How Skoda Minotti ensures accuracy as well as exceptional client service

When Greg Skoda, one of the founders of Skoda Minotti and now chairman, helped launch the accounting and consulting firm, he put into effect a client-focused platform — believing that the firm should deliver on the promise of excellent client service just as seriously as it should ensure technical accuracy.

To that end, when employees answered a recent survey question, “What is our competitive advantage?” the response was “client service.”

Client service continues to be recognized as a key part to the future growth of the firm as it strives for continuous improvement.

A seven-stage Client Service Experience Cycle defines the steps to an optimum client relationship — client setup, internal planning, external planning, fieldwork, delivery, debriefing meeting and relationship management.

Within those seven areas are four categories: service defects, operational, experiential and above-and-beyond. Skoda Minotti expects that the operational and experiential levels will be met. However, the staff strives to reach the above-and-beyond level as well with every client.

This ambitious process helps allow the engagement team to meet and exceed a client’s goals throughout the year. Even the names of awards given to employees reinforce the values and goals of Skoda Minotti. For example, the “Delivering on the Promise,” “You Kept the Promise” and “Above and Beyond” awards recognize excellence in those categories.

How to reach: Skoda Minotti, (440) 449-6800 or www.skodaminotti.com

 

How Rock The House showed Chardon its heart

Matt Radicelli, founder and CEO, Rock The House

Matt Radicelli, founder and CEO, Rock The House

Rock Your Prom 2012 began with the modest goal of increasing brand awareness among Northeast Ohio students and school administrators. When it was all said and done, Rock The House Entertainment had provided students from Chardon High School with a night of joy and happiness that they would never forget.

The original prize was to be a $5,000 entertainment package. But when it became clear how much Chardon High students wanted to win this contest in light of the tragic school shooting on Feb. 27, 2012, Rock The House decided to expand the prize in a big way.

Under the leadership of founder and CEO Matt Radicelli, the company reached out to friends in the event industry and garnered support from more than 20 companies.

In the end, the event received more than $150,000 of services, including a national recording artist and the honor of being the first prom to ever be held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

It was a beautiful example of what can happen when a company is willing to stretch itself beyond expectations to make the customer happy. And it gave Chardon students a night to remember in a year that had been tainted with dark memories.

How to reach: Rock The House Entertainment, (440) 232-7625 or www.rthgroup.com

 

How Shamrock Cos. focus on differentiation

Robert Troop, CEO Shamrock Cos. Inc.

Robert Troop, CEO Shamrock Cos. Inc.

At The Shamrock Cos. Inc., the mission is to be the premier provider of integrated marketing solutions that help customers build and protect their brands, drive revenue and create efficiency using the right mix of people, services and technology.

The company strives to create an atmosphere that motivates employees, fosters creativity, provides opportunity for personal and professional growth, encourages teamwork and challenges people to consistently meet and exceed expectations of clients.

Led by CEO Robert Troop, its mission and its ability to offer fully integrated, progressive solutions for customers, Shamrock is able to bring value beyond the products and services it offers to clients. With a corporate goal of making every customer a “Raving Fan,” customers know that Shamrock thrives on going the extra mile.

Since implementing its well-known Raving Fan Feedback and Problem Solving Analytical Technique processes 10 years ago, Shamrock has increased manufacturing on-time performance from 96 percent to 99 percent, decreased average manufacturing turnaround from 15 days to less than seven days, increased distribution on-time performance from 95 percent to 99 percent, decreased standard delivery time for pick and pack from 48 hours to nine hours, and decreased customer impacted quality events from 1.2 percent to .25 percent.

How to reach: The Shamrock Cos. Inc., (440) 899-9510 or www.shamrockcompanies.net

How SS&G provides a service level of exceptional quality to all clients

Mark Goldfarb and Gary Shamis, senior managing directors, SS&G Inc.

Gary Shamis and Mark Goldfarb, senior managing directors, SS&G Inc.

When a developer/property management company changed accounting firms after a 10-year relationship with a large regional firm, the prospect of adjusting was not pleasant. It would take a true professional to pick up the ball and run with it — a challenge for which SS&G was ready.
SS&G spent many hours with the company’s senior management to gain an understanding of the business and industry, which led to the ability to add significant value beyond the typical audit and tax services. For instance, when that same client was experiencing the recent difficult banking environment, SS&G’s employed its networking relationships to make introductions to several banks in order to refinance the company’s working capital line of credit.

It’s all a part of SS&G’s philosophy to provide the same exceptional level of service to all clients, regardless of category. To that end, the firm recruits, retains and recognizes the most qualified and dedicated professionals and offers them opportunities for personal growth, development and advancement.

Among other awards, SS&G for eight years in a row has been named one of the best employers in the state by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Society of Human Resource Management.

Leading the firm are Bob Littman, CEO, and senior managing directors Gary Shamis and Mark Goldfarb.

How to reach: SS&G Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

How successful businesses are built on exceptional customer service

Jo Ann Lofton, senior vice president, retail executive, Cadence Bank

Jo Ann Lofton, senior vice president, retail executive, Cadence Bank

Interaction with an employee forms the basis for a customer’s perception about a company, which makes customer service a great opportunity to showcase the company’s brand, says Jo Ann Lofton, senior vice president, retail executive, Cadence Bank.

“It’s all about knowing your customer — they trust you and you trust them. That’s the basis of a good relationship,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with Lofton about best practices for good customer service.

What is the value of good customer service?

Good customer service creates loyalty, generates customer retention and ultimately brings in revenue. It also creates an avenue for referrals. Word-of-mouth endorsements are extremely important, especially when based on a strong and proven relationship. Creating that is an exception and people talk about exceptions.

What are the top elements of high-quality customer service?

Listen and get to know your customers and what’s important to them. It’s critical that you understand the customer’s concerns in order to offer help and solutions.

Employ people who like people, have good judgment skills and an innate desire to help others. Make sure employees have the attitude that you want projected. If there’s friction in the office, call the staff together, acknowledge it and find solutions to create a positive atmosphere. It’s amazing how a friendly and peaceful office will give energy to customers who call or walk in.

Train your people diligently. They need to know exactly what’s expected of them, both with external customers and co-workers. They must have the tools and the authority to bring about swift solutions to problems, and they should be acknowledged for good performance.

Be responsive, whether by email, phone or to a customer in front of you. It’s unacceptable not to respond. Even if you don’t have an answer or solution, you can thank them, tell them you’re looking into it and promise to get back in a timely manner.

Finally, honor what you promise the customer. Customer relationships are built on trust, respect and integrity. These qualities determine the strength of your relationship and give the customer confidence in the decisions that are being offered. You have to know when to be flexible to meet a need. Customers relate your resolve and decision-making ability to their overall impression of the company, and that can have a lasting impact.

How do you instill a culture of service excellence?

A service-centered culture begins with a leadership team committed to a philosophy that advocates exceptional service and employees who are deeply dedicated to fulfilling that promise.

It’s also essential to know your target market and how to respond to them. Different cultures, for example, have specific expectations that may call for distinctive interaction in certain situations. Understand the differences and what’s important to each culture, and see how you can meet the needs of those customers with the resources you have available.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from disgruntled clients?

The greatest lesson is to know that you can help resolve any issue by listening, staying calm, and using common sense and good judgment when offering solutions. And remember it’s not just what you say, but how you say it — your body language speaks volumes.

If what you’ve proposed does not work for the client, work with him or her to devise an agreeable and suitable solution that meets his or her needs, and then take action immediately. Most importantly, take the opportunity to learn from the experience and make improvements.

What would you consider an out-of-the-box convenience to offer customers?

It doesn’t have to be dramatic. If you have conference rooms, you can offer them to good customers. You can invite customers to have lunch with the chairman, and have an open discussion on the economy and what’s happening. It’s more than just taking on a little inconvenience in the hopes that maybe you’ll get something out of it. If you really want to help them they will sense that.

Jo Ann Lofton, is senior vice president, retail executive, at Cadence Bank. Reach her at (713) 807-1336 or [email protected]

Cadence Bank offers a host of resources for small businesses through all of its branches. Find the nearest location.

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by Cadence Bank

 

 

How businesses with luxury products and brands create an experience

Llewyn Jobe, sales manager, Bentley Beverly Hills, O’Gara Coach Company

Llewyn Jobe, Sales Manager, Bentley Beverly Hills, O’Gara Coach Company

When your company sells a luxury product or service, it changes how you should approach the sale. Selling these items is less about price and more about the experience surrounding a luxury purchase.

“Customers at the highest luxury levels are more interested in having fun and enjoying spending their money while acquiring something they want, something that serves their own passion,” says Llewyn Jobe, Sales Manager at Bentley Beverly Hills. “We don’t sell anything anyone needs — basic transportation can be purchased anywhere. It’s about an experience.”

Smart Business spoke with Jobe about lessons he’s learned selling Bentley motor cars that apply to other luxury products and brands.

What are some challenges that come with selling luxury items?

It’s a challenge to make everything an indulgent, luxurious experience. Customers want to connect and feel at ease when they come in to spend a substantial amount of money, so the transaction needs to go seamlessly without too much anxiety over pricing and negotiating.

How can you produce good customer service, which is so central to success?

Without good customer service, there are no referrals or repeat business. The people selling the product drive the customer service experience. The sales staff needs to show passion and be informative when selling to clients; it should be fun and exciting for everyone involved. Stay in touch with your customers, or potential customers, and build a relationship by following up and staying current. Maintaining good customer follow-up comes from the productive use of a customer management database. Work through your database and keep clients and prospective clients up-to-date about upcoming new model premieres or special leasing promotions. That’s the best way to stay in touch — you’re not bothering people but informing them about something they’ve already expressed interest in. Additionally, giving appropriately branded gifts is a good marketing tactic and shows appreciation to the people spending their time with you, whether they buy or not.

What are some best practices?

Use marketing that’s clever and tasteful to both new and existing customers. It’s easy to reach out to previous customers, but how do you expand beyond your existing client base? The initial customer contact, whether through marketing or customer service, is critical. For us, part of our success derives from our location in Beverly Hills, where luxury is part of the community. However, you cannot take success for granted; you have to ask yourself, ‘How can we become better to surpass our own performance?’

Customers want to feel welcome in a comfortable setting. It’s an art to take people through the numbers of any particular transaction and get them to understand, without being too pushy. Then, it becomes more about sharing the experience and building the relationship.

If a customer asks, ‘Why should I pay so much money for X?’ What do you say?

Customers will say, ‘I can get this same car with similar miles for less.’ Well, yes, that’s commerce. But, here you get a relationship with your purchase that enhances your ownership experience. You may be able to buy this product for less somewhere else, but you’re not getting us with it.

And, that’s only comparing apples to apples. If you’re trying to bring in a new client from a lesser luxury brand, you can tell them, ‘You’re spending this kind of money because you want to be distinguished; you’re looking for an experience that’s above all experiences you’ve ever had.’

The relationship becomes more important the higher a luxury item is priced. People expect it.

How can businesses overcome post-recession hesitancy to spend money?

In 2009 and 2010, people were worried what others thought. There was caution about spending money and about what that stood for while so many had been hit by the recession. However, we’re pushing past that.

When it does come up, it’s important to let the customer know that it’s OK to spend the money, take action and enjoy their life. There’s nothing bad about it — that’s what luxury is all about.

Llewyn Jobe is sales manager at Bentley Beverly Hills, O’Gara Coach Company. Reach him at (310) 967-7124 or [email protected]

Social media: Visit us at Facebook.

Insights Luxury Autos is brought to you by O’Gara Coach Company

 

 

 

Adventure on wheels drives Bernie Moreno as his passion and honesty turns one car dealership into 24 at Collection Auto Group

Bernie Moreno, President, Collection Auto Group

Bernie Moreno, President, Collection Auto Group

Bernie Moreno has always had a great love for cars. They had to be in his life. So as a 25-year-old, he went to work as a general manager of Herb Chambers’ Saturn dealership in Boston. During the course of 12 years there, he became Chambers’ vice president.

Moreno’s success caught the attention of Mercedes-Benz who asked Moreno if he would move to Cleveland to run a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Moreno agreed.

“I came in to Cleveland to see what this dealership was all about before I bought it,” Moreno says. “I pulled up here with my wife, I saw a salesperson, and I told him I was thinking about either a Lexus or a Mercedes — and I’m moving to Cleveland.

“The salesperson said, ‘I don’t understand why you’d want to move to Cleveland. This is the worst place on Earth to live. The people suck, the weather sucks, the economy sucks. I was born here and I’ve been trying to leave here since I came out of the womb.’ This is what the guy said to me.

“So I said, ‘People don’t buy Mercedes here?’ He said, ‘This is a blue-collar town. If we sell 10 to 15 cars a month, that’s a great month. If we sell 20, we’re dancing on the tables.’”

Moreno could have been discouraged, but he wasn’t. The dealership had been selling 200 cars a year before Moreno took over. He came in and set the goal high for the new dealership team.

“We came in, and I said to myself, ‘We can’t live selling five cars a month,’” Moreno says. “In our first sales meeting, May 13, 2005, I said, ‘We’re going to sell 100 cars a month.’

“We knew we had to do that because if we didn’t sell 100 cars a month, I couldn’t pay me, let alone my staff. I had to succeed because if I didn’t I would be in big trouble because I just committed my entire life to this endeavor.”

Here is how Moreno, president of Collection Auto Group, took one Mercedes-Benz dealership and built it into the Collection Auto Group that we know in Cleveland today.

Manage growth

When Moreno was working in Boston prior to 2005, he was helping run what was the sixth-largest privately owned dealership group in America with $1.5 billion in annual sales. In early 2005, he took over a dealership that sold only 200 cars a year.

“The difference is this one is mine and that one I just worked for,” Moreno says.

At that time, Moreno’s focus was to establish the dealership in the Cleveland area and create the right culture within the company.

“What helped in that tremendously was the fact that 12 guys moved from Boston to Cleveland with me,” he says. “That was a huge help, because when you’re establishing a culture, you need a critical mass of people who feel the same way that you do philosophically.”

Moreno says his desire to create further opportunities for the business fueled the dealership group’s growth the most. This, in turn, created opportunities for his staff.

“You can’t have all these guys in one store and challenge them and keep them growing,” he says. “All of them now have their own dealership that they run or a larger position within the company, which is great.”

In 2005, the dealership sold 24 cars between Jan. 1 and May 11. From May 12 to May 31 that year, it sold 80 cars. From that point on, Moreno and his team have been hitting their goal of 100 cars a month and then some.

“Our focus right now is really managing our growth,” he says. “We started with one dealership. We took over a small 200-car-a-year Lexus building. We finished the building in September 2008 right after Lehman Brothers collapsed. We used the opportunity to grow, and that growth was somewhat tame versus what we are doing today.”

Recently, Moreno has been expanding his business almost exponentially. Within the past year alone, the company has opened a Volkswagen dealership, a second Infiniti dealership, a new Nissan dealership, is building a new Mercedes-Benz dealership in Cincinnati and has been renovating several properties.

Moreno has plenty of projects to keep him busy. He has to buy the land for the new dealerships, build the dealerships, meet the individual car company’s requirements and hire people to run the dealerships. On top of all of that, Moreno still has to look after the other dealerships he has in operation.

Today, Moreno runs a collection of 24 dealerships, which led to the name, Collection Auto Group. The company is a more than 400-employee, $350 million car dealership group that sells Acura, Aston Martin, Buick, Fisker, GMC, Infiniti, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Porsche, smart, Spyker, Vpg, Volkswagen and Maserati brands.

“It was never the intention to move to Cleveland to have a small little dealership,” Moreno says. “That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to have 24 dealerships in seven or eight years, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a small dealership.”

Moreno may have been worried about car sales when the dealership first started, but in 2012 alone, Collection Auto Group sold 6,500 cars companywide.

“It’s is a big change,” he says. “Managing growth is like blowing up a balloon — you want to make sure you manage it properly, because otherwise you’re going to do it too fast.”

There are several factors that have helped Moreno and Collection Auto Group in its growth trajectory, but above all else, it comes back to the fact that Moreno loves cars.

“No. 1, you have to do what you love because if you’re not doing what you love, then you’re never going to be as successful as you can be,” he says. “For me, cars have always been a passion since I was a little kid.”

Another thing Moreno says has aided in his success is that he didn’t chase money. In fact, Moreno was making more money in Boston before he moved to Cleveland, but he wanted the opportunity to be his own boss.

“The biggest mistake people make is they follow money,” he says. “They’ll take a job because it pays more or they do this business because they’ll be rich. Money follows; money doesn’t lead.”

While people may make a certain move because it means more money, people will also find excuses for reasons that they can’t do something due to a lack of capital.

“If you have a great idea and you have passion, money will find you,” Moreno says. “When I bought Mercedes-Benz North Olmsted in 2005, I bought it with every dollar I had ever saved in my life. I joke that if I could have put a mortgage on my socks, I would have. It was never a scenario where I worried about getting the money to put this together.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘How badly do you want something? How badly do you believe that it can succeed? And how much do you believe in yourself?’ If the answer to all of that is at the top level, money will find you.”

Lastly, Moreno’s success has been made possible by the team he has put together at Collection Auto Group.

“You have to give people reason to follow you and be with you,” he says. “Why would somebody leave a job if not for the opportunity for personal growth, career advancement and learning? That’s the promise you have to deliver.”

Define your business

Once Moreno and his team started to get settled in Cleveland, the focus had to shift to creating a strong culture and one that would define how the business operated.

“You have to define your business,” Moreno says. “What business are you really in? A lot of my peers would say, ‘We’re in the car business. Look around, it’s a bunch of cars that we sell and service.’

“If you define that you’re in the car business, it’s an extraordinarily narrow definition. If you ask any employee in our company, whether it’s a receptionist, a car wash kid, a technician or a salesperson, they would say, ‘We’re in the customer service business.’”

Collection Auto Group sells cars, but it’s in the customer service business, and as a result, everybody understands that nothing is more important.

“When a customer walks through that door you should treat them like (they’re) the reason I’m here today, not like an inconvenience,” Moreno says. “My door is always open. If I’m willing to do that, what does it mean to everybody else in our organization?”

Moreno’s attention to clients goes far beyond making sure he gives them his time when they need it. He wants to change the car-buying experience.

“Some people hate buying cars,” he says. “But people love to buy iPhones. What’s the difference? The difference is that car dealers have made it painful for customers to buy cars. Car dealers have made the buying process completely unenjoyable, and it should be the complete opposite.”

Before Apple, people hated buying computers too. Now, people often just go to the Apple store to hang out because they made it fun and interesting.

“In the car business, it should be the same way, and the biggest thing that gets in people’s way is this fear when you walk through the front door that you’re going to be taken advantage of,” Moreno says. “Knowing that, we try to create a culture that says, ‘Let’s get rid of that anxiety.’”

Collection Auto Group tries to be extraordinarily transparent to make the negotiation process quick and easy. That transparency helps attract customers.

“If a customer walks in and they are looking at a Mercedes-Benz C300 and the sticker price is $42,500 … and their trade-in is worth $20,000, you have to ask yourself how much effort you are willing to put into this thing,” he says.

“How much are you willing to battle and let me wear you down? How much time do you want to spend wearing me down and are you willing to invest two or three hours to make that happen? Let’s say you do. At the end of three hours of going back and forth, how much do you really enjoy your car now? You hate it.”

Moreno utilizes the fact that customers these days are well-informed about car prices and what their trade-ins are worth; transparency and honesty with the customer saves time and effort.

“You know that I’m going to sell you the car for the price that’s going to be more than fair,” he says. “That creates a customer for life because they know that we will take better care of them than anybody else.”

Today, Collection Auto Group is well-established in the Cleveland market and sells all the car brands that it wants without any brand competing against another in the portfolio.

“Now that we’ve built this thing, we can take it for a drive and really expand exponentially with the brands we have right now,” Moreno says. ●

How to reach: Collection Auto Group, (440) 716-2700 or www.collectionautogroup.com

Takeaways

Do what you love and believe that you can make it successful.

Create a culture that separates you from competition.

Treat customers with respect and honesty and success will come.

The Moreno File

Bernie Moreno

President

Collection Auto Group

Born: Colómbia, South America, but he grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Education: Went to University of Michigan and received his undergraduate degree in business.

Goal: To be the chairman of the board of GM

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

At 12-years-old, I delivered newspapers at 2 a.m. in Fort Lauderdale. My mom also owned three real estate offices so after delivering newspapers I went to work for her and ran the bookkeeping at 14 or 15 years old. That taught me that family businesses are a challenge, and it wasn’t something I was interested in.

What got you into cars?

When I went to Michigan I worked for Automobile magazine.

What was your first car?

A Honda CRX. I saw it on the cover of Car & Driver.

What was your favorite car you have owned?

I had an ’89 Ford Mustang GT. That was the coolest car.

If you had to choose a car to own off one of your lots, what would you choose?

Cars are like your children — you’re not supposed to have a favorite. But for me, Mercedes are the cars that I’m most passionate about. If I had to buy one car, it would be a S63 Mercedes.

Learning opportunities: What the Office Max / Office Depot merger can do for you

Bill Botkin, sales consultant, Today's Business Products

Bill Botkin, sales consultant, Today’s Business Products

In late February, Office Max and Office Depot agreed to merge, pending normal government and shareholder approvals — and while this merger had been anticipated by the financial community for many years, the reasons why this took place are all too common.

The office supply world has changed dramatically over the past 16 years. In 1997, Office Depot attempted to merge with Staples, but the courts halted this due to the potential monopoly. Since then, the rise of stronger independent dealers working in the B2B marketplace, the rise of e-commerce sales (both independent dealers and others), and department stores expanding office supply goods in the B2C marketplace have forced marketplace changes.

Is this just a temporary rearrangement of the deck chairs? There are a number of reasons that make up the failure of these two companies to make it on their own. The first reason boils down to debt.

The bottom line is that these two firms combined have nearly 2,100 stores across the United States. This in itself has created massive amounts of debt — both on the balance sheet and off the sheet too. Office Max has more than $1 billion in off balance sheet debt and $1.7 billion of debt listed on the balance sheet. In addition, there has been another $2 billion in write-downs during of the past five years.

The second lesson is having a stagnant business model heavily based on brick-and-mortar stores. This new company, as yet un-named, will have 2,100 stores nationwide. Competitor Staples will have about 2,000 stores. However, all of the self-serve stores have been in a retail retraction for a few years and have been closing or reducing the size of stores in an effort to cut costs.

What you can expect to see

In order to create a healthy balance sheet, my crystal ball tells me that, due to duplication of resources, over the next few years, you can expect closures of distribution centers, a continuation of store closings, financial write-downs, layoffs and reductions in debt. Will this be enough to please shareholders? Stay tuned.

Since Depot bought Max, will Office Depot bring all of its outsourcing back from overseas or send more out? Will the handling of customer service issues improve or decline? Some clients have been told not to order on Friday, because they won’t deliver on Monday. Will they outsource all delivery personnel?

Will these changes affect their B2B clients? It is very likely — and not in a positive way.

By far, the biggest question is whether all of these changes will impact the remaining store, B2B and e-commerce sales.

What to do right now?

Businesses should control their business destiny and not wait for their dust to settle.

Look at your company’s strategic initiatives. Many common strategic initiatives include cost cutting, vendor reduction, “buy local” and sustainability.

Take this change in the marketplace as a reminder to examine this line item in the budget — even if you aren’t using Depot/Max. As we’ve seen, there isn’t a line item in a company budget that is above scrutiny.

I’ve worked with many clients nationwide and have been able to show them a double-digit price decrease compared to self-serve stores — all the while providing a higher level of service. While the pricing makes one competitive, it’s the service level that maintains loyalty.

Caution: Businesses that look strictly on price may likely be short-changing themselves by not looking at overall value. Consider working with a local partner who can make your office run smoothly. This will lower both hard and soft dollar costs while helping achieve strategic initiatives.

Independent office supply companies carry thousands of products. They have formed their own buying consortiums to lower the cost below self-serve stores and provide nationwide delivery. These include furniture, janitorial/sanitation, coffee/breakroom and computer supplies.

If you could purchase nearly everything for the office, with a reduced number of vendors and have a favorable impact to your balance sheet — wouldn’t you make a change? ●

Bill Botkin is a sales consultant for Today’s Business Products. Contact him at (800) 536-5163 or [email protected]

Charlie Rosson identified where it hurts for his clients; now Woodruff-Sawyer delivers services more efficiently

Charlie Rosson, CEO, Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

Charlie Rosson, CEO, Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

As a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, Charlie Rosson has seen his fair share of financial uncertainty, economic downturns and business struggles. So when he was promoted to CEO of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. on Jan. 1, 2008, Rosson recognized rather quickly that his tenure was going to coincide with all three.

“Right from the start, like everybody, we were thrown a pretty difficult set of circumstances to deal with,” says Rosson, CEO of the San Francisco-based insurance services firm. “So many businesses were impacted in terms of their sales and access to capital and their business overall. The recession impacted our clients directly, and we were challenged to respond to that by coming up with more aggressive programs for them to quickly save them money and to help a lot of them through survival mode.”

Although clients were losing revenue and facing serious financial struggles of their own, the firm still needed to find ways to keep business profitable. But many clients could also no longer afford the firm’s services and products at the same rates or prices as in the past.

Like most professional service firms, Woodruff-Sawyer needed to find ways to keep clients’ businesses afloat but also avoid losing their business.

“Obviously, we had to become more efficient in the way that we do business, and we had to recognize in a lot of cases our clients weren’t willing or didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the same type of fees or commissions that they might have before the difficult time,” Rosson says.

“The way we would structure an insurance program before the financial crisis or before things got really difficult obviously wasn’t implacable anymore. So we had to kind of come to terms and help them with declining values and property, shrinking payrolls and overall downturn.”

Identify must-haves

Finding creative ways to deliver the same types of programs for clients more affordably wouldn’t be simple, especially because each client’s business was so different.

Rosson knew that the firm needed to work much more closely with clients to figure out win-win solutions.

“We had to negotiate greatly reduced premiums for them and come up with coverages that met their needs but were at a price point that they could afford,” he says.

So as Rosson and his team began talking with clients about their changing risks and opportunities, they also asked each client for a list of must-haves.

“We really had to dig in and find out what are the things our clients truly value and what things are sort of “nice to haves” that they didn’t value as much, and frankly, weren’t willing to pay for,” Rosson says.

“We’re fortunate that the clients we serve we have a great relationship with and normally have a pretty deep dialogue with them and attempt to fully understand their business,” he says. “So we can go in and talk about the services we deliver, how they’re delivered and how the team is structured, then drill into what things are important to them. Then we ask them honest questions about what things they can live without.”

Knowing your customer’s “deal breakers” can help you pinpoint the exact value that you add for them, allowing you to identify and recommend business solutions that are cost-effective but that still meet that customer’s needs.

“What clients are looking for is value, and in our case, it’s quality of advice,” Rosson says. “It’s how do we help our clients become more successful? And oftentimes when we partner up with them and really understand their business, we can help them execute a strategy that maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute without us.”

You may see opportunities to meet the future needs of your customers as trends emerge of where their businesses are moving and as new technologies come along. For example, the recession spurred the firm’s investment in technology to help address client issues.

“The current generation of buyers has already adopted technology as a core part of the way they do business, and that curve is only going to get steeper as newer generations come into the workforce and become leaders of companies,” Rosson says. “They’re going to expect that they can interact with service providers and professionals through some sort of technology medium. They’re not going to expect the traditional back and forth model that’s defined our industry for quite a while.”

Trim the excess

Once you identify your clients’ pain points and priorities, you can begin looking for ways to serve their needs more efficiently.

Rosson realized that although Woodruff-Sawyer continued to deliver valuable services and advice for clients, the firm could save time and cost by streamlining its approach — as could its clients.

“We had to get much more efficient in terms of the way we structured our teams, and we had to use technology in ways that we hadn’t before, in terms of delivering things through the Web that may have been done before either face-to-face or through some other lower-tech way to deliver service and advice,” he says. “So we are using technology in different ways, and we’re just more careful in terms of how we assign resources to client teams.”

Rosson restructured the company’s practice teams to put the focus on having the right people in the right roles, instead of just more bodies, to cut down on unnecessary costs.

“Don’t get swept away by how much revenue you think somebody can generate or how dazzling somebody is,” Rosson says. “Really do your homework and find out what that person is all about. Are they really a fit for the organization? Do they really have the client’s best interests at heart? Can they collaborate well with others? Those are really important things.”

Another way Rosson saw to improve efficiency was integrating technologies that could make communication more user-friendly for clients. Most of the technologies Woodruff-Sawyer has deployed are collaborative, meaning they enable communication between clients and associates outside of the traditional email and face-to-face meetings. In addition to saving its clients cost and time, many changes have streamlined the firm’s processes overall.

For example, the firm now issues all of its certificates online and deployed a portal called Passport, which permits document sharing and collaboration with clients over the Web to expedite projects.

Since seeing the positive impacts, Rosson has continued to pursue a direction that involves technological innovation. Recently, the firm launched an online portal for small businesses called, BizInsure, hired a chief information officer and has made investments in online business to ramp up its overall technology component.

“I’m absolutely convinced that emerging technology is going to have a disruptive impact on our business,” he says. “And I believe it’s going to be in a positive way, and we’ll be right there to capitalize on it. The way that we’re going to interact with our clients in the future is going to be different that our traditional model.”

Enable a responsive culture

Of course, it’s difficult to devise efficient and cost-effective solutions for clients if you don’t empower employees to be creative and test their ideas. Businesses that run their organizations with a heavy-handed, top-down leadership structure can easily stifle the kind of creative, engaged culture it takes to provide the most value to clients, Rosson says.

“To be a top-tier professional services firm, by definition, you want to have professionals — and you need to treat them that way,” he says. “The way to treat them that way is to respect what they do and be there if they need advice and guidance. You have to have a certain amount of structure, but listening and not being overly prescriptive or top-down in our approach has really paid dividends.”

Rosson avoids a command and control culture at Woodruff-Sawyer by furthering the firm’s corporate vision to remain an independent brokerage firm. Being a 100 percent ESOP firm gives the company a flexible infrastructure where top people feel empowered to make decisions and operate with more freedom, he says. With no shareholders, employees are able to focus on the client and do things for clients that might be difficult under a different leadership structure.

“We’re able to do things for clients in terms of being flexible and the people who are working with clients have a lot more authority to get things done for them, deploy resources and make decisions that our competitors who might have a different ownership system can’t,” Rosson says.

“Our independence is a key part of our competitive advantage and a big part of our culture.”

The independent structure has also helped the firm attract talented employees who value autonomy and the ability to be responsible to a client’s needs. And for companies that can’t do an ESOP, leadership comes into play even more. As a CEO it’s important to set the tone for your direct reports and other employees by showing that you trust their decision-making abilities.

“I truly believe that we have the best people in the industry,” Rosson says. “These are people who have arrived at a place professionally. They don’t need me to look over their shoulder or a leader to second-guess what they are doing.”

Rosson says in the future, the firm will continue to be prudent and watching the bottom line while making investments in technology and internal perpetuation to keep the firm independent. By successfully delivering insurance services in an efficient and user-friendly way for clients, the firm has not only retained clients, it’s also been extremely successful in adding new business.

“The vast majority of our growth is organic growth through just going out and telling our story,” Rosson says. “With a lot of our competitors, and the large ones, it can be very difficult or very expensive to access very sophisticated resources. What we do is deliver those same resources or the same level of advice — or even better — but do it in a way that’s less expensive and much more user-friendly.”

As a result, Woodruff-Sawyer has grown its revenue approximately 40 percent since 2007, generating approximately $70 million in revenue in 2011.

“Like so many businesses, the downturn forced us to work smarter and more efficiently and embrace technology,” Rosson says. “As the economy has slowly improved and our clients’ businesses has improved, we’ve found that we’ve been able to leverage our technology and we haven’t had to increase our costs at the same rate that maybe we would have. So we’re actually seeing that our business is healthier now, after the downturn, than it was before.”

How to reach: Woodruff-Sawyer & Co., (415) 391-2141 or www.wsandco.com

Takeaways

  • Ask customers where your business provides the most value.
  • Utilize technology to cut down on time and cost in customer interactions.
  • Empower employees to help clients by avoiding a top-down culture.

The Rosson File

Charlie Rosson
CEO
Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

Born: San Jose, Calif.

Education: B.A. in history from UCLA

On growth: If you’ve got a very strong core business — I’m so bullish on the insurance business — you don’t need to take on too much debt or be overly grandiose in your expansion plans. Expansion and acquisitions all should be driven around acquiring people who fit into the organization, really bring something to the table and add to your organization rather than just executing a geographic growth strategy or putting pins in the map. All of your expansion should be for the right reasons, with the right people with client in mind, rather than trying to fill out (geographically) with different offices all over the place.

What is your favorite part of the business?

The best part of the business is getting out and meeting with clients and prospects. That’s why most of us got into this business and what really drives the passion for it. A lot of our relationships with clients go back 10, 15 and 30 years even. That’s the most fun part of it. I think it’s also really gratifying to successfully run the business and see the impact that you can have on employees’ lives.

What would you be doing if not for your current job?

Teaching English in Argentina

What one part of your daily routine would you never change?

Interacting with our clients and prospective clients

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I try to exercise every day.

What do you for fun?

Cooking, traveling, reading, coaching kids’ sports

 

Charlie Rosson identified where it hurts for his clients; now Woodruff-Sawyer delivers services more efficiently

Charlie Rosson, CEO, Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

Charlie Rosson, CEO, Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

As a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, Charlie Rosson has seen his fair share of financial uncertainty, economic downturns and business struggles. So when he was promoted to CEO of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. on Jan. 1, 2008, Rosson recognized rather quickly that his tenure was going to coincide with all three.

“Right from the start, like everybody, we were thrown a pretty difficult set of circumstances to deal with,” says Rosson, CEO of the San Francisco-based insurance services firm. “So many businesses were impacted in terms of their sales and access to capital and their business overall. The recession impacted our clients directly, and we were challenged to respond to that by coming up with more aggressive programs for them to quickly save them money and to help a lot of them through survival mode.”

Although clients were losing revenue and facing serious financial struggles of their own, the firm still needed to find ways to keep business profitable. But many clients could also no longer afford the firm’s services and products at the same rates or prices as in the past.

Like most professional service firms, Woodruff-Sawyer needed to find ways to keep clients’ businesses afloat but also avoid losing their business.

“Obviously, we had to become more efficient in the way that we do business, and we had to recognize in a lot of cases our clients weren’t willing or didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the same type of fees or commissions that they might have before the difficult time,” Rosson says.

“The way we would structure an insurance program before the financial crisis or before things got really difficult obviously wasn’t implacable anymore. So we had to kind of come to terms and help them with declining values and property, shrinking payrolls and overall downturn.”

 

Identify must-haves

Finding creative ways to deliver the same types of programs for clients more affordably wouldn’t be simple, especially because each client’s business was so different.

Rosson knew that the firm needed to work much more closely with clients to figure out win-win solutions.

“We had to negotiate greatly reduced premiums for them and come up with coverages that met their needs but were at a price point that they could afford,” he says.

So as Rosson and his team began talking with clients about their changing risks and opportunities, they also asked each client for a list of must-haves.

“We really had to dig in and find out what are the things our clients truly value and what things are sort of “nice to haves” that they didn’t value as much, and frankly, weren’t willing to pay for,” Rosson says.

“We’re fortunate that the clients we serve we have a great relationship with and normally have a pretty deep dialogue with them and attempt to fully understand their business,” he says. “So we can go in and talk about the services we deliver, how they’re delivered and how the team is structured, then drill into what things are important to them. Then we ask them honest questions about what things they can live without.”

Knowing your customer’s “deal breakers” can help you pinpoint the exact value that you add for them, allowing you to identify and recommend business solutions that are cost-effective but that still meet that customer’s needs.

“What clients are looking for is value, and in our case, it’s quality of advice,” Rosson says. “It’s how do we help our clients become more successful? And oftentimes when we partner up with them and really understand their business, we can help them execute a strategy that maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute without us.”

You may see opportunities to meet the future needs of your customers as trends emerge of where their businesses are moving and as new technologies come along. For example, the recession spurred the firm’s investment in technology to help address client issues.

“The current generation of buyers has already adopted technology as a core part of the way they do business, and that curve is only going to get steeper as newer generations come into the workforce and become leaders of companies,” Rosson says. “They’re going to expect that they can interact with service providers and professionals through some sort of technology medium. They’re not going to expect the traditional back and forth model that’s defined our industry for quite a while.”

 

Trim the excess

Once you identify your clients’ pain points and priorities, you can begin looking for ways to serve their needs more efficiently.

Rosson realized that although Woodruff-Sawyer continued to deliver valuable services and advice for clients, the firm could save time and cost by streamlining its approach — as could its clients.

“We had to get much more efficient in terms of the way we structured our teams, and we had to use technology in ways that we hadn’t before, in terms of delivering things through the Web that may have been done before either face-to-face or through some other lower-tech way to deliver service and advice,” he says. “So we are using technology in different ways, and we’re just more careful in terms of how we assign resources to client teams.”

Rosson restructured the company’s practice teams to put the focus on having the right people in the right roles, instead of just more bodies, to cut down on unnecessary costs.

“Don’t get swept away by how much revenue you think somebody can generate or how dazzling somebody is,” Rosson says. “Really do your homework and find out what that person is all about. Are they really a fit for the organization? Do they really have the client’s best interests at heart? Can they collaborate well with others? Those are really important things.”

Another way Rosson saw to improve efficiency was integrating technologies that could make communication more user-friendly for clients. Most of the technologies Woodruff-Sawyer has deployed are collaborative, meaning they enable communication between clients and associates outside of the traditional email and face-to-face meetings. In addition to saving its clients cost and time, many changes have streamlined the firm’s processes overall.

For example, the firm now issues all of its certificates online and deployed a portal called Passport, which permits document sharing and collaboration with clients over the Web to expedite projects.

Since seeing the positive impacts, Rosson has continued to pursue a direction that involves technological innovation. Recently, the firm launched an online portal for small businesses called, BizInsure, hired a chief information officer and has made investments in online business to ramp up its overall technology component.

“I’m absolutely convinced that emerging technology is going to have a disruptive impact on our business,” he says. “And I believe it’s going to be in a positive way, and we’ll be right there to capitalize on it. The way that we’re going to interact with our clients in the future is going to be different that our traditional model.”

 

Enable a responsive culture

Of course, it’s difficult to devise efficient and cost-effective solutions for clients if you don’t empower employees to be creative and test their ideas. Businesses that run their organizations with a heavy-handed, top-down leadership structure can easily stifle the kind of creative, engaged culture it takes to provide the most value to clients, Rosson says.

“To be a top-tier professional services firm, by definition, you want to have professionals — and you need to treat them that way,” he says. “The way to treat them that way is to respect what they do and be there if they need advice and guidance. You have to have a certain amount of structure, but listening and not being overly prescriptive or top-down in our approach has really paid dividends.”

Rosson avoids a command and control culture at Woodruff-Sawyer by furthering the firm’s corporate vision to remain an independent brokerage firm. Being a 100 percent ESOP firm gives the company a flexible infrastructure where top people feel empowered to make decisions and operate with more freedom, he says. With no shareholders, employees are able to focus on the client and do things for clients that might be difficult under a different leadership structure.

“We’re able to do things for clients in terms of being flexible and the people who are working with clients have a lot more authority to get things done for them, deploy resources and make decisions that our competitors who might have a different ownership system can’t,” Rosson says.

“Our independence is a key part of our competitive advantage and a big part of our culture.”

The independent structure has also helped the firm attract talented employees who value autonomy and the ability to be responsible to a client’s needs. And for companies that can’t do an ESOP, leadership comes into play even more. As a CEO it’s important to set the tone for your direct reports and other employees by showing that you trust their decision-making abilities.

“I truly believe that we have the best people in the industry,” Rosson says. “These are people who have arrived at a place professionally. They don’t need me to look over their shoulder or a leader to second-guess what they are doing.”

Rosson says in the future, the firm will continue to be prudent and watching the bottom line while making investments in technology and internal perpetuation to keep the firm independent. By successfully delivering insurance services in an efficient and user-friendly way for clients, the firm has not only retained clients, it’s also been extremely successful in adding new business.

“The vast majority of our growth is organic growth through just going out and telling our story,” Rosson says. “With a lot of our competitors, and the large ones, it can be very difficult or very expensive to access very sophisticated resources. What we do is deliver those same resources or the same level of advice — or even better — but do it in a way that’s less expensive and much more user-friendly.”

As a result, Woodruff-Sawyer has grown its revenue approximately 40 percent since 2007, generating approximately $70 million in revenue in 2011.

“Like so many businesses, the downturn forced us to work smarter and more efficiently and embrace technology,” Rosson says. “As the economy has slowly improved and our clients’ businesses has improved, we’ve found that we’ve been able to leverage our technology and we haven’t had to increase our costs at the same rate that maybe we would have. So we’re actually seeing that our business is healthier now, after the downturn, than it was before.” ●

How to reach: Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.,
(415) 391-2141 or www.wsandco.com

Takeaways

Ask customers where your business provides the most value.

Utilize technology to cut down on time and cost in customer interactions.
Empower employees to help clients by avoiding a top-down culture.

 

The Rosson File
Charlie Rosson
CEO
Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

 

Born: San Jose, Calif.

Education: B.A. in history from UCLA

 

On growth: If you’ve got a very strong core business — I’m so bullish on the insurance business — you don’t need to take on too much debt or be overly grandiose in your expansion plans. Expansion and acquisitions all should be driven around acquiring people who fit into the organization, really bring something to the table and add to your organization rather than just executing a geographic growth strategy or putting pins in the map. All of your expansion should be for the right reasons, with the right people with client in mind, rather than trying to fill out (geographically) with different offices all over the place.

 

What is your favorite part of the business?

The best part of the business is getting out and meeting with clients and prospects. That’s why most of us got into this business and what really drives the passion for it. A lot of our relationships with clients go back 10, 15 and 30 years even. That’s the most fun part of it. I think it’s also really gratifying to successfully run the business and see the impact that you can have on employees’ lives.

 

What would you be doing if not for your current job?

Teaching English in Argentina

 

What one part of your daily routine would you never change?

Interacting with our clients and prospective clients

 

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I try to exercise every day.

 

What do you for fun?

Cooking, traveling, reading, coaching kids’ sports