Karen Kage agrees wholeheartedly. The CEO of Realcomp II Ltd., Michigan’s largest Realtor-owned Multiple Listing Service, provides real estate and information technology solutions to 15,000 brokers, agents and appraiser members in more than 2,100 offices in Southeastern Michigan.
Kage got her start in real estate in 1979 when she worked at a local board of Realtors as a statistical typist and in 1998, became CEO of Realcomp II. The business, which employs 38 people and generates revenue of $6 million per year, has more than doubled its customer base since starting operations in 1994.
Smart Business spoke with Kage about how she maintains quality customer service and attracts and retains the best employees as her company grows.
How do you maintain strong customer service as you grow?
I empower my employees to do what it takes to serve the customer. I never want any staff member to be fearful of making a reasonable decision that will improve the customer’s experience.
Customers do not want to hear ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I will need to ask someone else about this.’
We have weekly customer care meetings during which the entire customer service staff shares ideas. I put employees in the position of creating synergy and freely exchanging knowledge with one another. It takes more than just holding weekly staff meetings; it includes basic logistical issues such as arranging the office furniture in a way that invites communication among the employees.
In terms of our interactions with customers, you could say we go overboard, if that is possible. We supply a steady flow of information to our agents, virtually on a daily basis. We provide tips on how to search homes and ways they can use our products and services to their benefit in order to be more successful.
We want them to view us as a true business partner, and that comes by consistently adding value.
What qualities do you consider the most important in a leader?
Three essential qualities come to mind. Integrity. I always appreciate having a conversation with someone and walking away knowing what he or she meant. I have been called blunt at times, but I firmly believe that speaking honestly is an essential quality of a leader.
Passion. To lead others, you must believe in and be truly excited about what your organization offers. This is one quality that simply cannot be faked.
Attitude toward adversity. All leaders have challenges. Those who really inspire the troops welcome those challenges rather than hide from them. Managers are watched most carefully when there is a problem. This is when the employees really count on the leaders to lead.
How do you attract and retain an A-team staff?
Attracting is not something we have to do often because we are able to retain our employees long-term. We’ve had three employees leave in the last five years, one of which wanted to start a singing career. Recently, we were recognized by a local magazine as one of the coolest places to work. We keep the lines of communication open. I encourage employees to talk about their concerns. Together, we are usually able to find resolutions.
Every year, we have a full staff meeting where management cooks breakfast for the employees. We renovated our office suite to include brighter colors, a caf where employees can relax and socialize, and a more open cubicle arrangement.
We recently treated employees to an on-site smoothie bar as a way to say thank you. My goal is simple when my employees wake up in the morning, I want them to feel happy about going to work that day.
What has been your greatest professional challenge?
Striking the proper balance between work and other aspects of life is a challenge to me, as with most success-minded business people. Although I have made great improvements in this area, I have not always hit the bulls-eye when it comes to knowing when to get away from the job.
I’ve learned that spending 20 hours a day at work is not something to brag about. Smart managers surround themselves with the right people and let them use their talents, rather than trying to do it all.
To survive long-term in a demanding position, you have to learn to switch gears when you leave the office instead of taking it home. It takes discipline, but the payoff is huge.
How to contact: Realcomp II Ltd., (866) 553-3003 or www.realcomp.com