with employees as the company grows?

Let them know you’re involved and part of the team. Keep in contact with your staff. It’s all one family and you’re all part of the same team. You have to be visible and you have to have an open-door policy. You can say it and you can encourage it, but I think the average staff member is still a little intimidated. They don’t want to fall in disfavor with the CEO or the boss. You have to let them know that you’re there to make them happy. Even if they can’t physically walk through your door they’ve got to know they can call you anytime or e-mail you and you’ll be responsive to them. Just like a project manager has to be responsive to his customer, a CEO has to be responsive to his staff.

HOW TO REACH: Hammontree & Associates Ltd., (330) 499-8817 or www.hammontree-engineers.com

Published in Akron/Canton

As president of Generational Equity, Ryan Binkley makes a living helping business owners prepare their organizations for sale. But with the economic challenges over the last couple of years, he’s seen business owners struggle to sell their organizations and potential buyers not be able to get loans necessary to make these transactions. During these tough times, he came to rely on his management and deal-making teams to stay in tune with clients’ needs and help them in the sale-preparation process.

“These are the professionals that work closely with our clients every single day on their exit plan,” he says

This approach by his 250 people helped the firm not only do well the past few years but also earned it a spot on the 2009 Inc. 500 list.

Smart Business spoke with Binkley about how to put together a strong team that can ensure success during tough times.

What’s the key to building a strong management team?

That’s a leadership challenge that’s there in every organization, whether it be private or public, and it’s important for the business owner to continue to have good leaders that can carry on the business in the same manner they do. What we try to do is always have good people that can run their departments at the same level that we could if we weren’t here. That’s the goal for every company, and people need to invest in that instead of solely relying on the business owner to be in a position to be prepared to hand off to someone else.

We built it over time and recruiting good people. We found some people in the industry who had a lot of experience in exit-planning and deal-making. It was a process of coming through and finding the right people that we felt were a cultural fit.

How do you make sure someone is both a professional and a good cultural fit?

It’s through not making a hasty decision and getting to know them a little bit. People are one or the other. A lot of people are one or the other, and it’s spending time with them during the interview process to make sure they share the same values as far as long-term business goals. We just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the client long term and not just the short term and be professional and have the right expertise that’s really needed in the marketplace.

What questions can you ask to get to know them in the interview?

There are two things. You have to have skill, and then you have to have the X factor, which is the leadership and integrity. We need to make sure that somebody fits the technical expertise we have, and that comes through their background as well as looking at some of the examples of the work they’ve done. You can talk to someone about the challenges they’ve had, and they can communicate their expectations there or not.

The other is just do they have that leadership factor that’s so important. In this difficult time, we need people who can really communicate with our clients and help them through the difficult times they’re going through and make proper decisions, and it takes a high-quality individual to get that done.

How do you make sure someone can work with clients really well?

I don’t know that there’s any secret formula other than based on experience, but once you analyze them and get a feel for them and how they’ll handle difficult questions that they’re asked, eventually you just go with the instinct you have as a professional. At the end of the day, if they seem to have the integrity and the leadership skills, you have to just go with your instincts.

How to reach: Generational Equity, (877) 213-1792 or www.genequityco.com

Published in Dallas

When a client called on a Saturday asking about the capital gains tax rate to know whether to take an offer on a piece of property that had been for sale for years, he was surprised when Mark Lloyd called him back 10 minutes later with the answer. But it’s that kind of service that has allowed his financial and estate planning business, The Lloyd Group Inc., to grow from the basement of his home about 20 years ago to more than 2,100 clients and $150 million in money under management today.

“We’ve just watched our business grow even during these tough times,” the principal says. “It’s just been continuing to grow leaps and bounds each year.”

Smart Business spoke with Lloyd about how he’s grown the company despite the tough economy.

What’s the key to growing business even during tough times?

It is so easy to get depressed when you’ve got double-digit unemployment and you have a lot of uncertainty about taxes coming up down the road. A lot of people have chosen to be stagnant. We looked at that as opportunities. We’ve been focused on growth.

One of the main reasons why we do that is because we are educators first. We have always gone out to the community and talked to the people. Our focus has always been, ‘Can we make something better for our clients? Can we educate our clients in a better way? Can we offer something different then everybody else out here that we’re competing against?’ There are so many financial planners. They’re a dime a dozen on every street corner with every major firm that’s out there. What makes us different than them? That’s been our focus. If we can give the best customer service — not only promise the best customer service but deliver the best customer service — our business will flourish. If we fail to do that, we’ll be like everybody else.

How do you deliver the best customer service?

We listened to our clients. We said, OK, what is your risk tolerance? How do you feel about the future? How do you feel about the markets? We can be as disciplined as we can be, but if you’re not comfortable and you’re not sleeping at night, we don’t want you there. We want you to be happy.

Another thing that we do is we stay in contact with our clients all the time. Not only are we sending out monthly newsletters to our clients, but we do client appreciation events. We just care for them and they know that we’re here for them all the time.

Where we feel our biggest values come is when their life situation changes, we want to be there for them. Whether it be helping them filing a claim with long-term care insurance — instead of just passing it on to the insurance company. Let us help them with that.

[We have] customer service to the point that on the weekends, our company phones get forwarded to one of our assistant’s cell or my cell phone. We get a surprised voice on the other end of the phone that says, ‘I didn’t realize that you were working today,’ or, ‘Why are you working today?’ and we answer back — ‘We’re not working but we’re taking the calls.’

A lot of it is just staying with good customer service, taking care of clients but, more importantly, educating them. We want to listen to our clients and do what’s right for them.

What’s the key to effective listening?

Don’t do anything in a hurry. I may visit with people three or four times before they ever become a client. I don’t have a time frame. I have a strategy that the first interview I have with a client is just get-to-know-them time. I get a snapshot of what their situation is.

I know what questions to ask, and I listen to what their responses are. That directs me on how to proceed with them. Basically it’s taking good notes, hearing what their concerns are, hearing what their goals are and helping them with a budget — that’s critical.

People want honesty. They don’t want someone to make them feel good. They want to know, ‘Here’s where you’re at and here’s how you can get there.’ They want a solution. That’s where we come back with a solution. Then, at that point, we let them filter out and absorb all the information we shared. Then we come back and say, ‘Now, it’s time to act. Do you want to proceed with what our recommendations are? You let us know.’ And because we’re educators first, people respect that. They make the decision whether they become a client of ours or not.

How to reach: The Lloyd Group Inc., (770) 932-0387 or www.thelloydgroupinc.com

Published in Atlanta