Character counts Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

Starting out, every business owner has high expectations of the kinds of people they want to surround themselves with: hard workers with integrity and character who can get the job done. The day-today operations of a business can draw an owner’s focus away from these ideals, but they’re still attainable if you’re willing to put in the effort to bring in the best.

Bill Graham, CEO of The Graham Company, believes business owners can’t afford to cut corners when bringing in both employees and customers. While it might cost more upfront, being selective pays off in the long run with greater longevity with customers and employees, happier employees and an excellent reputation.

“It’s very difficult to find both clients and employees that are good businesspeople,” he says. “If they want to be successful, salespeople — or producers in the insurance business — need to go after the very best customers, the cream of the crop.”

Smart Business asked Graham about what to look for in business associates, which includes customers, employees, suppliers and vendors.

You talk about working with good business-people. What would you say constitutes a good businessperson, and how do you handle clients who don’t fit this standard?

To me, a good businessperson looks at cost, but also looks at the value they are getting for a certain price. For example, one company might sell you something for $15 while its competitor sells a similar product for $7.50. The $15 product returns $45 to $60 every year for each $15 you spend, while the $7.50 product returns nothing. A bad businessperson would pick the $7.50 product every time. It costs half as much, so he convinces himself that it must be a good deal. A good businessperson takes the time to understand the differences between the two products and goes for the $15 product. Even though it cost him more initially, he knows he’ll get his money back quickly.

It’s never a good sign if someone says, ‘We can cut a few corners on this,’ or ‘We’ll meet bid specs.’ What you should be looking for is somebody who always wants to exceed expectations. If after two or three years, a client isn’t what we thought they were, we suggest that they might want to talk to another broker. It’s not very often that this happens, but it does happen occasionally. We go through a screening process before we develop a business relationship with customers. It involves inspections and a series of interviews about the way they do things in their business. A lot can come out of that. If people cut corners on maintenance, safety, or things like that, it affects more than just insurance. It’s a pretty clear indication of their life philosophy.

We’ve made recommendations and people have ignored them and then someone is seriously injured, and their attitude is, ‘Well, we can’t win ’em all.’ We don’t want to do business with people like that.

How do you find and retain the best quality employees?

I think you have to know what you’re looking for. When we’re trying to hire people, we look for almost the same things we’d look for in a good customer — integrity and good character are critical.

You have to start by hiring good people that are smart and street smart — people that are proud of their reputation and know how to get the job done. What we do is go through an interview process initially where people are interviewed by anywhere from 10 to 15 people at our company that do different jobs. It’s a long process. And if we really feel that this is someone with the right characteristics, then we send the person for a full day of testing with a clinical psychologist for IQ tests and personality inventories. We’re looking for certain characteristics in a producer, other characteristics in an account manager and different characteristics in a claim consultant.

If candidates do well, they interview with me and then with a panel. A series of questions includes how, in their previous job, they would respond to certain situations so we can determine if they have the tenacity, the stick-to-itiveness and the problem-solving abilities that will make them successful. Usually, behavior repeats itself. So if they give up in certain situations at their last job, they’ll probably do the same thing with us.

How does this pay off for a business?

You wouldn’t want to hire people that aren’t high quality or don’t have a lot of character.

When you have a great group of quality people that do a consistently good job and continuously excel, it develops a reputation that makes it a lot easier to develop relationships with other good people. Birds of a feather flock together: a referral from a bad egg will probably get you another bad egg — a referral from a quality person is probably going to lead to another quality person.

BILL GRAHAM is CEO of The Graham Company. Reach him at (215) 567-6300 or