Counselor

Culture Club

The second annual Counselor Best Places to Work Conference provided strategies for workplace success today.

Motivation. Recognition. Productivity. Benefits. Recruiting and retention.

Today’s workplaces have a lot of disciplines they need to master if they’re going to become a Best Place to Work. And all of the above were on the agenda at the second annual Counselor Best Places to Work Conference, held in Chicago in July.

With topics ranging from how to use nontraditional recruiting strategies and which benefits are most attractive to employees today, to strategies for staff empowerment and transforming a company’s culture, the conference provided attendees a roadmap for workplace success today. Here are some highlights from the conference.

Panel Debate: Perks Versus Pay

The day-long conference began with a panel discussion featuring a common question for companies today: What’s a better hiring and retention tool, perks or pay? “Good pay gets you in the door with top candidates,” said Tim Andrews, president and CEO of ASI and one of the three panelists for the session. “But, it’s perks and benefits that help companies to retain the best people.”

Indeed, the panel believed companies today need a mixture of good pay and unique and attractive perks to hire, motivate and retain good workers. “Top pay and compensation programs are vital to attract good people today,” said Cindy Jorgenson, vice president of sales for Top 40 distributor Brown & Bigelow (asi/148500) and another member of the panel. “But bonuses and such lose their appeal after a short period and they start to become expected. Companies need to be creative with how they pay people today and maybe spread it out. Make it a little unexpected with how you pay and reward your best people.”

And, with much of the conversation focused on the increased movement toward flexible work schedules, the panel believed that the most progressive companies are certainly experimenting today with forms of scheduling flexibility.

“How do you want collaboration to look at your company? This is something that you have to clearly define if you’re going to move to a more flexible work atmosphere,” said Jason Lauritsen, director of the Best Places to Work program at Quantum Workplace, Counselor’s research partner on its Best Places to Work awards. “Ultimately, though, you don’t have to spread perks around your company like peanut butter on a piece of bread – it doesn’t have to reach every corner of your company. Some people need to be in an office, and some people can telecommute.”

Three Keys to Transforming Biz Culture

Employee engagement, consistent transparency, and brutal, company-wide honesty are critical to improving office culture, said David Woods, president and CEO of AIA Corporation (asi/109480). In an afternoon session at the event, Woods detailed how his company took drastic steps to reenergize its workplace and improve efficiencies.

“Back in 2011, we began what we called our Transition to Excellence program,” Woods said. “We thought we were a good company, but we wanted to be great.”

With the help of a consultancy and guided by internal surveys and conversations, AIA set out to learn how it could get better. “We found out our people wanted more training and they wanted to see a career path for themselves,” Woods said. “They also wanted more control over their work and didn’t want company leaders to be making all the decisions for them.”

AIA later took another step in its transformation by holding a voluntary employee retreat at a resort, asking attendees to be blunt in their assessments of the company. “Nothing was sacred,” Woods said. “We learned that we just weren’t communicating very well. As leaders of AIA, we started to understand what we could be doing better.”

After gathering information, AIA worked to implement a host of improvements, developing cross-functional teams, a peer coaching program, and a mandate that staff resolve problems one-on-one. “If someone has an issue with someone else, they have to go to that person and work it out, instead of pointing fingers or talking behind their back,” Woods said. “We want concerns handled honestly, fairly and professionally.”

AIA has also instituted an incentivized suggestion box campaign – with ideas and concerns all posted publicly – that led to 445 company changes in the program’s first year alone. “We’re really breaking down the barriers,” Woods said. “What’s so important is that people at the top have to be committed to the effort.”

Six-Figure Employee Empowerment

During the “Empower Your Employees to Win Six-Figure Deals” session, Chuck Fandos, CEO of St. Louis-based distributorship Gateway/CDI (asi/202515), said that while he and his business partner Conrad Franey do remain involved in working with clients, they are firm believers in giving their sales and customer service reps a fair amount of autonomy in dealing with large clients.

“First of all, I would say that we train our people to treat all clients, regardless of size, with the same level of excellent service,” Fandos said. “We train new employees for six months, putting them through what we call ‘Gateway University’ which includes basics like e-mail etiquette, but also teaching about product safety issues, marketing strategies, and how to provide top-notch service.”

Fandos said he’s learned over the years to identify certain traits in staffers and prospective employees that would make them ideal candidates for working with clients of all sizes, but especially Fortune 500 entities.

“I look for people who are self-motivated, who are able to multi-task and have a great sense of organization and follow-up,” Fandos said. “And they have to be creative. Clients love working with people who use creativity in a fun way.”

Hire and Retain Top Talent

A company’s best source for finding talent is its own employees – but don’t assume employees are actively recruiting for you, Jason Lauritsen, a director at Quantum Workplace warned attendees at the Counselor Best Places to Work Conference. “You need to think very intentionally about how you inspire employees how to tell your story.”

Companies should train their most engaged employees on how to tap into their social networks and join networking groups to actively promote the company. As an example, he said, employees could be provided with a paragraph highlighting all of the great things about working for the company, which they could tweak and put into their LinkedIn profiles.

Here are some other tips from Lauritsen for how to hire great employees today:

Job candidates “like transparency,” he said. “Their B.S. detectors are really tuned right now,” because they already know about your company through websites and other online sources. “Be able to articulate why this is a great company and why the candidate should want to work there.”

Make hiring a team sport. Lauritsen says prospective hires get a better feel for a company when they get to meet its employees. Plus, the employees can help to gauge whether a candidate will fit in to the company’s culture.

Highlight development opportunities. “Employees are much more likely to join your company if they feel like there are career development opportunities for them,” he said. “They need to feel certain that there’s a path to get ahead.”

Creating a Culture of Customer Service

Great customer service doesn’t happen by osmosis. Just ask Dan Taylor, founder and CEO of BamBams (asi/38228). For him, it’s about having the right people and fostering a corporate culture that enhances and stresses customer service at every turn. “You’re intentional about it,” Taylor said. “You model it. You reward it and you talk about it when it’s not going well. We always talk about corporate culture in some form or fashion. We talk about successes and we talk about failures.”

Those discussions happen at weekly meetings which are held first thing every Monday morning. These meetings ensure that every team member is on the same page in terms of their commitment to serving clients, and like with every good sports team, it ends with a huddle.

“We come to the center and say, ‘What’s the word of the day? Customer service,’” Taylor said. “Then we put our hands together and say, ‘1, 2, 3, customer service.’”

Over the years, the team at BamBams has gone above and beyond for clients. In one particular incident, an order for a client in Houston was stuck in customs in California. Two reps made the trip and pressured the customs agents until they finally released the shipment. Then those reps piled into a car and drove the 1,400-plus miles to meet the client’s in-hands date.

The entire adventure was chronicled and the company celebrated the victory and still talk about it today. In addition, reps are rewarded at meetings with gift cards and other incentives. It’s those celebrations that help further the customer service culture at the supplier firm.