Arthur Andersen 1999 Gateway Best Practices Awards.
By Cheryl Walker
The Gateway Best Practices Awards program is a regional component of an international campaign sponsored annually by Arthur Andersen, the global professional services firm. The program is designed to honor the best practices of emerging and middle-market companies in vital business processes and to provide a forum in which companies can exchange practical solutions to today’s business challenges.
The program targets companies with $2 billion or less in sales. Participants submit entries in one of three categories. Award recipients are selected from an independent panel of judges who include business and community leaders. All participants receive a Best Practices benchmarking report. Local winners are eligible to compete in the international level of the Best Practices program.
“The Gateway Best Practices AwardsSM program is a showcase of the St. Louis region’s most outstanding business practices,” says Laurie Hopkins, senior manager in charge of the Enterprise practice for Arthur Andersen–St. Louis. “The opportunity for both recognition and knowledge sharing among area companies makes this a truly unique and rewarding event.”
The 1999 Gateway Best Practices Symposium on e-Business was held on October 27 at the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the BJC Health System campus. The full-day event featured the awards presentation for each of the four categories. Presenting the Gateway Best Practices awards were Laurie Hopkins and Dick Fleming, president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis RCGA.
The keynote speaker was J. Russell Gates, an Arthur Andersen partner from the Chicago office who is also the co-author of The Clickable Corporation: Successful Strategies for Capturing the Internet Advantage. Gates co-wrote this book with two others from Arthur Andersen, Douglas Armstrong and Jonathan Rosenoer. Gates currently leads Arthur Andersen’s Computer Risk Management practice in North America and is the worldwide head of the Electronic Commerce Risk Consulting and Assurance initiatives. He has also contributed to the Firm’s policy papers on security technologies and risk management.
St. Louis Commerce Magazine honors the 1999 Gateway Best Practices Award recipients.
Exceeding Customer Expectations
For companies that keep customers coming back.
United Van Lines
"The genius of our quality system is that it's defined and consistent."
- Robert J. Baer, President, United Van Lines
Dispelling myths and assumptions is one way to describe the journey to customer service and quality at United Van Lines, an international commercial and residential moving company headquartered in Fenton. For example, it might be logical to conclude that a mailed customer satisfaction survey will be completed by those who want to complain about their move, making it difficult to obtain a true, balanced picture of service quality.
With a 32 percent survey return rate and an 84 percent affirmative response to the question, “would you recommend United Van Lines to a friend?,” the mover disproves the assumption and reaps the benefits of gathering honest customer feedback.
“We send a comprehensive customer satisfaction survey, measuring more than 65 attributes, following more than 80,000 moves each year,” explains Robert Serben, director of quality management, organization development and training for United Van Lines. It’s his department’s job to align the company’s training programs with the elements of providing quality customer service.
United’s current customer satisfaction data gathering and reporting mechanism is the result of a quality journey, which began at the company more than 15 years ago. At the time United President Robert J. Baer recognized that quality had to be more than a fad. To be successful, it had to be integrated into a company’s fabric. He and his management team analyzed data about United Van Lines and its position in the industry, and concluded that to be “the best in class,” it had to begin viewing the moving process through the customer’s eyes.
Baer points out United faced a number of challenges on the road to “exceeding customer expectations.” Among them: a residential move is often cited as the third most stressful life event behind a divorce or death of a family member and consequently customers expect problems; clients tend to not think about moving companies until a real need arises; and the moving industry does not determine its own growth — rather the pool of available customers each year is determined by many factors out of United’s control.
In addition, United Van Lines is actually owned by its agents, each an independent business operator in his or her own market. This structure offers both strengths and challenges in providing seamless service to the customer. Most moving customers are oblivious to the fact that in the course of a single move, three to five agents may be involved, with activities including estimates, sales, packing and unpacking, storage and transportation.
Though at first skeptical, agents are now advocates of the extensive analysis of both customer and agent satisfaction surveys, Serben reports. United Van Lines operates within its Five-Step Process for Quality, which Serben describes as simple but not simplistic.
- Pledge of customer service.
- Standards of performance with 10 performance definitions.
- Measure, how well United performs in relation to the standards.
- Training focusing on behaviors that please customers.
- Recognition, involving awards at all levels for achievements in quality.
Baer has led the charge ever since the early phase of embracing quality, when the corporate culture was most fragile. Since the quality process was introduced in the 1980s, United’s share of the professional, intercity household moving market has advanced from 16 percent to 24 percent. And United has advanced from third place to become the largest mover in the industry.
“We believe this is more than coincidence,” Baer says. “The genius of our quality system is that it’s defined and consistent. We can retain the Five Step Process and continue to embrace new technology.”
And embracing technology has been a component of United Van Lines service to customers. Baer notes the company has invested heavily in equipment and services that help meet or exceed customer expectations. United has the ability to track vans and shipment locations via satellite. In addition, the customer satisfaction survey results include easy-to-read reports illustrated with graphics.
“The survey results help us pinpoint where we are communicating effectively and where we have room for improvement,” Serben explains, adding that the information is used in developing the van line’s training programs.
Serben continues, “We empower van operators and other staff to help solve customer issues immediately, or know where to call to resolve any situation. As a result, it is not unusual for a customer to specifically mention appreciation for a van operator’s help during a move. The ability to make something right is as important as the original transaction.”
"We receive many cards, photos and e-mails each week from customers expressing what a special experience it is to shop at Build-A-Bear."
- Maxine Clark, Chief Executive Bear of Build-A-Bear Workshop
“We don’t talk to our staff much about profits,” states Maxine Clark, “chief executive bear” of Build-A-Bear Workshop. “Not that profits aren’t important, but we believe the customer’s service experience is most important—and that’s what drives profits in retail.”
Clark, a 25-year veteran of the retail business, believes it’s a privilege when customers come to a store to create a memory. She assures every new employee participates in an extensive three-week training program with the goal of making people smile.
Build-A-Bear Workshop, founded two years ago, is exactly what the name implies—and more. Customers, mostly children, become active participants in the process of creating a teddy bear or other stuffed animal of their choice. The store also features related merchandise such as outfits for the critters from sports uniforms to holiday themes.
Though most bears are created for children, customers come in all sizes. Clark reports a recent visit to the St. Louis store from a group of cheerleaders who created bears and dressed them in cheerleader uniforms. Customers may come in as a family or as a group for a birthday party. Most parties are held for the under age 10 crowd, of course.
This ingenious business opened as a single St. Louis store in 1997 and by the end of 1999 Build-A-Bear will have 14 locations in various middle-America cities.
In Myrtle Beach, families bring lawn chairs and line-up as early as two hours before the store opens. “We knew Myrtle Beach was a popular destination along the Atlantic coast,” Clark says. “If we had any idea how popular Build-A-Bear would be there, we’d have started with the expanded store we’ll have completed next year!”
Though it’s the busiest Build-A-Bear location, Myrtle Beach is not the only place where children of all ages stand in line for their turns. And while in line, the Build-A-Bear experience begins. Staffers sing songs and play games with customers, only half of whom are under age 12. To keep the lines moving, Build-A-Bear team members help indecisive shoppers choose a style of animal and a name (each stuffed critter is unique, leaving the store with its own birth certificate).
“We receive many cards, photos and e-mails each week from customers expressing what a special experience it is to shop at Build-A-Bear,” Clark explains. “That’s what we want. It’s retailing that is not just about price, but about creating an experience much as at a restaurant or amusement park.”
Clark is particularly fond of this similarity, because she has been a “student” of the Walt Disney empire and admires how they have developed a magical experience for visitors. Her career path to creating Build-A-Bear was grounded in traditional and discount retailing, though.
In the early 1970s, Clark began as an executive trainee with the May Department Stores. She worked her way through several positions with Famous-Barr, Venture and Payless Shoes. In 1993, she became president of Payless Shoes and grew the company’s market share from 16 to 20 percent of all shoes sold in America. In addition, under Clark’s leadership, Payless Kids stores grew from 20 to more than 750 locations.
This was the beginning of her dream of specialty retailing for children. Just as May was deciding to spin off its successful Payless Shoe Source division, Clark seized the opportunity to start her own business.
“I hadn’t considered becoming an entrepreneur until shortly before making the move,” Clark recalls. “After more than 20 years with May companies, I departed with a satisfactory fund to start a business. At the time, I hadn’t established a direction.”
Realizing she wanted to be involved in children’s retailing and creativity, Clark scoured the nation and the Internet for an idea or an opportunity that could be licensed, reasoning this was the most sensible approach. After visiting a toy factory, she recognized the kernel of an idea and went to work. Following a lengthy and unsuccessful attempt to purchase the toy factory, Clark realized the potential was unique. She decided to create it her way and the Build-A-Bear Workshop was launched.
Clark credits her friends and staff with many of the wonderful ideas that make Build-A-Bear special from the company name to the placing of a tiny puff-pillow heart inside each bear. From the start, Build-A-Bear has had an advisory board of 20 children ages 6 to 14, representing the stores’ primary target group.
“We don’t put anything in the stores without the advisory board’s review and approval,” Clark explains. “This may sound cumbersome, but the results are in the sales and positive influences.”
In addition to the advisory board, Build-A-Bear actively seeks comments from customers through a formal survey system. The focus is not just on the products, but the entire shopping experience.
Clark acknowledges that it is with parents’ money that the purchases are made, but the real “customer” is often the child. She emphasizes the importance of treating all customers with respect and joy.
“You shouldn’t have to spend more money to get a person to smile,” is a favorite motto of Clark’s.
Motivating and Retaining Employees
For companies that empower people to give their best.
Kupper Parker Communications Inc.
"We manage for the future."
- Bruce Kupper, President, Kupper Parker Communications Inc.
The communication profession, primarily advertising and public relations agencies, is notorious for high employee turnover. So how did such a firm land on the list for Best Practices in Motivating and Retaining Employees?
Kupper Parker Communications Inc. President, Bruce Kupper, sees it as a simple formula of selecting the right team members, empowering them to make a difference and offering compensation and recognition. The key is the management team’s continuous attention to details and occasional sacrifice of short-term gains for the long-term success of the organization.
“One of the reasons the communication business has a high turnover rate is the assets go home at night,” Kupper says. “The catalyst for moving KPC from a localized company to a regional communications firm has been that we set our cornerstone as ‘success with people.’”
Before founding Kupper Parker Communications (KPC) in 1977, Kupper was a manager with a large international agency where he saw “people treated as cogs in a big machine.” He recognized that communication is about relationships and relationships change with communication situations.
First in the formula is finding the right people. KPC is now in the position where candidates seek them, but managers also scour the country for professional talent. Though it makes the selection process lengthy, all senior managers meet with each candidate.
“We want candidates to know our environment, that it’s entrepreneurial,” Kupper explains. “Next, we are often willing to bring in key people for more than 90 days without any short-term payoff for the company.”
He continues, “We individualize work with our clients. Seventy percent of your job should be what you want it to be. So we allow for flextime and other accommodations as long as the clients are satisfied. The remaining 30 percent of the job is the stuff you have to do—attend meetings, prepare client status reports or submit timesheets.”
KPC has an interactive review process, which is empowering for both management and staff. “We promote thoughtful failure at KPC,” Kupper says. “And we don’t believe in firing employees. Rather, if it doesn’t work out, even after moving the person to another position, we see it also as a management failure for not recognizing who was best suited for the job.”
To prevent layoffs, Kupper notes, any single client is only 8 to 10 percent of KPC’s business. This strategy does affect short-term profits, he notes.
“I want to grow the company, not sell it,” Kupper states. “We manage for the future.”
Another key aspect of retention and motivation is empowerment. Kupper believes KPC has a team structure that allows individuals to make decisions and not get bogged down in a company hierarchy. He wants the KPC environment to be entrepreneurial for each staff member.
KPC boasts the highest percentage of revenue in the industry that goes back to employees—70 percent versus 55 percent. The trade-off is Kupper offers no country club memberships or company cars to key staff.
“In many ways, it’s their company,” Kupper notes. “Major decisions are frequently voted on as a team, and we’re all dedicated to tangible, measurable results for clients. Compensation and recognition stem from that.”
Even now that KPC has grown to more than 200 employees in seven cities, there are a number of get-togethers and celebrations that build and strengthen the team. In addition, certain rewards are individualized for particular achievements. Outstanding performers may receive a trip or a day at the spa, packages designed for their personal interests.
“We want to do things that show people we really care,” Kupper says.
As a final component in his effort to develop staff, Kupper emphasizes continuous learning. KPC pays for half of most education and training or seminars employees attend. In addition, the company expects employees to seek out and request training opportunities at least annually.
“If you’re not learning, you’re not growing,” Kupper states.
For companies that have a vision and the ability to make it real.
"Business to business e-commerce is the real thing coming up now."
- Randy Schilling, President and CEO, Solutec Inc.
Be first, be best or be different—that’s the overriding philosophy catapulting Solutech, Inc. into the position of Strategic Leadership. And Randy Schilling, Solutech president and CEO, has remarkable success delivering strategic technology in middle America’s secondary markets, often overlooked by large technology services firms.
Schilling started Solutech seven years ago as a technology training and consulting organization. From the beginning, he focused on markets underserved in the area of emerging technology. After being established and recognized in training, it was a logical step to offer new services to businesses in these local markets.
In addition to training, Solutech now provides an array of technology services from custom software to Internet and e-commerce solutions, with Internet-related professional services a fast-growing segment of the business. The company has grown to 12 offices in Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Des Moines, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville, Omaha, St. Louis and Sacramento.
“We’ve replicated our St. Louis success across the Midwest by focusing on cities that are home to outstanding companies, but not considered top-tier markets like New York or LA,” Schilling says. “They are eager to explore emerging technology. That gave us the opportunity to first offer certain tools and services in these areas.”
The Gateway Best Practices judges recognized the company in part for Solutech’s Digital Nervous System (SDNS), a client server application providing Internet tools for professional services. The SDNS helps employees, customers and suppliers. Clients can reduce paper and provide real-time, online sharing of company vital statistics such as employee timesheets, customer orders, schedules and financial data. It’s also a backbone for e-commerce projects.
“Business to business e-commerce is the real thing coming up now,” Schilling observes. “Things are accelerating, and we’ve been involved in a number of exciting projects.”
For the St. Charles County Library system, Solutech helped put the entire card catalog in a database with access available through the Internet. Library customers can now look for books and reserve them over the Internet and pick them up on the way home from work.
In Kentucky, citizens may now obtain fishing licenses at a state Web site. And a family-owned Iowa insurance company now offers a powerful policy database to its independent agents.
The company’s digital graphics group recently enhanced the Saint Louis Zoo Web site so that by the end of 1999, browsers will be able to shop at the zoo store, enroll as a Zoo friend or adopt an animal.
Solutech also has developed SDNS applications for the hot new Palm Pilot VII, which features wireless Internet access to information in the corporate database.
“Each of these solutions helps the organization save time and money and remain competitive,” Schilling says. “We recognized a shift a few months ago, before Microsoft changed its vision statement from putting a personal computer on every desk to empowering people through software that runs anywhere, anytime and on any device.”
He continues, “Solutech wants to create solutions for new needs. We work closely with a variety of vendors on new technology, and we are constantly learning. Whenever Solutech staff are together, it’s all about learning, not just listening to management.”
Plus, as a business partner with leading technology vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle, Rational and Sybase, Solutech is a regular participant at their forums where new products and ideas are previewed.
People join the Solutech team in order to grow and be involved with new technology. To avoid getting mired in support of aging technology, Solutech focuses on short-term projects for clients where they can provide a new technology solution for a long-term benefit.
To be a real strategic partner to clients, Solutech knows they can’t afford to be stale. Schilling says his team is quick to identify action items and develop the right solutions at the right time.
“We meet challenges and opportunities head-on and keep them out in the open,” Schilling says. “I started Solutech because I knew how much untapped technology was available to the business world, and I wanted to help companies adapt emerging technology to solve business problems. I believe that captures the spirit of the strategic leadership award.”
Cherly Walker is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.
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