Zeroing in Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

As the founder of Angie’s List, Angie Hicks not only runs her own business, she gains valuable insight into how other leaders run their businesses.

Hicks, who co-founded Angie’s List in 1995, has grown her company from a Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood to an Indianapolis-based nationwide forum that provides reviews on consumer services. About 750,000 consumers use the information collected by the company, which generated $36 million in 2008 revenue.

Along the way, Hicks has learned that there are some common themes among successful businesses that consistently provide good service for their customers. Namely, successful businesses stay focused and communicate well. Those qualities are even more critical in light of the current economic downturn.

“Now is really the time to stay laser-focused on your core business, really understand it and grow it,” Hicks says. “That comes from direction at the top of the organization, and that needs to move down as you communicate with your employees.”

Smart Business spoke with Hicks about basic business principles and how they can help you succeed in spite of the economy.

Connect with your customers. The key here is to really keep in touch with your customers, stay abreast of all the metrics in your business. One of the things we’ve heard a lot from the service writers on the list is that now is a time to really improve your game on customer service. It’s something that customers are looking for.

Work with your customers on payment terms and things like that. The service companies on our list have been doing things like that to improve receivables. It’s really kind of homing in and focusing on your core business. This is a time to really go back to basics. What I always advise people to do is make promises that you can live up to. If in a typical turnaround time, you promise to make a callback within 24 hours or less, do that. Always make sure you can exceed their expectations. That will certainly win you favor with your customers. You also need to be in constant conversations with your customers to be sure that they’re satisfied with the project that you’re doing for them. Any time you can focus on a project like that is a time that you can really hit a home run with regard to customer service.

Don’t complicate things. One of the things that is challenging when running a business is staying focused on your core capabilities. A common theme you hear is don’t drown in a sea of opportunities when it comes to directions you can take your business, especially in an economy like this. You need to stay focused as a business. Employees need to clearly understand the key objectives of the business and where you want to take it at this point in time.

One of the biggest factors in success goes back to having a clear understanding of your business, the metrics and how it works. You have to be very rigorous in how you’re marketing, the expense side of the business, understanding receivables and understanding all of those basics that are so important in a business. It may not seem as important in good times, but as the economy has slowed down, you quickly see that the difference between companies that are struggling and companies that aren’t struggling is the attention paid to those details.

Build a foundation of communication. The foundation for good communication with employees needs to happen in the good times, too. You can take action when times are tough right now, kind of right the ship, but having a culture where you’re talking to employees regularly, sharing the direction of the organization and encouraging feedback, it’s going to help your business continually improve. That’s a habit that will carry over and help you during difficult times, as well.

Share as much as you can. That helps front-line people understand why decisions are being made. If they don’t understand why decisions are being made, sometimes the interpretation and implementation can be fuzzy. Employees understand what is going on with the economy and how it affects them, and it’s good to share with them what steps the company is taking to focus on the core competencies of the business, why it’s important, so they’ll be much more motivated to accomplish those goals.

How you communicate depends on the size of your company. It might be that they have a morning meeting before they head out for the day, they can gather all in one room. That’s great, because they can ask questions. That has to be part of the culture — can I walk up to someone and ask questions. That is as important as being able to ask questions in a meeting setting.

That is an aspect of the culture that you have to work hard at creating. There are several ways we do that here. Management is very approachable. We sit in cubes just like everyone else sits in cubes. We don’t have offices. We also interact with all of the employees regularly, including a suggestion box, regular meetings where they can ask questions.

You need a philosophy in which every employee has a right to ask a question and get a real answer. Then, when you get suggestions, you have to give feedback on that. It can’t just be a suggestion that goes unanswered. If you do that, it will hurt the culture because employees will think their efforts are futile. You need to offer feedback, even if it’s a suggestion you can’t really implement. You reinforce that through your actions. It’s how you demonstrate it, how you receive that feedback and what you do with it. If you don’t pay attention to it and you don’t act on it, it won’t work. You can talk about being a company that has an open-door policy, but if you’re not doing anything with it, it won’t sustain itself.

How to reach: Angie’s List, (888) 944-5478 or www.angieslist.com