Most people assume that certain things about contemporary office technology are a given -- computers, telephones, voice mail. But Paul Estenson, CEO of E Group (#469), a Minneapolis-based marketing-services company, isn't most people. When he started the business, in 1994, funds were so tight that he opted not to purchase a voice-mail service as part of his telecom plan. Instead, he set up a chain of command within E Group to route customers' phone calls to a live person within the company who could help callers with their requests.

As his business grew and funds became available for an automated-messaging service, Estenson decided to stick to his live-only system; he'd been frustrated too many times by getting a supplier's voice mail during the business day, when he needed information at once. (After hours, E Group does resort to using voice mail, however.) "We're in a last-minute, we-want-it-yesterday industry, where our customers have specific needs to be addressed immediately," says Estenson. "If we miss a call or procrastinate on a voice message, our customers call our competition -- and we can't afford that. We answer every call and service the customer right then and there."

That strategy, he believes, has given E Group a competitive edge. And while his unusual tactics have been questioned by business advisers and associates, Estenson stands firmly behind his low-tech policy -- as do his customers. Surveys show that 90% of E Group's customers applaud his anti-voice-mail stance. --Mike Leonard

What's one of the key components to a restaurant's success? Well, food, ambience, and location, of course. But if a restaurateur can't figure out how to speed up the dining experience to turn over tables multiple times during peak lunch or dinner hours while still allowing diners to feel welcome and well tended to, profits will never become part of the mix. Stephen Kline, who along with his wife, Bo, co-owns Typhoon (#417), a small chain of Thai restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, is well aware of that imperative. That's why he's working with Vectron Systems, a German software company, to develop a handheld computer system that would supersede the centralized touch-screen computer that's the industry norm. By switching to handhelds, which are still very cutting-edge for the restaurant world, Kline estimates that his waitstaff could save 15 minutes per table. "They'd be able to place orders more quickly and get notification from the kitchen as soon as dishes were ready," he says.

The system that Kline is hoping to install is a complicated one, since Typhoon has a complex menu that includes 60 to 70 regular dishes, 150 to 200 variations, and specials. Kline is planning to test the new handhelds in two of his four restaurants by mid-November. --Evelyn Roth

Now Manage, Dammit

Hiring and Retention
Employment Guaranteed, for Life
Keeping It Flexible

High Tech / Low Tech
Only Connect
Man vs. Machine

A Strategic Misalliance

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