Finding little things and executing them well doesn't have to be complicated, or even expensive -- only ingenious. And it doesn't require a glamorous setting. I saw it pay off under quite ordinary circumstances at Original Copy Centers Inc., a local purveyor of bulk-copying services in Cleveland. Before Original's two irrepressible owners came along, quick printers were content to vend their wares from grungy storefronts staffed by clerks straight out of Dickens. But they've been left in the dust.
Of course, it takes someone totally devoted to a life of business to be able to start with only a single leased Xerox copier and a couple of overdrawn credit cards, and in a few years take a place on the INC. 500 fast-growth list twice -- without ever having left downtown Cleveland. Suffice it to summarize that Original was founded back in 1975 by one Nancy Vetrone, a divorcee with four kids. As fate shortly was to decree, one of her first clients was Robert E. Bieniek, an erstwhile communications teacher. Vetrone and Bieniek decided to become partners (she president and chief executive officer, he executive vice-president of marketing) and to get married. Out of the union came a succession of blessed little things so clever and effective that even their major supplier, Xerox, had to admire them -- and then go into direct competition.
Here are a few of the tactics, selected from the profusion that is conscientiously under flux at Original. "Fine-tuning," the owners call the never-ending process. I've rarely seen so much attention lavished on so many seemingly mundane details.
ITEM: For the holidays, Original gives five gallons of popcorn to each key contact. Because 15-inch-by-12-inch tins are not as easily squirreled away as travel clocks (the mementos the company used to send), recipients have little choice but to put out the tins -- emblazoned with Original's slogan -- for everyone to share.
PAYOFF: The buttered-up reminder impresses a variety of subordinates, any of whom -- if not now, then perhaps sometime in the future -- might be the one responsible for purchasing Original's services.
ITEM: Original's marketing department culls local papers for the names of newsmaking customers or prospects. In a few days, the newsmaker receives Original's Certificate of Originality -- but not in a mailing tube. The citation is framed and ready for hanging. "If you don't put it under glass for them," Bieniek suspects, "it will get stuffed in a drawer."
PAYOFF: "People keep telling us, 'Hey, I saw your award on the wall over at so-and-so's'."
ITEM: Original rents display space at just about every trade show that passes through town. The shows are open to the 60,000-odd businesses in northeast Ohio's Cuyahoga County, yet, Bieniek reflects, "sometimes only a couple hundred turn up. It blows my mind that 59,800 others don't bother to get off their duffs." Bieniek made the trade-show connection a few years back when he happened by the Great Lakes Industrial Show, which features manufacturing equipment. In one small booth, a company was peddling three-ring binders -- just the binders, not anything to put in them. "If this guy can sell binders, we sure can sell copying," Bieniek reasoned. But not by copying the booth next door. "We'll be near a company that might have 2,000 employees," marvels Bieniek, "and they'll have the same lone guy sitting around all day reading magazines." At Original's booth, it's impossible to sit around: the booth purposely has no chairs. Half a dozen stand-up employees work the crowd for a few hours, then are replaced by a fresh set.
PAYOFF: The Original presence is distinguished by its vigor -- a refreshing approach credited with landing several top customers.
ITEM: For years, Original relied on outside delivery people. But the hired hands were all thumbs; they would drop packages in the mud, misplace boxes, and trust the destinies of entire jobs to outdoor loading docks. So Original enlisted its own drivers. But they didn't have much get-up-and-go either until Bieniek happened to be met at an airport by a Rolls-Royce with a driver, in a silk suit. This driver wasn't a driver, his business associate bragged; someone of such status is a courier. Impressed, Bieniek bestowed on his then-ragtag deliverers the official title of couriers, and outfitted them in natty uniforms.
PAYOFF: Original pays obsessive attention to pickups and deliveries. "Spoiling customers sets us apart from the competition," says Bieniek of the drivers' painstaking round-trips. Original's home teamsters have compiled intricate maps of the innards of every commercial building in Cleveland and now execute nearly 300 missions per day. "Most delivery people view themselves as delivery people," notes Vetrone. "Ours view themselves as an image. They're young and attractive and have a zest for life. They like to talk to customers, and they know all the receptionists' names."
ITEM: What with flexible schedules and up to 20 overtime hours per week, production-line workers come and go irregularly. Yet there is no official time clock. Employees just pencil in their own cards.
PAYOFF: "It works both ways," says Vetrone. "I don't want them to think we don't trust them; they don't nickel-and-dime us, either."
ITEM: Original's sales force has quotas -- but not dollar amounts. Each of the five account executives responsible for new sales induces two businesses a week to tour its new spit-and-polish plant. To be sure, watching sheets of paper emerge from machines has only limited fascination, but the visitors are lured by gourmet meals sent over from Sammy's, Cleveland's priciest restaurant.
PAYOFF: "The tour shows them we're not the corner printer," explains Vetrone, "but that we are a corporation like they are, and we do corporate work like they do." Of the touring prospects thus convinced, Original has been able to convert a majority into customers.
ITEM: While most companies provide a lounge for their employees, Original has built an employees' laundry room into its new three-story facility. Because the average age of Original's 76 employees is under 30 and the average marital status is single, a place to wash clothes struck the owners as an apropos perk for hardworking employees. Original also provides a six-person sauna, dressing rooms and showers, a 16-seat theater with antique movie-house chairs and surround-sound stereo, an exercise room, a game room with a billiards table, use of the company's personal computers, assorted arcade games, a kitchen, and free coffee. "These people are doing mundane tasks," Bieniek says of Original's employees. "You have to give them a pleasant environment. We hope that the building is as nice as or better than their private living conditions, so they'll be in a hurry to get here and they won't be in a hurry to leave."
PAYOFF: The production staff avidly seeks extra hours, often abandoning their weekend plans to lend a hand in emergencies. And in Original's 12 years of operation, only three employees have quit.
ITEM: The Original Copy Centers staff attends a multitude of events and benefits throughout the city, handing out "I'm an Original" stickers wherever they go. At least half a million of them have been dispensed to passersby at such unlikely settings as the Cleveland Indians Behind-the-Fence Baseball Party, and the Warehouse District Halloween Parade. The sticker bears no commercial identity, not even the company's phone number. "We're interested in pushing our name, not in writing business," says Bieniek, a staunch advocate of inflating a business's image by making it seem to be everywhere.
PAYOFF: "It gives us an opportunity to explain who we are when they ask, 'Original -- what's that?" Bieniek explains. Indeed, original-minded office workers have been sticking the proclamation on computer terminals, desktops, and restroom mirrors throughout the city. The great unwashed may complain, but, counters Bieniek, "The best thing any business can hear is people saying they see your name all over the place."
ITEM: Every new account is contacted by phone and asked how it heard about Original; every old account that hasn't done repeat business within 90 days is asked how come it forgot about Original.
PAYOFF: Customers feel good about being asked questions, Bieniek finds -- a discovery Original parlays into a two-way learning experience. For its part, Original is delighted to learn that its biggest source of new business, 52%, is referrals. Also learned: Original's name-seeding campaign is so effective that some customers report that they found out about Original through print or TV ads that never existed. For their part, the customers must be impressed with Original's telephoned desire to please: are you unhappy with our service? Have your needs changed? Original also relies on such exchanges to clean up its contact lists. Frequently, it turns out that unheard-from-again accounts haven't really been lost, but that individuals have moved on. Since Original began checking, the accumulation of dead file names has been reduced from 50% to 7%. Nonetheless, Original doesn't do the dialing itself. "When you bring thelemarketing in-house," explains Vetrone, "you tend to make it an entry-level function -- let Susie try a few calls when she's done stuffing envelopes. The people at the firm we work with get paid to make calls."
ITEM: With three around-the-clock shifts, Original's customers can bring in rush jobs at any hour, seven days a week. "People in service have to commit themselves to service," proclaims Vetrone, a veteran of long nights of copier feeding. "Why don't beauticians ask themselves when most people need to get their hair done?" she wonders. "It's not between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., but from 5:00 p.m. until midnight. A smart organization services the largest segment of the population."
PAYOFF: Searching for something distinctive to say about itself in promotions, the fledgling company couldn't justify "fastest growing" or "largest." But by staying up late to get jobs done by dawn, it could -- and did -- claim "number one in turnaround" without challenge from the slugabed competition. Now, the $3.3-million company can claim to be the largest and the fastest growing.