Brooke Bates

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Group discussion

The title of CEO didn’t have the right ring for Jerry Sheppard. Instead, his business card reads head visionary honcho for The Epitec Group, a technology services and work force management firm that he founded in 1978.

Likewise, his wife Josie isn’t just the president but the head coach. And that’s how they see themselves: as interactive coaches for their 380 employees, more so than executives locked in an ivory tower.

When it comes to Sheppard’s most important task as a leader — setting a vision, as his title implies — well, that’s a collaborative process, too. He encourages employees to contribute to the ongoing discussion of what could make Epitec stronger and keep growing it past 2009 revenue of about $31 million.

“We embrace entrepreneurs,” Sheppard says. “They take ownership in the process they’re responsible for. And I think that is what has propelled our growth.”

Smart Business spoke to Sheppard about making your vision a collaborative discussion with employees.

Develop a vision. I think the keys to being a good leader are being open, maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit, having a vision that’s clear and that people can follow, that people understand. [It’s] being able to set a vision that is of yourself, not a catchy phrase that’s the phrase of the day [or] that you might think clients want to hear but really what your business is all about.

I was told years ago that once you learn why you do what you do, you’ll be better at doing it. So being a good leader is being able to articulate that to the staff.

Once you understand why you do what you do, you’re better at doing it. We are customer-driven. The customer drives our business. Ask yourself the question, ‘Why am I in business?’ and for us, it’s to service the customer. Once we can find a need to build for our customer, you then want to be a valued resource to the customer.

‘What is our mission?’ You ask yourself that question. Our mission is to be a valued resource to our clients. What does that mean? I’ll take it a step further. I say that you have a choice of being a resource to your client or a vendor. Vendors are replaceable; resources are not. So our mission is to be a valued resource to our customer because our business is customer-driven to build a company that’s profitable and that’s committed to growth.

By accomplishing that mission, then your vision becomes clear. Our vision is to be a premier staffing organization that people want to work for and clients want to do business with.

Establishing that vision, it’s almost the second step of your mission. Now that you have a mission, what would you look like once you accomplish that mission? What does that company look like if they can accomplish all the things that they set out as a mission?

Build consensus. There is some degree of collaboration. It’s not a dictatorship. We talk about why we’re in business and with that, we come to a consensus.

The people that are attracted to our company have an entrepreneurial spirit, so it’s not hard to get buy-in when you’re talking to fellow entrepreneurs. We call it ‘intrepreneur.’ We give them an opportunity to practice their business philosophies, thoughts, experiences.

Buy-in is a difficult phrase when you’re trying to shove something down a person’s throat. It has come easy for us because I think we are all entrepreneurs and we talk in terms of entrepreneurship and we all understand the importance of servicing the customer. When everybody understands why we’re in business, it’s easy for buy-in. We don’t even use the phrase buy-in [at] our office because it comes naturally. We all agree that we’re here to service the customer, that the customer drives our business.

In going through that process, you’re eliminating ad hoc statements. You’re really boiling it down to, ‘All of the management team agrees we’re here to service the customer.’ So it’s not something I dreamed up one night. It’s something that we talked about over the years and have refined over the years. It has evolved into this process of constantly talking about: Are we accomplishing that? Are we really doing what we set out to do?

Keep discussing. [My] advice to others would be not having a hidden agenda. [My] advice to others [is to] put themselves on the other side of the table. What is it that they would want to know in joining an organization, and how would they really want that organization to be? And then practice that. It’s that old do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Solicit input. It’s kind of like brainstorming — no idea is a bad idea, so let’s just have an open forum. One of the reasons we do the one-on-one is to promote an open forum feeling that people can ask any type of question that they want at any time. It’s not something that we can read in a textbook, take a pill and now we can do it. It’s understanding what would drive oneself: What would I like in an environment to work for? And then create that environment.

Embrace a brainstorming process. We jot those [ideas] down, and we honestly take a look at them. Everyone is constantly looking at better ways to service the customer. We don’t have a suggestion box. We have people say, ‘Well, hey, let’s try this.’ Well, OK, let’s talk about it. Let’s see how that will better service the customer. And then we will decide.

It doesn’t take an act of congress to have a process change here. When someone’s making a suggestion, we see how beneficial that is for the masses.

How to reach: The Epitec Group, (248) 353-6800 or

Tuesday, 13 April 2010 06:16

Philip Pelusi’s style of client care

When Philip Pelusi opened his first Pittsburgh salon in 1965, he was shy. At about 20 years old, he was intimidated by the high-fashion clientele who told him he was too young to style their hair.

“And yet when I started to talk to them, they became clients,” says the founder and owner of Philip Pelusi Salons. “I had to learn the hard way. I was forced to get [feedback] and learn and adjust.”

Pelusi had to devise his own way of connecting with customers to meet their needs. But now that his chain of 13 Philip Pelusi Salons has expanded to include 20 partner salons and another 60 that carry his P2 brand of products, he’s sharing those lessons to help others provide client service.

To start, Pelusi spends time at partner salons to observe client consultations. What he doesn’t want to hear is employees asking questions that make customers choose their own solutions, such as, “So, what are we doing today?”

Then, he brings people to his education center to cover product education and skill certification — but the bulk of training comes down to soft skills like communication.

“The barrier of communication is huge. You almost have to teach a little empathy,” Pelusi says. “There’s no one class that can do it. It starts with the questions you ask … and it comes from making suggestions.

“You don’t force them to buy a product. It’s just as simple as, ‘Have you ever thought about caramel highlights? Think about it.’ Now, you might say, ‘This is what it could do for you,’ so what’s in it for them. It’s pretty subtle.”

Pelusi recently honed the communication skills of the team at Akron’s Studio V Salon & Spa, the second partner salon for owners Coleen Morlock, Mary Kay Hallas and Lucy Mahoney — who previously partnered with Pelusi at VCS Salon & Spa in Medina, Ohio. Through role-playing, Pelusi had their 35 employees take turns in the customer’s seat to experience service from the receiving end.

“They helped us understand the clients’ needs from the clients’ perspective and not just ours,” Morlock says.

Pelusi also helped them develop a needs assessment format to help employees understand clients’ frustrations. 

“Whether it’s a first-time client or a continuous client, do a needs assessment to find, No. 1, what they’re looking for, but No. 2, what we as professionals know that they need,” says Morlock, who follows up with longtime clients to make sure they’re still receiving the same satisfactory level of service as newcomers.

Begin by learning clients’ problems so you can guide them to the best solution, rather than simply asking what they want. Morlock expects employees to ask at least three open-ended questions, such as: What’s your biggest challenge? What are you currently doing to try to solve it? And one of Pelusi’s favorites: If I had a magic wand, what would be your ideal solution?

“A lot of other companies say, ‘What do want to do today?’ instead of, ‘What’s challenging you?’” Morlock says. “It’s getting a little bit deeper in with what they’re looking for.”

Morlock also expects employees to explain products or services they suggest to clients, making use of Pelusi’s intensive product education. 

“Are they giving the [customer] a tag?” Pelusi asks. “If you buy a nice outfit, you get a tag: Do not dry clean. So really, when you leave, you should have a tag for your [product or service.] No one’s saying, ‘Buy,’ just, ‘We talked about it. This is what I’d recommend. This is what I’d use.’

“You just shut up and let the client make a decision. There’s nothing worse than pushing something and not knowing what you sold them, No. 1, not following up, No. 2.”

To make sure employees utilize the needs assessment, Morlock invites secret shoppers to evaluate employees quarterly based on the questions they ask and the explanations they provide.

But you usually know how effectively employees communicate before you get that far.

“When someone is utilizing a needs assessment to its fullest, their sales increase and their client requests increase,” Morlock says. “You almost always find that they’re booked three to six months in advance. You can tell just in the numbers; it’s like reading a book.”

Still, she meets with employees one-on-one to reinforce the process. A couple of her employees also participate in quarterly telementoring conferences with Pelusi to share their challenges, questions and goals, and to receive more training to bring back to the rest of the staff.

“The performance reviews are critical,” Pelusi says. “When you hire somebody new, you want to do it more often — every three months, minimum. When you do them well, by the time you go into the review, they already know. The last thing you want to do is go into the review and they don’t know what to expect.

“I don’t care how great you think you are, that person walking through determines. They make the final vote if they come back [and] they seek our advice. You can talk all you want, but if it doesn’t get to the end user, nothing happens.”

How to reach: Philip Pelusi Salons, (888) 263-4720 or

Twitter: @philippelusi

How to reach: Studio V Salon & Spa, (330) 665-8010 or

How to reach: VCS Salon & Spa, (330) 723-3998 or

Read our earlier interview with Philip Pelusi about how he grows Philip Pelusi Salons by helping employees create road maps for success.

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Relationships that last

Len Dugow wonders about your closet’s future contents.

OK, not really. But the president and creative director of LGD Communications wonders how consumers will spend after the recession. Maybe 20 pairs of jeans won’t be in their budgets — but he wants to make sure his advertising, marketing and branding services will be.

“We’re talking to them about today’s needs as well as planning six months and a year out,” says Dugow, who has about 22 employees. “It’s a constant conversation going out to your clients and making sure that you’re part of the discussion.”

To stay relevant, he focuses on the value that he brings to relationships.

“If you’re only going to scream price, then a prospective buyer is only going to respond to the lowest price,” says Dugow, whose company billed $11.5 million in 2008. “I talk about parallel messaging to make sure that while we’re talking about the deal, we’re also interweaving the appeal or what makes the brand special.”

Smart Business spoke to Dugow about building relationships to stay in clients’ long-term plans.

Approach clients with value. You have to walk into the room with a [curriculum vitae] that says, ‘I have been in the wars, I have survived them, and I have helped a good number of companies survive and, in many cases, thrive.’

But because these [economic] times are unprecedented, things that may have worked in the early ’90s won’t necessarily work today. So you have to take some of the lessons of the past and you have to represent in a fresh and exciting way. It can’t feel old and tired, especially in such a competitive marketplace. It’s just a question of making sure you isolate and spotlight certain brand benefits that otherwise may have either been forgotten or you assume everybody knows.

Get on the same page. Part of the psychology of this is moving from one side of the desk to the other. It’s no longer you the client and me the agency; it’s we. We need to really be working hand-in-glove with the solution.

I may come up with it by myself, but if it’s done jointly, it’ll have more staying power and, of course, the client has ownership of it, as well. When a client has ownership of a strategy, it always gathers a greater momentum. If you bring the client to your side of the table and work from the ‘we’ point of view, the momentum can be supercharged. You want him to be emotionally connected to the process and, obviously, to the solution because if he has nothing invested in it, there’s a good chance it’s not going to move forward.

Generally when we get a new piece of business, we let them know how we work. We say that [these are] the steps and it’s worked very well for us. We want to make sure that the client understands, in terms of LGD’s methodology, how we take a client through a response to an objective.

Part of our challenge is to make sure that we have a really good [understanding] in terms of defining expectations, how we measure the expectations and trying to figure out — in concert with the new client — the way that they like to work. How much of this is going to be by meetings in person? Is this doable from videoconferencing? Is this hands-on? Is this, ‘Please come back in a week and share where you are,’ or, ‘Come back after three or four days because I want to be part of the brainstorming session?’

Everybody has to be on the same page as to what the objectives are. We have to document that. The client and the agency both have to agree in the very early stages: This is what the objectives are, and this is the game plan. You have to make sure that you and the client are talking the same language.

Bringing the client into the process really gets vetted in the first month or so of conversation. You’re looking to find out what makes him tick within the sense of business and the kinds of things he’s going to respond to, yet knowing full well that he’s compensating you to come up with something different.

Sometimes you have to be as much of a therapist as you do anything. You constantly are trying to pose leading questions, what-if kinds of suggestions. You’re also trying to put across the idea that together we are going to figure out this solution. You always want a client to feel that it is of great importance that we get it and we get it right.

Communicate consistently. Silence is really, really deadly. A constant back-and-forth is always welcome — and I don’t mean just by me; I’m talking about any one of my people in the process, whether it’s an account manager or whatever. You want to make sure that the client is aware, on a regular basis, of what you’re doing.

I encourage my people to make sure that we give them progress reports on a twice-a-week basis: ‘This is where we are. We’re waiting on this from you; you’re waiting on this from us.’ It’s just a reminder of data and where we are in the process.

It’s just a question of transparency: ‘This is what we’re doing, this is where we are, [and] this is how we’re going to get it done.’ Transparency is a really important part of the equation because you can’t BS that.

I consider myself a no-nonsense kind of individual, meaning I never overstate our successes and I never understate things that are not going well. So if we’ve stumbled in some way, I’m the first one to get on the phone and say, ‘This one just did not work,’ or, ‘We owe you for this.’

It also then gives me an opportunity to sense where other opportunities for additional business are. With this couple-times-a-week, back-and-forth [reporting process] on tasks, [we hear back], ‘Oh, and then we need to do this,’ and, ‘Oh, we need to start this new initiative for this new campaign.’ So part of that communication is also about listening for where the additional business lies.

How to reach: LGD Communications, (305) 576-9400 or

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Filling the gap

It makes sense when clients call Robin Baum asking for estate planning assistance. After all, she’s the managing partner of the certified public accounting and management consulting firm Zinner & Co. LLP, where she helps family-owned businesses with those requests.

But sometimes clients call asking for a good landscaper, not quite Zinner’s specialty, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Baum is helpless.

“If there are areas that we do not necessarily have good internal resources to address client needs, we have looked for strategic partners that might be able to assist those clients,” she says, adding that commercial lending, investment advisory, insurance and legal partners are more common than lawn care. “We’re always looking for what makes the most sense to meet the client needs and to solve their problem.”

First, you need a solid sense of your core competencies to know where you can help clients. With many companies facing economy-induced changes, it might make sense to re-evaluate those.

“We needed to re-evaluate what our greatest resources were,” says Baum, who leads 38 employees. “We looked at our current staffing, and we determined the areas that we needed to improve or to add additional resource to that affected not only our current clients but those that we wanted to attract in the future.”

You may think you know where your company’s skills and resources lie, but clients can offer valuable outside perspectives. They probably assume strong technical competency, but the real reason they stick with you is because of the value you add.

“We picked some of our long-time client relationships and we said, ‘Listen, we really appreciate the fact that we’ve had a 25-plus-year relationship. Tell us why that is,’” Baum says.

Her clients came back saying Zinner was part of their team, adding value to the longevity of their businesses, which confirmed the firm’s strength with multigenerational family businesses. Baum padded the firm’s resources to serve those clients’ most common issues.

But then you have to address the gaps. When clients asked for services outside of Zinner’s strong suit, Baum turned to providers exhibiting a similar client focus.

And the Exclusive Service Provider program was born.

“We actually went to them and said, ‘We do business the way you do business,’” she says. “‘We’re both focused on our clients; we want to be able to not only offer good resources to our clients, but we also want to be able to grow and you to grow, as well. So we would like you to keep us in mind, as far as referrals are concerned, and we will do the same.’

“We want to have an exclusive group that we, No. 1, have demonstrated results with, and No. 2, that we’re not afraid to say, ‘This is what’s important to us. We feel that it’s important to you. So we should all be working toward the same goal.’”

By establishing that common goal of the client’s success, you don’t have to worry about a competitive edge stealing your client. Plus, if clients are coming to you asking for a recommendation, they obviously trust you enough in the services you do provide.

These strategic partnerships can obviously deepen your relationships with clients by providing alternative solutions and grow your business as referrals come in. But if you involve your employees in the partnerships, it can also reap other kinds of growth.

“It’s a development project, and when I say development, it’s both practice development and growing our business,” Baum says. “But it’s also a personal and professional development plan for our staff because in each case where introductions are being made, we’re taking some of the younger staff so that they can see how those types of conversations go.”

How to reach: Zinner & Co. LLP, (216) 831-0733 or

Background check

When Robin Baum evaluated the economy’s effects on her accounting and consulting firm’s resources, she was really looking at people.

“Because there have been layoffs from many other firms, we said we want to take advantage of adding to our staff, replacing, upgrading,” says the Zinner & Co. LLP managing partner, who added two positions in 2009’s last quarter. “We made an active effort to find the right people, not making decisions just because someone was the first candidate.”

Baum started bringing multiple managers into interviews. Some tested technical competencies while those from departments outside the position gauged cultural fit.

She also paid attention to candidates’ backgrounds.

“When you have somebody that’s coming from a background where the size of the firm is much different than yours, ask some very specific questions about how they functioned, how they obtained resources, how the review process was completed to get a sense of what their participation was,” Baum says.

At a larger firm, maybe they were accustomed to passing issues off to an expert at another location. Perhaps you’re looking for self-motivators who handle it themselves.

“If we have a good understanding of what their expectations are and they have a good understanding of what our expectations are, it makes for a much more harmonious employment arrangement,” says Baum, adding morale is better than ever. <<

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Practice what you preach

Your secrets are safe with Harry Cendrowski. He holds himself to a high standard that revolves around integrity, and he runs Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC with a similar philosophy.

As managing director, he holds his employees accountable to that standard — and asks them to do the same with him — both personally and professionally.

“You have to keep people accountable,” Cendrowski says. “As it relates to the professional goals, that’s going to be through either daily or weekly communication. But it’s really on a monthly and quarterly basis of reviewing what the goals and objectives were.”

Smart Business spoke to Cendrowski about leaving your integrity turned on and keeping employees accountable to their goals.

Q. How do you hold yourself accountable?

The key to being a good leader is to practice what you preach and to hold yourself to the highest standards because whatever you do, that’s what people are going to see. We have a motto in the firm that says, ‘Whatever we do, will we be proud of what we did two years from now?’

I do have other people in the firm — either at the partner level or at the senior manager level — review things that I’ve done. I explain to them I can make mistakes and that I sincerely want their input. Since we do a lot of work that is scrutinized by other professionals and by the courts, we need to make sure that whatever we are saying, writing, presenting can be held up to the strongest light.

If you look at all my partners and my senior team, I probably have the least [extensive] academic background; most of the people here have master’s degrees and law degrees and Ph.D.s. So what I’ve tried to do is surround myself with people who have significant achievements both in academic and professional life to fill in gaps and to make sure that we don’t have just clones here.

Q. How do you hold your employees accountable?

You have to be clear and consistent in what you want from them so they understand how and where they have to be accountable. It’s being clear about your specific message. What I mean by that is you have to actually get into a fair level of detail. You can have an overarching goal and talk about those things and what you want to accomplish, but you have to get into the detail of that and be very consistent every single day that that’s what you expect out of the organization.

If you practice what you preach and you hold yourself to a higher standard, they understand the standards that you’re holding them to, and it then doesn’t allow a lot of that miscommunication. You’re doing that in the fashion, though, where you’re encouraging ideas. Even if we say, ‘This is our goal and this is how we want to get there,’ if someone identifies something 20 percent of the way in and we’re going to have to modify our course, you want them to tell you that, and not tell you, when you’re 80 percent into something, that it’s not going to work.

Q. What are the keys to clearly communicating expectations?

We actually come up with a plan for the entire fiscal year about what is expected of each person in management. We have what I call a master calendar of events with respect to the profession, articles, professional associations or charitable endeavors. That’s one of the ways that we communicate.

We allow [employees] to participate in that process so they can discuss their strengths and weaknesses and where they think they’re going to be able to achieve some of their goals. [That’s at] the senior level, but we do bring the professionals below that manager into the process because we’re trying to encourage ideas.

In December, we had all of our senior managers [meet] and then we would call in people at certain points when we were going to be discussing how that could impact them. They’re responsible for their end, but they’re also responsible for the process. When we call people in for their areas, we also will show them the complete master schedule so they understand what the firm is doing.

We ask people for input. We ask them, ‘How can we make things more efficient? What’s working for you? What’s not working? What do you want to accomplish this year?’

So then we try to encourage people in achieving those things because it’s not only good for them professionally, it’s good for the firm and it continues to demonstrate our insatiable desire to learn. Sometimes you even give people assignments even if they might be not as proficient in that area to allow them to grow and give them some time to work on that.

So it’s a process; it’s not just, ‘Here’s your plan. Let’s go out and execute it.’ We have to talk about it either on a monthly or quarterly basis to see how people are actually coming along.

Q. How do you monitor employees’ progress toward goals?

The way we really monitor that is asking in January, ‘Where are you on your March goals? Is everything going to be in on time?’ We’ll go out and have an informal lunch and say, ‘You’re signed up for this. How’s it going? Do you need any support? What else can we do to help you?’

So we’re trying to monitor it not at the last minute. We’re trying to be proactive in making sure that whatever goals were supposed to be met are being met, and if they’re not being met, then we can have enough time to take corrective action to do it.

You can’t do it in isolation. You have to have a relationship with them. It has to be a real relationship, an understanding what makes that person tick and knowing what their goals are, what’s their passion, why do they want to do it.

We try not to micromanage people. We try to set goals, and we expect those people then to discharge their responsibilities with a balance. So, for example, we have general office hours; however, what we tell our professional is, ‘If you need some flexibility, just tell us. And as long as the clients are not negatively affected, then we expect you to act as a professional and to fill in that time as appropriate.’

So I’m not here at 8 o’clock in the morning saying, ‘Where are you?’ Our philosophy is you understand the job that you need to get done within a certain prescribed time period, and if you have to leave early because there’s a child situation or whatever the case may be, I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know that you understand what your responsibilities are, and then we treat you as a professional.

Q. What advice do you have for holding employees accountable?

You have to do it in a fashion where you’re trying to encourage people and try to let them see how it’s going to benefit them without them feeling that you’re micromanaging what they’re doing, so it is a balance. There are certain techniques that you might use with one professional that with another might not be as acceptable, so you need to understand their personalities and how they respond. I don’t think you can say there’s one magical way.

You try to get to know the person. There might be certain words that are very sensitive to them when you’re trying to constructively critique what they’re doing. So you understand the way they talk and the way th

ey communicate.

For example, there are some people I can go up to in an open office and say, ‘Where are you on these professional goals?’ and other people wouldn’t respond to that well, especially if they were behind. So even if it would have just been a normal question, you know if somebody’s a little more sensitive about being judged by others. Then you need to adjust your approach.

Generally, you’re going to be a little more reserved or conservative on how you approach them originally. So I wouldn’t take the liberty of saying that in front of someone who was new until I got to know them. Trial and error would be not a good thing because you could lose someone’s confidence very early on for something that you should have known better. That’s part of a leader’s job is get a feel for what is going on and that just doesn’t mean in general — it means with each individual.

Q. What role does integrity play in this?

Even if someone didn’t follow what you wanted them to do [and] they made a mistake, you don’t embarrass them in front of the rest of the professional team. You talk to them in private: what happened, how it happened. So you’re respecting them as a professional. That’s where you really get the trust in the relationship, both at the professional and personal level.

It really starts at a personal level. They have to have some faith that when they tell you something, if they ask you to keep it confidential, that you will keep it confidential. When an employee comes and tells me something personal about them, I tell them, ‘I am not going to tell anyone else about this unless you want me to.’ People come to you in confidence to try to get some guidance just from a personal standpoint, and if they can’t trust you with that information, for sure they’re not going to trust you on the business side.

It’s a continuum of trust. You can’t turn it on and you can’t turn it off. It’s either there or it’s not. To me, integrity is respecting someone’s request that you keep something of a personal nature confidential.

When you’re working with someone on client matters and someone asks you to take an edge that you know really isn’t proper but you might be able to do it, that’s when I see the integrity come on. You say, ‘No, we have to call the client. These are what the standards are. This is what we need to follow and we’re not doing this.’ So it starts there professionally. It’s just a continuum of what you do every day in your professional and your personal life.

How to reach: Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC, (866) 717-1607 or

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Finding the focal point

A lot of leaders call their companies customer-centric. But if you say it to Sue Swenson, you better mean it. The president and CEO of Sage North America can spot the difference between a customer-focused culture and what she calls “the program du jour” or mere initiative.

“To be customer-focused needs to be at the core of everything you do, not a program that is one-off,” she says. “It would be interesting to go into a meeting within the company and see how many times the customer is discussed and, frankly, when is the last time you spoke to a customer.”

If you eavesdropped on a monthly meeting at Sage, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Sage Group plc that provides business management software and services to 3.1 million companies, you’d hear the customer popping up more frequently in conversation — especially if you sneaked in during the last year. Since coming on board in May 2008, Swenson has zeroed in on the customer experience.

Traveling around the country to hear about it from both customers and employees, she learned the Sage experience wasn’t consistent. She wasn’t surprised. After all, Sage acquired more than 20 companies since 1998, each with its own customer service methods.

Swenson wanted to tap the potential of her 4,100 employees to provide a recognizable experience that would keep customers coming back and spreading the word. That overhaul required more than a one-time alignment — it meant setting in motion a cycle of improvement by sparking the ongoing conversation about how employees are serving customers and how they can do it better.

The steps she took to align the company’s approach are the same ones she uses to keep improving the customer experience at Sage.

“It really does take us challenging each other,” Swenson says. “It takes people who keep questioning that and keep pushing and providing an environment where people feel comfortable raising the question. …

“It can’t be an overlay. You really have to crack open everything that you’re doing and be conscious about asking yourself: Is that really a customer-centric approach to that?”

Examine the customer experience

Swenson’s first step is watching how her company meets customer needs, which requires a double-edged sword for addressing both the customer experience and the experience of the employee serving the customer.

She’s found a way to examine both at once.

“We monitor live calls against a directional framework that we would like people to use with the customer in terms of listening and responding and trying to take care of that call on the first contact,” she says. “Listening to the contact is probably the most effective.”

In tandem with assessing how employees are serving customers, monitoring calls also tunes you in to the customer’s perspective.

“Monitoring is a good barometer,” Swenson says. “It’s pretty quick feedback because when you make a change [to your customer service,] you can pay particular attention to the change. You hear what the customer experience is.”

Swenson and other customer support leaders monitor a set number of calls each month to give employees equal opportunity for feedback. They usually sit with the employee and connect through a jack in the phone so they can listen to the live conversation.

“The advantage of doing it side by side is the ability to watch the work process, watch the systems, see how the employee is able to interact with the customer and whether or not there are barriers to that,” she says.

That close observation might make employees nervous at first. But the way you set up the exercise can ease the tension.

First, clearly explain that the purpose of your visit is to improve the company, not nitpick about mistakes. Communicate what you’re listening for.

“We did a lot of training with our employees about what we were doing and why we were doing it and how we would be assessing this,” Swenson says. “So there was a lot of discussion upfront about what was going to be done.”

Obviously, as Swenson aligned the company’s approach, she wanted to hear the same basics regardless of which office she was visiting — like employees making personal connections with customers rather than treating them like a number.

She also listens for employees to address specific issues she’s asked them to crack down on, such as ending the conversation with, “Is there anything else I can do to help you today?”

“We have a standard approach in terms of the kinds of things that we look for: how the customer is greeted, the kind of engagement they have with the customer, whether or not they’ve been able to solve the customer’s problem,” Swenson says.

While the first layer of the exercise is hearing how the employee handles the encounter, your main goal is to identify areas for systemwide improvement, whether it’s a fault in the process or a best practice to spread. Staying focused on that goal as you evaluate can make employees more comfortable with monitoring in the future.

“You build that credibility over time because they realize you really are there to help them do a better job and not to be negative or look for all the mistakes,” Swenson says. “It’s not about what they didn’t do, but it’s what did the system or the way we’ve constructed the process do that got in the way of serving the customer.”

You’ll learn a lot by simply observing, but you’ll multiply the benefit by actually talking about it, too. So as soon as possible, if not immediately after the call, sit down with the employee to debrief.

Swenson sat in on one call where the employee needed to transfer the customer to another department but the contact person wasn’t available. The representative tried to get the manager instead, but the manager’s name wasn’t even in the system.

“I just talked to the rep after the call and said, ‘What would you need to make that more effective? What could help you?’” Swenson says. “It is not just observation, but it’s asking the person who’s actually doing the work, ‘What’s getting in the way of you serving the customer?’

“Give them feedback and get their feedback on how they thought the call went, what did they like about it, what would they do differently,” she says. “So it’s more interactive versus directive. We want to have a conversation with our employees because self-discovery is more powerful than listening to somebody talk at you. It really becomes their discussion and not the supervisor’s discussion.”

Keep finding fixes

Swenson might sound happier than you’d expect dealing with dissatisfied customers.

“I consider customer complaints a gift,” she says. “The fact that they’ve taken the time to call and tell us what is making them unhappy only enables us to take that information and do something with it to provide a better experience for customers who follow.”

That’s the next step of improving your customer service model: You have to use feedback to make changes.

“You can’t just listen and hope that something gets fixed by itself,” Swenson says. “You really have to bring that back

and make some trade-off decisions about where you’re going to take the product or the education process in the next step.”

If you’re like Swenson, you’ll have a lot of feedback to sift through — traditional customer satisfaction surveys, trending comments from social media and online communities, observations of customers using your service in the field or in your focus groups, and, of course, the customer and employee issues you observe while monitoring calls.

It seems overwhelming, but Swenson operates on the Pareto principle, which states that about 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. So she’s focused on those overarching issues.

“When you go at it as a continuous improvement, you really try to look for the themes across the organization,” she says. “Not surprisingly, you’ll find the same issues commonly across the company.”

Obviously, if you’re looking for companywide issues rather than isolated instances, you need to have your big-picture lenses on. Widen your view by bringing in various perspectives.

“We have cross-departmental groups that come together and bring that data from their particular discipline and integrate it so we’re not solving the same issue in a bunch of different places,” Swenson says. “We look at it more holistically across the company.”

It’s easier to detect those common themes if you set aside the origins of the feedback, at least momentarily.

“When I first joined the company, I went across the country and did employee focus groups along with my head of human resources,” Swenson says. “We collated all the information that employees were telling us — regardless of where they worked, what product they were working on — and we looked for common themes.”

During those sessions, for example, Swenson kept hearing that customer-facing employees had trouble transferring customers to the right place in the company. So the first leg of her analysis was how often the issue surfaced.

“We look for frequency of the distribution of that issue,” she says. “So if it’s happening frequently across a number of things, it obviously would get a higher priority for resolution than those things that are maybe one-off.”

After prioritizing the issues you want to address, turn them over to the employees who deal with them daily. They’ll have the best insight to solutions.

“Try to engage them and involve them as much as possible in developing the new method so that they can help support it,” Swenson says. “Sometimes I see leaders trying to be too prescriptive about what they want to accomplish, and it may not fit within how work gets done in the organization. So involving them in the design and implementation of that is really key.”

For example, if you notice an employee using a really effective process while you monitor a call, ask if he or she will champion the idea. Swenson either has that employee sit down with co-workers to share best practices or lead a training session about it.

“Sometimes that can work better than having your supervisor do it because it’s a peer,” she says. “It may not be exactly right, but people pick up these tips from each other, whether it’s how to use the system more effectively, or, ‘This is what I do before I call a customer,’ or, ‘Let me tell you how I’m able to resolve these issues with this department or that department.’”

When employees lead solutions themselves, buy-in for the change is already secured. They wouldn’t present a plan that they’re uncomfortable with.

To keep them on track, keep reminding them what you’re trying to solve and why. Swenson tells her employees she envisions a practical plan for improving the customer experience that’s efficient for both customers and employees.

“If there is no context or set of goals that they understand, then they’re going to not be as clear about what they should be doing,” says Swenson, who also sets up checkpoints to make sure employees progress toward the goal as they brainstorm solutions.

Using her employees’ ideas, she developed an intranet system to help representatives connect customers with the right person in the right department. Once your solution is in motion, the key is closing the loop.

“What’s really important is that there is a complete follow-up with the employee,” says Swenson, who keeps hearing and sharing reinforcement from both employees and customers about the revamped process. “Making sure you close the loop with the employee is important to show them that you’re really serious about making these things happen.

“The thing that will kill participation and engagement is not doing what you say,” she says. “If you’re going to ask people to be involved and to say that you’re making change for this reason, it can’t be lip service.”

Swenson’s focus on improving the customer experience added 123,000 new customers during 2009 and brought Sage’s revenue to $889.4 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. She keeps the cycle rolling through her employees’ 40,000 daily calls because a real commitment to customers — the kind she can hear in conversations — is never-ending.

“It is all about continuous improvement,” she says. “It’s really a journey and not a destination. You’re never going to arrive because customers’ needs are always changing.”

How to reach: Sage North America, (866) 996-7243 or

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Exploiting opportunities

Susan Williamson’s company has been doing what it does for 37 years, and doing it well. But until recently, she probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate what that was.

Before the president of C.TRAC information solutions could launch a new niche product — also known as a vertical — within her existing industry, she had to be sure about her core competencies. She knew that C.TRAC specialized in direct marketing and database solutions, such as data entry, hygiene and analytics. But her analysis revealed the sweet spots that she could dig into to reap additional business and future success.

Now, that’s a regular piece of her corporate communication.

“As long as I’ve been here, we’ve been sort of lazy about communicating our value proposition for our core business because at some point, you just think that people know,” Williamson says. “It seems like we’re much more diligent about the value prop to our new vertical because you have to be.”

In order to do that, she needed a keen sense of balance. Through all of the steps — evaluating the core, securing internal buy-in, branding and, ultimately, taking the vertical to market — she had to weigh the new offshoot against its parent.

Williamson leverages the legacy of C.TRAC to build the credibility of the new product, IQ•Systemix, by including “powered by C.TRAC information solutions” under the IQ•Systemix logo.

While that connection is crucial, Williamson must also maintain the vertical’s separation through a unique Web site, a specific core and a distinct target audience.

“It’s so easy to fall back into talking the way that you’ve talked for 37 years about what you do,” she says. “One of the things that can really go wrong with this is that you don’t have enough discipline within the new vertical to keep verbiage and value proposition and staff and everything that you need to keep separate, separate.”

Evaluate core from outside

Before you build an offshoot, you must decide which direction to shoot and why. That starts with understanding your company’s core competencies. You may think everyone already knows so you don’t need to analyze it, but it’s worth the extra effort.

“When you’re trying to articulate that in a new vertical, it’s pretty difficult because we’re so close to what we do. We’re almost too familiar with it,” Williamson says. “Sometimes a staff addition or a consulting voice from the outside — even if they haven’t had significant exposure to your new vertical — helps because they don’t have that legacy context problem that they can’t remove themselves.”

She began by bringing in Matthew Holz, a former consultant, to serve as product manager of the new vertical and to balance the two crucial roles: student and expert.

“It can be pretty tricky because we are there to educate ourselves about what we’re trying to do, but you always want to continue to appear the expert because you do want to grow your business, ultimately,” Williamson says.

Holz began educating himself by looking at qualitative data such as key metrics, historic business trends and information about competitors. He watched for upward trends in offerings and markets that would be conducive to future business.

After he saw growth in database building and management, the health care market was a natural choice. Because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 offered incentives for hospitals to invest in advances, many hospitals were already buzzing about electronic medical records. Plus, it was a field with few competitors.

It’s crucial that your competencies are the starting point for locating growth opportunities, rather than vice versa.

“You can’t identify that there’s a problem and design a product around it because that particular strategy might be outside of your core,” Holz says. “What we needed to understand at first was: What do we do well and where are the growth markets?”

Once you identify the prime markets, you can zoom in. Interview customers there — as well as your employees who work with them — to find out what your company does best and how it could do better. Those conversations will also help identify the decision-makers you’ll need to reach.

“You need to understand the hard and soft aspects — both qualitative and quantitative aspects — of that vertical,” Williamson says. “You want to know how they buy and at what level within the organization, who they might be buying from, who the other perceived competitors are of yours. You really have to become familiar with the informal centers of influence within that market.”

Holz compares the interviews to a traditional sales process in that you don’t want to come in with all the answers.

“It was not saying, ‘C.TRAC offers you this,’” he says. “We took a step away from that and said, ‘If we were to start again and we looked at the way that you manage your data, what is important to you as you look to execute?’ The biggest thing was asking them what their biggest challenges were.”

He realized C.TRAC was providing redundant database services for multiple departments within hospitals. It’d save time and money on both sides if C.TRAC extended those services across the enterprise. And the vertical was born.

Your goal through this research is determining the vertical’s feasibility through a combination of financial and strategic planning. That includes setting a profit timeline with return on investment calculations as well as planning resource additions in terms of staff and technology.

But don’t forget about the big picture.

“As we’re benchmarking this new vertical to our core, how is it helping our team to progress to our goals, not only in terms of sales contribution or margin contribution,” Williamson says. “But are we growing our competencies in the areas that we had said are going to lead us to growth?”

Sell it internally

Before you launch outside, you need everyone on board inside. Building that buy-in is a process that continues throughout the life of the vertical.

Early on, it means talking to your employees about their scalability to expand certain services. While he interviewed customers, Holz also interviewed some of C.TRAC’s 40 staff members to learn their strengths and growth potential.

“As we targeted what the core competencies were, it was looking at the talent we had in here and the direction we could grow the talent that’s out there,” says Holz, who discovered strong backgrounds in database design.

Especially in this economy, it’s important to keep employees apprised of their roles as the vertical unfolds. That requires communicating your direction.

“One of the biggest mistakes is companies move forward but they don’t clearly explain to the staff why they’re doing it,” Holz says. “They need to understand that when we come and ask you for assistance, this is something we’re doing for the progression of the company and you’re an important piece of it and this is why.”

Maintaining buy-in means maintaining transparency with everyone, whether they work directly on the vertical or not.

“You have to be transparent to them in what you’re trying to do,” Williamson says. “You have to talk the value prop internally almost as much as you do externally. You have to be able to translate to them how we’re using our tools within the business to service this new market. They need to understand why you’re doing it, not just in regards to the internal utilization but how is that going to help us to attain our financial and growth goals.”

Williamson provides metrics to track those goals, such as how many executives she meets with and how often and what comes of the encounters.

“It’s all about the small successes and making sure that they understand those — even if they aren’t sales,” she says. “[Show] metrics around how many phone calls does it take to get a meeting and how many meetings did we have this week.”

Holz suggests voicing the vertical’s progress and challenges in regular staff meetings. That setting will also reveal who’s on board.

“You can tell they get it when they’re coming to the table with ideas, they’re engaged in what you have to say and they’re coming to you saying, ‘This is what we think we can do better,’ or, ‘Hey, nice job on that,’” he says.

In a small company like C.TRAC, keeping everyone equally informed will prove crucial when you pull employees into the vertical for assistance. If you’ve built the vertical from the company’s core, they won’t have to switch gears entirely. Plus, their perspectives will only help.

“One of the biggest problems leaders have is tunnel vision. They think they have all the great ideas because they’re so close to it,” Holz says. “Someone that’s working in an entirely different piece of the business is going to come up with a question that may make you think about it differently, and that’s where growth and innovation happens. A good leader is able to launch that vertical and make the surrounding organization better because you’re using all those resources for it to be successful.”

Take it to market

Some say after you get internal and external feedback, you create the value proposition. But Williamson argues that the two steps happen in tandem.

“You never have a finished product,” she says. “It’s really a complementary process that you’re going through — discovery and introducing your expanded services at the same time — which is really tricky.

“That’s another reason why a dedicated staff person that’s outside of the core business is really helpful. It’s important that that person isn’t perceived as a selling force at that point of the process. They’re not there to jam anything down clients’ throat. They’re just there to learn and tell people about our ideas and be really transparent about it.”

Holz calls the process soft launching, because as he pitched ideas, he was still open to suggestions.

“We wanted to reach out to those that were already doing business with C.TRAC and give them the idea of: ‘As we evolve this plan, does it make sense to expand it to other departments?’” he says. “‘Where do you see gaps we could fill? How do we make your lives easier?’”

Early on, you can calculate customers’ ROI by pulling from your company’s data that relates to the vertical and shows how you’ve already helped customers in that realm. Williamson used savings calculations and testimonials from other data quality projects.

Eventually, you have to show proof of how the new vertical can help the client specifically. Seeing is believing, at least when it comes to building buy-in, so Williamson offered free samples to potential clients called a patient data quality analysis (PDQA) to show what their benefits would look like.

“A C-level person doesn’t really understand the intricacies, but they definitely understand the savings,” she says. “Until you’re able to show them the ROI calculations along with your analysis specific to their data as opposed to a hypothetical, that’s really [when] they know what we’re talking about.”

Of course, you could go on researching forever. Williamson says the time to launch is when you feel confident that the value proposition will score at least some appointments and ultimately some deals.

At that point, start building a presence in the market. Holz reached out to centers of influence within the health care industry, targeting events tailored for that sector and publications that speak to his end users.

“You have to target your approach to those that buy your product,” he says. “It can’t just be, ‘We’re going to put a booth up because there’s a lot of people.’ You want to make sure you’re focusing your efforts on the highest probability of return, and it is understanding who your buyers are and being able to give your value proposition to them in a way that speaks to their needs. … Companies put too much on how great they are, but the value proposition has to be shared externally as needs-based.”

The branding should speak to those needs, and the more specifically it does, the better.

“We want the vertical to speak to the users,” he says. “We want it to be that we work specifically within your vertical with a product that’s just for you. We understand your needs; we understand where we can fix any of the problems you have or deliver value to meet your needs, and that’s exactly where we reside.”

Even the name should directly reflect your end users. C.TRAC looked into clinical terms that would jive with health care professionals and landed on a variation of “systemic,” which also indicated the vertical’s systemwide approach. When paired with “IQ” for improving quality — obviously with a nod toward intelligence — they had IQ•Systemix.

But launching doesn’t mean you stop listening to input.

That constant give-and-take is easier in this digital age because you can continuously update your offerings online as opposed to reprinting thousands of catalogues every time something changes.

“That’s what I think is very important is that ability to both know what you’re trying to accomplish but also to be flexible,” Williamson says. “It’s not the real world when you say, ‘I’m going to get this product or service ready and then I’m going to launch it into the market, and those are going to be two independent steps and they’re going to go in that order.’ It shouldn’t happen that way because you can’t optimize the offering without the input of relevant parties. … That learning process is really part of the launch, and if you wait until it’s ‘done,’ you would never do it.”

How to reach: C.TRAC information solutions, (440) 572-1000 or

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Reasons to be green

Before the improvements at the Fomo Products Inc. headquarters, if you crawled above the drop ceiling, you could see daylight through cracks between the roof and walls. By using spray foam insulation — which the company manufactures — along with installing new windows, lighting and HVAC systems, Ron Kozak worked to seal the company’s energy leaks.

During the green retrofitting, a contractor mentioned that Fomo could reap benefits beyond utility bill savings. The company could also get an immediate payback.

So Kozak, the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the 77-employee company, started a quest to learn more about this Energy Efficient Commercial Building Deduction, part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Under it, companies that install energy-efficient insulation, lighting or HVAC systems — and reduce their energy costs by at least 50 percent when compared to a reference building — can claim a maximum tax deduction of $1.80 per square foot.

Kozak understood that much. But he wasn’t sure who to go to.

Though most LEED-certified architects should be able to point you toward a certified engineer who can evaluate your building, Kozak didn’t find one until he reached out to his accountant, Alex Bagne.

“What you want to do is to contact first your tax preparer to see if they are aware of any engineers that are certified to do this study,” Kozak says. “And if not, contact the state society of engineers.”

Bagne, senior manager of tax services at Bober Markey Fedorovich, recommends doing this as early in your improvement planning process as possible.

“Bring that person in sooner than later because quite often you’ll run into a situation where the energy-efficiency savings are like 45 percent when compared to a standard building, and if they could just get it up a little higher to that 50 percent threshold, the tax incentive would be significantly more,” Bagne says. “If they could model that out from the get-go, they could make a much more informed decision about the quantity of energy-efficient building materials that they use.”

The original incentive for new green construction or remodeling completed since 2006 expired in 2007, but it’s been extended until 2013. If you’ve recently completed a project and are unsure if it qualifies for the deduction, some firms like Bober Markey Fedorovich will conduct free preliminary reviews to estimate your energy efficiency.

But even if the economy has cramped your plans of renovations in the near future, the incentive is a good excuse to rethink that. For example, that preliminary review or a similar evaluation by a green builder could reveal a few easy fixes to make you greener. Bagne, who attributes 30 percent of operating costs to utility bills, calls that a no-brainer.

Still worried about the higher initial cost of that efficient HVAC system or those LED light bulbs? That’s the whole point of the incentive.

“The [tax deduction] not only helps with deferring the cost, but it helps immediately,” Kozak says. “That does help a lot, cash-flow-wise.”

Then, of course, there’s the long-term benefit. Fomo, for example, is estimating a 15 percent savings.

“And that can be substantial when you’re talking close to a quarter of a million dollars total energy costs per year here at our operations,” Kozak says.

He cites a payback period of about 18 to 36 months.

“After you’ve gotten to that payback period, everything from there will be profit,” he says.

So after you improve your building, you can focus on building your business.

“It makes it very easy to want to save the planet and to do the right thing with energy consumption,” Kozak says. “When you have all that savings involved, it makes it very easy to jump on that bandwagon.”

How to reach: Fomo Products Inc., (800) 321-5585 or; Bober Markey Fedorovich, (330) 762-9785 or

How to be green

It started when gas hit $4 per gallon.

“It was a trigger to get people to start thinking differently about what the future might be,” says Don Taylor, president and CEO of Welty Building Co. LLC, a construction management firm increasing its green focus. “When you’re paying $4 a gallon for gas, you start spending a lot of time trying to figure out how can I use less gas.”

His job is to help clients answer that question and maximize savings in the three areas evaluated for the tax deduction: lighting, HVAC systems and the building envelope, or insulation.

“It might make more sense to invest in one area over another,” he says.

Ron Kozak, EVP and CFO of Fomo Products Inc., may be biased because Fomo manufactures spray foam insulation — but he suggests starting there.

“The HVAC [specialist] might recommend a much smaller heating unit now that you’ve sealed up the airflow into your building,” Kozak says.

Taylor suggests additional easy green fixes.

“One simple way to make a building greener is to install energy-efficient light fixtures and motion-sensitive switches,” says Taylor, emphasizing automated controls whenever possible so your building responds to occupancy rather than timers.

“When you start to show first cost versus what it’s going to cost you to operate it forever, it starts to make sense to people,” he says.

How to reach: Welty Building Co. LLC, (330) 867-2400 or

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

Lifting spirits

In his 30 years of business, Richard A. Berkowitz has seen his share of recessions. But the current downturn has outlasted them all. And the longer it drags on, the more it raises the level of tension in the office.

“This is just a terribly stressful time for people because of this economy,” says the managing director of Berkowitz Dick Pollack & Brant Certified Public Accountants & Consultants LLP. “People are afraid. They’re concerned about their future. They’re concerned about taking care of their families.”

So Berkowitz keeps his 150 employees in the know as changes transpire. He also busts stress with games and keeps their workloads steady because he wants the working environment to remain pleasant at the accounting firm, which posted fiscal 2008 revenue of $34.8 million.

“You’re trying to do everything you can do to reduce stress in the business workplace,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Berkowitz about keeping your employees calm during stressful times.

Comfort employees with communication. I’ve heard how people are notifying people of changes in their company by e-mail, by text, by Twitter or Facebook. It is really a time when [leaders] have to make the effort to get out in front of people and reaffirm what their mission is, reaffirm what their companies are about, reaffirm that they are managing not only for the present profit but for sustainability in the future. You have to get out there all the time, and you need all the C’s. You need to be certain that the information you’re giving is consistent with what you’ve told people before, that you’re truthful, that your communication is clear and it’s constant and it is done in such a way that it’s credible.

Back in April, we had a meeting, and one of the members of the firm said, ‘Can you tell us what’s going on?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will do that on a consistent basis as time goes on so that you know what I know.’

You can say that to mollify people or to get off the hook, but I’ve been back to that. We’ve had several meetings, probably one every four to six weeks. We’re consistently communicating. We have firm meetings on a regular basis, even if we do it by video in the various offices. Last time, everybody was stuffed into four conference rooms in our three offices.

What consistent and open communication does for the business is it creates trust. If you’re out there and you’re telling people what’s going on, you’re telling them the truth and you’re consistent about it — even if the news is bad news or is news that involves change — people will appreciate the fact you’re letting them know what’s going on. If they believe that you’re going to keep telling what’s going on, then it makes them feel more comfortable. It takes a lot of the stress out of the workplace.

The way we’ve built our firm is through high communication and based on the philosophy that high communication equals high trust. If you have high trust, then people will enjoy what they’re doing more and will be more enthusiastic with their clients and with the people that they work with.

Lighten the mood. The first thing you need to do is lower stress in the environment. It’s a major demotivator for anybody. Motivation comes from being in a positive environment as opposed to being in a negative environment.

You can tell when people are stressed. It makes people short-tempered and irritable. They tend to snap at people.

So we have things like stress busters where we’ll have birthdays for people with cakes. We have various contests that we do, like all you can eat within a certain period of time. We give out BDPB Bucks, which people earn by working more or doing certain types of projects. They can spend that; we’ll auction silly stuff off. It’s trying to reduce stress and make it an easy environment to work in.

During the busier times, we do a lot more of that type of thing. Over time, you gain experience to understand what the balance is. A couple years ago, it seemed as though we were having auctions every 15 minutes. We had all these interruptions going on and it was clearly too much. There’s a point at which you know it’s really counterproductive. What happens is if the amount of this type of activity is excessive, a lot of your best performers won’t show up. They’ll vote with their feet.

Keep workloads in check. We really urge people to help one another as opposed to trying to hold on to the things they have to do in order to justify their work. In times like this, people want to make sure that they appear to be busier and valuable. They don’t want anybody thinking that they’re not working because if they’re not working, then they’re not needed. We’re encouraging people to not hoard work and to make sure that they delegate work to the appropriate levels.

So it’s communicated firmwide in our overall message on a regular basis. And as we give people work, we’re trying to be clear as to who gets that work and [make sure] that they understand why they’re getting the work.

If they don’t have enough [to do], you tend to see too much time being put into work that shouldn’t take that long. Alternatively, if they are overburdened, they become very harried.

You have to send the message that that’s what you want people to do. The message really is that there’s different levels of complexity of work that we do, and we want the right person at the right level doing that work. It’s better for the people because they do what is a challenge to them and they’re more interested in it. It’s better for the client because less complicated work gets billed out at a lower rate. The best way to do it is to appeal to people’s reason and their common sense, which is: If it’s not challenging and if it’s work that is routine to you, then you need to delegate it down and train others.

How to reach: Berkowitz Dick Pollack & Brant Certified Public Accountants & Consultants LLP, (305) 379-7000 or

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

More from less

Andrew E. Randall hates the word. It’s short, but still so hard to say.

“Instinctively, if you’re a good salesperson, you don’t want to say no,” says Randall, the president of TriState Capital Bank Ohio — which accounts for eight of TriState Capital Bank’s 90 employees and about $300 million in outstanding loans.

He’s had plenty of opportunities to say it since the Ohio office opened in November 2007. The bank, which is focused strictly on lending and deposits, only serves middle-market business clients.

Even though he has fewer customers than a full-service commercial bank, Randall has learned how to make the most of his niche by driving his focus through the marketplace.

Your focus should be forefront when a potential customer calls. The conversation should start with what you’re looking for before you get around to how you might be able to help the prospective client.

“It’s important to communicate at the beginning, ‘Here’s the types of things we’re looking for and here are things that may not fit,’” Randall says. “You can lead a client to the conclusion by giving them a set of ratios that they need to try to meet if we’re going to do business.”

In addition to reiterating the big picture about what your company does and who it serves, be specific about what you can and can’t do. For Randall, for example, that means outlining typical loan dollar amounts and advance rates he can offer.

With that direct approach, customers will usually see that they don’t meet the requirements or need more flexibility than you offer. Oftentimes, you won’t even have to tell them no because they’ll make the decision themselves.

That not only saves time by weeding out customers you’re not structured to serve, but it also cuts back on the decision-making stress you and the customer would both face while you try to work out a solution.

“A quick no is better than even a quick yes,” Randall says. “If they get a quick no, they can move on.”

A tighter business focus has taught Randall that the relationship doesn’t necessarily have to end there. Instead, turning away customers could be an opportunity for more business later on. Randall bridges that gap by developing partnerships with other complementary niche businesses.

“[It’s] identifying product sets that complement what our clients need that we don’t do, and then laying it out clearly to the provider that we’re not in the business and we’re not going to be in the business,” Randall says.

Identifying those businesses is usually just realizing what potential customers are asking for that you don’t offer. When you start talking with those companies, draw clear lines between what you do and what gaps you want to fill.

“Part of the trust here is that we’re not going to end up in [their] business,” Randall says. “The only way you get over this is by acting the way you said you were going to act. If I say [to the client], ‘Why don’t you get rid of that other bank?’ guess how often I’ll get called after that. It’ll happen just once.”

You’re trying to build your partner’s trust that you won’t infringe on the partner’s services. But, in a way, you’re also preparing the partner to refer other clients to you down the road. The more clearly you can articulate your focus, the better your partner can repeat it when customers ask him or her for help in that area.

“You build great relationships by giving them business and, in turn, having them understand what your business interest is,” Randall says. “And, in turn, they call you back.”

How to reach: TriState Capital Bank Ohio, (216) 575-4001 or

Accessible service

Andrew E. Randall’s company is different than most in his industry. But those differences don’t matter unless customers can see them.

“You’ve got to distinguish yourself some way that’s recognizable,” says Randall, the president of TriState Capital Bank Ohio. “You’ve got to have some tangible ideas.”

So Randall can’t just promise good service. He has to show it.

It starts with the simple things, like how contact information is listed.

“If you go on our Web site, you’ll see bios. You’ll see cell phone and you’ll see direct-dial numbers on there,” he says. “If you root around in some other banks, it could be a long time before you figure out how to get a phone number.”

Listing all of your numbers doesn’t promise good service. But what customers find on the other end of the phone may.

Randall, for example, always answers his phone when he’s in the office. His assistant’s job is not to answer anyone’s phone unless the person is gone.

After he answers, his next step is scheduling a meeting in person. Even if he later passes the client down to another contact at the company, he sets an important tone by attending the first meeting to greet the client and hear his or her story.

“[Clients] like that,” Randall says. “They met the president, and they have access. They made a connection.”