Collecting information about individuals and transforming it into tailored offerings is the stuff of one-to-one marketing. Now companies are taking that concept and focusing it on their own employees.

Linda Connor is a high-school-yearbook editor at heart. The vice-president of corporate culture at Technology Professionals Corp. (TPC), a $6.6-million technology staffing and services company in Grand Rapids, Mich., is constantly amassing and recording lively tidbits about the organization's almost 90 employees. She then takes that information, runs it through her imagination, and pulls out ingenious -- occasionally audacious -- ideas for customized rewards.

"I sit down at employees' 30-day reviews and ask specific questions about hobbies and interests for each member of their families," says Connor, who has, among other things, arranged for a staffer to fly on an F17 bomber. "I ask about the spouse, children, and even pets, so that if an event occurs that I know has been a drain on the family, I can do something special just for the spouse or kids." Connor updates her profiles over time with information and insights gleaned from routine interaction, "so we are prepared to do things that are very timely for their current interests or needs," she explains. "Every time I meet an employee or I hear about a meeting someone else has had, I take mental notes."

Collecting information about individuals and transforming it into tailored offerings is the stuff of one-to-one marketing, a seed planted in 1993 by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers that has since grown into the mighty oak of customer-relationship management (CRM). But in a new twist, TPC and companies like it are taking that concept and focusing it on their own employees. If describing such practices as "one-to-one management" constitutes buzz-phrase hijacking, at least the term's coiners consider the application compatible. "Organizations are limited in their one-to-one efforts to the degree that they don't model them internally," says Rogers, cofounder of the Peppers and Rogers Group, in Norwalk, Conn., and coauthor of The One to One Future. "Employees are hard-pressed to treat customers uniquely when they don't feel that's how they're treated by the company."

"Every time I meet an employee or I hear about a meeting someone else has had, I take mental notes."

In its 2001 survey, the Society for Human Resource Management includes a seemingly exhaustive list of 160 benefits ranging from prepaid funerals to ice-cream socials. One-to-one-management companies, in responding to individuals' acknowledged desires rather than to the masses' perceived demands, routinely devise perks of which the survey builders never even dreamed. Creative examples encountered at several small companies include

  • hours as flexible as a Romanian gymnast,
  • funding for staff engineers and scientists to deliver their non-work-related research at far-flung professional conferences,
  • the services of an ergonomics consultant,
  • textbook money for interns,
  • the opportunity for employees to audition new chairs and desks in their offices in order to select the most comfortable.

Employee-tailored services can be as inexpensive as changing cleaning products to ease the airways of an asthmatic, or special-ordering vegan and kosher meals at company functions. They can also be cost-effective, delivering the same bull's-eye impact as target marketing. "Target marketing aims to provide the appropriate products and services to people with specific needs," explains one software company's CEO, who didn't want his organization's accommodating nature publicized. "Similarly, if you target the right benefits to the individual, you eliminate a lot of waste and inefficiency associated with providing blanket benefits to people who didn't want or need them."

Even in a fitful economy companies should consider moving beyond cafeteria-style benefits to something approaching valet-style benefits, suggests John Izzo, coauthor of Values Shift: The New Work Ethic and What It Means for Business. "The available pool of really good people is eventually going to turn into a puddle," he says. "And when it does, we're going to have to start treating employees the way we treat customers. The grapevine about which companies are good to work for is much stronger than it used to be."

One-to-one-management companies are run -- in a timely inversion of John Adams's ideal -- as organizations of men (and women), not of laws. Nonetheless, a few laws, or at least cultural traits, appear to govern many such organizations. Together those traits create an environment where employees' needs are known, sometimes anticipated, and served, just as customers' needs are known, sometimes anticipated, and served in CRM-focused organizations. What follows is a look at the rules by which one-to-one-management companies operate.

One-to-one marketing relies on the accretion of data on thousands -- sometimes millions -- of people by powerful computers. Patrick J. McGovern's brain does sort of the same thing. Each December the founder and chairman of International Data Group (IDG), a $3.1-billion technology-media and research company based in Framingham, personally delivers hand-signed cards to 3,300 employees across the United States, along with glowing words about their individual achievements during the previous 12 months. McGovern began the practice in IDG's birth year, 1964. "I found the experience an excellent way to express one-to-one my recognition of employees' role in our business progress and ask their personal opinions on what we could do to improve," he says.

Back then, of course, McGovern's holiday cheer had to stretch only as far as 16 employees. Recalling the names of more than 3,000 people and what they've been up to requires serious homework. The night before McGovern visits a business unit, he reads and memorizes managers' reports about their employees' accomplishments. "It takes me about three and a half weeks to deliver the cards and the personal plaudits," says McGovern. "But I learn so much about people's attitudes, ideas, and suggestions that it's very valuable to me.

"I'm lucky enough to have a pretty good memory," he adds.

TPC's Connor doesn't need a good memory -- she simply consults her extensive notes about employees' peeves and preferences. Connor's entry about consultant Phil Mayrose, for example, reveals that he loves college football, oldies music, and -- above all else -- golf. "Loves to try different courses. Send him out with either his wife, teammates, or a friend and he's in heaven," reads Connor's Mayrose entry. Last year she used that information to reward the hardworking Mayrose with a weekend getaway at a dude ranch that included several rounds of golf.

Connor doesn't focus exclusively on rewards. She also wants to understand employees' personal lives so that she can help when things spin out of balance. Her comments about one employee read more like a page torn from a therapist's notebook than something from a human-resources file: "During stressful periods [she] loses confidence in her ability as a mom, housekeeper, sister, daughter, friend, and aunt," Connor observes. "Ideas during high-stress times: lawn-mowing service, housekeeping, hot meals, day away with her son."

"My experience in managing people is, they're all different."

Connor's dedicated chronicling of employees' passions manifests the philosophy of TPC's founder and CEO, Steven Lassig, whose own ballooning workload makes it impossible for him to keep up with every member of his fast-growing staff. Back when TPC was just starting up, hiring someone was a little like making a new friend, says Lassig. "I used to take not only the people we were hiring but also their spouse or significant other to dinner," says the CEO. "We'd talk about families, hobbies, kids."

Lassig no longer has the time even to meet every new hire, so he schedules informal lunches several times a month with groups of no more than six employees, just to chat. "Eventually, everyone attends," says Lassig. "It helps me get to know them and gives me ideas on how to reward them when they do something well."

People are complex assemblages of buttons just waiting to be pushed. From that premise rises the performance-recognition philosophy of Marc Albin, CEO of $12-million high-tech-staffing consulting company Albin Engineering Services Inc., in Sunnyvale, Calif. Albin believes that different employees don't just want different rewards; they also want to be rewarded for different things, depending on what personal qualities and talents they are most proud of. To identify which parts of individual employees' egos need scratching, Albin takes an unconventional approach: he asks them.

"My experience in managing people is, they're all different," says Albin. "Some people want to be recognized for their cheerful attitude and their ability to spread their cheerful attitude. Some want to be recognized for the quality of their work, some for the quantity of their work. Some like to be recognized individually; others want to be recognized in groups." Consequently, at the end of each employee-orientation session Albin E-mails his new hires and asks them how and in what form they prefer their strokes. "It helps me understand what they think of themselves and their abilities, and I make a mental note to pay special attention to them when they're working in that particular arena," he says. "No one has ever said, 'Just recognize me for anything I do well."

"You can tell people your door is open all you want, and they'll still think, 'No, he's the CEO. He's too busy."

At TPC employees are consulted about more substantive things -- including their own compensation. The employee-owned staffing company -- whose products are, in essence, its people -- opens its books to its staff, sharing financial information down to the CEO's salary. Individuals know both their target and actual margins for each assignment. Once a year Connor asks the company's programmers for hire to research the market value for their skill sets and experience, and then to use that information, together with knowledge of their own margins, to propose annual raises. (Connor uses the same method when determining compensation for sales, recruitment, and office-support staff, although information on margins, in those cases, does not apply.) She accepts their numbers without question 95% of the time, she says, and occasionally assents to a larger-than-warranted increase if an employee's personal circumstances recommend it.

"It's silly for me to slide a piece of paper across the table saying, 'This is what you're worth this year,' without any input from them," says Connor. "If there's a year that they have to be a little less fair to the corporation because of something that's going on in their lives -- a sickness in the family, for example -- I don't have any issue with that because I know these people are committed to the TPC family. And if they take a little more this year, next year when the new bill rate [for their services] comes in, they'll choose to take slightly less."

TPC has gone so far as to solicit input into company culture. In 1999, Lassig staged a contest he called "Programmers' Paradise," which invited employees to describe their ideal work environment. First prize, for the best answer, was $5,000; second and third prizes were a couple of PCs. Many of the suggestions Lassig received migrated into company policy: for example, performance awards can be monetary or -- if an employee chooses -- in the form of free housecleaning services or airline tickets. When TPC raises the rate at which an employee is billed out, the employee can choose additional vacation days in lieu of a raise. To keep those ideas flowing, TPC eschews traditional end-of-year performance reviews and instead asks employees to fill out extensive surveys on how they feel the company is doing and how their work lives can be improved. "We ask if the organization is serving their needs and if not, why not," says Lassig. "Instead of us reviewing them, it's them reviewing us."

Rick Sapio wouldn't dream of characterizing his business as an employee utopia. "We're a very intense, fast-growth company," says Sapio, CEO of 37-employee, a New York City mutual-fund advisory firm that twists the traditional model by charging a flat fee for most of its services. "Turnover is high -- 36% -- although it's dropping. Most of that turnover happens in the first month: people sign up and they don't realize what the pace is going to be like. We do so many innovative things, there's a lot of stress -- a lot of pressure."

In that environment Sapio can't spare much time to inquire whether an employee has managed to snag tickets to The Producers or wants to use the CEO's parking space while he's out of town. But Sapio concerns himself deeply with employees' ability to labor unencumbered by flawed processes, inadequate supplies, or pockets of ignorance and confusion. To keep his company's organizational arteries clear, last year Sapio introduced Hassles, an E-mail box where employees can vent their concerns. Problems are dealt with -- or at least acknowledged -- within the same week.

"If something takes up more than two minutes of your day, and it's not part of your ordinary job, then that's a hassle," says Sapio. Every month the E-mail box is hammered with about 100 such missives, ranging from petty irritations to thoughtful suggestions. The CEO reels off some recent submissions: "When we get a lead, why can't it be automatically added to the database without my having to retype it?" "Why do I need to fill out a form to request a vacation day?" "I have to constantly walk to the printer, and it's too far away from my desk."

Hassles is the ward of chief financial officer Stefanie Nall, who each week corrals two employees to tear through the list and solve as many problems as possible. (Managers must sign off on all the decisions.) Nall then runs down some of the faits accomplis at the company's Monday-morning staff meetings. "The goal is 100%, but some of these are very substantial problems that require, for example, rewriting the software for our database," says Sapio. "Within a month we probably get 75% solved."

Hassles gripes are public gripes: they live in an unprotected section of the company's intranet, and their resolution is brandished before the entire staff. Some employees, however, prefer that their grievances be kept on the q.t. For them, Sapio espouses an open-door policy, but not with the sort of vague "drop by anytime" invitation guaranteed to keep anyone lowlier than a vice-president at bay. Instead, every Friday morning the CEO sends out a companywide E-mail announcing his presence in the back conference room from 11 a.m. to noon. (Sometimes the company's president sits in instead.) For that hour Sapio does nothing but listen to employees' concerns. "You can tell people your door is open all you want, and they'll still think, 'No, he's the CEO. He's too busy," says Sapio. "But if you're sitting with nothing in front of you in a room with no more than a table, the message is 'I'm not busy. I am waiting here to talk to you.' And people come."

All work (even work made palatable by customized benefits, processes, and environments) and no play (of the I-am-having-so-much-fun-I-can't-remember-what-I-do-for-a-living variety) burns out even the most dedicated employees. Summer picnics and Halloween parties are fine, but gossiping with colleagues over plastic plates groaning with olive loaf and coleslaw is few people's sweet dream of relaxation. Practitioners of one-to-one management give employees not only what they want at work but also the means and incentive to enjoy life outside the office.

"We want people to be passion ate about life and hobbies and outside pursuits, because we want passionate people."

Three years ago Metzger Associates Inc., a $4.1-million technology public-relations company in Boulder, Colo., was having trouble recruiting and keeping senior staff. CEO and founder John Metzger examined the bait being dangled by the rest of his industry and decided to try something different. "We looked at the benefits other PR agencies were putting forth, and we found they typically involved keeping people in the office as long as possible so they would be billable," says Metzger. "A concierge service. 'We'll buy you pizza after 7 p.m.' 'Bring your dog to work.'

"Our benefits are all based on getting people out of the office," says Metzger. "We want them to refresh and rejuvenate."

Like any good one-to-one manager, Metzger left the design of the company's "Live Long and Prosper" benefit to his 30-plus employees. They devised a package of activities in four categories for which all staff members are reimbursed: $600 for physical fitness (gym memberships, a stationary bicycle), $500 for outdoor living (ski passes, sailing classes), $600 for relaxation (guitar instruction, vacations), and $1,000 for education (classes at community colleges and universities). In the program's first 18 months, employees used their funds for everything from bikini waxes and personal-trainer fees to fly-fishing lessons and a bachelorette party in Las Vegas. Turnover, meanwhile, went from around 15% down to 2% last year.

"We've never denied anything that I'm aware of," says Metzger. "We're open to individuals' telling us whatever they need to be balanced in their lives. We want people to be passionate about life and hobbies and outside pursuits, because we want passionate people."

Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.

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