I've long believed that, in any company, everybody sells. By that I mean that everybody plays a role in the sales process. Whether people work in operations, customer service, or even accounting, they have an impact on customers, and that impact -- good or bad -- will influence the sales force's ability to close deals and retain accounts.
The effect, in other words, is indirect. I always figured it had to be. I couldn't imagine how people outside sales could be directly responsible for landing new accounts. But about three months ago, my employees taught me a lesson that has changed the way I look at selling.
It was actually my wife, Elaine, who got the ball rolling. We'd been hearing some complaints from customers about the response they'd received when they phoned in, and Elaine -- who, among other things, is our head of human resources -- was determined to do something. She found a company that specialized in training phone representatives and arranged to have a trainer fly in for three days of workshops. The company claimed that everyone could benefit from the program, so Elaine decided to include all 60 of our full-time salaried employees, about half of the on-site work force at our box-storage business.
The investment wasn't peanuts -- $10,000 for the trainer, plus the paid time of all those people -- and I was skeptical that we'd get much out of it. It's extremely difficult, I've learned, to foster long-term changes in behavior. I figured the effects would last about three weeks. Still, I don't like to discourage people from trying new things, and Elaine felt strongly. Plus, I have to admit I was curious to see the employees' reaction. Most of our people come from inner city neighborhoods where they've had limited educational opportunities. Nevertheless, they took to the workshops with enthusiasm. They clearly loved having a chance to learn new work skills. As the trainer took them through lessons on subjects like telephone-answering techniques, they listened attentively.
Afterward, Elaine looked for ways to maintain the momentum. She and Noelle, the executive in charge of customer service, made up forms for people to fill out, reporting what they'd learned, what they'd enjoyed, and what additional help they'd like. In addition, Elaine bought a set of 16 short videotapes from the training company to help stimulate further discussion. Her plan was to hold five hourlong sessions every two weeks, with 12 people in each session. She would show a tape and ask participants to talk about the issues it addressed. She also decided that each session would have people from every department. The idea was to let participants spend time with employees they would never get to know in the normal course of business. Elaine thought something interesting might come of it.
I didn't attend the sessions, but Elaine and I talked in the evening about how things had gone. She couldn't get over the enthusiasm people brought to the program and the camaraderie it engendered. The participants loved to be called on, she said, and they loved to tell stories -- about their own experiences as customers, about ways they could apply the techniques they were learning outside the business, about things that had happened in the company.
At one meeting, a customer service rep named Denise singled out a warehouse worker, Chris, for praise. The week before, she said, he'd gone out of his way to make sure the right boxes were delivered to the right customer on time. The customer was relieved to get them and praised the company's performance. Denise passed along the compliment, which neither Chris nor the rest of the group would have heard about otherwise. Making those connections between members of different departments turned out to be a major benefit. Despite our best efforts to build team spirit, people didn't really get it until they sat in a room talking to employees from other parts of the company. Suddenly, they had a sense of the problems other people had to deal with, and they saw how work flowed through the business. It became clear how the drivers depended on the customer service reps, and how the reps depended on the warehouse guys. In the process, people began to think in terms of the company as a whole rather than focusing on their own pieces of it.
Elaine also used the sessions to reinforce the customer service message. "The company isn't paying your salary," she would say. "The customers are. They just funnel it through us." She reminded people about the bonuses they earn when we hit a new level in our box count and our policy of doing a 110% match of 401(k) contributions. "It's the customers who make that possible," she said. "When you see Norman or someone else giving people a tour, those are usually prospective customers. We want to make them feel welcome. That means smiling and saying hello."
In six months, we received more comments, calls, and letters of praise than we had in the previous 14 years.
It didn't take long for us to see results. The number of complaints dropped almost at once. People who called me began asking if we'd hired new operators. Meanwhile, we started receiving more and more compliments on our service. Whenever we got one, Elaine would reward the person responsible with a $25 check, a gift certificate to a nail salon, or tickets to a ball game. In the six months following the start of the program, we received more comments, calls, and letters of praise than we had in the previous 14 years.
I told Elaine I couldn't believe the change. Not only were our people nicer to our customers, but they were nicer to one another. She said that was because they'd talked about having internal customers -- namely, other people in the company -- as well as external customers and the importance of providing great service to both. I could see the difference in our ability to handle special requests. Say a customer needed to get a large number of files in a short period of time. In the past, I or one of the other executives would have gotten involved, disrupting the normal system and screwing things up. With the new level of teamwork, our employees were able to coordinate among themselves, ensuring that such requests were handled smoothly.
But the most compelling evidence of change came from prospects who were deciding whether to give us their business. For years, we had made a point of talking to customers about our work environment. As part of our tour, we would take them to the area of the warehouse where we've put up huge signs to track progress on our box game, which rewards employees for increases in the total number of boxes we store. The visitors would often smile and ask, "Gee, can I get an application to work here?" One new customer even sent us a letter saying he was giving us his 5,000 boxes in hopes that they would get us to the next level and that our employees could receive their bonus checks. So I was aware that employees played a role in the customers' decision to sign with us, but I didn't realize how big a role it could be until we began to see the effects of Elaine's training program.
The revelation came one afternoon when Louis, the company president, returned to our executive offices with a prospective customer he had just shown our facility. As we were sitting in my office, I asked the guy if he was considering other vendors. "Yes, two," he said and gave me the names of our major competitors. My standard response is to praise the other companies, say that the customer would be happy with either one, and suggest how he or she might be happier with us. But for some reason I followed another script this time. "Did you see any differences between their places and mine?" I asked.
"Yes, I did," he said. "Every one of your employees was smiling, and they all said hello. I've never seen anything quite like it. They must really be happy."
"I hope so," I said. "Thank you for noticing."
"Because of that, in fact, I've decided to give you the business."
I was completely taken aback. We almost never close an account on the spot. After the tour, the prospect generally likes to mull the decision and talk to other people. But I kept my surprise to myself. "That's great," I said. "I think you've made the right choice."
We chatted until he had to leave. Then I immediately went searching for Elaine. "You won't believe what just happened," I said, and I told her the story. Without hesitating, she got on the PA system and shared the news with the rest of the company.
Afterward, I reflected on what had happened and realized that I'd been making a mistake. I'd assumed that owners and CEOs make the buying decisions on records storage. In fact, the key players are their employees. Even if they don't actually have the final say, they provide the information on which the decision is based. And as employees, they tend to identify with other employees, which is one reason they respond so warmly to our culture.
That's also why it may sometimes be possible for our operations employees to close a sale. In the future, I'll give them as many chances to do that as I can.
Norm Brodsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.