Listening in Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

Within two weeks of joining GE Security Inc. in 2007, CEO Dean Seavers was at an industry trade show, and it wasn’t just to schmooze and get word out about the company. He was there to meet with customers and find ways the company, which focuses on security and safety products and is a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric, could improve.

He kept hearing the same things from customers: The right solution at the right time when they needed it.

“When you hear a recurring theme, you realize there are a couple of challenges,” he says. “So, there at the show, we actually had most of the senior team with us, and we pulled everyone aside, we talked about it, and we said, ‘What seems to be the biggest challenge in terms of making sure we could deliver that, because those are fundamentals to the business?”

Working the trade show was just a start for Seavers. He had to listen to those around him to get an idea of what the best direction was for his organization.

“We spent a lot of time with our customers so we could understand their needs and how we were performing relative to their expectations,” he says. “We also spent a lot of time with our channel partners to better understand how we could be a better partner. Of course, we spent a lot of time with our employees who had great ideas about productivity improvement. There were a lot of common themes coming from these sessions and that was really the genesis of our strategic imperatives.”

Those imperatives — superior customer experience, competitive products, winning solutions, global growth and simplification — would become the drivers that would give the company a clear direction and the ability to excel for the future.

“We all get caught up in our current assignments,” Seavers says. “So, taking a step back from that, initially for me, it’s really having a clear direction in terms of where you are going.

“The way you really get there is spending time with customers and employees to figure out what’s really important and what you’re really good at and developing a vision to go after it.”

Here’s how Seavers interacts with employees and customers to find the best course for GE Security to take.

Listen to customers

To find out what customers want and what they think of your company, you and your team have to talk to them directly. That means you need to get out of your office and actually see how customers use your products on a day-to-day basis and talk with them about it.

“For us, it’s getting out there on the front lines and actually seeing how people work with our product — both our partners but also customers — just to see what works well. How do they use it and what are they challenged with?” he says. “That gets beyond the people that actually pay for your product. It gets more to their employees who actually use it.

“That’s a good first step — really see how your product or solution is being used.”

After that, you want the customers to give their perspectives on what they need and how you can help them before you tell them what you can do.

“All of our senior team, and I’d say our midlevel team, it’s all of our responsibilities to talk to customers,” he says. “I do travel a lot. I think most of my teams travel a lot because we are a global business. But, I think, when you are going out there, whether it’s to see an employee, whether you are going to a trade show … whether you are just dealing with a problem, make sure you spend time to be in front of customers on a proactive basis.

“Do not just react to a challenge, but, on a proactive basis, make sure you are in front of customers.”

One thing to be prepared for if you aren’t proactive is dealing with unhappy customers.

“At the end of the day, we all encounter disgruntled customers,” he says. “Quite frankly, a disgruntled customer that’s talking to you is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the disgruntled customers who aren’t talking to you that are a challenge.”

The first thing Seavers does with a disgruntled customer is the same thing he did when he became CEO of the company.

“With a disgruntled customer, the first thing I do is just shut my mouth and I listen,” he says. “I let them explain what their frustration is, let them explain what their challenge is. I do truly try to listen as opposed to try to figure out what the right answer is going to be. I always commit to fixing the problem or at least getting to the root cause of the problem.”

Sometimes there is a perception from the customer that the company does not care, which you have to explain is not the case.

“So, typically, you want to make sure you explain to them what your organization is about,” he says. “Then, I always commit to saying, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do. Here’s what the next two or three things are I’m going to do.’ Part of it is obviously looping back with the people involved and making sure I understand what happened, so I can give the customer a full explanation.

“The second piece is coming up with a solution, and the third one is trying to figure out if it’s a challenge we created, how to put in some sort of mechanism or try to put in some sort of procedure that eliminates the problem so you don’t have to fix the same problem two or three times. I usually give them a timeline for when we’re going to do that.”

If a customer stops doing business with you, don’t just shrug your shoulders and move on to the next customer. Most disgruntled customers will talk to you, so take advantage of that opportunity. If you can’t get time with them over the phone, make an appointment to meet in person.

“It’s one thing to call a customer and they’re busy and they’re putting you off and they don’t want to talk, but it’s another thing to show up,” he says. “Commit to being there, and then (say,) ‘Listen, I understand that you may not want to do business with us anymore, but I just want to listen. I want to hear what the problem is because, while you may have made a choice to go somewhere else, I ultimately want to hear what the challenges are so I can make the organization better. I’d say 9.9 times out of 10, we’re all businesspeople. Businesspeople are reasonable, and that’s the story that gets me in the door.”

Taking the time to talk with both satisfied and unsatisfied customers will set you up for success in the long run.

“One, it builds a relationship,” he says. “Two, it just makes you smarter as an organization. Three, if we are all doing it — I’d say front-line employees, midlevel managers, senior-level managers — when we come together and talk about who we are and what we want to be as an organization, we’re doing it not just from gut feel but doing it from real-world experience and doing it with customer feedback in mind.”

Listen to employees

With so much on your plate, it’s tempting to look for the simple way out on some responsibilities. Don’t let that be the case when it comes to listening to employees.

“With employees, sometimes it’s easy to go out and just tell them what to do,” he says. “But I think the smarter thing is to go out and listen to them and understand what their challenges are. Make sure you communicate what the organization is about, wher e are you trying to take the organization and what’s really important to the organization, but make sure you listen, too.”

Because employees interact with customers and your products all of the time, you need to spend time with your workers.

“Definitely coming on board, we spent a lot of time with employees and now we’ve got a regular rhythm around, whether it’s town-hall meetings, whether it’s round tables, whether we do what we call skip-level meetings,” he says.

With thousands of employees, Seavers has to travel a lot. He travels to different locations and meets with groups of about 10 people made up of employees from a couple of levels below him. The groups comprise a good cross-section of employees from different departments.

“So that way you’re not just talking about engineering, but you’ve got engineering, you’ve got product management, you’ve got tech support, you’ve got everybody at the table so you can have a pretty rich dialogue,” he says.

Since Seavers doesn’t come to the meetings with an agenda and managers aren’t present, he and the employees can talk about any number of topics that come up.

Group members quickly go around the table, including Seavers, and introduce or reintroduce themselves and give a quick snippet of who they are and what they do at the company.

“That takes a few minutes to do that,” he says. “Typically, when people are introducing themselves, telling where they work, that sort of thing, it may spur something. I may just ask them a question to get to know them a little bit better. Once we finish with that, what I like to do is say, ‘Listen, there is no agenda here. The whole point of doing a round table is so we can have communication, so I can tell you what’s going on in the business. You can ask me questions that might be on your mind. I can learn a little bit more about what you are doing.’ So, I spend a few minutes sort of letting them know there is no agenda, letting them know that it is an open environment and they can ask me anything.

“Whether it has to do with GE Security, whether it has to do with GE, if they are concerned about the economy, whatever they want to talk about is fair game.”

Stressing that any topic is fair game will get the ball rolling in the right direction.

“Typically, what happens is you get one or two softball questions, but if you give a rich enough answer, I think it opens up the door for people to really dig into the things that are on their mind,” he says.

The back and forth conversation will give both you and the employees something to think about after the meeting. Employees get their questions answered and Seavers gets two or three ideas he can take back to his senior team.

“I find those meetings to be incredibly beneficial,” he says. “One, I’d say at a simple level you get a chance to sort of talk about the strategy, the message for the organization. But, I think sometimes at a deep level with the employees, they get a chance to tell you what’s on their mind, what they’ve heard, any concerns that they have, ideas that they have.

“I think what it also fosters is you can say you have an open door, but when you do those kinds of meetings, when you do the round tables, it really demonstrates that you mean it. I think you get great ideas when you do that.”

Those ideas couldn’t have come up without you speaking with customers and employees.

“While there are always things that can take you away from spending time with employees, don’t let it,” he says. “Make sure you get out there with employees; make sure you get out there with customers. So, if you are going to see employees, make sure you schedule a customer visit. If you are going to see customers, try and make sure you schedule a little bit of time with employees, because I think it’s easy to get separated from that.”

How to reach: GE Security Inc., (888) 437-3287 or www.gesecurity.com