Colleen Abdoulah, President and CEO of WOW! Internet, Cable and Phone explains how employee happiness is the key to winning customer-service records and doubling investor earnings.
It’s not the product and services that make a company, it’s the minds and hearts within the people of that company that make the difference…[and] now we have data to prove it. – Ms. C. Abdoulah
INTERVIEW with Colleen Abdoulah
Q When you set out to create WOW, what did you think about that you wanted to put into the culture of the company?
A I absolutely wanted to learn from, obviously, past experiences. You know when we say we learn more from out mistakes than our successes, I did learn more from what I didn’t like in corporations that I was exposed to prior to coming to WOW! In a nutshell, what I woujld observe was that it was all about the bottom-line number, and a lot of the messages spoken either directly or indirectly to employees saying “I don’t care how you get there, but get there.” “Get to that number, come hell or high water, but get there.” And to me, that just created such, a negative behavioural pattern among people – who are, I think, instinctively very creative, and loyal and hard-working. I really fundamentally believe that everybody wants to contribute and do their best. In an environment where it’s all about the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ I think it brings about some destructive behaviours. So specifically when I came to WOW! I wanted to be very clear with everybody. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not the products and services that we provide that matter. Those products, those services can be duplicated, as a matter of fact, they are, it’s a highly competitive industry that we are in. So what matters? What matters is how we do it.
It’s a big focus of mine as a leader was to make sure that we spent a lot of time, of course, we have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders, to ourselves. So you spend time on the numbers on the data, on the analysis. You determine where you think you’re going to go, and you be very strategic about it. Once that’s set, and those plans are determined, then you spend 95% of your time on the how.
That’s a big part of who we are here: how we engage with one another, how we think, how we feel, how we behave that matters.
Q What are some of the characteristics at WOW of how you behave, how your employees interact?
A We really, really anchor ourselves in the values that we have committed to: integrity – tell the truth, if you mess up we’ll learn from that. Don’t consciously keep something and/or tell a lie. Respect – everybody is of equal value. My title doesn’t make me a better person than a front line technician, or a call center rep, so respect everybody equally. Accountability -you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. No finger pointing. Right down to the language we use. You can’t say “they”. The WOW language is all about “I”, “we”, and “us”. So you eliminate the whole finger pointing, the backstabbing, the critical, the negative feedback. It’s all around how can we each be accountable. We have thrown away the industrial revolution type of work chart, with the hierarchy, the bureaucracy, the politics, and the fragmentation that comes with the smoke stack kind of structure. We have integrated our functional areas in our organization in a way that we call our service structure, in a way that defines who serves whom internally, in order to serve the end customer. That way, it’s kind of like a relay race, everybody sees themselves handing the baton on to the next person, and nobody wants to drop it, and everybody wants everybody else to succeed, because if we do, we win the race together. Anchoring ourselves in those four values, monitoring our performance based on those values, promoting based on those values, are critical. We hire, fire, promote based on how we live those values And we reward financially as, well. They’re part of your annual assessment, how you modeled those values to others.
Q These things are never accomplished over night. I’m sure that there were some bumps along the way. But I’m wondering, as you started to tear down structures, and reward and recognize people more, there must have been a moment when you started to say, “OK, I think it’s starting to work. I think we ‘re starting to see this culture extend through the company. Do you remember a moment, or a sign of that?
A Absolutely. I think it was as early as 90 days. When I joined the company in August of ’02, it was the twentieth of the month, we had some pretty strict financial covenants – bank covenants – that had to be met by the end of the year or else our investors were going to have to put in a lot more money, which they did not want to do. I spent the month of September understanding who was in the organization, meeting all 600 and some employees at the time, and determining who the forty or fifty key principals were, the most influential people in the organization, and we locked ourselves away for about a three day period to talk about the things you just asked about. What kind of company do we want? What kind of culture do we want? How are we going to behave? How are we going to perform?
We discussed what was ahead of us, so we went out in late September, early October to all employees and rolled [it] out. “This is the way it’s going to be” and asked them to embrace what we were trying to accomplish, and how we were all going to do it together. I laid out very clearly from a compensation standpoint that there was not going to be this big rift between management and front line. There would be bonuses for everybody if we did well. If we accomplished or exceeded budget, everybody would have a profit sharing plan in place and would benefit from it. We had total transparency, showed all the numbers, showed exactly where we were in trouble, and I made it clear that we were going to spend money to make money. The risk was that if we spent it and didn’t make it, none of us might be around in 90 days. People appreciated it, they appreciated being informed, respected and treated like adults, and, man, the energy and momentum that we started to see immediately. Ideas were generated to improve this and that, everything from how we purchase, how we manage capital, do our inventory, our call center – the ideas were just flowing. By the end of December, we had generated more cash flow in those four months than they had the rest of the year. We met the bank covenants, our owners were very pleased with that. People got a small bonus that year, and every year since then, people have shared in the profits of the company.
Q Earlier you were talking about how you flattened out the structure, trying to avoid silos, is that partly about reducing the number of steps? Do you talk about flow at WOW?
A Oh, yeah, we spend a lot of time on process, because you can imagine in our business, as I’m sure it is in many manufacturing businesses, there are many touch points where you could get breakage, from the time the customer calls the call center, to the time the order is input improperly, received in the field, fulfilled on, billed. We’re constantly scrubbing our processes, our procedures, constantly innovating our technology which integrates all our systems so that everybody can talk to each other and there is transparency in the process that goes from the call center to the billing center. One of the fun management ways that management and front line do that together is that anyone who does not get customer facing experience with their job has to go out once a month for a couple of hours, and either monitor phone calls, they monitor calls one month, the next month they have to go out in a truck with an installer or a technician, What that does is keep everyone really close to the customer and experiencing how we do things. Plenty of times I’ve been in the truck with the installer and he tells me that we have to do XYZ and I’m, like, “Why do we do that? Isn’t that redundant?” And he says, “Yeah, I think so.” “How can we do that better?” And we change it!
Q You said that if people grow and are a better person for having worked at WOW, then the rest will follow, but the idea of linking employee growth and happiness to customer service and therefore to business profitability is quite radical, really, in the business world. Could you walk me through how employee happiness leads to dollars in your investors’ pocket? Is there a short story of that?
A Great question. It goes back to what I said a while ago, that it’s not the product and services that make a company, it’s the minds and hearts within the people of that company that make the difference. I just innately have always believed that if people are in an environment where they can flourish and learn and grow and contribute their best, then you will get the best performance, and good things will come of that. If they’re fearful, if they’re not able to take risks, if they’re stymied, if they’re not in the right position, if they’re gifts and talents aren’t honored or heard, or respected, then you’re stifling that performance and that output. I’ve always innately believed that, and yet now we have data to prove it. There’s all the surveys we do internally, I can correlate employee happiness to customer satisfaction. We can get a 97% “I’m satisfied, happy and productive here at WOW” score, and I get a 94.7% score from the end customer. That’s not a coincidence. I even get customers writing me saying, “You know, your installer was so happy and he was so pleasant, and it just made my day.” Or, “I was having a bad day, and I called your call center for something, and that rep was so happy and pleasant, it made my day.” Customers notice that our employees love what they do and have pride in the company and in what they’re a part of, and it makes the customer feel good about engaging with us. Then, you take it off the experiential level, and put it on a quantitative, database level. EQ is finally getting some attention. They have studies out there that have shown that leaders with the higher EQ – emotional quotient – than leaders with a higher IQ and a low EQ, get better performance in their companies, meaning that leaders who understand the emotional power, of harnessing emotional power within people, how that will result in performance, are doing much better than those who just have a high IQ and are a lot smarter than most. The EQ data will also show that there is such a thing as a happiness quotient and that companies with a high happiness quotient perform better.
Q What are you proudest of at WOW in metrics, in customer awards… or any measure you like?
A I would probably say the level of feedback, and satisfaction scores we get when we do internal surveys, and when I hear people say, “This is the best job I’ve ever had,” “I love coming into work everyday,” “I don’t ever want to leave here,” “I’ve grown so much.” “I love my coworkers,” “I hate missing a day of work, because I don’t want anyone to be put out because I wasn’t here.” Just hearing all those comments, hearing how proud people are to be a part of the organization and what we do every day is what I think I’m most proud of. We have a very high retention rate. We have a very low turnover factor in our company and I think that serves the company well, because we keep the intellectual capital that we have developed, and it serves our customers well, because they get knowledgeable people interacting with them. I think that’s what I’m most proud of.
Q So, those are some of the internal strengths of the company. What are some of the benefits that make the investors happy?
A Financially, we haven’t missed a year’s budget in seven years – as a matter of fact, we’ve exceeded our budget every year, and it’s not because we sandbagged. We’ve had double digit growth every year up ’til last year that was required of us. Even though we’ve had stretched budgets, we’ve achieved them, and overachieved. The company assets were bought in December ’01 for a little over 200 million, they were sold in May of ’06 for 800 million, we took a dividend in ’07 of 400 million, giving our investors two times their money return in a year. We’re probably a billion six, a billion seven in market value today, so from a financial standpoint, yeah! I think that it’s very rewarding for me, our employees, and our investors. And then third audience, obviously, is customers. I think we serve them well because they feel valued. We’re not the lowest price game in town, nor could we ever be. We don’t necessarily have all the bells and whistles that some of our competitors offer, but what we have is high value, and it’s consistent, and it’s backed up with great experience. And when we mess up, we’re the first ones to say it, and to make it right for our customers and go beyond what their expectations were at that time and really wow them.