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Best Love of Product: True Believers

How some companies cultivate their employees' pride in and passion for their employer and/or product.
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BEST LOVE OF PRODUCT
Pride in, and passion for, a business's product or service is one of the most powerful workplace enhancers around. The smartest companies cultivate it

Love of product produces greater job satisfaction for employees and a better bottom line for employers. Read all the management tomes you'd like, consult the experts, and chances are, you still won't find any data to support that assertion. "It's like asking whether marriages in which there is love are better than marriages in which there isn't. You can't prove it, but it's obvious," says University of Southern California School of Business professor James O'Toole, who has been studying management issues for 25 years.

Anecdotally, at least, the evidence points to O'Toole's conclusion. If you're running a company in which employees are wild about your product or service, you're much more likely to have an enthusiastic work force, one that goes all out for the company. Some company owners, of course, just luck out -- their products attract hobbyists or craftspeople who wouldn't work for another company for love or money (or better benefits or flextime). Other owners, believing that employees who love their company's products tend to love their jobs as well, have devised ways to make even the most ordinary products interesting and important to employees.

Still, you can't do any better than to hire someone who already is an avid fan. Ask Zymöl Enterprises CEO Chuck Bennett about Laurence Zankowski. Zankowski was an auto detailer who was crazy about Zymöl organic car wax, no matter what the price. (An eight-ounce jar sells for $40, and customized blends, in larger quantities, fetch four digits.) "I'd buy two jars," Zankowski recalls. "One to use, and one to keep in my cupboard to look at." When Zankowski discovered that the wax was produced nearby, in North Branford, Conn., he hightailed it to corporate headquarters.

"After that I would pester them constantly, calling at least three times a week," he says. "When I started work here, I actually found records of my calls in the logbooks, saying, 'It's Laurence again.' " Less than a year later Zankowski's job description includes technical and customer-service support (manning the technical phone line); sales and marketing (traveling to BMW headquarters to discuss the finer points of a Zymöl finish); new-product development (he's currently pitching a CD-ROM laser-disc cleaner to the likes of Microsoft); and graphics support (he's working on the logo for a special Harley-Davidson wax). "My passion for this product is what keeps me going," he says. "Because of this, I'm willing to bend over backward for the company."

Zankowski's zeal for his product cannot be bought. It can be cultivated, however. Consider Monette Paparotti, a customer-service rep for Giro Sport Design, a manufacturer of bicycle helmets in Soquel, Calif. Although the company attracts its share of hard-core cyclists, Paparotti was not among them. "As far as I was concerned, if there was air in my tires, that was fine," she says. Giro offers each employee a helmet at a discount, a perk Paparotti took advantage of. By the end of her first year at Giro -- after rubbing elbows with fellow employees who were former world-class athletes, and having designers seek her opinion (Do you like this color? Would you wear this?) -- Paparotti was a convert to the helmets and to mountain-bike racing. When she is out cycling, she finds herself hailing those wearing battered non-Giro helmets and telling them about Giro's guarantee to replace damaged helmets for a nominal fee. "Here I am, out on the trails doing PR work for Giro!" she says.

Survey after survey shows that employees today want to feel good about what they do; they want to feel they are making a contribution to society. Tim Plaskett, Giro's shipping supervisor for the past five years, is a case in point. Plaskett, an avid cyclist, was attracted to Giro because he liked the product. His appreciation escalated, however, when he began dealing with incoming helmets from the crash-replacement program. They're often accompanied by letters from grateful cyclists, who describe how their Giro helmets saved their lives. "This really makes you understand what you're doing," says Plaskett. To encourage all employees to appreciate the importance of the product, the company posts and circulates the letters.

Manco, in Westlake, Ohio, a manufacturer of labels, weather stripping, and duct tape, also circulates letters from appreciative customers. One of the favorite Manco events of national account team leader Marcia Carlson was the contest soliciting customers' most innovative uses for duct tape. There was the pet tortoise whose cracked shell was held together with tape. And the photo that came in of the prizewinning apple tree grafted with tape. And the postoperative patient who used duct tape to hold her bandages in place.

Thanks to a heavy emphasis on training and information sharing at monthly companywide meetings, Manco excels at keeping all employees up to speed on the status and flow of its products from producer to end-user. Diane Walsh, product manager in Manco's home-office-products division, says people in her manufacturing area "take pride in making a store display because they know where it's going." Walsh herself can't resist the impulse to check Manco displays whenever she's in a hardware store.

Another company that emphasizes its product's role for the end-user is Great Plains Software, in Fargo, N. Dak. Dave Gaboury, Great Plains's original programmer, spends most of his time writing software. Like the other employees, however, Gaboury is expected to spend some time with customers, whether by manning the customer-service phones, monitoring the on-line customer-suggestion database, attending trade shows, sitting in on new-product training classes, or hosting sessions with resellers and installers. "You know customers are out there, but seeing them makes it real," he says. "When you learn that one of our products lets a manager do payroll in two hours instead of two nights, that kind of stuff really slaps you in the face."

At Odwalla, in Davenport, Calif., a maker of fruit and vegetable juices, it's the delivery-truck drivers who have face-to-face interaction with customers. The company has 35 trucks on the road, and each driver receives customer feedback at every stop along the route. Talk to the drivers, and you'll vouch that they are the most enthusiastic advocates of the product. Odwalla has also invested over a million dollars in technology, outfitting each truck with a hand-held computer to track inventory and do invoices on the spot.

Odwalla goes to great lengths to educate employees about the nutritional value of its juices. It also taste-tests potential new products in-house, holds product-naming contests among employees, and allots each employee a pint of juice for every day worked (two pints a day for drivers). The upshot of that effort for a driver making a delivery, says former-driver-turned-company-accountant Cindy Burns: "It's nice to have a product you can believe in. And you aren't afraid when you are asked questions."

Bobbie Jacobs, vice-president of marketing, takes it a step further. The drivers, she says, are Odwalla's public-relations team. Alonzo Arana, a former driver and currently Odwalla's fleet manager, concurs. "My friends tease me, say I sound like a salesman." But, Arana says, when you make a delivery, "you really feel like the ice-cream man."

The employee/therapists at Comprehensive Rehabilitation Center (CRC), in Edina, Minn., directly observe the effect of their work on "customers." They work hard and conscientiously because they believe in their chosen profession. They also work better, smarter, and with less burnout because their company appreciates them, supports them, and provides professional opportunities for them. That, they say, is what sets CRC apart from other employers and why they sing its praises.

Although the therapists are employed by CRC, they work at 40 outside facilities, including nursing homes, day-care centers, and developmental-achievement centers. CRC works hard to prevent the sense of isolation that can crop up in such organizations. At the employees' request, for example, it has just started a newsletter to keep employees abreast of news and goings-on within the company. Vicki Meade has been a pediatric physical therapist for 17 years, the last 2 at CRC. "CRC," she says, "is very open to our creating what we need to best serve the people we deal with." By its actions the company shows it shares its therapists' values. Elena Bohman, a speech pathologist, tells how CRC let her go ahead and treat one of her patients when it was virtually a foregone conclusion that the company would not be reimbursed. CRC's rationale, in Bohman's words: "They want to keep their customers and facilities happy, but they also want to keep us happy."


BEST LOVE OF PRODUCT

Comprehensive Rehabilitation Center

Edina, Minn.

Rehabilitation agency

52 employees, $2.1 million in revenues

Encourages therapists' initiative in providing extra services. Promotes a sense of belonging among scattered therapists.

Giro Sport Design

Soquel, Calif.

Bicycle-helmet maker

135 employees, $20 million in sales (Inc. estimate)

Circulates letters from customers to show employees how product saves lives.

Great Plains Software

Fargo, N. Dak.

Accounting-software developer

450 employees, $35 million in sales (Inc. estimate)

Provides several avenues for employees' direct interaction with customers, including an annual meeting with resellers.

Manco

Westlake, Ohio

Manufacturer of duct tape, weather stripping, mailing supplies

175 employees, $79 million in sales

With the help of its fuzzy duck mascot, goes all out to put meaning into everyday products (like duct tape).

Odwalla

Davenport, Calif.

Fresh-juice producer

150 employees, $20 million in sales

Solicits employees' input in naming and formulating new flavors. Circulates news on nutrition and vitamins through a newsletter and voice mail.

Zymöl Enterprises

North Branford, Conn.

Car-wax maker

8 employees, $2.4 million in sales

Enables employees to visit upscale events and places (Newport, R.I., and Pebble Beach classic-auto shows; BMW headquarters).

Last updated: Jul 1, 1993




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