Passing decisions down Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Jerry Chapman’s wife laughs every time he attributes his company’s growth to luck. That’s because she saw all the 20-hour workdays that were really behind it, at least when her husband first founded Signal Group LLC.

Back then, the self-admitted control freak had a good excuse.

“When you’re a control freak, you have to work 20 hours a day because nobody can possibly do it as good as you,” says Chapman, CEO of the 50-employee company. “No one’s going to give the customer service you think the customer needs — unless it’s you.”

But as — the company’s online retailer of audio and video equipment and accessories — has grown to 2009 sales of about $18 million, Chapman has had to adjust.

“The reality is that I stopped micromanaging and started surrounding myself with people who could make great decisions, who understood the vision,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Chapman about empowering your employees to provide the kind of customer service you would.

Share best practices. People come with all sorts of different talents that you don’t have. So you sit down, you try to tell them everything you know. Then you have to learn to let go.

Now you start empowering. You start saying, ‘OK, what do you need in order to get better?’ You just become a listener. It’s very easy to say, ‘No, no, no, just try it this way or do it this way,’ instead of listening and trying to figure out the problem. Instead of saying, ‘Well, here’s what we’ve been doing,’ you try to look at what it is that they’re asking and try to solve their problems.

At the end of the day, we spend a lot of time talking to each other. Many times we have many different viewpoints with the exact same piece of data. It’s very surprising sometimes — somebody will claim something and they have all this evidence to prove it and they’re right until you add one more piece of data in there: the way somebody else is looking at it. How quickly that other person will look at it and say, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe I missed that.’ Let people know what’s going on and all this informal communication will occur.

Sometimes you try to figure out what went right instead of what went wrong, and then you try to mass produce that. So it’s that whole best-practice concept.

Give employees information. We’re developing wikis now, and we have this database of information that’s easily searchable internally. As you grow, you start developing how you’re going to handle the vast amount of data that you have — whether it’s just customer information or sales information, purchasing. It starts making them a little more powerful as they can utilize that data. Because you have this ability now to extract the data you already have, what about putting data in? That’s the difference between what we call wiki and just data.

The idea behind it is if somebody calls up on the phone and they need an answer to the question, we’re hoping that we’ve already answered the question a hundred times. If that customer service rep doesn’t know it, they don’t have to learn it themselves by trial and error. They can just type in a couple things and maybe something will pop up.

The first time you do it, you’re sort of reading it. And then the second time that you’re doing it, you’ve read it before — ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’ Maybe by the third or fourth time, you’ve had somebody else explain it to you or something else that you knew about this jives now.

After you recommend a few hundred antennas, you get really good at recommending antennas. And then after that, you get really good at recommending antennas, let’s say, for Chicago. And then after that, you get really good at recommending antennas for Southfield. And then after that, you get really good at some part of the country you’ve never heard of before because you’ve [done it] four or five times.

It has to do with: How do we make the people that we have even better, faster, more nimble, more flexible, [learning] different ways to approach a solution.

Let employees pass it on. If we’re doing that internally, why shouldn’t we make that available to our customers? That way, they’re not even asking the question. They already know and they feel comfortable about their purchasing decision or maybe not to purchase.

I think there are different ways to answer a question. All those answers can be based on all sorts of variables — they could be based on how much money do you have to spend, could be based on location, could be based on the impact of new technology in the future. To take away the ability for somebody to think is if you say, ‘OK, here’s what you have to do.’ The minute you do that, our answers become stale.

So the objective is to be able to provide the information as detailed as possible to the customers so that they can make the better decisions for themselves. We’re making recommendations; we’re not holding guns to people’s heads.

We’ll make a recommendation to a customer and he or she doesn’t want [that] and they want to try something else and it works. We’ll post that so people can see what it is that other people have done in their area. We also do that with best-selling products.

You’ve got to keep going. So the first one was just linking everything together. The second one was adding to it. The third one was letting our customers have access to it. The fourth one is let them add to it. And then there’s no end.

We’ve got people who steal content from us all the time. And that’s perfectly fine. At least a customer knows what it is that they’re getting. It helps reduce our return rates. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t find it from us but maybe they’ll still purchase it from us because we have the best service or the best price or maybe we have it in stock and nobody else does. But at least they got the information before they purchased.

How to reach: Signal Group LLC, (877) 312-4547 or