Steve Rendle guides VF Corp. to strengthen the bond between its brands and consumers

Steve Rendle, vice president, VF Corp. and group president, Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division

On Monday morning, the watercooler talk among VF Corp. employees looks more like a Yelp review than the typical weekend replay. Employees chime in about The North Face jackets they wore skiing, the Lucy yoga pants they tested out and the Jansport backpacks they took hiking.

Steve Rendle, vice president of VF Corp. and the group president of its Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division, says this comes with the territory of being part of the world’s largest apparel manufacturer — with $7 billion in revenue and a portfolio of global consumer products brands.

“We choose not to sit in our ivory tower and predict what the consumer wants,” Rendle says. “We’re fortunate that our employees to a great degree are our consumers.”

A 25-year veteran in the outdoor industry, Rendle was president of The North Face for seven years before heading up VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas unit last year. Based in San Francisco, he manages a portfolio of eight, activity-driven brands, including three worth more than $1 billion each — The North Face, Timberland and Vans.

Rendle is tasked with leading the brand strategies that will resonate with VF’s customers over the world. When it comes to front-end operations, he says there are very specific skills sets that help the company cultivate connections between its brands and consumers. The most significant is how the company develops its brand strategies: by making them a lifestyle. The company calls this “the art and science of apparel.”

“It’s that deep immersion into that consumer and understanding the consumer’s needs and expectations of our business that helps us really fine tune how we apply our business initiatives to grow our businesses,” Rendle says.

Here’s how Rendle uses these strategies to develop VF’s fastest-growing division of brands.

Dive deeper

The first step in developing a brand lifestyle is figuring out who the brand’s potential customers are in the marketplace.

“It’s taking an approach of first understanding who the consumers are,” Rendle says. “The ‘who’ aspect is a very important part, and we invest a tremendous amount of money corporately and from our brands to understand our consumers through global segmentation studies.”

While research from focus groups and surveys is beneficial from a targeted point of view, understanding a customer’s lifestyle takes a deeper level of interaction, beyond a phone call or email. You can look at annual research or employee feedback to get ideas about what customers are going to want, but to understand who they are requires a deeper level of knowledge only possible through one-on-one interaction.

“First and foremost, we’re an organization built of passionate consumers,” Rendle says. “But that’s not enough. We want to go into the marketplace. We want to think about our brands globally and do a lot of qualitative and quantitative research to engage with these consumers and understand how they think of our brands. What do they expect from our brands? And more importantly, how would they like us to communicate with them?”

Branded events are one way that Rendle and his team get answers to these questions. Sponsoring fun, action-oriented events that engage consumers allows the company to interact with people in environments that reflect their interests and lifestyles, giving the company a better idea of “who” they are.

“We’re able to engage and understand how they’re thinking about us, how they’re thinking about this particular event and learning about their product needs,” Rendle says.

In addition to the millions of followers that Vans and The North Face have in the digital realm, both brands also generate a tremendous following by putting on popular outdoor events. Rendle frequently travels with the product and sales teams to see how the brands are represented in retail, but also attends the key brand events to learn how they are connecting with consumers.

The North Face hosts its “Endurance Challenge,” a series of endurance races across the globe that attract 1,000 to 3,000 runners per event. These races are a great opportunity to meet runners who fit the brand’s performance market as well as hold mini “expos” for families so that they can interact with the brand, Rendle says.

Similarly, Vans uses its national Vans Warped Tour, a day-long outdoor music and action sports event to connect with some of its key consumer groups, from skateboarders, to musicians and BMXers. With a history as the original skate shoe manufacturer, Vans now focuses on the broader market of men’s and women’s footwear and apparel. So as the partial owner and operator of the summer concert series — the longest running in the U.S. — it draws more than 600,000 people each year and offers a direct line to its youth audience.

“It’s a very impressive music-driven event, but it’s also an event where we’re able to touch the consumers and listen and learn as they interact with the music culture how they’re thinking about the brand, the brand’s products and how the brand is communicating from a marketing standpoint,” Rendle says. “Events are a powerful tool to not only tell the stories of our brands but to interact with those consumers.”

Ask the experts

It’s important to understand not just who your customer is but also what he or she expects from you. Because there is whole host of running footwear and running apparel competitors for The North Face, for example, the brand can’t gain market share just by resonating today’s consumer trends today. It also must stay abreast of the running lifestyle and how it’s changing. To do that, the company uses brand ambassadors.

Each of VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas brands, specifically The North Face and Vans, partners with teams of professional athletes to participate with the brands at a high level, engaging with different products and contributing ideas. The North Face has more than 70 such athletes active around the world.

These brand ambassadors help provide insight into what the brand’s customers want and will want in the future.

“The North Face is the best example, where we have the mantra of ‘athlete-tested, expedition proven’ as that primary input into our product engine,” Rendle says. “We can make sure that we’re building the most authentic and technically relevant products possible that enable our consumers to enjoy their outdoor experience to the greatest degree.”

Tapping brand ambassadors is also useful for brand innovation and product development. Your “experts” in a brand lifestyle can help you identify pain points or product ideas that you may not spot or study based on customer or employee feedback alone.

A prime example is when The North Face runner Kami Semick participated in a high altitude race in the French Alps. After nearly contracting hypothermia from the cold, wet environment, she helped the brand identify a key need for lighter-weight apparel to protect athletes from adverse moisture and weather. Semick worked with the product teams to design a new technology for the brand’s fabrics that eliminates the distraction of moisture when during athletic performance. This year, the company is releasing about 100 new products featuring the FlashDry technology.

“North Face is the brand that provides the ultimate outdoor protection,” Rendle says. “So we bring that thinking and that knowledge base into running apparel.”

Concentrate your efforts

With global brands, you need to do lot of work to identify who your potential customers are. But equally important is figuring out your brand identity. To put it into perspective, brands such as The North Face are trying to capture market share in a $320 billion global market in the outdoor and action sports business, Rendle says.

Figuring out how to position these brands in the marketplace requires Rendle and his team to spend a lot of time looking at the macro-market to size up opportunities.

“That’s building the business strategies using the consumer insights and the market intelligence to help us craft very clearly focused strategies that we execute on five-year basis,” he says. “It’s always the rolling five-year plan and looking very specifically at where those opportunities are to drive our growth.”

Looking at the larger, macro market data, VF applies filters to examine the size of different opportunities:

What is the business doing specifically from a retail standpoint? What are the best ways of communicating to the consumer within those specific segments? Who are the competitors?

In this process, it’s necessary to look at brand competitors from a very critical point of view as far as what are they good at, Rendle says.

“We’re trying to understand what makes them unique — what are their points of difference and what things are more parody,” he says. “Then we look for those white spaces where we know that our brand naturally plays or places that we should be focusing to look for incremental growth.”

The points of difference are unique to your brand, whereas your points of parity are things you need to do just to stay in business — fit of garment, for example.

“It’s not really something that we would own, versus a specific focus or an innovative platform might be a unique point of difference and gives us an emotional connection to the consumer,” Rendle says.

An example is the women’s yoga brand, Lucy. While Lucy was the first brand in the women’s training space, it lost its way before VF acquired it in 2008, giving the Canadian brand Lulu a lead in sales and brand recognition.

“When we look at the difference between those two consumers — the Lulu consumer and the Lucy consumer — we see some very distinct differences in how she thinks, how she acts, how she wants to interact with her brand and honestly how she looks at those activities,” Rendle says.

The company also uses its brands’ leveragable platforms, or things that each brand does well, to position fellow brands stronger in the marketplace. The key is to utilize each brand’s strengths, without losing sight of how each brand consumer — and consumer lifestyle — is different.

“We focus on understanding the brand’s purpose and really understanding what we stand for and what our unique value to our consumer is,” Rendle says.

“It’s making sure I help those brands remain autonomous because it is those specific brand identities and cultures that make these brands successful. At the same time, it’s helping them leverage the VF platforms to scale and access capabilities at a much more effective price.”

After applying these kinds of lenses to see what a brand does well, you can learn how to build “permission” with customers to bring new lines to market where you don’t have established expertise, Rendle says.

The ability to introduce new products to consumers is a critical step in making a brand’s products part of a “lifestyle” the can continue to grow and evolve. Currently, The North Face is trying to do this with the footwear segment — using running apparel to break into running shoes.

“For us to sell footwear it needs to be uniquely different and bring some specific value that other brands are not,” Rendle says. “Where we know we have permission to compete first is in the trail, so really playing off of that outdoor heritage and enabling consumers to run off the road and onto the trail.”

The way the company creates its brand strategies is also changing the way Rendle and his employees think about the business, Rendle says. By creating brand lifestyles that resonate with consumers, the Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division has grown from less than 10 percent of VF’s total sales in 2000 to close to 50 percent.

“It’s helped us understand that this deep connection into the consumer’s lifestyle gives us a unique point of difference, and a unique way of competing against the many number of other choices that consumers have to make in their apparel purchases,” he says.

How to reach: VF Corp., (336) 424-6000 or www.vfc.com

Takeaways:

1. Use events to connect with customers.

2. Create brand ambassadors.

3. Find your points of difference and parity.

The Rendle File

Steve Rendle
vice president and group president, Outdoor and Action Sports Americas
VF Corp.

Born: Spokane, Wash.
Education: Bachelor of science, the University of Washington

What do you like most about your job?

I get to get up every day and come to work and participate in businesses and touch activities that I really love. I grew up skiing. I grew up climbing. I’m a very active outdoor user. I’ve dabbled in surf. I’m not a skater but I absolutely enjoy those people as much as I do those that I’ve grown up with. I get to live and play in a marketplace that I’m just deeply passionate about. To also build that passion of building success, in this case successful businesses that add shareholder value — I may very well have one of the best jobs in our company.

On his transition from president of The North Face to division group president: First you have to immerse yourself in the businesses. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve worked with each of these brand leaders as a peer for many years. But I needed to take a step back, remember that my job is not to only think only of The North Face, but to think about eight specific brands, their contributions to our portfolio and the larger VF. It is just to take a step back and forget about what I loved so much, and begin to understand that I have eight things that I get to love.

How do you regroup after a tough day?

My best tool for sorting out a difficult day is to get outside for some sort of physical activity. My favorite choice is to jump on my road bike and roll out for a long ride. No distractions. Just time to focus on the activity and subconsciously sort out my thoughts.

How David Hoffman seeks to make price irrelevant for his customers

David Hoffman, chairman, founder and CEO, DHR International

David Hoffmann has never tried to make DHR International Inc. the most affordable executive search firm in the market. His goal since launching the firm in 1989 has been to provide the most value to his clients.

And despite an economy that still has some business leaders feeling skittish about their finances, Hoffmann says his philosophy about pricing still fits.

“The overall competitive global landscape that we are all dealing with today makes price a secondary issue,” says Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at the 410-employee firm.

“[Clients] are more interested in something that can change the marketplace and give them a competitive advantage that before this product or service offering, they didn’t have. In almost any business you can think of, they are all going after market share.”

Pricing may be more important in some industries and less important in others. But however your clients feel about your costs, how can you get them to really focus on the great value that your company wants to provide them through your product or service?

“If you’re going to have that ‘McDonald’s hamburger’ around the world, you need to be consistent,” Hoffmann says. “Any great company has a consistency with its message and a consistency with its product. General Motors is a big client of ours and those cars are distributed all around the world.

“They pretty much function the same in any part of the world as they do in Detroit where they are manufactured. Consistency of quality and consistency of brand is critical when you’re thinking about growing a company at any level.”

That doesn’t mean that you come up with one way to do something and then never change. It means you’re consistent about how your product is presented, consistent about how it is packaged and consistent about the way you respond to concerns.

“We say, ‘Look, not only are we going to find you the best executive to fill this need, but we’re going to tell you how we did it, demonstrate how we did it and build a competency that tells you that this is not just a good candidate, this is the best candidate on the planet and here’s why,’” Hoffmann says.

You need to be the kind of company that clients know they can turn to for anything and you’ll come through for them. You build a reputation and they just expect you to come up with great results.

Those results don’t just come from your own initiative, however. They come from an intense and consistent study of your competition.

“One needs to look at the competition and say, ‘OK, where are they weak?’” Hoffmann says.

Go back to the time when you launched or took over your business and identified a need you wanted to tackle in the marketplace.

“You had to see a need or why would you have started the business?” Hoffmann says. “I would define those needs and then I would exploit those needs in terms of messages to the marketplace. It could be that my widget has a lifespan that is 50 percent longer than the next competitor’s lifespan. Be able to demonstrate that is factually correct.”

The key is you’re constantly focused on your product or service and never assuming that you’ve got it all figured out.

“One needs to explore their competition, analyze their weaknesses, create a product around those weaknesses and exploit it to the potential customer base in a way that is going to be effective through advertising, marketing or media placements,” Hoffmann says.

“You have to be adaptable to change in a changing environment and evolve, but keep the fundamentals of that business intact. At the same time, you have to be anchored to that which made you successful in the first place.”

Being consistently great is never easy, but it’s what your goal needs to be. Don’t be afraid to use your team to make it happen.

“It’s getting everybody together and saying, ‘Look, in 30 days, let’s go out and figure out what our competition is doing and see how we can differentiate,’” Hoffmann says. “It’s not a bad starting point.”

How to reach: DHR International Inc., (312) 782-1581 or www.dhrinternational.com

Do your homework

Studying your competition is a very different thing than copying what they are doing. You’re trying to take what they do and do it better, says David Hoffmann, founder, chairman and CEO at DHR International Inc.

“The way I did it is I looked at our competition that was much bigger than us and I looked at their outlets that they utilized to get their message out,” Hoffmann says. “So we looked at the competition of the big five search firms in the world. Today, we’re one of those.

“Look at who is doing it really well, look at where they are going and take aspects that you think you can capitalize on in whatever business endeavor you’re in. Some of those will be attainable and some of them won’t.”

Hoffmann knew he couldn’t replicate the kind of advertising campaigns of companies such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. But he found ways to sell his brand in a way fit his budget.

“There is just a whole host of ways to get one’s name and brand to the marketplace,” Hoffmann says. “You’ve just got to see what fits.”

Concert and business: Two-part harmony

Merrill Dubrow, President and CEO, M/A/R/C Research

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Keith Urban concert. I had never attended one of his concerts and I’m not a huge fan of country music, but I thought it would be fun and an enjoyable night.

As the concert started, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience and how much I learned about business during the show. Let me explain the comparisons that I see between a Keith Urban concert and a successful business:

  • Communicate: Urban addressed the crowd a bunch of times during the night with a fun story and a clear message.
  • Use surprises: Urban walked into the crowd playing his guitar. In fact, he did this with security to the other end of the stadium. Lots of performers do this — but I have never seen one give away his guitar. At the end of the song, he gave his guitar to a fan!
  • Use the latest technology: Urban had some cool video screens behind him that reinforced his message and kept everyone’s interest for the entire concert.
  • Highlight individuality: Urban did an amazing job introducing his band and their talent. Every lead singer will do this, but Urban really personalized them and genuinely looked like he was having a great time.
  • Flexibility: Urban jumped around and was very flexible. OK, maybe this is a reach, but don’t we want our businesses to be flexible?
  • Leave your customers wanting more: Urban did two encores, and at the end of the second one, not one person out of the 20,000 people in the audience wanted to leave. Clearly, everyone left wanting more.
  • Create raving fans: Urban did just that. The tweets, the posts on Facebook and the discussions that everyone had because of that night will pay enormous dividends in the future. I’m sure most of the younger attendees downloaded Urban’s songs from iTunes that night, and the older ones went to Best Buy the next day and bought a CD.
  • Use PR: Everything Urban did was highlighted on the video screens. He gave away his guitar; it was highlighted. He walked into the crowd; it was highlighted. He brought someone up on stage; it was highlighted.
  • Engage the audience: Somehow, some way Urban seemed to notice everything in the crowd. A sign in the top deck of the stadium. A shirt that someone was wearing. Two people dancing to his music. I’m sure his staff worked very hard at this. Who knows, maybe some of it was staged, but it was well done and it made people feel special. Isn’t that the exact message we want our business to convey to our clients?
  • Involve the past: During the evening, Urban highlighted and spoke about Waylon Jennings and The Beatles. He mentioned how much they helped him with his music and how much he respected them. In business, we should all be doing this with former leaders or influencers of our companies.
  • Have fun: I’m not sure who had more fun, Urban or his audience. He was engaged with what he was doing the entire time he was on stage. Clearly, it was his goal to give everyone a memorable night, and his goal was accomplished.

Keith Urban is a great talent but probably a better showman and businessperson. His concert was an amazing night. He gave so much of himself during his performance. Every aspect of his show was about his fans and ensuring that he delivered a picture-perfect performance and experience.

I took away so much from his concert. I hope this piece enables every reader to take away at least one good idea or tidbit of information to help their business. <<

Merrill Dubrow is president and CEO of M/A/R/C Research, located in Dallas. The company is one of the top 25 market research companies in the U.S. Dubrow is a sought-after speaker and has been writing a blog for more than four years. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (972) 983-0416.

How Lewis Shender built a new future for Hollywood Tans

Lewis Shender

Lewis Shender, president and CEO, Hollywood Tans Group LLC

Laboratories with tanning booths?

That’s what Lewis Shender sees. The president and CEO of Sewell, N.J.-based Hollywood Tans sees his chain of tanning salon franchises as a nationwide collection of 140 labs conducting experiments in marketing and customer service.

“Each of our locations does things a little differently,” Shender says. “Ultimately, the stuff that does work, the stuff that does not work, people find out about that. It sort of reaches its own level at some point. I think insisting on rigid compliance to certain corporate standards can create an ivory tower. You develop a bureaucratic style of leadership, and it becomes more like checking-the-box leadership, as opposed to managing the business to really work at a particular location, with a particular set of customers and a particular staff.”

Shender speaks from experience. Previously, Hollywood Tans — officially known as Hollywood Tans Group LLC — was governed by a highly structured and compliance-oriented model. Like many franchise systems, the corporate leadership at Hollywood Tans was focused on driving uniform standards across its entire chain, so that a customer who walked into a location in Pennsylvania would have the exact same experience as a customer walking into a location in California, or anywhere in between.

But then the recession hit, and Shender quickly realized rigid adherence to a corporate rule book was not going to help his company weather the storm.

“The dramatic freezing up of the credit markets and the loss of employment was a real game changer,” Shender says “It super-accelerated what we needed to do to respond to the crisis. It really was an existential threat. Many companies did not make it through that patch.”

Hollywood Tans reshaped itself. The company got out of the tanning accessory manufacturing business, it revised its franchise model from a royalty-based system to a flat fee-based system, lowering the startup costs for franchisees in the process, and the company revised its culture to put more power in the hands of the store owners and managers.

“We moved from the compliance-oriented model to more of ‘Here is our way, but if you have a better way that works for you in your location, if you feel you need to do something unique to beat a competitive threat, you’re free to do that,’” Shender says. “It is much more flexible, and it is interesting to see how that is playing out in a positive way for so many people.”

Attack the market

Like just about every business, Hollywood Tans has tried to develop market separators — unique advantages that customers can’t obtain from the competition. Hollywood Tans’ market separators, including stand-up tanning booths and proprietary tanning lotions and skin care products, have played a big role in the company’s growth to $60 million in revenue during 2011.

But if the separators stopped there, the competition would have caught up and surpassed Shender’s company. With the ability to offer variations and add-ons to only a single service, Shender and his leadership team had to get creative as the economy hit the skids.

More specifically, he had to let everyone else under the Hollywood Tans umbrella get creative.

“We have salons in affluent communities in Southern California, in college towns in the Northeast, in urban areas in the central Atlantic states,” Shender says. “Those are very different types of customers, so if we try a one-size-fits-all approach, it just won’t work.”

The trick for Shender and the corporate team has been to allow local salon owners the latitude to tailor their approach to the needs of their respective markets while still maintaining a well-defined vision and set of values for the company’s brand. Shender’s team answered that challenge by providing some basic, systemwide marketing materials to all locations while still allowing salon operators to sit in the driver’s seat on marketing initiatives in the community.

“We try to give some structure in terms of coherent, timely and current marketing initiatives,” Shender says. “We have posters for salons, and there is always marketing collateral that goes along with that. Then there is online-based initiatives and other complementary creative projects that go along with that, so hopefully we are all communicating with the public in a unified way, with a single voice.”

Beyond that, it is up to the salon owner to crunch the numbers and decide how to best spend his or her marketing dollars.

“For instance, in Philadelphia, if our salon owners want to put commercials on the radio, and that works for them, that is great,” Shender says. “But it might not necessarily work for the guys in Birmingham or Nashville. So those are the types of situations where we try to get them to the right vendors who can help them make the decision about which path to take. We look at our data and give them our best judgment on it. But ultimately the decision for how they want to address the consumer is up to them.”

Shender looks at local marketing through two lenses — creative and media. In other words, what form the advertisement takes, and through which medium it is delivered. When the recession hit, everyone at Hollywood Tans had to place a newfound emphasis on creativity and discovering new ways to utilize various media outlets.

“In our old model, owners were required to contribute a certain percentage of their revenue toward an advertising fund,” Shender says. “Those funds were used to advertise in our various markets, and that worked particularly well in areas like Philadelphia, where we are highly penetrated. Philadelphia is our densest urban market in terms of coverage. But when the recession hit, the money dried up and the contributions began to sink. We were making more calls for collections, more owners were worried about paying their mortgages ahead of paying for advertising. So we had to rethink the whole strategy at that point.”

Utilize new media

Shender and his team came up with a plan that took advantage of new media. Hollywood Tans’ primary customer demographic is 18- to 32-year-olds — a majority are women, but with an increasing number of male customers. Younger customers are more apt to use social media platforms to interface with businesses.

Radio, TV and billboards weren’t completely kicked to the curb, but for franchises to survive, they needed the tools to connect with new customers in the target demographic.

“Our new customers don’t listen to the radio like I did when I was younger,” Shender says. “They don’t focus on billboards like I did, and they might not read the newspaper at all. So at a time when we were losing resources for advertising because our owners couldn’t contribute as much to our advertising fund, we found better and more focused ways to advertise online, targeted demographically and geographically.”

Needing to reach a younger customer base, Shender has helped spearhead social media initiatives, utilizing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to allow individuals stores to connect with potential customers without any mediation from the corporate level.

“As an example, we have a graphic package every month or season, in order to promote salons and refresh what we are marketing to consumers,” Shender says. “There are icons that people can use on Facebook or Twitter, so that every month, whenever there is a change in our marketing campaign, we go online with locations that haven’t picked up on the new icon and connect with them. We don’t force them to change their icon, but we say ‘Have you seen this icon, we think it goes well with everything else we are doing, is this something you could think about?’ Most salon owners are happy to participate when it is in a constructive, partnership kind of way.”

The company’s online marketing efforts are styled in a way that attempts to relate to many different types of tanning customers. It’s something Shender says the rest of the industry can tend to ignore, in the name of selling out for celebrity endorsements.

“The ‘Jersey Shore’ TV show has really captured the attention of a lot of people in our marketplace, and many businesses in the market are using affiliations with ‘Jersey Shore’ stars to promote themselves,” he says. “We are going in another direction for a variety of reasons, one of which is recognizing that our customers tan for a variety of reasons, and might not identify with ‘Jersey Shore.’

“You need to embrace what you believe is a relatable and reliable method of reaching out to people. For us, we want to recognize that people don’t just tan to look hot for the weekend. Some people tan because it makes them feel better. Some tan because it’s a nice break in the week. People in sales might tan because they believe it gives them a competitive advantage. We love New Jersey, our home is in South Jersey, but you sometimes really need to question the mentality of the herd. We want to move beyond the stereotype of the fist-pumping ‘Jersey Shore’ guy, because we’re a lot more than that. If you try to identify too closely with one thing from a marketing standpoint, you sell yourself short.”

Shender has found that the Internet can be more forgiving than traditional media when it comes to marketing. Your business can alter or terminate media campaigns and online ads more readily than ads on TV, radio or billboards, which could involve a contract that lasts several months or longer.

“We have found that the newer forms of media are shorter term and come with less risk,” Shender says. “When it’s online, if you find something isn’t working the way you wanted it to, you can turn it off. It’s very easy to make changes on the run.”

Recognize your role

In Hollywood Tans’ new organizational setup, Shender sees himself as a promoter of his vision and a facilitator who can help everyone else in the organization realize the vision. In order to maintain every customer interface point as a laboratory, each experimenting with new ways to reach and maintain customers, you need to pay constant attention to what is happening on the front lines of your business, what is working and not working. The ideas that aren’t working might need an adjustment, or in some cases, might need to be altogether abandoned. The ideas that are working need the type of support and systemwide publicity that only upper management can provide.

“I have the bully pulpit as the CEO of the company, and I can see broadly what is occurring in the different markets, beyond what an individual salon owner could see,” Shender says. “With that kind of vantage point, you can be helpful in trying to move the entire organization toward what is working best for everybody. That is why we let go of our compliance-oriented culture to build more of a laboratory atmosphere.”

The people who interact directly with your customers have a great deal of power in your organizational structure. They might be on the bottom rungs of the organization, but they are the face of your company to outsiders. They build the relationships that drive sales. By putting more power in their hands, you deliver the message that you trust them, and over time, everyone in the company develops a more collaborative mindset.

“If people trust you, you trust them more, and it becomes a better overall environment,” Shender says. “For us, it is much less adversarial between the company and salon owners. It is much more open, and people are going in the same direction.”

How to reach: Hollywood Tans Group LLC, (856) 716-2150 or www.hollywoodtans.com

The Shender file

Company background: We have approximately 44 salons in the Philadelphia area and approximately 140 salons nationwide. So Philadelphia is a big part of our business. It is our hometown, so it is sort of the heart of our business. Most of our employees are in South Jersey; we have a distribution center in South Jersey, our accounting and finance teams are there, our internal sales teams are there. We have a very small office on the West Coast for marketing and administration.

Shender on setting his company apart: Our salons are generally based on a stand-up (tanning) model, which is a faster way for people to tan, which sets us apart. But it is not like walking into McDonald’s, which is exactly the same no matter where you go. Here, there is a lot of opportunity for store owners to customize their situation to better address their competitive challenges, and operate the way they want to operate.

More from Shender on developing a marketing strategy: You have to understand if you are the market, because everything we look at, we look at through our own lens. One of the hardest things for me to realize is that I am not the target market. Just because I happen to watch a certain TV show or listen to a certain radio station, or read a certain paper, doesn’t mean my consumers do. It’s not that they might just watch a different TV show or read a different newspaper, they might not watch TV or read the papers at all.

I think particularly with the rapid changes in technology, we have to be very humble about what we know and maybe not so much rely on experts, but get good input from some solid vendors on how to reach the market you want to reach, and then just test the hypothesis to see if it is working or not. We can market so much more efficiently now, it is just stunning to me.

The 2012 World Class Customer Service Awards (Northeast Ohio)

The World Class Customer Service awards honor companies for their superior customer service. The program serves to raise awareness of the importance of customer service in the business world, recognize organizations that demonstrate exceptional customer service and share best practices in customer service from those that do it best.

Learn more about the class of 2012:

Akron-Canton Airport

AkzoNobel Packaging Coatings, Inc.

Ambiance, the Store for Lovers

Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan, & Aronoff LLP

BlueBridge Networks

COIT Cleaning & Restoration Services

Collection Auto Group

Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE)

EmployeeScreenIQ

Event Source

Faber-Castell USA

Family Heritage Life Insurance Company

Findaway World

Firestone Country Club

Hyatt Legal Plans

Industrial Heat Sources

Invacare Corporation

Marriott Cleveland East

Moen Incorporated

Overload Fitness

PartsSource, Inc.

Post-Up Stand

Rock the House Entertainment

Seeley, Savidge, Ebert, & Gourash Co., LPA

Skoda Minotti

SS&G

The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland

The Shamrock Companies Inc.

Today’s Business Products

Visual Marking Systems, Inc.

Zinner & Co.

Additional reading:

Notes from our sponsors

John Spearry on “gnat tenacity”

John DiJulius: Getting to Benny

Surprise and delight: It’s no longer enough to simply deliver world-class customer service

The 2012 World Class Customer Service Awards are presented by Metro Lexus and sponsored by Smart Business, Blue Technologies, The Brewer-Garrett Company, Cleveland Clinic, SummaCare, John Robert’s Spa, Colortone Staging & Rentals, and Executive Caterers at Landerhaven.

How Post-Up Stand trains its employees to deliver top-notch service

Alon Weiner, vice president and co-founder, Post-Up Stand Inc.

At Post-Up Stand Inc. every department is focused on customer service and the ways to make it better. Alon Weiner, vice president and co-founder of Post-Up Stand Inc., a manufacturer of tradeshow displays, banners and stands, is helping provide customers with service they come away satisfied with and a product that keeps them coming back time and time again.

The employees of Post-Up Stand take pride in their work and realize the importance of delivering a quality product to customers. No matter what an employee’s position is within the company, they are considered part of the customer service team. From the accounting department to production, all employees work with the customer in mind.

New employees undergo training sessions to ensure they are prepared to handle the questions that come in from customers.

New hires are handed a binder filled with product specifics, procedures and pricing at the start of training to assist in the customer service education process. These employees will also go through a shadow program with senior account executives for the first month of employment. They spend time in each department to learn the complete order process and gain knowledge of the product portfolio.

Training doesn’t end there. New hires also have to be familiarized with the company’s website to understand how the navigation works in order to assist any customers with online issues and questions. Post-Up Stand doesn’t just train new hires. Existing employees get reviewed through incoming calls, client surveys and are offered continuous training on new products and services.

All of this is in an effort to make every customer experience a positive one. The company aims to meet every deadline given and goes above and beyond what customers expect. Employees are trained to never say no and more often than not they are willing to go the extra mile by staying late to the job done.

How to Reach: Post-Up Stand Inc., (216) 332-0530 or www.postupstand.com

How Today’s Business Products supports the region’s business needs

Richard Voigt, president, Today’s Business Products

“What’s important to you?” That’s the question employees at Today’s Business Products know to ask every time they meet with a client for the first time. Recognizing that every customer has unique and specific needs, the national provider of office supplies and furniture approaches customer service by focusing on the things customers say are important to them. They call it a “roll up your sleeves and get the job done mentality.”

Under the leadership of President Richard Voigt, Today’s Business Products recently celebrated its 27th anniversary, continuing to drive its goal of being the first name that people depend on for their office products. Today, the organization provides more than 50,000 business items for clients and taps its network of 40 regional warehouses to deliver to 98 percent of the population nationwide. Even with such a vast reach, transcending the competition hasn’t been easy. Two words have been critical in helping the company differentiate itself with customers: unsurpassed dependability.

Whether it means coming in early or staying late, the company’s customer service team members are ready to do what it takes to get an order right, meet a client deadline or make life easier for a customer or co-worker. This mentality stems from a culture that engages employees in partnership, customers, the community and the company.

The company rewards employees who embody customer-driven attitudes with programs such as its “Gold Star” awards, which gives team members gold stars to put on the wall to signify a job well done from clients, and the Bravo Award for employees who go above and beyond their job duties for a fellow employee or client. In order to help employees see their role as a partner outside of the company’s products and services, Today’s Business Products also works with many education and nonprofit clients, donating cash and auction items to local charities and organizations.

How to reach: Today’s Business Products, (216) 267-5000 or www.todaysbusinessproducts.com

How Visual Marking Systems puts customer service in writing

Dolf Kahle, CEO, Visual Marking Systems Inc.

At Visual Marking Systems Inc., customer service is their competitive advantage. The company’s employees, led by CEO Dolf Kahle, act as consultants in the industry. The company’s staff frequently acts as a friend and shoulder to lean on for clients who are struggling to decide the direction in which they want to take their product identification. VMS provides support by giving advice and solutions that solve the product identification problems faced by customers.

To help facilitate productive solutions for customers, VMS developed an innovation center, which is often the first chance the staff at VMS gets to interact with a new client. The staff meets with the client to brainstorm ideas on everything from the best way to manufacture a product for their requirements, cutting options, shipping options, packaging methods and the best material to use. As a result of those meetings, VMS can often produce pre-production prototypes to allow customers to see and approve the product before placing a full-quantity order. By relentlessly looking for ways to improve products, VMS demonstrates that they have their customers’ best interests at heart.

All of the attention VMS pays to customer service is aimed at allowing their customers to excel at their own businesses. By making the purchase process as easy as possible, VMS allows its customers to focus on serving their own customers. VMS eliminates the burden of selecting complicated adhesives, materials and print options, instead evaluating the overall needs of each customer, and finding innovative solutions that meet their needs. By doing so, VMS allows customers to excel at their own company. By providing the services that build loyal customers, VMS allows their own customer to build loyal customers, strengthening everyone’s business in the process. VMS is a trusted partner for its customers and takes pride when they do well.

How to reach: Visual Marking Systems Inc., (330) 425-7100 or www.vmsinc.com

How Overload Fitness goes above and beyond for its members’ workouts

Jeff Tomaszewski, vice president and co-owner, Overload Fitness

Abby Stancik, a financial adviser, was happy with the results she was getting from her workouts at Overload Fitness. But there was another aspect with which she was even more impressed.

“I really do like that the trainers take your workout as seriously as you take it,” she says. “There is not a lot of chit chat. And beyond that, though, all the staff is very knowledgeable in nutrition.”

She was very interesting in the connection between nutrition and fitness.

“That is as important to me because you can work out like crazy, but if you are putting junk in your body, you’re not going to get the results that you want,” she says. “Overload’s trainers give you good guidance on that. They’re very knowledgeable; they have tools at Overload to measure your body mass index, so it’s really kind of all-encompassing facility.”

At Overload Fitness one of the core values is to over deliver, says Jeff Tomaszewski, vice president and co-owner.

“We pride ourselves on going above and beyond the call of duty or what is expected of us from a client,” he says.

While Overload believes it offers the most efficient and effective exercise program available, the staff doesn’t stop there.

“We want the client to have a world-class experience every time,” Tomaszewski says.

From uniformed staff, to a 67 degrees temperature in the facilities, a ban on mirrors and music, a continuous training of staff on customer service and more, Overload offers world-class customer service.

“We have discussions about not only exceptional customer service experiences but also terrible ones,” Tomaszewski says. “At each monthly staff meeting, we ask each person to share an experience in which they implemented world class customer service in their personal lives. This has a dramatic effect on changing behavior, and it is truly amazing to hear some of the stories that come from this exchange.”

How to reach: Overload Fitness, (440) 835-9090 or www.overloadfitness.com

How PartsSource helps hospitals cut parts costs

A. Ray Dalton, president and CEO, PartsSource Inc.

When PartsSource Inc. launched its ePartsFinder online locator for hospital equipment parts in 2006, the company’s leaders were confident it would resolve any issues regarding customer response time. After all, it enabled customers to receive replies to requests for parts pricing and availability in 30 to 60 minutes, dramatically faster than any other company hospital equipment parts provider.

But over the last couple of years the company realized that sites like Amazon.com and Orbitz were beating it by providing instantaneous pricing and availability for parts. Therefore, being the fastest company in its market niche was no longer good enough. PartsSource’s president and CEO, A. Ray Dalton, challenged his company’s IT department to build an application within ePartsFinder that would deliver instant information on pricing and availability to customers. Essentially, he was demanding that ePartsFinder become as quick and reliable as Amazon.com.

Last October, the company launched the new application, SmartPrice, and after some tweaking and training of employees and customers on how to use the service, customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, the company reports.

In addition, PartsSource has found that strong customer adoption of the new service has quickly taken hold. The company is experiencing a surge in new users, the first such upswing since its launch of ePartsFinder six years ago.

PartsSource also reports that it is seeing increases in parts requests and customer satisfaction scores since launching the SmartPrice application. As the company adds more parts to the available SmartPrice matrix, it is experiencing additional increases across the board in each of those key metrics from its entire customer base.

PartsSource’s mission has always been to improve health care delivery while reducing associated costs. Due to changing demographics and health care reform, the need to help its customers reduce costs further will increase dramatically over the next decade.

HOW TO REACH: PartsSource Inc., (330) 562-9900 or www.partssource.com