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Refocus on customer service Featured

11:41am EDT March 2, 2011
Mark Kirschner, CEO, Wheaton Van Lines Inc. Mark Kirschner, CEO, Wheaton Van Lines Inc.

Mark Kirschner is in the moving business. When people need to go from Point A to Point B, he wants Wheaton Van Lines Inc. to be the company that gets them to their final destination as smoothly as possible.

So when the economy collapsed in 2008, it created a problem for Wheaton. Fewer people in the residential market were moving, and those who were often weren’t doing so by choice. And when you’ve just lost your house through a foreclosure, you’re probably not hiring a moving company to get you to your next place.

“So with that, cash flow decreased for our industry,” says Kirschner, the company’s CEO. “Not just Wheaton but the whole industry. So we had to find ways to be sure our agents were diversifying and finding new revenue streams.”

Kirschner believed in the service that the $160 million company provided to help families move and assist companies with corporate relocations. He knew that the company also specialized in government and military relocations, logistical services and special commodity shipments.

But he came to the conclusion that the company wasn’t doing enough to let potential customers know about the diversity of Wheaton’s offerings.

He began with a mandate to the company’s 120 employees and 250 agents across the nation who are affiliated with Wheaton. The message was simple: We’re going to work together to make sure everyone succeeds.

“We talked to everyone,” Kirschner says. “We enlarged our circle. We looked for new ways to reach our customers. We started to make a focus on the social media aspect of reaching out to our customers. We were trying to develop as many sales channels or sales windows as possible so the customers have access to us.”

Wheaton clearly had the wherewithal to diversify and keep the revenue coming in. The company just needed to do a better job of promoting itself and put more emphasis on the quality of service it provided and the advantages that service provided over the competition.

Sell your plan

Kirschner needed to galvanize his nationwide network of 250 agents behind this renewed commitment to quality and service so that Wheaton could sell that package to potential clients.

“We’re letting our service providers and agents know, ‘We’re going to make our brand more powerful through the service offerings we’re making available to you,’” Kirschner says.

He wanted to work with his agents to develop ways to provide even better customer service and address more of their needs. This wouldn’t be a plan that he would just force on people and tell them to go do it. It would have their fingerprints on it, too, giving them ownership in its outcome.

“Let people know that you’re open, that you care and that you want to hear what they have to say,” Kirschner says. “Let them know that you’re not afraid to fail or take chances and you’re not afraid for them to fail.”

His hope, however, was that through thorough discussions with his agency network, the company’s efforts would answer any questions and keep failure from being an issue.

“Usually, when we have a new proposal, we do a good job of stating, ‘What if this happens, what if this happens, and what if this happens? What happens if this doesn’t succeed? What are the ramifications? How much of a risk are we willing to take? Are we OK if we do this and fail?’” Kirschner says. “As long as you have those kinds of discussions and everyone’s voice is being heard and it’s not being ramrodded through, you’ll be OK.”

Kirschner made it a point to seek out those who he knew had resisted change or new ideas in the past. He wanted to know what they thought of the customer service that Wheaton provided.

“Every group is going to have some naysayers,” Kirschner says. “We’ll say, ‘Here’s a proposal. What do you think?’ If there’s a hole in it, they’ll find it. Address the resistance head on.”

You need to recognize the difference between someone who is trying to help you by pointing out concerns and someone who is just trying to be an obstacle to progress. The person who is trying to help can be a big asset to the selling of your plan.

“Are they there to resolve the problem or are they there to create a problem?” Kirschner says. “You’re going to know that by having face-to-face conversations with them. The most important thing is to look at it from their eyes, not your eyes. Find out why they are so passionately disagreeing with you.”

Fortunately, at Wheaton, most of Kirschner’s team jumped right on board with the effort to reel in more customers through its renewed focus on great service.

“You have to listen to the people that are working directly with the customers on a day-to-day basis,” Kirschner says. “You have to have a dialogue where it’s open and they can come to you and have a two-way conversation about what are the needs of your customer.”

Don’t get too hung up on titles and territories and who is responsible for what when you’re having these kinds of discussions. If someone has a great idea, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about where it came from.

“Don’t pigeonhole anybody or put them in a silo,” Kirschner says. “Everybody has an equal voice at the table. And as the CEO, you speak last. Your job is to listen more than it is to talk. You just create that environment where it’s supportive.”

Don’t try to do it all

If you have a hard time gaining trust when you launch a new initiative, it could be because you try to do it all yourself. Kirschner made a concerted effort to constantly get other people involved in his plan to bolster customer service at Wheaton.

“You have to have the support team in place and peers in place to support the change,” Kirschner says. “You have to have transparency. I don’t think you can think about change if you don’t have that relationship or that trust that has to be there in order to implement the change.”

Delegation is one of the best ways to engender trust. Kirschner’s challenge was letting go of his duties from being CFO before he became CEO.

“I had to be able to delegate as quickly as possible,” Kirschner says.

But it doesn’t have to be that kind of delegation to be effective.

“Put simply, if somebody else is capable of doing it, let them do it,” Kirschner says. “They’ll have more time and they’ll do a better job at it. What it also does is develop an individual. People want to be challenged. As long as you surround yourself with the right people, they’ll rise to the challenge. You don’t want people bored in their positions. You want to continuously challenge them.”

Get to know the members of your management team so that you can figure out what buttons to push to get the most use out of them to help your plan succeed.

“Know what drives them,” Kirschner says. “Some individuals may be driven by security. They want a lot of information before they make a decision. Some individuals may be driven by personal rewards. Some may be driven by wanting a lot of change. You have to understand what drives each individual.”

These are the kind of details that help make your business better.

“What I enjoy about that is when I think we have it all figured out, we’ll ask our agents or service providers and they’re going to see things differently,” Kirschner says. “They’ll have a different perspective.”

Analyze your execution

The analysis doesn’t stop when you begin to implement your plan. If you don’t ever follow up or track the success of the execution of your plan, the benefits are going to be tough to realize.

Talk to your customers and see how your employees are faring in carrying out your company’s plan.

“We survey our customers after each and every move,” Kirschner says. “We send them what we call the customer service report. It allows the customer to measure our service from the moment we call them to the time we deliver their shipment. Once we have that, it allows us to get the analytics to determine our level of service as perceived by the customer and not by us. Once you have that, you can see where your strengths and weaknesses are.”

Make sure that you respond to any feedback that you get.

“We’ll call them,” Kirschner says. “That’s what has really surprised a lot of customers. When they didn’t give us the feedback we would have desired, we have a department that will walk through the process and see where we could have done better. You just have to stay in touch with them.”

In other words, if you’re going to have customer surveys, you have to follow up. You need to make those surveys worthwhile and put some effort into it in order to gather feedback from the process.

That’s true for any business, whether you’re helping customers move or you’re manufacturing widgets. You need to know what your customers’ experience is like if you’re going to continue to make that experience as good as possible.

“It’s not as important when you meet with them that you explain your offerings and what you’re doing as much as you look to understand their business,” Kirschner says.

In the moving business, you’re trying to understand what people go through when they are moving. But every customer has his or her own unique challenges and you need to find out what they are.

“What are their pain points? What are they going through?” he says. “You have to understand where they are coming from. What do they need? You just have to keep asking questions as to where they are. If you’re always going to focus on yourself, you’re not going to be successful. If you’re not aware of what’s going on in their industry, you’re going to put yourself at a disadvantage.”

Throughout 2010, Wheaton saw a number of new companies join its network and expand its reach. Kirschner credits the laser focus that his company has put on providing great customer service for that success.

“Any time you do have change that does occur, reflect back and determine why it was successful,” Kirschner says. “Any type of change is possible provided you have the right message and people understand it. As long as the decision is true to your mission statement and true to your customers, you’re ready to go.” <<

How to reach: Wheaton Van Lines Inc., (800) 248-4810 or www.wheatonworldwide.com

The Kirschner file

Mark Kirschner

CEO

Wheaton Van Lines Inc.

Born: Indianapolis

Education: Bachelor of science degree in accounting, Indiana University

What was your very first job?

Delivering the papers for the Indianapolis News. With an evening route, you knew you had to be on time to deliver the papers because they were expecting it. But you also knew if you smiled, you got a bigger tip.

Who has been the biggest influence on who you are today?

My father, Edward Kirschner. He taught me integrity and to be honest. He taught me early on, if you’re going to do a job, do it as best as you can to its highest level. He was a policeman and a very ethical person. He instilled that honesty and integrity to all of us at a very early age. If you do something wrong, admit it. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Give it your best every day.

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My father told me, ‘You won’t know until you try.’ It was the way we were brought up. We were raised to be very independent and self-sufficient.

If you could have a conversation with anyone, whom would it be and why?

When you asked that, two people came to mind. One was my father. I’d have a conversation with my father on a lot of different things that are important to me. And Jesus Christ.