Mike Flowers Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007
At The Rascal Co., home of the Rascal scooter, Mike Flowers doesn’t refer to his staff as employees, he calls them contributors. Flowers, chairman of the company, says he uses that terminology because everyone in the company is contributing to the increased quality of life that Rascal customers enjoy when they get a Rascal Powerchair or scooter. The family-owned company provides mobility solutions to help people live more active lives, and in 2006, it posted revenue of $80 million. Smart Business spoke with Flowers about how to keep the lines of communication open to build trust with employees.

Get input from customers. I like to get involved — but not in the day-to-day operations. I like to get involved in understanding what it is our customers are experiencing. I like to talk to customers and probe with questions to get under what it is that they are experiencing with our product.

I’ll ask the tough questions, like, ‘Is there anything our product isn’t doing for you that you thought it would? Is there anything we could have done better? Is there something we could do in the future that would help to solve other problems you are having?’

You’ve really got to try to understand what they like about our products, what they don’t like about our products, and what other products we could provide them that could further help enhance the quality of their lives.

Get input from employees. I try to do that with our contributors, too — ask them if they have any ideas that could improve our business. We have a ‘bright idea’ contest we encourage our contributors to participate in. We pay a $50 bonus for any bright idea they come up with that we approve. Even if we can’t use it immediately in our business, we pay the $50 when we’ve approved the idea, and we put it into a priority schedule to get into our business.

Not all of them get implemented, but that’s really helped improve our business just by having that bright idea program and getting out and talking to our contributors about what we can do better that we may not be doing now.

Build trust. They trust us, and it seems to be more common today than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. There seems to be a kind of an increased distrust generally throughout the country with the employer-employee relationship. We try to get around that and under that.

We tell them, ‘Look, you’re going to find problems we’ve created, and management’s created them. Please, don’t think we don’t want to know about them and that we’re going to hide them under a rug. Tell us what we’re doing if we’re doing something wrong, and we won’t shoot the messenger. Don’t be afraid to point out mistakes we’ve made or things we’ve done wrong. Don’t think by telling us that we’re going to shoot the messenger. Please trust us that we’ll do the right thing.’

There’s a lot to that; basic faith in giving people their annual reviews is an example. Letting people know how they’re doing, and trying to be timely with delivering on any promise you’ve made, and making sure the whole company is working on the same guidelines. That goes a long way toward building trust, and not being afraid to tell somebody when they’re not doing that well, or that they’re making mistakes, or if something’s not working right for them as a contributor; not being afraid to deliver the uncomfortable news, as well as build that trust with our employees.

Keep communication open. Try to get open and honest communication with your team on a regular basis. On a quarterly basis, share all the good news and the bad news with your contributors.

Try to let them know what’s happening with the company, so they see the big picture. Share with them the opportunities out there for the company to pursue, and let them know what we’re doing to take advantage of them. Having open communication helps you avoid pitfalls.

If you don’t have that, people start making up their own stories about what’s really happening. That still happens, but you try to get ahead of that by having a network of people who do trust you. Inevitably, there’s going to be rumors circulating in any business. Try to have people who have the trust and loyalty to bring those rumors to somebody in management who is going to say, ‘This is something that’s not true. This is the reality, and this is how the company’s dealing with it.’

Show employees their work is important. Even the person working on our assembly line, when they’re putting things together, we talk to them on a regular basis. We get them to think about how this could be their grandmother’s Rascal scooter, so they will think about it from the aspect that this is not just twisting a bolt or turning a screw.

We think it’s really important because when you get the whole team working together in a common mission and that singular focus, it simplifies a lot of the day-to-day problems you come across.

That can refer back to our mission on how to deal with these problems. Obviously, ‘the customer is always right’ is one of our key messages. It all comes back to satisfying their needs. Not every time when we provide a person a product do we get it right the first time.

We try to work with customers that, if we need to exchange a product for their particular need, then we will do that. We try to make sure long run we’re satisfying the customer.

HOW TO REACH: The Rascal Co., www.rascalscooters.com or (856) 468-1000