Define and redefine your business strategy as needed over time, of course, but also spend the time to properly articulate your vision, mission, purpose, values, and culture.
As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alphonso J “AJ” Cheponis. Alphonso is a results-driven, dynamic executive with over 24 years of leadership experience creating an effective business structure and driving business growth in highly competitive markets. Throughout most of his career, he’s held key “C” Level and Director positions: Owner, Founder, Director of Sales, COO, President & CEO.
He’s consulted with businesses over the past 15 years at varying depths. He’s planned and executed efficiency initiatives, sales, design/engineering, and financial management while consistently achieving desired levels of growth. Cheponis has continuously demonstrated an ability to combine visionary, strategic, and tactical expertise to produce bottom-line results and financial strength. He’s been instrumental in achieving significant cost reductions and revenue/profit improvements through reengineering, team building, and leadership expertise.
Cheponis is a skilled negotiator and analyst. He possesses outstanding sales skills and is a highly effective coach/trainer with a track record of building high-performing teams. He has a proclivity for recruiting, training, and mentoring record-setting sales superstars. He is a recipient of the prestigious Florida Manufacturer of the Year Award for exceptional corporate re-engineering results.
Cheponis recognizes that the common, vital thread in all organizations is people. Therefore, Cheponis now focuses on helping good companies become great companies through Talent Optimization. Talent Optimization is the framework where an organization creates a “People Plan” to support their business goals. Cheponis teaches companies how to hire the ideal person for each position — which leads to improved productivity, culture, profits, and customer service.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was fascinated with art and engineering at an early age, and that curiosity led me to my initial fascination with design and construction. Late in college, I was exposed to homebuilding, and within a short time, I started my first company building custom homes. The most complicated elements of construction (complex roofs and staircases) fascinated me. The latter turned out to be a driving force that would lead me down a completely unexpected path. Structural Design, Aesthetics, and the most complex of all elements — People.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Lesson one — be careful about marketing and selling yourself; you can have too much on your plate in the blink of an eye. I learned early on that not having a comprehensive plan that was balanced was a recipe for breaking commitments and ultimately losing business. Lesson two — have the right people in place to support your vision and goals; the wrong people in a small company can make or break you. That’s true for big companies as well, though, in a larger setting, it might take longer to identify the harm being inflicted on the organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s quite possible I could write a bestselling book on what not to do in business. At various times, I somehow managed to make some lousy people choices, from certain professional associates to employees. Fortunately, my perseverance, stubbornness, and ability to see the possibilities kept me searching for better. Ultimately, I created a great organization, from products to professionals and, most importantly, employees. If there’s any takeaway here, it’s; just because you can reinvent the wheel doesn’t mean you have to. Be observant, and work smarter, not harder. And surround yourself with the right people.
I credit my wife Lisa with always keeping my people standards high. Her first career was at the Leo Burnett Company, the legendary ad agency, when it was identified as one of The Fifty Best Companies to Work for in the World. That experience taught Lisa early on that great people and a great culture should be the standard in any company, and years later, at a point when I’d accepted compromising on people as “to be expected,” she played a role in pushing me to keep my people standards sky-high. If Lisa gets a whiff of questionable ethics, or senses someone lacks integrity, or just plain sees a wrong fit for a company’s good culture, her advice to any businessperson or company is to move on. Today, we are equally passionate about great fit — for the sake of the company, and for the sake of the individual employee.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?
Customers want to feel as though they are the most important person in the world. Delivering a great product alone won’t keep you in first place for long; it’s just a matter of time before someone shows up who’s got a product that’s just a little bit better. Many times, you may only get one shot to make an impression with a customer or prospect. If you make a mistake, you’ve got an unhappy customer. And an unhappy customer tells the world — far more often than a happy customer does. After all, a good experience is what is expected. So anything short of a euphoric experience and the customer may not tell anyone, but a slightly imperfect experience and your company’s reputation is being damaged on social media. It can be disastrous. Sadly, few small business owners create a team that incorporates customer service as part of intentional design, and the result is poor customer experience. Those experiences set the trajectory for a company. The solution can be simple — but it does take effort, clear intention, and, yes, just the right people in place to get your customer service just right.
We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?
I don’t think any entrepreneur or business owner wants to provide an inferior product or give poor customer service. More times than not, the focus is on the product, and little time is spent pondering the overall experience from the customer’s perspective. The most significant factor in the disconnect is the human element. Most companies, regardless of size, are hiring the wrong people into these frontline positions, and the ensuing results are anything less than encouraging. If an employee in a key role is simply not the right fit to interact with a customer as needed, there will be problems, not solutions, the “not great experience” will become the norm. You need stellar customer service people in those key seats, and the good news is that they are out there. You can identify them and hire them. It does not need to be a guessing game, and the smart business owner will find them and get them before their competition does.
Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?
It should! But sadly, I’m not convinced that competition significantly plays a role in delivering excellent customer service. This is because the foundations of excellent customer service must trace back to a set of corporate values and beliefs, and if you get that wrong, or your mission & values are just a sign hanging on the wall, there’s little chance of consistently providing a great customer experience. If anything — and this is unfortunate — increased competition is often more likely to deteriorate the level of service or quality of the customer experience as a company shifts its focus to the wrong things, such as increasing sales, reducing costs, or lowering prices.
Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?
Here’s an example I love: I placed an inexperienced salesperson in a role that my technology and research told me was a perfect fit, and the C-level folks in the company were absolutely nervous. I assured them the fit was ideal, and the salesperson simply needed the job-specific training, which would be well worth it. Sure enough, this salesperson blew the roof off the sales records in the company and became the enthusiastic, unstoppable leader of the entire sales team for the company.
Most companies are “wowed” by the results we can deliver. Our service is intense by design, as we focus on a specific aspect of business and are not trying to be “all things to all people.” Instead, with a laser focus on Talent Optimization, we deliver. And what we deliver — people who are the right fit — is exactly what makes the difference in a company. The difference between good and great.
Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?
The ripple effects are hard to put a value on. A high-performing, enthusiastic employee is not just your average employee. This is the person who shows up early, wants to work late, and never stops at only what is required of them. They have a great attitude. They fit with the company’s culture and values and mission. They become the people who deliver your corporate strategy. An entire organization of such employees? The ripple effect is astronomical. It’s inspirational.
What’s exciting is that beyond just the great hires, we offer more in-depth engagement levels. After a year of hiring the right people throughout a company, for example, year two might lead to executive goal setting and alignment, whereas year three of incredible results might lead us to educate the middle layer of an organization on most effectively designing and communicating with your teams. And of course, this whole process can be accelerated, depending on the appetite of the company to grow and improve.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.
Rule number one: Design your team with intent; your team should be designed to support your overarching business goals, your business strategy. The vast majority of organizations cobble together employees and groups without considering team dynamics, and they appoint leaders who might be excellent individual contributors but they lack the self-awareness, motivation, or the natural abilities needed to effectively inspire their people. When teams and leaders are designed ad hoc, the results suffer. When the design of the organization, its leadership, its culture, and its team dynamics are approached intentionally and strategically — supported by people data — companies have a significantly better chance of achieving their desired business objectives. I’ll refer back to that inexperienced salesperson who was nevertheless exactly the right fit for the job. Although he was not in a customer service role, he was such a perfect fit for his role within the company, his enthusiasm, and passion for each thing he did each day was palpable. As a result, all customers with whom he came in contact were thrilled, and their impression of the company was stellar. They had beyond “good” experiences; they had exceptional experiences. As a result, they spread the word. Furthermore, the enthusiasm this salesperson brought to work each day was infectious, and he, therefore, contributed to a positive culture.
Rule number two: Define and redefine your business strategy as needed over time, of course, but also spend the time to properly articulate your vision, mission, purpose, values, and culture. These become the foundation upon which everything is built. Management Guru Peter Drucker famously stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” No matter what your business strategy or strategic plan may be, your team is responsible for its success. Too often, goals are not achieved, and lackluster results become commonplace due to poor culture. The success of plans and goals is limited by the people implementing the plan if the culture does not support the plan. When the people you put in charge of driving the strategy lack alignment with their roles, they will inevitably lack effectiveness in achieving your business goals. To make matters worse, a poorly-aligned employee is not that perfect-fit, enthusiastic player who contributes to the energy and culture of your organization; rather, they can become a negative, energy-sapping element who are apathetic to their job and the organization.
Rule number three: Break the cycle of hiring on a resume and interview. This may seem counter-intuitive or even risky, but consider that resumes are carefully designed to look “just right,” and people can summon the courage, smarts, and “show-time energy” to get through an interview in truly an impressive manner. Your “stellar candidate” who knocked your socks off in a great interview and whose resume reads like a dream may or may not be all you hope. Has that ever happened to you?? There’s something I call “day 91 reality,” when “the real person” shows up on the job. Maybe, for instance, this “stellar candidate” was high energy and social in that interview, and maybe that’s exactly what you were looking for. But just about anyone can summon that social energy for an interview because they knew they have to, to get the job. And many people can “fake” that same style for a new job, but only for a while. When it comes to day-to-day work, they may simply not be that social, and by day 91 (if not sooner), the “real” person shows up. And you are scratching your head over a bad hire. How did you not see it, you ask yourself? Because you relied on the two traditional tools only: the carefully-crafted resume and a relatively brief snapshot of the person, in the very specific setting of an interview for a job they were trying to land. Open your mind to the newest technology of Talent Optimization, and you will improve your hiring results many folds.
Rule number four: We all have biases that sneak into our decision-making process — whether we recognize them or not. By creating objective measures of both the job and the candidate, we inoculate ourselves against those biases. Additionally, the natural behavioral drives and cognitive ability of individual candidates have been proven to be incredibly strong predictors of job performance. Having this information at your fingertips is a powerful tool for both hiring and inspiring your people to greatness. Spend a good portion of your interview time focusing on the alignment of values and beliefs rather than solely on technical details and experience.
Rule number five: Training & education — now that you have the right person in the right seat, train them and train them well. Ensure they know the company values, mission so they can make decisions on the spot to support the company values and goals.
Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?
Like designing a company or a team with intent, design your plan for referral business in advance. When you deliver a WOW experience, have a plan ready and in place to ask for the referral, let your clients know that you value their referral and you want them to be fired-up by your service so they will tell their friends and associates. Know how you will show your appreciation and try to think outside the box. And remember that in many cases, offering a discount likely doesn’t support your mission or values.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Stop placing so much importance on a resume. Just because a person has been doing something specific doesn’t mean they like it; it doesn’t mean they are good at it nor does it mean they are wired for it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/leanmfg/ and you can sign up for our blog at https://www.straightline.consulting/blog-subscription
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!