Clean and steady ascent Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

When you climb the ladder of life, don’t poop on the rungs, says R. E. Crawford.

If you do, you’re going to encounter a big mess should you have to come back down.

While some might be offended by the musings of the founder, president and CEO of R. E. Crawford Construction, the benefits of their insight should be lost on no one. No business relationship should ever be overlooked, he says, adding that a loyal, long-term customer should be given just as much attention as the new customer you’re trying to woo. This burn-no-bridge approach to customer service has helped propel the construction service provider from a humble start-up in 1979 to a nationally recognized, 74-employee outfit with 2007 revenue of $74 million — up $6 million from 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Crawford about how to keep those rungs on the ladder clean, so to speak, as well as how to extend that commitment of maintaining relationships inward toward your own employees.

Do not forget about your long-term customers. What happens in a lot of companies is that long-term customers get pushed aside for the new customers.

You have to take care of your long-term customers. You can’t forget about them. They’ve been there with you for a long time and, in some cases, from the beginning.

Because you have a long-term relationship with a customer, you feel that they’ll always understand when something goes wrong or if you need to change a schedule. But really, they don’t.

You have to work harder to keep your long-term customers than you do your new ones. A lot of times, people do the opposite.

The bigger the company is, CEOs forget that they need to be out there meeting customers, seeing customers. Call on your customers: ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are people taking care of you? Is there anything I can do?’

If you don’t make sure that you’re listening to your customers, then you won’t (develop a good) reputation.

That goes a long way. It’s just being in touch with them. Don’t, don’t, don’t forget about them.

To lead your people better, get to know them better. Putting the right people in place is difficult.

That goes back to when you hire the people initially. You have to know what type of person you’re looking for.

The more input that you can give to your HR department or your headhunter about the type of person you’re looking for, the better the candidates will be.

Then, it’s just knowing your people and having a good feel for how they think and operate.

You have to try to get to know your people. You have to try to not only know them on a business level; you need to try to know them on a personal level.

Every year, we take our whole company, including spouses, on a trip. We’ll just have time to really get to know each other a little bit.

Play games together, have a cocktail together, have dinner together and meet their families. Basically, your employees have to be part of your business family.

Getting to know people personally, you can get a better feeling for their loyalties. If they’re loyal to their family, they’re going to be loyal to their business.

The more you get to know someone and understand them, the more you get to know how honest they are and how dishonest they are.

Treat employees with respect. To get buy-in, you have to have (your employees’) respect, as you have to show to them in return.

Once they respect you and they trust you, they’ll normally buy in to your vision, whatever that might be, and they’ll offer some good input on the direction it should go.

The best way to get respect from somebody is to show it: Make sure you’re compensating your employees fairly for the job they do. Make sure that you are reviewing your employees annually, sitting down with them and discussing their long-and short-term goals. Make sure you’re keeping everybody informed on company procedures and policies.

To get their respect, you have to show respect.

Address change head on — whether it’s good or bad. When there is change, the president, owners or CEOs have to be the people out their telling their people about the change, answering questions about the change, and talking about the positive and the negative about the change.

There are some changes you have to make that are negative. If you’re honest about a negative change and don’t try to mask it in a positive way, then change is always welcome.

It seems like we’re all afraid to bring up negative issues. The best way to solve a negative situation is to have a positive conversation about it. That’s part of being a good leader — not being afraid to make change.

The most positive thing you can do in a negative situation is to put everybody in the same room and sit down and discuss it and work it out. Just by getting everybody together and having a conversation is a positive way to deal with a negative situation.

People get disgruntled rather quickly when you make changes without getting input. Get their input.

The benefit goes back to people trusting you. They feel you didn’t try to mask a negative change with a positive spin. They feel that you were honest. They feel that you have integrity.

If they trust you, and if they feel you have integrity, they will follow change.

HOW TO REACH: R.E. Crawford Construction, (724) 274-5000 or www.recrawford.com