John DiJulius: Just who is losing sleep over the customer?

John DiJulius, founder of The DiJulius Group

During the 2012 Secret Service Summit held recently at the Intercontinental Hotel Cleveland, one of the most often discussed topics was who is in charge of the customer service department.

Regardless of your company’s size, someone in your organization has to be in charge of the customer experience and all that goes with it. That someone should not be the president, CEO or owner, but someone who reports directly to them.

Our company has heads of operations, marketing, accounting, sales and human resources, but our second biggest asset (other than our employees) is our customer. How happy they are is determined by the customer experience we deliver.

Until recently, the vast majority of companies had just anyone in charge of the customer experience. If you are a mid-to-large company, you may want to consider creating a position, i.e. chief xperience officer (CXO) or chief customer officer (CCO).

The fastest growing C-Suite position is the CCO/CXO. “More and more companies are reconfiguring their C Suites to accommodate a new kind of chief: the chief of customer.” Here’s an article in Inc. magazine titled, “Make Room for the Chief Customer Officer.

For what should a CXO/CCO be responsible? The CCO should be an executive who provides a comprehensive and authoritative view of the customer and creates corporate and customer strategy at the highest levels of the company to maximize customer acquisition, retention, and profitability.

They should influence strategies of all areas of the business that impact the customer, and ensure the service strategies are built around, and for, the customer.

What does a CXO/CCO look like? One of the biggest mistakes I have seen companies make is hiring, promoting or delegating the CCO position to people who have zero genuine hospitality characteristics.

This person has to live and breathe hospitality, internally, externally, and in all areas of his/her life. If they do not meet the criteria below, pass! It is so much better to leave the position vacant than to fill it with a mismatched person.

  1. Passionate customer experience and the customer.
  2. Extremely high service aptitude.
  3. Lives world-class hospitality personally and professionally.

What if you are not a large organization? If you are a small company or a start-up, I don’t suggest creating a brand-new position dedicated to the customer experience, but you do need to have it be a major part of someone’s job title and responsibility.

For example, at John Robert’s Spa, we promoted a rising star, a manager in training, to director of secret service. Her responsibilities are to manage and monitor all aspects of the customer experience and lead John Robert’s internal secret service agent team (front line employees who wanted to be part of the John Robert’s experience team).

In his book “What’s The Secret?” DiJulius focuses on what a chief xperience officer’s job description could look like. Details here: Chief Xperience OfficerJohn DiJulius is the founder of The DiJulius Group, a customer experience consulting firm. He is an international consultant, best-selling author and is regarded as an authority on world-class customer experience. Go to www.thedijuliusgroup.com for information.

 

Mark Carr founded a family values auto repair franchise and focuses on better service to build a better image

Mark Carr, president and CEO, Christian Brothers Automotive

Mark Carr was operating Christian Brothers Automotive in Houston when a Chevy Suburban driven by a woman from Michigan gasped its way in to the repair shop. It was giving off the telltale knock, knock, knock that even novice mechanics know means the engine is dying.

But what infuriated Carr was not the sad shape of the rusted-out vehicle but the fact that the woman had just paid $750 for repairs at another shop, and the engine was still clunking. He smelled a fresh rip-off for the unlucky victim.

“Her husband was disabled, and she was on disability,” Carr says. “She was trying to take care of her husband and was crying. She said, ‘I just paid $750 to get my transmission fixed and the car’s making the same noise that it did before.’ So I patted her on the hand and said, ‘Come on; let me take a look at it.’”

His diagnosis was on target. She needed a new engine.

“But this guy took $750 that this poor woman didn’t have to fix a transmission instead,” Carr says. “I got in the car and I drove down to the guy and I said, ‘You know what? The guy who sticks a gun in your ribs in an alley is more honest than you are because at least you know he is stealing from you. I don’t know how you get up in the morning and look yourself in the eye in the mirror. You disgust me. I am going to tell everyone that I know not to come here. I don’t know what you are going to do for this woman because I can’t control that, but you should refund her money.’”
The man just stood there, not knowing what to do with Carr.

“And I left,” he says. “But that is how I stuck up for her. That’s not the only time that I have done that for my customers.”

Did she get her money back?

“I don’t know if he gave it to her or not,” he says. “But I hope he did; I hope I shamed him enough to give the money back. How would you like somebody doing that to your mother, and there was nobody to stand up for her?”

The incident is a reflection of the simple but powerful mission Carr has for his company — love your neighbor as yourself. With Christian Brothers Automotive, Carr’s goal is to distinguish his company in a field in which a number of lesser shops have often taken their lumps for poor customer service.

“A lot of times, you get a customer who walks in the door, and he thinks that you are a crook,” he says. “He may even say it before you even touch his car. It was a challenge for me to change that person’s mind, to show that that wasn’t true.”

In 1997, the company began selling franchises that promoted family values. Today, there are 750 employees and 109 franchises in 14 states, and 25 more are in the planning stages.

“I did start out with a partner, and I bought him out about two years into it, so that is where the ‘Christian Brothers’ came in, using my Bible study,” he says about one of the most frequently asked questions.

Here’s how Carr, president and CEO, set Christian Brothers apart from other companies in a field that is often viewed suspiciously and how he generated $160 million in revenue in 2012.

Walk in another’s shoes

Not every company is founded upon what you might call a divine “nudge,” and other types of inspiration have led entrepreneurs to found enterprises. But no matter where the inspiration comes from, if that nudge becomes the heart of your company — and if you believe the company will only continue through a strong connection to that inspiration, superior customer service and a spirit dedicated to strengthening the community — you will be successful, Carr says.

He founded Christian Brothers Automotive in 1982 with the help of fellow church members, after he spent months praying about how he should change his life. One of the first steps he took to stand out above the rest was to take inventory of market perceptions of the industry.

“I sat down and I made a list of 20 reasons why people hate to get their car repaired,” he says. “I went through every one, checked off all 20 on that list and said I can solve every one of those.

His first goal was to be a light in the community. To do that, establish your operation as fair and reliable, he says. When you make honesty and integrity the foundation of your business, word gets around. Word-of-mouth is everything, and it spreads rapidly, be it positive or negative.

“People are talking about us, which makes me proud in a good way,” Carr says. “It’s all about, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ That is our motto. Whatever race, color, creed, country — no matter where you’re from, everybody wants that.”

Another “image lifter” was a new design scheme. Carr created a positive culture shock when he installed an upscale home-charm décor that includes hardwood floors, leather couches, artwork and decorative lighting in the waiting rooms. The scheme was a hit among women, who had a negative perception of dingy auto shops and the possibility of questionable practices.

Don’t skimp on training

Training is a large part of jobs today, and few organizations can afford to skimp on educating their carefully selected employees. In service-related businesses such as car repair, a business often comes out ahead if it starts with a manager or executive who doesn’t have skills in the service field but instead is strong in business operations, Carr says.

“We do not want any of our franchisees knowing anything about cars,” he says. “If they know about cars, they can be in the running, but 90 percent of the time, we turn them down. We turn down by probably a 2-to-1 ratio.”

Instead, for his company’s franchises, Carr looks for businesspeople who know how to manage people and manage money. To get around their lack of knowledge of the industry, Christian Brothers hires all the employees for the new franchisee because that person doesn’t know what to look for. Then, after about a year, that person will have a better understanding of what to look for, says Carr.

Because no amount of training can address every possible task or situation for a new manager or executive, the education process has to be as thorough as possible.

“We go through extensive training with these people,” Carr says. “I actually have an exact replica of what my store looks like inside my office. It’s got the lobby and all the point-of-sale software so they are in the environment that they’re going to walk into. It is exactly the same — the waiting room, the counters, the whole thing.”

Carr has employees play the roles of customers during training sessions, both good customers as well as mean ones.

“We banter with the trainees to see how they are going to handle that particular situation,” he says. “We are in a lousy business. People are already walking in thinking we are crooks if they are a first-time customer. You just try to deal with it the best you can. If we screw up the car, you say that you were wrong, you take it back in, you fix it.”

Build an image of a cheerful giver

Companies that have become a better corporate citizen in the community are not likely to abandon those efforts, as the good will they achieve can’t be bought at any price. That good will can be especially beneficial in an industry segment that has taken its licks over the years.

And while Carr says a company can offer any number of promotions, those that have staying power in a consumer’s mind are optimal.

“I have a tremendous heart for single moms,” he says. “We hold a nationwide day for free oil changes for single moms. We served over 1,000 people last year. We hope to make it double what it was last year.”

Such events build the image and the brand of your company, but it can’t just be the event. Your core values of honesty and integrity have to be woven into the event or it may come across the wrong way and damage your image more than it will help it.

“It is not to get business,” Carr says. “It’s just to show who we are as a company and who I am as the leader of this company.”

Hosting philanthropic events making contributions and donations to the community result in positive feelings about the company not just from the community but from the employees, as well. Carr says Christian Brothers give away 10 percent of what it grosses across the entire company, donating to charities and other organizations.

“On the 30th of the month, when I call the controller and ask how much money do we have in the account to give, that’s the day I am the happiest,” Carr says. “I love it. I just love it.

“If you give from your heart, He blesses you 100-fold, and that’s what He has done with me.”

 How to reach: Christian Brothers Automotive Corp., (281) 870-8900 or www.cbac.com

 

The Carr File

Mark Carr
President and CEO
Christian Brothers Automotive Corp.

Born: Syracuse, N.Y.

Education: I barely made it out of high school. There were 32 kids in my class and I graduated in the top 30. I skinned out, although I did get accepted at three of the top art schools in the Northeast.

What was your first job?

I had a paper route when I was about 10. I used to clean toilets in a bar before I went to school in the morning, and I was a garbage collector on the back of a truck because I refused to collect unemployment. I also delivered fuel oil in upstate New York in 20 degrees below zero weather.

Whom do you admire in business?

Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines is one of the smartest businesspeople that I read about. The guy is so smart. All his planes are the same. The maintenance is low. He treats people well. It’s not flying first class, but they treat you well. The customer service, everybody’s got a smile. Nobody likes to fly anyway, but I just think that his whole philosophy, his whole concept of business and his making it so practical in the industry – he’s the only one out there that’s profitable. I also admire Lee Iacocca. He took something that was a mess and turned it into something that was good. I think that is why I like what I do. I’m trying to take something that is really crummy and make it into something decent. And it works so far.

What is the best business advice you have ever received?

My dad said to me, ‘Mark, credit is everything. Pay your bills, pay your employees and pay yourself last.’ I think that’s been really good advice. The credit has gotten us where we are – never defaulting on any loans. He was right. I have paid myself last, and not very much. There wasn’t much left. But it took care of the employees.

What is your definition of business success?

It’s not size. It’s getting to a point where you don’t have to worry about paying your bills, you don’t have to look over your shoulder to worry that something is going to come up that you did dishonestly. You really enjoy getting up in the morning and going to the office. And if it is one employee or 1,000, it doesn’t really matter. Just because you are bigger doesn’t mean you are more profitable – if you make $1 million a year and your expenses are $999,999, you didn’t make any money.

 

How to assess the quality of a bank’s client services

Rich Birchard, senior vice president, Depository Services Group manager, Bridge Bank

When you can handle banking transactions on your smartphone, it’s easy to think that customer service isn’t really important — until there’s a problem.

“A lot of people shop prices. At that point, though, some may not be as concerned about what happens after that.  But you usually get what you pay for,” says Rich Birchard, senior vice president, Depository Services Group manager at Bridge Bank.

Birchard says a recent personal experience illustrated the difference superior customer service makes. At the same store, in one department, he received great service when the salesman when out of his way to make him feel good about his purchase, even going the extra mile to make sure that he was getting the lowest possible price, while in a different department, the salesman he had been working with previously didn’t remember his name, didn’t answer all of his questions and didn’t make him feel good about his purchase. As a result, he backed off on that purchase until a later time.

“Even though I spent a little more for the first purchase, I felt really good about it as a result of the way I was treated. I even went back to the first salesperson and asked if there was a way to get him to sell me the other item because he deserved the sale. Unfortunately, people are getting used to being treated sub-par, which is really sad and not the way it should be.”

Smart Business spoke with Birchard about the benefits of good support services and what you should look for when deciding where to deposit your money.

What is the best way to evaluate a bank’s support services before becoming a client?

In the age of technology, with electronic payment systems and remote deposit capture machines, the need for a local bank is not as important as it used to be. The Internet is usually the first tool that people use when looking for new financial service providers. How a bank’s website looks and the ease of maneuvering through the pages is a good indicator of how much attention is given to client service.

The use of referrals is another way that a prospective client can find out more about his or her future financial institution. If a local bank is what you prefer, you may want to visit the bank and ask to talk to the client support manager to see how the bank support clients firsthand. A good client support manager should be honored to introduce you to the client support staff so you can put a face to a name or a voice on the phone.

In today’s world of self service and automation, why do I need a bank that provides a high level of service?

In most cases, clients want to be in total control when doing their daily banking. They don’t want to take the time to call someone and explain what their needs are. An online banking system that provides full service and is easy to use creates efficiencies for the client.

But it is inevitable that there will be a time when the unexpected happens and an important payment doesn’t go out, or someone calls in sick and you don’t have appropriate access to approve transactions. It is those times when you want to call the client support center and hear a familiar voice on the phone, someone who not only knows you by name but knows your company, how you are set up and how you do things. Someone who understands your urgency and not only will help you resolve your initial problem but also identify other issues that may occur as a result and take care of it in advance so you don’t run into another problem as soon as you get off the phone. That person can also inform other areas of the bank about your needs and situation so you can stay focused on the tasks at hand in your company.

There are a lot of good companies that are happy to sell you a solution. What takes you from good to great is the personal touch you put on it from a client service perspective.

How can I evaluate the quality of service I get from my bank?

People are smart. They know when they are treated well and with respect, and they also know when they are treated badly. If you call the client support center at your bank and spend too much time pressing buttons or entering account numbers, or hear, ‘That is not a valid response, please try again’ when you press zero or say ‘operator’ to try to bypass the interrogation process, you are not dealing with a bank that cares a lot about its clients.

Ask yourself what your gut tells you and how you feel when you get off the phone after talking to a client service representative. Did they call you by your name?  Did they listen to your needs? Did they respect your time and sense of urgency?  Did they fulfill your needs? Did they thank you for your business? Did they follow up later? If you’re answering ‘no’ to these questions, you’re not getting good service.

Do different types of banks provide different levels of client service?

You may find a bank that gives you great rates, but you usually see why when you need support going forward and it is not what you expected. The initial deal closing comes and goes, but your day-to-day support needs go on forever and when you want a resolution, you want it fast. In those times of need, the last thing you are thinking about is the two basis points you may have saved.

When you feel good about the consistent quality service you get, you don’t mind spending a little more.

Rich Birchard is senior vice president, Depository Services Group manager at Bridge Bank. Reach him at (408) 556-6528 or
[email protected]

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by Bridge Bank

How two friends turned their love of transportation into a successful business enterprise

Artur Wagrodzki, president, Artur Express Inc.

Tomasz Tokarczyk, president, Artur Express Inc.

Artur Wagrodzki and Tomasz Tokarczyk were surprised at what they found upon arriving in the United States from their native Poland. They were just teenagers, but they still had an image of what America was like, and Brooklyn wasn’t really matching up with what they had envisioned it to be.

“I thought it was going to be palm trees everywhere,” Tokarczyk says. “In Brooklyn, you have concrete going all over. That was my first impression.”

The childhood friends and future presidents of Artur Express Inc. grew up as neighbors and eventually went to work for a limousine company in the New York City borough. It was there that they found their love for the transportation industry.

“It was a black car service and they took bankers and people like that around the city,” Wagrodzki says. “We worked in different departments, but we basically were dispatching drivers, picking up phone calls and doing customer service. In some respects, it was a little bit similar to what we do now. We just move freight instead of people.”

The numbers show Artur Express Inc. does a very good job moving that freight. The transportation and logistics company was founded in 1998 and grew to $28.1 million in 2008 revenue. Revenue reached $54.9 million in 2011.

“When we started this business, we were really young,” says Tokarczyk, who serves as president along with Wagrodzki of the 50-employee company. “So maybe that gave us a big advantage. We took it upon ourselves to build the business, and we just did what we felt was right. We ran with it and did everything in our power to make it work and help the company grow.”

The business partners have led with a mix of instinct and collaboration. They don’t worry so much about what the leadership textbooks say you’re supposed to do. But they understand the importance of building a strong culture where employees are committed to doing their job to the best of their ability in order to satisfy the customer.

“A lot of the loads that we haul are for very important customers and it’s very time-sensitive,” Wagrodzki says. “You can give a driver the wrong ZIP code and he’s going to end up in a different state. It’s that crucial. So we need very accurate data and we need everybody to do their job.”

Here’s a look at how Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk work together to lead Artur Express and make sure their employees know exactly what needs to be done to keep the company on top of its game.

Share your responsibilities

One of the biggest changes at Artur Express in recent years has been the influx of technology into every aspect of the company’s business. Whether it’s tracking loads or the drivers who deliver them, technology has led to a different way of doing things in the company and throughout the entire transportation industry.

“The main key for our operation is to develop and use all the different technology that is out there to be able to perform and control the different problems that we have and give that information to the customer,” Wagrodzki says.

Everybody can benefit from technology, of course, but you’ve got to know how it can help you. To just implement something because everybody else is doing it or because it’s shiny and new is asking for trouble.

Wagrodzki says they are careful to incorporate technology that helps them and helps their customers. They have the advantage of having been with the company since the beginning.

“We’ve worked hands-on in the business from day one and we know the ins and outs of it,” Wagrodzki says. “We know exactly what we do on paper and then we just convert all those different ideas to our computer system. It’s not just bells and whistles. It’s something we can really use.”

That conversion process is handled by an IT department that is usually pretty tuned into what Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk are looking for. That type of connection is obviously important.

“All they need is an idea of what we want,” Wagrodzki says. “It takes a while to put it together, but once it’s in place, it becomes a very easy process that you can access any time, which helps gets us get the information to the people it needs to go to.”

It’s those connections that you have with your IT team and with your employees that make or break the integration of things such as technological tools to help you track volume and the status of deliveries.

If you’re not speaking the same language, you’re not going to get what you want or what your company needs.

So Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk make sure they are accessible.

“Employees know if they have an idea, they don’t have to put it out to us or management in some fancy form,” Tokarczyk says. “They can just shoot us a quick email and we react instantly. Every idea they send to us, we try to make it better. Some of the good things we’ve done, that’s how they have been developed.”

It’s that partnership that makes the difference between a business that can grow and one that is limited by the capacity of the entrepreneur. Wagrodzki says he and his partner knew enough to hand off some of their work as they grew to allow the company to gain more customers and take on more work.

“When we started the company, we did it all from accounting to billing to dispatching,” Wagrodzki says. “You name it, we did it. It’s helping us now to be able to meet up with the managers, meet up with the staff and give good pointers on how we used to do it. Maybe it was on a smaller scale, but the factors are still the same.

“If you have 50 trucks or 500 trucks, you have to apply those same rules. We try to treat our employees and our independent contractors on a very personal level. That definitely helps.”

Keep looking for talent

Hiring is always a challenge for any business because you just never know exactly what you’re going to get, Wagrodzki says.

“You’re going to take a gamble when you hire somebody,” Wagrodzki says. “They try to be perfect in the interview and you follow the rules and follow your steps of having them interview with multiple people. I would say 85 percent of the people we hire turn out pretty good.”

But it’s that other 15 percent that can cause a problem. It’s why Artur Express is always in recruiting mode to some degree. With the growth that the company has been experiencing, Tokarczyk says they can afford to bring in talent that has untapped potential.

“We try to find people who can grow with us and are motivated,” Tokarczyk says. “They do have management potential, but maybe that potential needs to be discovered a year or two years from now.”

If you’re looking for more experience in your new hires, it pays to keep tabs on others in your industry. In these difficult economic times, there are often companies that don’t make it or have to let people go whom they otherwise would prefer to keep.

“Sometimes we’re able to get those good people from different companies that were bought out or are no longer in business, “Tokarczyk says. “These people have been there for 15 or 20 years and they’re looking for another strong company where they can set their roots for a while. That’s how we were able to get a lot of the good people that we have.”

Whatever way you go, when you do bring someone in, give strong consideration to having more than one person interview the candidate if you don’t already do that. It will give you a variety of perspective that can help guide your decision.

“We try to have them interview with at least three or four different people,” Tokarczyk says. “This way, we have an idea where they would best fit in the company.”

One thing that Tokarczyk always asks candidates when he interviews them is why they like transportation.

“You can get all kinds of answers,” Tokarczyk says. “Sometimes, you get an answer like, ‘Hey, my father used to drive and he took me on a trip.’ Some of the customer service girls that we hire, those were the answers we got. So there’s always an aspect of transportation in our employees’ lives, one way or the other. That’s always good to hear. You have to be in it to love it.”

Manage your relationships

Artur Express relies on about 400 independent contractors to deliver freight for clients rather than its own employees.

“They are our partners in this business,” Wagrodzki says. “It’s a 50/50 responsibility. If they don’t make the delivery or if they don’t deliver on time, we’re not going to be able to use them again with this customer. They know it’s a one-time shot.”

One of the things Wagrodzki looks at to determine whether the company is doing well or trending in the wrong direction is the fleet of independent contractors.

“There are always guys who come and leave,” he says. “That’s normal. But once you see that nobody has left for a month or two, you can feel good that the company is doing well. We are providing the service that our customers need.

“You might have other times where something is not working and all of those independent contractors are leaving. Now there is something you need to react to.”

In an attempt to be proactive about relations with the contractors, Artur Express has created a team of people who check in regularly to address questions and concerns before they become a big problem.

“They are constantly on the phone with those contractors asking questions,” Wagrodzki says. “What are we doing wrong? What can we do better for you? That’s a key in this business. We match up contractors and customers, and we manage the process of them picking up the load on time and delivering it on time. Once we have those two parties happy, we’re happy.”

The recession has provided a bit of a challenge in this area as Artur Express has worked hard to help both parties understand what the other is dealing with.

“In some cases, customers don’t want to pay too much and drivers want a lot,” Wagrodzki says. “You have to talk to drivers. ‘Hey, this is the industry right now, this is the market.’ And if the market goes up, you have to go to customers and say, ‘We bid this business for the last two years, but we need an increase now.’ Most of the time they do understand because we move a lot of freight and we know from one customer to another there’s not that big of a difference.”

The key is approaching all relationships with a good attitude and not being afraid of a little conflict that is always going to come up from time to time.

“We never look for a perfect project or for a bulletproof opportunity,” Tokarczyk says. “We’re always looking to take some type of risk. But we’ve learned over the years that you can sit on the sidelines and play it safe or you can play the game. If you play it right, you usually end up on the good side.” <<

How to reach: Artur Express Inc., (800) 487-4339 or

www.arturexpress.com

 

The Tokarczyk and Wagrodzki Files

Tomasz Tokarczyk, president, Artur Express Inc.

Born: Kamienna Góra, Poland

Artur Wagrodzki, president, Artur Express Inc.

Born: Zielona Góra, Poland

Wagrodzki on managing through the recession: If we had to give customers little breaks on the business, we did it. We were able to convince our drivers that we will have the business, and it will be steady. We were lucky enough to make sure our business was diversified. We were working with retail, home goods and a lot of food companies.

Wagrodzki on word-of-mouth recruiting: We were able to hire more independent contractors because the contractors that we had, they talk a lot out on the road. Word-of-mouth is a big deal for transportation. The drivers drive and they talk and if you have good customers and you pay the drivers on time, they can’t ask for more. They just want to join your team and haul your freight.

Wagrodzki on bonuses: We have all different bonus programs set up for our employees and they are revenue-driven bonuses. Retention is a big factor in our business, so we have customized bonus programs for dispatchers and for load planners and all different types of tiers in our operation. Our employees feel that they own a piece of this company. If the company succeeds, we’re going to succeed as well.

Takeaways:

Let your people help you run your business.

Don’t ever stop looking for talent.

Make managing relationships a constant priority.

Andy Kanefield – How to make sure your actions back up your words

Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc.

Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc.

Who hasn’t felt like they’ve been misled by what certain companies profess?

The recording that states, “Your call is very important to us” as you wait 15 minutes to speak to a human being. The bait and switch buried in the fine print of an advertisement.

Businesses, through both behavior and words, suggest that we can expect certain things from them.

These promises are critical to an organization’s identity since potential customers need to know what they can expect from a business before an investment is made. You need a central promise that makes it clear how your business is different than your peers.

Some call it a brand promise. Others call it a brand essence, a differentiator or a unique selling proposition. We happen to call it “signature strength.”

Some businesses clearly do it better than others. Historically, Volvo has been very clear about its promise: safety. While it remains to be seen how its new corporate and brand strategy — “Designed Around You” — will affect the safety record of Volvo’s cars and the public’s perception of the safety promise, Volvo’s past is one of a clear brand promise of safety.

What makes a promise work?

First, the Volvo promise was very clear. There was no confusion about what Volvo wanted to be and wanted consumers to believe. Your customers and consumers need to know how you are different. How else will they know whether or not to try you out?

Secondly, Volvo’s promise was authentic; it was genuine. The surest way to failure is to erode trust by not delivering on your promise.

Third, the promise was simple; there were no qualifiers. As humans, our capacity to retain detail about thousands of brands is understandably limited. Every time we have to process unfamiliar details, our prefrontal cortex devours energy. The Volvo promise was simple. Safety. Period.

Finally, the Volvo promise was relevant. Every car needs to be safe because people are concerned about safety for their children and themselves.

In addition to being characterized by clarity, authenticity, simplicity and relevance, some leaders find it helpful to categorize their central promise.

The insights of Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema in their book, “The Discipline of Market Leaders,” is helpful to many. After studying 80 corporations in 36 markets, they concluded that there are three broad value disciplines: operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy. Each provides a unique customer value.

Operational excellence

These companies are masters of execution that is achieved through standardized, centrally planned operations. Control and efficiency are hallmarks of cultures. Think Walmart.

Product leadership

These companies focus on offering products or services that go beyond the norm and push performance beyond current limits. They are at the vanguard of their industry and are rewarded for their innovation. Think Apple.

Customer intimacy

Companies in this segment focus on satisfying unique needs and building custom solutions. They aspire to be experts in what their customers need and create lasting, loyal relationships. The cultures at these companies empower their people to do what it takes to meet the needs of customers. Think Nordstrom.

Treacy and Wiersema rightly suggest that one can’t excel in all three value disciplines since being all things to all people is a losing game. Their solution is to choose one to excel at — providing the foundation for your signature strength — and be good at the other two disciplines.

What discipline are you the best at? Or perhaps a better question to ask is what discipline do you need to be the best at? Once you decide which value discipline is the best fit, how will you communicate your central promise to your stakeholders in ways that are clear, authentic, simple and relevant?

Whatever you decide, don’t let your promise outrun your performance.

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to discover or maximize your signature strength, you may reach Kanefield at (314) 863-4400 or [email protected]

How Rick McQueen and Kristie VanAuken use ChapStick, T-shirts and tweets to grow a loyal customer following for Akron-Canton Airport

Rick McQueen, president and CEO, Akron-Canton Airport

For 28 years, the late Fred Krum developed the vision for Akron-Canton Airport (CAK), a vision that changed the relationship between the airport and its customers. It involved low fares and complimentary Wi-Fi and massage chairs for passengers. It called for $250 million to modernize airport facilities. The vision was to create “a better way to go” for airline passengers.

Krum cast the vision, and now Rick McQueen is carrying it forward.

Kristie VanAuken, senior vice president and chief marketing & communications officer, Akron-Canton Airport

“Every decision we make, we think about how it impacts our customers, and we make sure that that continues to be a positive impact,” says McQueen, who became president and CEO after Krum retired in 2008. “We want to be a good partner for this region and we want to give back.”

First-time visitors may be surprised at the effort a regional airport would put into delighting its customers — for example, furnishing new guests with gift bags upon arrival, filled with handy items such as ChapStick, Purell and a personal note from McQueen — or offering complimentary Cinnabon coupons on customer appreciation days and free shirts on “T-shirt Tuesdays.”

CAK has also made strides to improve travel experiences, from retrofitting its website with innovative, interactive content to leading the industry in its hands-on social media strategies and partnerships with low-fare carriers.

“We do not want for our customers to feel like there are bricks and mortar between us — that there’s pavement between us — but that we are all doing the same to serve this community, to get them where they need to go, on time, at a price that they can afford,” says Kristie VanAuken, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer for CAK.

This philosophy has paid dividends and not just for the airport. In addition to breaking passenger records for 12 out of the last 15 years, CAK has gradually grown its annual economic impact in Northeast Ohio to about $400 million and 2,250 jobs. Smart Business spoke with McQueen and VanAuken about how CAK continues to refine the vision of “a better way to go” through innovation around the customer experience.

Q. How do new technologies such as digital and social media complement the airport’s vision?

◗ KV: There are a couple of reasons why it really makes sense for us, one being because of the broad adoption. Two, because it’s extremely transparent, and we are a very transparent organization by choice and by orientation as being a government agency. And because it’s really cool to be in conversation with our customers and to learn from them what they want and what they like.

The website was very much a product of what we’ve done on the social media front, and then it was figuring out how do we integrate our strong brand voice — this ‘better way to go’ theory’ — which really has deep meaning for all of us here.

◗ RM: This also goes back to our low-fare commitment. What’s the first thing that you are looking for when you go online to look for an airline ticket — lowest price, right? So if our carriers have the lowest price, and it’s so easy now to go online and check all these different fares, it helps us to have that position where people recognize us.

Q. What were the challenges of building a presence on these new platforms?

◗ KV: You don’t deliver content on social media the same way you do on the website or in the same way you do in a TV ad, but they all have to make sense together. I often go back to this analogy of a rock band. So it’s not everybody strumming the same instrument and the same tune at the same time, but every instrument has to play its part. And it all has to come together to make beautiful music.

Last year, we spent a lot of time thinking about the integration of our brand voice, how the public relations effort really needs to be in concert with everything — stakeholders, airline relations and all of the ways we communicate the things that matter to the community. It needed to have that familiar voice of the airport, that warm, transparent, authentic voice.

Q. You have such a strong brand focus. How does it translate into your new media strategies?

◗ KV: It’s not a top-down strategy. The great thing about social media is that it’s all about the customers themselves. We get to go to their space. Social media is all about what matters to them. It’s their space and we are often welcomed into that, and that is a privilege.

We’re honored every time someone even posts something to our wall. Because the way we look at it is, ‘Look, that customer could do anything with those 30 seconds, but they chose to spend those 30 seconds posting something to our wall. It was the most important thing at that moment to them.’ In our minds, that kind of commitment deserves a swift response and deserves our friendly and compassionate answer to whatever it is that they’re going through.

Q. So how does the airport respond to this feedback?

◗ KV: There are two people on my staff, including myself part-time, who monitor and listen every day to what’s going on in the social media realm. But we’re not trying to supplant our current infrastructure for customer service. We have a customer service manager. If something comes up that needs individualized attention, we bring him in. He’s very skilled at quickly responding to customer needs, working on behalf of a customer who needs to interface with an airline or a car rental company.

Another way to look at it is what do our customers really care about? They tell us all the time, and we respond to that. They want free Wi-Fi. Great, they get it. They really respond to our sparkling clean facilities. They want clean bathrooms. … So we listen. We’re looking at all times for something that we can improve. We’re also listening for areas that maybe we should pay more attention to.

Q. What does it take to stay so responsive?

◗ RM: It’s another level of dedication that most people don’t realize.

I use the analogy of a house of cards shaped in a pyramid. I’m sitting at the top of the pyramid just because of who I am, but if I don’t do my job, the house of cards will fall. If our custodians and our building maintenance folks and our operations people, middle management folks don’t do theirs, imagine if you just take one card out. What happens is the house of cards falls as well. So we all have to work together.

◗ KV: There are a lot of different ways that we’re trying to use the technology to try to engage people where they are. There’s a lot of give and take. We try to send information out that they would find valuable. But we also like to bring in our people and our family orientation here.

Q. Is it just the marketing team that’s involved?

◗ KV: We’ve got five in-house bloggers. We feel like there are a lot of viewpoints on the airfield that are interesting, maybe some behind-the-scenes looks that you simply don’t get from the marketing people. I can’t give you the inside track on some cool thing that’s happening on our operations side or even go out there and talk about construction of our new runway because it’s just not in my DNA like it is theirs. Of course, Rick does his ‘Prez says’ once a month, and that’s an open forum for our customers to ask the top dog here any question that they want.

Q. Ever have any really tough questions?

◗ RM: We’ll have somewhere between 20 to 25 questions each month, and quite frankly, the hardest questions to answer are the ones such as, ‘What’s your favorite airplane?’ Well, that’s hard because I like them all! If it’s just about the operation of the airport — I’ve been here for almost 30 years — those are actually easy for me to answer. But it is great to hear what people have to say, and on occasion, they have suggestions on how we can improve our service, and we’re always interested to hear them. A lot of times, they have new destinations that they’d like to see because they travel there all the time with their families.

Q. How do you reinforce the vision for employees?

◗ RM: Part of our strategy has always included people or other employees here in the facilities that don’t necessarily even work for us — for instance, the courtesy van drivers. We contract the parking lot out. Those folks don’t directly report to us. But they have to buy in to the idea that we need to be ‘a better way to go’ and that we need to take good care of our customers.

Even the Transportation Security Administration go down and talk to all of their new employees about how we want them to interact with our customers, that our niche as a marketplace is very customer-driven, and we really do live and die by our tagline.

We give away ‘Better Way to Go’ awards on a monthly basis. If someone has gone above and beyond the call of duty, whether they’re our employees or an airline employee or a car rental employee, whoever — we give them an award. They come up, and I get to talk to them for a few minutes, thank them personally. We give them a little tchotchke, which is an airport bag or a watch or something of that nature. So we try to reach out and develop the culture that will permeate the place and keep the message front and center — that we need to be a better way to go and that customer service has to be a priority.

Q. What can other leaders do to make their company more customer-centric?

◗ RM: You have to make your employees part of the solution and empower them to make decisions and to do things, to buy in and take ownership. I also think it’s key for them to look around their industry and not be afraid to take other people’s ideas and make them your own.

[That applies to] a lot of the customer amenities that people really like here, for instance, a cell phone lot where you can come in, and as long as you stay with your vehicle, you don’t have to go into the paid parking lot. With the advent of the cell phone, people call you and say, ‘Hey, I just got off the airplane … can you swing around and pick me up?’ Our customer service manager saw that at another airport, but we thought it was such as really good idea we incorporated it into our culture as well.

Q. With the recession, ticket price remains a major factor for airline passengers. Will you be able to keep offering low fares?

◗ RM: It’s interesting because, of course, we don’t set the airfares here — the airlines do. But how we can influence those fares is by the mix of air carriers we have here.

We developed that relationship when AirTran came in 1997, and we’ve been able to keep that leadership as we’ve moved forward. In fact, we just did a study and it shows that currently because of AirTran and now Frontier Airlines, the people in Northeast Ohio are saving about $90 million a year in air travel, because of these low fares.

Q. You also have a new partnership with Southwest Airlines, correct?

◗ KV: It’s very exciting for us to start thinking about our partnership with Southwest Airlines. They have committed to staying at CAK and growing here. It’s such important news for this community because it means that we can continue to offer low fares.

On the communications side specifically, we’re going to look at other media that are out there. We’re currently experimenting in Google+. We’re looking with great interest at Pinterest. (The company has since started a Pinterest account). We’re already on Foursquare. We’ll keep looking at the ways our customers want to be in a relationship with us.

◗ RM: We’re in the midst of the master plan right now, which is one of the things that the Federal Aviation Administration asks us to do anyway — but it couldn’t be coming at a better time for us, coming off of record passenger years — one of the key things for me I learned a long time ago from Fred — and that is to always keep abreast of what’s going on out there because we need to be positioned to take advantage of whatever opportunity comes our way. And we don’t know what those opportunities are. <<

How to reach: Akron-Canton Airport, (888) 434 2359 or www.akroncantonairport.com

The CAK Files

Rick McQueen
President and CEO
Akron-Canton Airport

Kristie VanAuken
Senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer
Akron-Canton Airport

Rick, born: North Canton, Ohio

Kristie, born: Lansing, Mich.

Rick, education: Walsh University

Kristie, education: Austin College (BA), then Western Michigan University (MPA)

What are some things CAK does to make airline travel more fun for people?

Kristie: We had a wonderful customer appreciation day on Valentine’s Day this year. What we wanted to do is delight and excite them, give them that ‘wow’ experience. But on Customer Appreciation Day, it was for everyone who was in the building. It was our opportunity to say thanks for being our customer … so we just wanted to treat them right. We had cupcakes and we had flowers and cookies and free coffee and Cinnabon treats. We also partnered with Delta Airlines and for its first flight of the day we had customized gift bags for every customer that had a bag coming out on our bag belt. So the first thing that the customers saw were gifts for them, individually named, and it was so cool to be down there and see the delight on their faces as they’re searching for their bags and snapping photos. It just created happiness.

Rick: Another thing we’ve been doing is on our website in order to encourage more participation is free T-shirt Tuesdays. You’d be surprised at how many people I see who say, ‘Hey, I keep entering but when am I going to win a T-shirt?’ It’s amazing what people will do for a T-shirt. But once again it’s fun, and it gives them a chance to feel like they are part of what we’re doing.

Kristie: We’ve given away about 400 T-shirts.

 

How Alliance Bus Group supports customers throughout their vehicles’ lives

Doug Dunn, CEO, Alliance Bus Group Inc.

Alliance Bus Group Inc. has become the largest bus dealership in the United States by embracing its service and support philosophy, “Along for the Whole Ride,” and by delivering comprehensive customer care.

Guided by CEO Doug Dunn, Alliance differentiates itself from its competition by supporting its customers throughout the entire term of their bus ownership from purchase through disposal, rather than merely selling the least expensive product and leaving customers to figure out for themselves how to service and support the vehicle.

Alliance has invested heavily in its seven dealerships and in its support staff, and these investments enable the company to service, repair and take care of any bus-related matter. Alliance has a 60,000-square-foot refurbishment facility with a full paint booth, its service facilities have as many as 10 service bays, and the company’s national service network, parts warehouse and on-site inventory allow it to perform every service buses need, from basic oil change to full refurbishment and paint with complete warranty.

“I have been a customer of Alliance Bus Group for four years and purchased multiple vehicles from them” says David Hindman, owner of Kids’ Zone Learning Center and Daycare in Marietta, Ga. “I have been extremely happy with their dealership and particularly their customer service. Every time I’ve had problems with a bus, Alliance has gone above and beyond in making sure I was taken care of and that my business didn’t suffer due to these issues.”

In July 2012, Alliance was named the fourth fastest-growing large middle-market corporation in Georgia by the Atlanta Chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth. “We are honored to have been nominated and recognized,” CEO Doug Dunn says. “It’s a great accomplishment and reflects on our quality personnel and their dedication to seeing Alliance Bus Group succeed.”

How to reach: Alliance Bus Group Inc., (866) 287-4768 or www.alliancebusgroup.com

How Park ’N Fly strives to please customers by giving them more than parking

Anthony L. Paalz Jr., President and CEO, Park ’N Fly

Off-airport parking provider Park ’N Fly says its goal is to create customers for life by attaining its vision of making its customers’ lives easier by providing more than just parking.

This vision is exemplified by Park ’N Fly’s showcase Atlanta Plus lot, where its customers can drop off their dog or cat for boarding at Pet Paradise, have their car parked by a valet, leave their car at Jiffylube to have the oil changed while they’re away, have their car washed or detailed, drop off their luggage, get their boarding pass for their flight, and then ride a Park ’N Fly shuttle to the terminal — all of which certainly qualifies as more than parking.

An important component of Park ’N Fly’s customer service program is its Listen 360 Survey. Park ’N Fly, led by President and CEO Anthony Paalz Jr., is engaged companywide in Net Promoter Score measurements of customer service execution, and it has engaged Listen 360 to survey its customers and provide data on a daily basis via an NPS survey that customer can access online. Park ’N Fly tracks the results weekly by lot and creates trend reports that enable it to monitor how well its lots are doing in serving customers through the customers’ eyes.

Park ’N Fly partners with several companies, such as Inktel Contact Center Solutions, to help it provide its customers with the highest level of service possible.

“We have had the pleasure of being a partner of Park ’N Fly for almost four years,” says Summer Dennis, vice president of client services at Inktel. “Park ’N Fly has been very demanding with us in ensuring that a high level of customer service is provided at all times, and for that we are very grateful. As partners, we have made each other better and have created a better experience for Park ’N Fly customers.”

How to reach: Park ’N Fly, (800) 404-7275 or www.pnf.com

How LocumTenens.com creates matches for hospitals seeking temporary physicians

R. Shane Jackson, President, LocumTenens.com

Founded in 1995, LocumTenens.com is a staffing agency dedicated to helping U.S. hospitals find qualified temporary physicians. The company’s larger mission is to improve the quality of health care by ensuring that patients have access to medical providers whenever and wherever they need them through the use of innovative staffing solutions.

LocumTenens.com’s associates take pride in the fact that due to their efforts, many patients across the country have access to vital health care services they wouldn’t otherwise have. The company’s service promise outlines the guiding principles under which it operates. This promise is distributed to all health care facility clients and health care providers, setting expectations up front on what the company’s level of service should be and providing contact information for the company’s top executives if the promise isn’t met.

Under the leadership of President and COO R. Shane Jackson, LocumTenens.com has built a culture where service is its key differentiator. The company’s tagline, “Obsessively Dedicated to You,” was derived from customer testimonials from physicians who wrote about the dedication of the company’s associates in finding assignments that were perfect fits.

LocumTenens.com ensures that it stays focused on customer service by continually measuring and analyzing its service to health care facilities and the physicians it places into temporary positions. After each assignment is complete, LocumTenens.com surveys both the health care facility client and the physician it placed there.

“Whatever the challenge may be, LocumTenens.com delivers,” says Rexanne Griffeth, physician recruiter for Hannibal Regional Hospital. “The staff is always willing to do whatever it takes to make me, the customer, satisfied. I receive multiple contacts on a daily basis asking for my business with locum providers. However, I have not needed to explore those offers due to the dedication of the LocumTenens.com team.”

How to reach: LocumTenens.com, (800) 930-0748, www.locumtenens.com

How Bardi Heating & Air treats its customers like family

Alex Bardi, Owner, Bardi Heating & Air

Bardi Heating & Air’s corporate motto, “Always, always do the right thing,” is also the personal philosophy of its founders, Alex and Susan Bardi. It’s a tall order, but the company strives to live up to it, judging from the slew of awards it has taken home over the years, including this World Class Customer Service award from Smart Business and two first place awards last year from the Metro Atlanta Better Business Bureau for Best Customer Service and Best Community Service.

Bardi has a core of longtime residential customers that rely on the company for regular maintenance of their home heating and air conditioners. The company regards these maintenance plan customers — members of its “Bardi On! Club” — as its most important customers.

To recognize this, Bardi this year offered those customers two complimentary services: a free whole-house plumbing inspection (a $119 value) and $50 in services to use on HVAC or for plumbing repairs. The coupons, mailed twice to very important customers, have no expiration date to make them as convenient as possible to redeem.

As evidence of Bardi’s commitment to customer service, the company requires that its technicians call customers 10 minutes ahead of a home visit to ask if it’s OK to ring the doorbell. In addition, technicians are required to park their truck on the street so the the driveway won’t be blocked, to request permission to enter the home and to don shoe protection before entering. Some technicians even pick up the newspaper if it’s still on the driveway.

Bardi has a flat-rate pricing guide for both commercial and residential service. Unlike many companies that charge by the hour, Bardi’s upfront pricing is preprinted in a manual, eliminating surprise and excuses.

How to reach: Bardi Heating & Air, (770) 263-5355, www.bardi.com