Larry Dentice is one of a very few fish in a very small pond.
He heads Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc., a company that markets, sells, distributes and services diagnostic imaging systems in a field with three major competitors.
In such a small sphere where competitors often leapfrog on product differentiation, it’s especially crucial to stand apart in another way.
“What’s important is to really try to differentiate yourself in the marketplace,” says Dentice, the general manager and senior vice president of the $650 million company. “Our No. 1 differentiator over all of our competitors is what we do in after-sales support and customer satisfaction.”
So he has to keep his 1,300 employees focused on that and continually improve their ability to deliver superior customer service. That philosophy is woven through the company’s culture, starting with the mission: “To become the industry leader in customer loyalty by delivering quality products and services through long-term, customer-focused relationships.”
But last year, another player encroached on the company’s status. After holding the No. 1 spot in customer satisfaction for six years, Toshiba saw service ratings for its flagship CT scanners drop.
Not wanting the company to lose its differentiator, Dentice sprung into action. By relying on the customer-centric culture he’d already built, he turned the ratings around and led Toshiba back to the top.
“It wasn’t an option,” he says. “As the head of the company, I directed that we’re focused on customer satisfaction.”
Here’s how he used employee education and metrics to build a culture that helped him drive customer-focused results.Educate employees about service
A focus on customer satisfaction starts when you educate employees about customer needs.
Dentice does that through frequent training meetings that give employees tools and information about the best ways to serve their customers. To make sure those sessions cover everything they should, he gathers plenty of input before and after the meetings.
The first level of customer service needs come from his executive staff meetings every other week. He makes it his first action item, opening the meeting by asking what type of customer issues his reports encountered in the last two weeks. From there, he keeps digging for ways to help employees face those issues.
“We don’t just take an off-the-shelf, canned training program,” Dentice says. “We customize it by talking to customers and actually bringing customers into the training.”
Instead of taking your executives’ word for it, validate it by asking the customers what’s most important. The first step is setting up focus groups to ask them which issues they would like included in upcoming training sessions.
Their responses will carry even more weight if you let them speak with your employees directly. So the real key is bringing customers in front of your employees.
“Probably the best thing you can do is pull in customers when [you] do training,” Dentice says. “We may pull in a CEO of a hospital and have him talk to the group about what’s important to CEOs of a hospital. So we try to use customer testimonials.”
Dentice also conducts focus groups internally with employees who are in regular contact with customers — usually in sales, marketing and service departments — to find out what skills they use and need.
He also brings employees at headquarters together once a quarter for “Today at TAMS,” a town-hall type of meeting where he reiterates the importance of service. Beforehand, he surveys employees to ask what they would like to see covered. Then he incorporates their curiosities into a four- or five-hour state-of-the-company address, which includes managers giving rundowns of each department. Each of those messages should tie customer needs to specific solutions that the company can offer.
“I start by covering what’s happening in the marketplace. I let them know what’s happening with our customers,” Dentice says. “Then I go on to say what we are doing — what kind of specific programs is the company doing — to support what our customers are up against.”
Though the session concludes with time for employees to ask questions, Dentice also hosts “Lunch with Larry” once a quarter. That gives employees the opportunity to sign up for a more intimate, informal setting where they can get answers straight from him.
“You have to touch all levels of an organization, not just try to rely on your executive staff,” he says.
After these meetings, follow up with employees to see how you can improve your communication next time. Dentice surveys the attendees to gauge what they learned, whether their questions were answered, if they understood each presentation and how the next meeting could be more effective.Help employees use information
In addition to scheduled training sessions, you should constantly update employees with news that affects your customers. But to really help them provide better service, make the information tangible.
Every day at Toshiba America Medical Systems, someone in the marketing department scours the Internet and industry periodicals for relevant articles. Look at news through customers’ eyes by considering what issues and changes would affect them, whether it has to do with government regulations or your competitors. Then compile those articles into a mass e-mail update for employees. But realize how easy it is for them to simply scan through that without really registering what it means or what they should do about it.
“It’s a cadre of data,” Dentice says. “What we try to do is focus it down to the specific function where the employee can make an impact and make a change in what they do. There’s no sense in telling them about something that they can’t impact in their jobs.”
You can make information digestible for employees by following Dentice’s daisy-chain approach.
“It’s understanding how it’s going to impact your customer and how [you] can impact what’s happening and what products and services we have that can affect it,” Dentice says.
Because each manager knows his or her department and his or her customers best, have the managers pull out the news that affects them the most. So in addition to the generalized reports, managers should send additional e-mails to their divisions highlighting not just the news but specific products and processes employees can use to support it.
But that’s still not enough to make sure employees take the information away from the computer screen. You have to hold them accountable, too.
Managers should follow up with their direct reports to make sure they read the articles. Have them meet to discuss what it means for their customers and how they serve them.
“The manager would ask, ‘Did you see these articles? Let’s take a look at your customer base, where we think this is going to have an impact, and then go meet those customers to validate the information,’” Dentice says. “It’s to validate if they have the information, if they understand the information and then where are they going to use that information.”
You can train employees and feed them a constant stream of updates to help them serve their customers. But you’re stopping short if you don’t actually monitor the results.
Toshiba America Medical Systems surveys customers immediately post-installation and follows up intermittently after that, then collates that data against third-party analyses.
The survey is a series of 50 to 100 questions that dig into details. Think about every step of the customer experience, considering every department, each product and what each does for the customer.
TAMS’ survey, for example, starts by asking if customers were sufficiently informed during the initial planning, whether they understood the product and how to use it and then how the sales process met their needs. It starts with specifics and ends with the general question: Is there anything we could do differently or better to improve your experience and keep your loyalty?
“It’s got to be more of a longer list [rather] than a shorter list because you just don’t want to take a series of one or two data points,” Dentice says of the survey questions. “You really want to have multiple data points to cross-reference to make sure that you are optimizing customer satisfaction.”
Dentice looks at feedback quarterly for ways that the company can serve customers better. For example, when ratings dipped for the company’s CT scanners last year, his first step was creating cross-functional “Voice of the Customer” teams to take a closer look at the results and work together to improve them. To form the teams, he asked managers to choose senior employees in their departments who had the most time and experience interfacing with customers.
The team looks for red flags or low ratings that span multiple surveys, then digs into the cause of the dissatisfaction. They follow up with customers individually to find out more about their experience and what could improve it. The key is getting them to look at enough data to understand the extent and reach of the problem rather than relying on limited sources.
“It’s by validating as many data points as you can before you actually institute a change,” Dentice says. “Don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to a rating. Really investigate it to see if it’s multiple sites, if it’s multiple regions, if it’s across the country or across the globe.”
After all, you have to know what you need to fix. Once you can identify which customers are dissatisfied where and why, you can more easily pinpoint the root of the problem within your company and distinguish whether it’s stemming from certain people or processes.
Even if the problem is widespread, the solution should start small. For example, some customers complained that different employees followed up with them each time, meaning some information about CT scanners was repeated and other information was skipped. Instead of totally changing the process, Dentice started assigning a single point-of-contact to each customer in the southern region for six months. When the ratings there climbed back up, he rolled the change across the rest of the company.
Beyond departmentwide or companywide process changes, the survey results should also impact employees individually to some extent. Dentice ties a percentage of employees’ compensation plan to customer ratings. The more an employee’s position directly affects customers, the more his or her compensation will depend on that.
“It’s not an overall driver,” Dentice says. “It’s enough to tell our organization, ‘Listen, we’re serious.’”
A CT application specialist’s job, for example, widely revolves around the customer, so as much as 25 percent of his or her compensation plan may be tied to survey results. To make it easier to measure individuals, ask questions that specifically mention them, such as “How did the specialist train you?” and “Did you understand it?”
“Make sure the employees know that you’re looking at this data and give them feedback on the data of where they can improve as employees and how they can improve as a company,” he says.
After all, the point isn’t just to get certain ratings from your customers. In the end, the aim is really to improve your ability to keep customers happy so you can keep their business and grow your company.
“Really understand … what’s going to be important to (your customers),” Dentice says. “The goal is to have repeat business and maintain loyal relationships with your customers.”
How to reach: Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc., (800) 421-1968 or www.medical.toshiba.com