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The Personal Touch
By William V. Jones

Recently I spoke to a board of directors representing a new community bank celebrating its first year of operations. My focus was to deliver a short message about the "personal touch."

I was fascinated by a report that I had seen on national news about major banks opening branch offices across the country. It had only been two years earlier that these same banks announced the death of branch offices. Branches were being replaced by ATM machines and Internet banking because people wanted access anytime, every day of the week.

The result of this high-tech approach was the banks' business swooned. New research was conducted to find out why. The bottom line was that customers wanted to give (or take) their money from a human being, not a machine or virtual banker! People trusted a friendly face not a well-oiled service that gave them 24 by 7 services. Hence, the push to re-open branch offices and lure customers back.

Community banks found their niche in the marketplace because they already understood that people wanted a "personal touch." As the American economy struggles to regain its position in the global marketplace, how much emphasis will be placed on human to human interaction? More importantly, will American businesses realize that the most critical cog in their profitable future is quality interactivity and personal preparedness of the frontline employee? A customer will only be loyal to a company when the people they contact deliver quality, personalized solutions to meet their needs.

SAS International is a company located in North Carolina that has enjoyed an unprecedented 26 years of double-digit profitability. The company has been featured twice on the news show, 60 Minutes. You can obtain a synopsis of the show by visiting CBS (http:/www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/04/ 18/60minutes/main550102.shtml) and read for yourself about the total commitment to the "personal touch."

The bottom line is that CEO Jim Goodnight is loyal to his employees. His philosophy is based on the premise that when employees go home at the end of the day, his job is to bring them back. That kind of employee loyalty has led to virtually no turnover (less than 3 percent) and outstanding customer care that keeps contract work growing. In addition, the company's commitment to its workforce creates an unprecedented demand from others seeking employment at SAS, thereby minimizing dependency on head-hunter services.

At SAS, and many companies like them, taking care of employees is personal, not business. Millions of American workers have heard the line, "nothing personal, just business," as they are being escorted out the door. Work is personal and when these employees are asked to be customer-friendly in the future, it will be difficult.

Employers will need a workforce, sooner than later, that can build customer loyalty. Many indicators suggest that the economy is growing. In fact, annual growth was recently measured at 7.2 percent for the 2003 third quarter, the best since 1984. Companies are again showing interest in hiring workers, adding 57,000 full-time and 33,000 temporary jobs in September, 2003. Company spending was also robust at over 11 percent, the highest spending in three years.

Productivity gained to this point has been accomplished either with new technology or by stretching the workforce to create more with less people. For sustained growth, companies will need to commit to a larger workforce that is customer-friendly (consumer confidence and spending drive company profits). The multi-million dollar question is: "Since employees are plentiful and willing to work, hiring grateful people will automatically create loyalty, right?" There are several reasons to recognize that question as fatalistic.

First, employers do have the greatest pool of available quality workers ever assembled. Manpower experts estimate that over 70 percent of college graduates over the past three years were not offered a job requiring a college degree. A degree is now a symbol of people seeking meaningful work at a fair wage. Hence, employers now have access to people that in the past may have been overlooked because they were too expensive or "over-qualified." These well-educated people are eager to work so they can pay college loans. Mainly they will ask if your position is tied to meaningful employment (immediately satisfying outcomes with a chance for wage growth and promotions). Treating them as replacements or temporary workers will have them quickly abandoning your company. Turnover as a result of negative behaviors is very costly to a company.

(A quick comment about the label "over-qualified." In an era where talented people can make the difference between mediocrity and success, why not hire everyone you can afford? Build high-power teams that can problem-solve and address deal with your company's needs. Quality companies are currently stock-piling talented employees to be prepared for growth and demand. It is much like a professional sports team adding players for the playoff run.)

Second, employers have the luxury of hiring quality employees at wages 40 to 50 percent less per hour than 5 years ago. Manufacturing jobs (without adding benefits) paid an average of $17 per hour whereas retail pays an average of $9 per hour. An American-based software engineer would earn between mid-$40K to mid-$60K just a few years ago. Today, that job has been outsourced to India where a quality engineer can be hired for less than $12,000 per year. That means American engineers are now plentiful and available at very affordable rates. People will take your job but their expectations of you as a leader are higher because you pay them less. Their tolerance for any lack of respect from management will be low and the resulting negative attitude will be detected by your customers.

Third, companies no longer feel obligated to offer a benefits package. I suspect that given a choice between more high-paying jobs and fewer jobs with benefits, people will opt for the high-paying jobs. The savings from health care, retirement and other long-time entitlements are not pocketed as company profit. The savings are re-invested in the employee as part of an incentive package (money and/or education). As an employer, you gladly offer these quarterly incentives because it benefits you the most. Continuous learning is the greatest asset you can develop in your company. Unlike technology that ages and becomes obsolete, employees committed to learning will adapt and grow.

Fourth, thanks to the global market and economic scales that rapidly change, companies are no longer committed to the idea of "lifetime jobs." Employees are also conditioned to accept that a job may only last from a few months to a couple of years. This creates a strong sense of urgency to quickly gain employee loyalty. A workplace filled with apathy can rapidly develop and may never rebound leading to customers leaving in great numbers.

So what should be your company's strategy to create loyalty fast? Honesty, integrity and a genuine interest in the well-being of your employee is your foundation. (There's not a company in America, regardless of size, that won't say "Duh, we've already got that in our mission statement!") Every company pays homage to these words but few, like SAS International, actually live it. Because the "personal touch" begins with a positively-centered workforce, the following steps are suggested:

Step One. Make every new employee part of your team by conducting a world-class orientation program. If you don't know how to set up a world-class program, contact your local university. They do it every year with their freshman class. The points that every company miss are: who is involved and who is invited.

Here is a clue: treat orientation like a "pep rally" and get your team ready to "win."

Step Two. Employers have every advantage right now: lower wages, reduced benefits, "at-will" terminations and a plentiful, qualified personnel pool to choose employees. As employers, be honest and recognize these employee disadvantages during the hiring process. Follow that discussion with your "personal touch" strategy by outlining your "top-shelf" education and personal growth program. Education comes in two packages: internal and external. Internally, your training program is organized, tied to quality outcomes and has a training team that is accountable for the employees' success. It is so good, that at the conclusion, the CEO/President writes a letter to each "graduating" employee stating that they have completed the program and you would highly recommend them to be considered in future employment for any new company. Externally, every employee has a personal growth plan that begins immediately after orientation. Working in partnership with local providers, employees are schooled on how to diversify and learn various skills. This effort reduces the vulnerability people feel when they lose a job and begin looking again. Have managers sit with each employee and design a personal education plan that includes career advancement in your company.

Step Three. Set your work standards high and help people reach quality outcomes. Create a corporate culture that emphasizes "spit and polish," strong communication skills and leadership. Never tolerate those people who are just getting through the day; it brings the entire workplace down. This viewpoint may sound harsh, but people want to be associated with a winner. As long as you set the bar of excellence high and assist people to be successful, employees will be proud of their company. And, just as in the case at SAS, more quality people will seek you out as an employer. It's the reason why so many athletes want to play for the New York Yankees: the goal is a championship every year!

Unless all the business and psychology studies are wrong, people want meaningful employment and management that cares. The "personal touch" for most employees is face-to-face contact with decision-makers at all levels. That builds employee loyalty. The result is loyal customers and sustained high profits.

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2003 3 Minute Learning LLC All Rights Reserved

William V. Jones is author of the leadership book, A Journey from Manager to Leader: A Playbook for Success. It is available at www.3minutelearning.com. Bill is available as a speaker, consultant and motivator in the areas of leadership and productivity. For more information,  call 814-274-0802.

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