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Michael Hess of Waste Harmonics: “Hire the right people”

Hire the right people. It sounds basic, but it’s important. Find people who are passionate and focused on delivering high-quality customer service and it will make an impact in the organization. And be sure celebrate all the successes with your employees along the way. As part of my series about the five things a business should […]

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Hire the right people. It sounds basic, but it’s important. Find people who are passionate and focused on delivering high-quality customer service and it will make an impact in the organization. And be sure celebrate all the successes with your employees along the way.


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 Michael Hess.

Michael Hess is founder and chief executive officer of Waste Harmonics, a Rochester, New York-based company that provides customized waste and recycling management solutions for businesses across North America. Michael leads Waste Harmonics’ team of waste/recycling, technology, logistics and customer service experts who manage waste and recycling services — which deliver significant costs savings — for single- and multi-location businesses in a wide range of categories, including retail, grocery, restaurant, travel center, logistics, distribution and shipping.

Prior to founding Waste Harmonics, he served as vice president of U.S. operations for Capital Environmental Resource Inc., a 120 million dollars in revenue solid waste collection and disposal company with operations in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. During his tenure at Capital Environment, Hess served as an integral part in the acquisition, startup and integration of 11 solid-waste companies for more than two and a half years. Michael acquired Waste Harmonics from Capital Environment in 2001 and has since grown the business from a solely Northeastern U.S. focus to serving customers throughout the U.S. and Canada.


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’ve been in the solid waste management industry my entire career. Before founding Waste Harmonics, I served as Vice President of U.S. Operations for a solid waste collection and disposal company operating in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. When the opportunity arose where it was selling its contract-managed waste business, I put a deal together and bought the company. That was in June 2001, so we’re on the doorstep of 19 successful years for Waste Harmonics.

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?

I wouldn’t say this was a funny mistake, but years ago when I ran a hauling company, the auto attendant phone system first came out and it was being called a game changer. We agreed to walk down that path and install it. It was only live for three days because customers weren’t happy. I said I would never do that again and we never have.

At Waste Harmonics, we’ve ensured a person-to-person focus with our customer service group, so customers never feel like they’re just reaching an automated call center and entering countless numbers to try to get answers. We want employees to get engaged with our customers, so they know who they’re talking to. Our customers are reassured that our individual customer service representatives understand their business, their locations and what challenges they may be having.

Whether we’re dealing with a receiver in a grocery store or an operations manager at a furniture

distribution center, the ability for them to interact on a first-name basis with our team members

goes a long way. It’s a little touch that makes a big difference. And it aligns with the biggest lesson

my dad shared with me: Treat people the way you want to be treated and that’ll resonate

throughout life.

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?

I wouldn’t attribute a particular individual per se, rather I like to listen to a variety of leaders from different disciplines, consider what they say and, if it makes sense, apply it to what we’re doing.

When I first bought the business, I learned a lot about having solid banking relationships. Having a good bank behind us — that understands our business, what we do and how we do it — and managing that relationship has made a significant difference in how we’ve been able to grow the business. I connected with a local bank who took a chance on us, and we expanded that relationship from simple banking and a small line of credit into something that helped us fully launch this business back in 2013.

For example, we had an opportunity with a major prospect to take over their managed waste services and equipment rentals — it was a big deal. At the time we were doing about 5 million dollars, taking on a very large contract that required 8 million dollars of assets. As the smallest guys in the room, being able to participate in that RFP was somewhat intimidating. But because of the nurtured relationship with our bank we were prepared. We kept them informed, they knew what we wanted to accomplish and they were aggressive in helping us land that opportunity. That solidified for me how important it is to have the right partners to build the business.

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?

At heart, I’m a customer service wonk. I’ve always thought it’s important. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping people. When I see or hear the reaction of somebody who had a good experience, it just makes me feel good. It makes me want to do it again and again.

The opposite that helps drive that, too, is we’ve all had a poor experience with a brand at one time or another. It makes you wonder how that even happens because, in most cases, you don’t go back, and the company loses your business and possibly others from word of mouth.

I want to make sure that when our customers are dealing with us — when they’re on a call, they read an email, we have a conversation — they know we really do care about who they are, what they’re trying to accomplish and know the value we provide. That inherently drives a successful business and a better outcome.

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?

That’s a great question and unfortunately not an easy answer. I think it really depends on the business and the culture. It’s important to foster a positive working environment that enables employees to feel empowered and excited about the work they’re doing. It’s also important for employees to feel comfortable handling a variety of situations — both good and bad — to help shape a strong customer experience. Continual training opportunities are a great way to ensure everyone is aligned and pacing toward a business vision of creating the optimal customer experience.

As far as why some companies may not make good customer experiences a priority, it could very well be they’re too focused on ancillary issues. It’s important to make sure you have a vision for creating a great customer experience and for how the business strategy and goals can ladder up to that successfully.

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?

While there’s a lot of competition out there, and I think it can be a driver to help improve the customer experience, it shouldn’t be the primary driver. The customers themselves are the primary driver. Where are your customers? How are you reaching them? What do they need/want? How can you deliver?

By placing customers at the heart of your business strategy, you’re crafting the tactics you need to shape memorable experiences that last a long time. Establishing a business foundation that’s known for great customer service and caring about customers should always be a top priority.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was wowed by the experience you provided?

When we’re talking to a prospect, if there’s any question in their mind about what we can do we always say, “Give us your biggest problem and let us try to solve it for you. There’s no obligation. But let us try to help you. Let us prove it.”

As an example, we recently onboarded a customer in January. They had a broker involved in their business years ago and had a poor experience. Then they went to a national service provider and it only got marginally better. We started having conversations with them and heard a lot of “We’ve been down that path. We’re not going there again.” But we said, “Give us a dozen locations to service where you’re having some issues and let us show you what we can do. If you’re not happy in 30–60 days or 6 months, then kick us out.” They gave us a shot and two weeks in said, “You really do focus on the customer and making sure you get things done right.”

Our team hit it out of the park, which evolved into taking on a 10 million dollars piece of business.

Did that wow experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

From an overall business perspective, we recently received a 100% net promoter score and have a 99% client retention rate. We’ve really worked hard to create a culture that puts the customer first. And because our employees and customers are both happy, it has absolutely helped to grow this business. Our growth rates are circa 25% on a compound rate and we want to be able to continue that. In my view, the only way to do that is to make sure we continue to stay focused on our customers and employees.

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.

  1. Hire the right people. It sounds basic, but it’s important. Find people who are passionate and focused on delivering high-quality customer service and it will make an impact in the organization. And be sure celebrate all the successes with your employees along the way.
  2. Foster a positive work culture. After you find the right people, it’s important to make sure your employees are happy, feel valued and are aligned with your business approach. If you foster an internal structure where employees feel appreciated and encouraged, the results will emulate externally to create strong and memorable customer experiences. I’ve made it a priority to share positive feedback with my team to acknowledge their hard work and reinforce the high-level customer service culture that we’ve worked hard to create. When your team is feeling appreciated, they are inspired to do great work.
  3. Get to know your customers. It’s all about defining a powerful customer experience from the start and nurturing that over time. Creating a memorable customer experience goes beyond providing occasional assistance. It’s about thinking differently and providing expertise at a level that is personalized to each customer. Getting to know the inner workings of a customer and their goals goes a long way and is key to fostering a long-term relationship over time.
  4. Acknowledge. Respond. Follow up. These are the three rules we aim for every single day with our customers. It’s imperative to make sure all team members understand how important high quality customer service is, and it becomes ingrained as the number-one priority. By consistently doing those three things every single day, at every touch point, you’re establishing a level of communication and dedication that shows the customer you care.
  5. Get feedback from customers and stakeholders. Create an open circle of trust with your customers and solicit frequent feedback to ensure all expectations and goals are being met — and if not, what can be done to shift gears? And then, most importantly, share the feedback within the organization. If we’re getting service praises from our customers, we share them. And if we’ve hit a roadblock somewhere, we determine what happened, why it happened and how to fix it so it doesn’t happen again.

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?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be consistent with communication, delivery and follow-up. It’s the little things that make a big difference.

Because of our process, customers have said, “You’re not kidding! You communicate, you continue to keep us informed, you continue to follow up on everything,” and that has resulted in them sharing that satisfaction with others.

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.

Where things sit in the world today, I’d just like to see a nation where people are not afraid to share thoughts and ideas with others who have opposite views. And do it in such a way that we can sit down and find a way to work together for the greater good.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Waste Harmonics is active on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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