Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Steal Stuff

I remember a conversation early on in my tenure at my last company that ended along the lines of ‘well, you know, consultants just take credit for the ideas they hear from the employees’. There is some truth to this and, having been on the employee side of that observation/accusation, I can attest it can be demotivating to hear consultants spouting your ideas and concepts to a room full of people. Consultants (me, for example) might counter that, if they’re doing their job well, they are able weave together the implications of discrete ideas and potential strategies across the organization. That, of course, isn’t always within the purview of individual employees.

Every one of the operations jobs I have undertaken in my career has either been a new position or I’ve replaced someone who was fired. I’ve never come into a job where the person who held my new position was still the with company. What I’ve found consistently is that good ideas and strategies for building or expanding the business were all in plain sight and that, with a little diligence and execution, success can come quickly. Another interesting aspect of my career is that I’ve been hired into positions where I had little to no specific experience. I have also found that skillful ‘adaptation’ and execution of the ideas already known or present in the organization can aid in building a deeper and more rapid understanding of the dynamics of the business you’ve been tasked with operating.

Early in my career at Berlitz, I was given responsibility for their direct-mail business, selling language learning materials in airline and travel magazines. I had no experience in direct mail and the manager in charge of the unit had neglected the business and was no longer employed. Direct mail is all about testing and math, and the prior manager had done a test which called for placing a four-color tri-fold insert in the American Airlines Advantage mileage statement received each month by members. The test had been done six months before I took responsibility and had been successful (it actually made money) but, through inattention, he had not expanded the program to the full membership list. My staff told me about this and we decided to go all in with a full mailing to over 12million recipients. When I inherited the business mid-year we were already running well short of budget but, thanks to the strength of this program and other improvements, we made our budget that year with room to spare.

That American Airlines program was a great start and in the following year we placed the insert four more times. We also explored other, similar mileage programs but none performed as well. With this strong performance as a foundation, we began looking at other aspects of the business for opportunities. I had a small telemarking team that took all the incoming phone orders but this team had never been properly trained (nor really paid any attention). As I began working with them it became clear they could do much more to expand sales. One aspect of language self-learning is that very few people finish the course. We even used to joke that no one ever got past the first of the twelve cassettes. (Cynical I know, but the customer generally blames themself not the product – just like health clubs). Berlitz offered a second-level product for the same price but, unsurprisingly, less than 10% of buyers purchased the second (more advanced) level course.

We now had a tremendous number of calls coming in to our little telemarketing operation due to bigger, more frequent mailings to American frequent flyers and all the other direct response ads we continued to place. As a team, we determined that if we could hook the callers into purchasing both level 1 and level 2 at the same time, we could potentially generate far more revenues per call. As we implemented this upselling activity we also put in place the first sales targets and rewards program the team had ever had. Starved of attention and recognition by prior managers, my little team of telemarketers – who worked in an office park in Delran, NJ – took to the program like ducks to water. What, in retrospect, seem like quite basic operating improvements were implemented and ultimately very successful because of a fresh perspective on and an open attitude to the potential of the business and the employees. Some of the improvements occurred simply because someone listened more attentively to the idea.

Obviously, business improvement opportunities are not always so easily identified but they can be found by anyone with an open mind about the business and, perhaps, a different view of how the ideas could be implemented. In this context, anyone in the business can be a “consultant” and “steal” ideas that, in retrospect, might appear to be in plain sight. In the second year of my tenure, our direct mail business doubled profit and contributed twice the profit per employee than any other Berlitz business unit and we did it all by working with what was already in the business.

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