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All the right moves Featured

7:50am EDT September 29, 2005
When American International Relocation Solutions opened its doors in 1981, the performance standard for relocation companies was getting the heirloom grandfather’s clock to its new home without a scratch.

Since then, the bar has been raised, with companies finding they have a vested interest not only in getting household goods to their destination on time and in one piece but in making sure that entire families make a soft landing in their new location.

Bryan Putt, president and CEO of AIReS, has led the company founded by his father from a paper-based operation that essentially coordinated the shipment of lamps and couches to one that handles virtually every detail of an employee relocation, from selling and buying homes to securing visas and transporting family pets. All of it is done with employees carefully selected and honed for their jobs and with software developed by the AIReS IT team, comprising about 10 percent of the company’s 130 employees.

When Putt joined the company in 1989, he saw other businesses in related relocation services edging out enterprises like his. That threatened to relegate AIReS to vendor status in the industry, a position Putt didn’t want to be in. So he opted to build an organization that would be a soup-to-nuts service for corporations that were eager to hand off in-house relocation tasks to third-party providers.

Putt spoke with Smart Business about how he developed his own software, picked the right employees to use it and sustained their enthusiasm for demanding work.

What has driven the change in the relocation industry since you joined AIReS?

Market forces probably more than anything. When I joined the organization in 1989, the market was still very much driven by organizations going out and picking the service providers for each line of business that they were looking at, so they might have worked with a local real estate agent or somebody else to do the home sale or home purchase or with a moving company to handle the household goods movement, and they did a lot of internal work on their own.

There weren’t as many settling-in services that were being delivered. And then corporations started to look at two things. One was, they wanted to have those transferees and families more cared for, so the policies they were offering got richer, with more benefits, with the anticipated return being that the staff members were more effective.

Why did you develop software yourself rather than have an outside vendor handle it?

When I came back to Pittsburgh and joined the company, my industry of choice was the IT world. I’d been with Oracle Corp. as a consultant, so I spent a lot of my time developing systems, and when we came in and looked at it ... really, there wasn’t any off-the-shelf package that we could go out and utilize. And given my background and skill set, I thought it was a much more cost-effective solution and a much more controllable solution to build it in-house and to build the staff that we needed to develop the software initially and then to, what we thought at that point, simply maintain it for whatever period of time.

But what we found is that at every step of the way, there’s new requirements, there’s additional features that you want to add, and what we really believed in the beginning would be a couple of years of development work and then a maintenance process turned into a continuous development cycle.

How do you screen potential employees?

Our interview process, people have told us, can be really long and painful, and I say that only in the sense that when we’re hiring any senior staff members or management ... we’ll have four or five people interview that person and spend as much time sharing information about us as we spend trying to glean information from them.

We tell them right up front during the interview, ‘You’re interviewing us every bit as much as we’re interviewing you, and we want the fit to be there.’ There’s at best a 50-50 chance that it’s going to be a hit, that it’s going to work, no matter how good you are at that interview process. So I think some of it comes down to luck, which sounds horrible.

You’d like to say we’ve got this process and it’s perfect. We put people through the interview process and you can have people come out of the back end of that, and at the end of the day, it’s still not the right fit. But we’ve gotten pretty good at figuring it out.

How do you reward employees for performance?

On all of our client-facing staffers, we do post-relocation surveys, so every family that we’ve moved, we get in contact with. We get about a 72 percent response rate on our follow-ups. We actually have a bonus and incentive model that’s built on where we are in terms of those customer service scores.

So those phone calls are made, we follow up with the family, all of that information is entered into the computer. We also ask them to give us comments. We rate on a one-to-five (scale), one being not acceptable, five being over the moon.

If we ever get a two or a one ... we ask, ‘Please, could you give us comments, let us know why, what did we do that we could have done better?’

All that’s fed into the system, and then we can pull out the statistics by individual, do it by team, do it by office, and that’s all fed back into our incentive program. And then each of our other, nonclient-facing groups ... we actually do internal team ratings.

So we’ll have all the rest of the staff from the company rate the IT team as to how well they’re supporting the internal organization’s needs. Those internal team ratings are part of our incentive program as well.

How do you sustain enthusiasm among your employees?

Part of it is we’ve got a good core group of managers and staff. And it goes beyond managers. Managers can do all the things managers are supposed to do, but if you don’t have a core group of people who believe in the culture, it doesn’t matter what the manager says.

We’re very fortunate that we’ve got a lot of people deep down who believe in what we’ve doing and feel they’re bringing value to the client and, as a result, they get jazzed about that. And it’s one of the things we go through in (our) two-week training session.

We tell people, ‘Look, if you don’t wake up feeling good about what you’re doing, find something in life that you wake up feeling that way about.’

How to reach: AIReS, www.aires.com