David Epstein helps employees at C3 make a difference for customers Featured

8:51pm EDT May 31, 2012
David Epstein helps employees at C3 make a difference for customers

David Epstein understands that his passion for customer service can become irritating.

“It drives my wife crazy,” says Epstein, the co-founder, chairman and co-CEO of C3/CustomerContactChannels. “If I walk into a store with her and I see something wrong, I’m immediately re-engineering the entire process of the store.”

For Epstein, customer service isn’t just a job; it’s a way to make a difference in people’s lives and help them solve their problems. As a well-known venture capitalist, one of the founding members of the American Marketing Association and the head of numerous successful business enterprises in his career, he knows that this mentality is even more powerful when it’s a group one.

“There isn’t a person that works at C3 who doesn’t understand the impact that they can make every day, not only on C3, but on our clients and our client’s customers,” Epstein says.

By filling C3 with employees who see their jobs as an opportunity to make a difference, and then giving them a culture and leadership that supports them, Epstein has helped grow the business process outsourcing (BPO) company from 15 to 7,200 employees in just two years.

Raise the bar minimum

To provide its BPO services for clients and customers, it’s been necessary for C3 to hire thousands of people in a rather short period of time. But as it’s filled its contact centers across 16 worldwide locations, the company has been careful not to take hiring lightly.

While the BPO industry is known for its triple-digit turnover and employees who look at the positions as “phone jobs,” Epstein says that the root problem, as in many industries, isn’t the job. It’s that companies aren’t being discriminating enough in the hiring process to weed out candidates who they know probably won’t be successful.

“Typically, for every 10 people that are interviewed, this industry has a reputation for saying that eight of them are qualified or they are offered a job,” he says. “There’s not been a steeped process for selecting the right kind of people.”

Just because someone can do a job, doesn’t mean that care about doing it well. When you hire employees who don’t care, that translates into the customer and client experience.

That’s why C3 has a talent acquisition team that is extremely judicious in selecting people who are the right ones to grow the business.

“We go through a whole different kind of profiling to understand if somebody is really going to have the propensity to be successful in this job,” Epstein says. “It starts with their communication skills but it really ends with, ‘Will they have that passion? Will they feel that energy and share the values and be here day in and day out in this job to do a great job for our clients?’”

For every 10 people that are interviewed, the company typically narrows the pool down to three or four that it thinks demonstrate the right skills and attitudes.

“We feel like making a difference is an important element to what we do every day,” Epstein says. “So our people who are out in the field select the right kind of people that want to come to work not just because they need a paycheck, but because they want to make a difference for themselves, for their company, their clients and the people on the other end of the phone.”

When you start with the right employees, you can feel comfortable tapping those people for referrals who they know share the same values.

“It’s the friend-get-a-friend concept, but it continues to grow,” Epstein says.

Since 2010, he says that the company has seen turnover 70 percent lower than the industry standard — only two or three percent of call center employees each month.

“Because we’re selective on the way in, it reduces our turnover down to a very, very manageable number,” Epstein says.

“We believe that we’ve really put together the dream team of the BPO space.”

Help people, not clients

There’s a true story Epstein frequently tells when he’s out in the field or speaking to training classes. It was several years ago when one of the company’s health care clients was walking through a contact center and came across a C3 customer service professional who was crying. After the agent regained her composure and finished the call, the client went back to her and asked about what had happened. She replied that she was assisting an elderly man with his prescriptions and he had been extremely appreciative, saying that he didn’t have any family around to help him. Noticing that his birthday was the following day, she’d also wished him a happy birthday.

“He began to cry because it was the first time in three years that he had heard those words,” Epstein says. “We tell that story and we say, do you think she made a difference for that gentleman that day? She made a difference in his life.”

Before you can make a difference with customers, Epstein says you need your people to care about customer service on a deeper level than a job or a business transaction. That involves creating a culture that engages people on a personal level.

“It is a paramount objective for us to make a difference for our clients,” Epstein says. “But first you need to make a difference for yourself. Then you’ve got a chance to make a difference for the company you work for.”

While it’s easy to write something on paper and make it a corporate goal, it becomes a personal goal when you actually live it. This is one of the reasons the company encourages employees to extend the culture of “making a difference” to its communities.

“When things become deeply personal they become deep corporate commitments,” Epstein says.

In recent years, the company’s centers have donated more than $1 million to various causes. But aside from the money, employees know that making a difference is also about community involvement. The organization’s 900 employees in Salt Lake City, Utah have been so involved with community activities and fundraising that they now have a reporter for the local paper assigned to follow their efforts. Another example is C3’s employees in Twin Falls, Idaho, which knit more than 1,000 beanies for the premature infants ward at a local hospital.

“They were sitting there at home or on break with knitting needles, learning how to knit to make these things,” Epstein says. “You won’t find that at most places, but that was a reflection of the culture we’ve tried to create and we have created.”

Around the organization, Epstein says that you’ll find employees using the expression “I’m MAD for C3,” which stands for I Make A Difference for C3. This personal commitment to helping others translates into people’s attitudes toward customer service. When employees are on the phone, they connect to the person on the other end of the line instead of only thinking of doing a good job for the client.

“When people talk about a brand online, it’s usually because they’re frustrated with the service of the brand,” Epstein says. “In the hotel and hospitality industry it’s something like 35 or 40 percent of Facebook messages and blogging is usually about the service. You have a chance to make a difference by helping somebody get through something that they are seeking help on and they are frustrated.

“That is why I think people want to stay part of C3. They aren’t looking for ‘Let me just get that paycheck’ and that’s it.”

Don’t “make it work”

Creating a culture that supports employees and helps them succeed translates into better customer service, which translates into more success for your business.

“When you have a passion in your culture for taking care of your clients and your customers, that will help manage a lot of the velocity of growing so quickly,” Epstein says.

But once you have the right people and the right culture, your company’s leadership needs to make the right decisions for employees to succeed long-term.

Being entrepreneurs, a constant test for Epstein and his partners is being able to say no to certain opportunities. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, there’s a natural inclination to want to seize on it even if it might not be good for your people or your business.

“It could be prospective client that doesn’t fit right with us today, and so it’s hard to say no because you really want to build and grow,” Epstein says. “It could be an acquisition that presents itself where as you peel it back more and more, you find out culturally it will never really work. There’s a tendency for entrepreneurs to say, ‘Well, I can make it work because I’ve been learning to do that my whole career.’”

Epstein’s advice? Know when to say no. When he became one of the owners of the NHL Florida Panthers hockey team 11 years ago, Epstein says he learned this lesson the hard way.

“I thought without a doubt I could change how the business model works for a hockey team and a sports franchise,” he says. “My general feeling was that they weren’t run well and that if me and my partners who were smart business guys and had built big businesses, we could get in there, then we’d be smarter than these other guys and we could change it. Guess what? No.”

If you want your employees to stay focused on customer service excellence, as a leader, you can’t afford to be lured into opportunities that will negatively impact your business. Being a good steward for them requires managers to be good listeners, listening to their people as well as to the market.

“When you stop worrying about how much talking you’re doing and you start to listen, you can hear themes that go on that tell you, ‘OK, maybe things are going a little too quickly over here and I need to pull the reins in a little or I need to add some more resources to that,” Epstein says.

If you see an increasing demand in a certain business line, as was the case for C3’s performance optimization business, don’t hesitate to add resources accordingly — more employees, better technology — to make sure you’re not outgrowing your infrastructure. While looking at metrics is important, Epstein says that being a good listener really helps you develop a gut feel about your business that will more often than not alert you to the right path.

“The biggest thing is not to fool yourself into thinking something can be something, even though deep inside you can hear that little voice — the one you try to ignore — that’s telling you that this is really not the right fit,” Epstein says.

The same goes for people, he says. Many companies hang onto people too long before eventually admitting the fit isn’t right and that they aren’t supporting the goals or the culture you want for the organization.

“It goes on for far too long and everybody would be better off if that person was doing something different,” Epstein says.

“If you’re building an organization and you have people who don’t belong, do yourself a favor and do them a favor and get them to move on quickly.”

As in any business, it’s hard to keep a perfect track record. Still, you can do your best to listen to understand the marketplace as well as your own instincts, which typically can guide you to the best decisions.

“Undoubtedly, we will make a mistake somewhere along the line and something won’t fit in the way we thought,” Epstein says. “That’s going to happen. It’s how you minimize that that makes the difference.”

In the last couple of years, the velocity of C3’s growth has been extraordinary, which Epstein says speaks strongly to the quality of people that work for the company and their drive to make a difference. The organization’s success in this mission also explains why 90 percent of promotions at the company have been internal.

“People look at that and they say, ‘This more than just a phone job,’” Epstein says. “This is a career path and this is a company that cares about its employees, cares about its customers, cares about the people calling and cares about its community. All of those things tied into what we do and culturally who they are have given us an edge and helped us continue to be successful.”

How to reach: C3/CustomerContactChannels, (954) 849-0622 or www.c3connect.com

Takeaways

1. Be selective about hiring.

2. Make your mission more than just a job.

3. Follow your instincts to lead people in the right direction.

The Epstein File

David Epstein

Co-founder, chairman and co-CEO

C3/CustomerContactChannels

Born: New Rochelle, New York

Education: Florida International University

What goal would you still like to achieve in business?

To continue to spawn the next generation of entrepreneurs, whether it’s people that are entrepreneurial at C3 that are coming up with great ideas to build the company or it’s people who have all of this entrepreneurial energy and it doesn’t fit for C3 — helping them do it on their own or somewhere else. I think that spawning more entrepreneurism and doing that is a more personal goal. Also, it’s the idea that we continue to put people back to work.

Three things that business leaders need to know:

  • Your business: “It’s important to be clear on who you are and what you are as an organization, not try to be something that you’re not.”
  • Your go-forward strategy: “It’s like a tennis player. If you’re playing the game of tennis you either play the net or you play the baseline. You don’t play in the middle. When you play in the middle you’re dead. You have to pick your path and your strategy.”
  • Your fears: “Don’t let fear be your driver. It’s important to recognize that while some fears are clearly legitimate — you should be afraid of certain things and you shouldn’t ignore the consequences that come along with it — you can’t let it rule the day. You have to put fear in its right place, and frankly the key is to master wanting that fear.”