Each year companies from all industries spend endless amounts of time and money searching for the perfect business model and brand experience. While necessary in some cases, many businesses often fail to take the simple steps of listening to their customers and building a business model that uses a shared vocabulary to leverage the strengths of their employees. But that’s exactly what FE&S’ 2013 Dealer of the Year Singer Equipment Company has done.
Using a clearly defined culture and set of values that together serve as a roadmap for all employees to service customers — both internally and externally — Singer Equipment Company saw its annual revenue grow to $223.6 million from $134.3 million in 10 years. Despite its growth, the company's commitment to its three-pronged culture and the continued embrace of its small-town roots will remain integral parts of Singer Equipment Co.'s success for years to come.
"Having a consistent value system and culture that is explicitly stated and talked about has been extremely important in facilitating our growth," says Fred Singer, president and chief executive officer for Singer Equipment Co.
When he first started with the company, Singer took a step back and asked a basic question: What were the key attributes that people at Singer Equipment Co. needed to be successful — both internally with each other and externally with their customers? From this emerged three key characteristics that have since become a part of each employee's work DNA: responsive, knowledgeable and friendly.
"They are in that order for a reason: 80 percent of what our customers loved or didn't like about Singer Equipment Co. had to do with responsiveness," Singer says. "The other 20 percent of what people liked about us was how much our people knew about products and the business. Friendly is just the icing on the cake. People like to work with people who are friendly. But people are not calling us for friendships. They are calling us for business. And if you are knowledgeable and responsive, they will want to do business with you."
Simple by design, this culture is something more than an elevator speech for employees to share with customers or suppliers. "It gave us a common vocabulary to evaluate whether we were meeting our own goals and standards," Singer adds. "And that applies to the internal part of the business, too. It does not matter who you are or your job — all we ask is that you are very responsive and you are as knowledgeable as you can be. When you look at our review forms, that's how we evaluate people."
And the dealer's employees openly embrace the culture. "It is more than something painted on the walls," says Joe Gallagher, the dealer's equipment manager. "We want people who are trained to do their jobs. They can help answer a customer's question or help by knowing where to go to get the necessary information. They can do it in a timely manner and be friendly when doing it."
In fact, some longtime employees feel Singer Equipment Co.'s corporate culture has emerged as one of its main competitive advantages. "I think our responsiveness keeps the competition at bay. The customers know that any problems will be taken care of," says Ray Buch, national accounts manager and a 30-year veteran of the company. "Everyone in the company, from the drivers up through Fred, reacts the same way. But people here don't realize they are doing it. It is just ingrained."
Equally important as the culture is the company's set of values: Always tell the truth, even if it is unpleasant or ugly. Stand behind what you sell; if it does not sound right or if the product is not doing what it is supposed to do, make good on it. Make decisions for the benefit of developing and maintaining a long-term relationship.
"That's what our managers want our people to do, and it gives all of our employees the ability to take care of their customers. It empowers them to do what's right for our customers," Singer adds. "There's no decision made for one order or one day."
Why was articulating the company's culture and values important to Singer Equipment Co.'s success? "In the end, you are trying to create a brand, which is a consistent delivered experience to the customer, no matter how they interact with you," Singer points out. "If you don't have this stuff explicitly stated, and that includes reiterating it day in and day out, you can't grow a consistent culture. And if you don't have a consistent culture, you don't have a brand. All of this so-called soft stuff is the foundation for our growth.
"The greatest pleasure I get is when I talk with customers and they say no matter who I interact with at Singer Equipment I get the same great experiences," Singer continues. "When that happens, I know we are doing it right. Every company can have a great employee that covers up the ills of others, but you only get to the next level if customers have a great experience with every employee they interact with."
Maximizing a sales force's potential and the use of labor is a challenge that most foodservice dealers face, and Singer Equipment Co. was no exception.
In fact, among many foodservice equipment and supplies dealers it is fairly common for salespeople to project manage their own work, developing their own designs and estimates. Some even have their own CAD operators. In these instances, though, the salesperson does not spend a lot of time actually selling. Rather they spend a lot of time managing projects. From Singer's perspective this limits the salesperson's earning potential, which is to their own detriment and the company's detriment, too.
As a way of addressing such challenges, some dealers have their sales reps hand over these various functions to other departments within the company. But this approach has its challenges, too. For example, details of a specific job can fall through the cracks when work is handed from department to department. Or when the company as a whole gets busier, then the employees working in those individual departments can become overwhelmed and face the difficult task of prioritizing which job comes first. "While the company may be doing better, the employees were doing worse," Singer recalls. "I was spending a lot of time just balancing the resources, and everyone was unhappy."
Singer observed that people who work in teams tend
to outperform people that do everything themselves. This led the company to structure its sales force in a distinct way.
Today Singer Equipment Co. allocates to each team specific resources, such as administrative support and purchasing assistants as well as designers when applicable. And each team's compensation is based on their success. "They now have resources, and it is up to them to schedule their work, and it aligns the interests of the employees with their team and company," Singer says. "Typically in a process-oriented business, the errors happen in the handoff. So by bringing these people together in teams, you get into a groove, which helps increase quality and diminish error rates. That also keeps our salespeople and teams focused."