Flex: When Customers Ask, Atlas People Find Ways

Nov 01, 2010

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The fundamentals haven't changed; moving still requires people to pack, hoist, dolly and motor. But market factors have made demand as unpredictable as the rain. Customer expectations for service and value, fueled in part by the relentless march of technology, continue to rise. The challenges are undeniable.

"We strive to be flexible, or customer-centric. That doesn't mean we are 'all things to all people.' But it does mean when a customer asks us to do something, we do everything in our power to accommodate them." — Jack Griffin, Atlas Van Lines President & COO

In the last issue of the Amplifier, we looked at how Atlas is investing for greater flexibility to meet these challenges. For this issue, we visited a handful of Atlas professionals to learn about the human side of flexibility. We asked what they do to create great customer experiences. They gave us the answers... and they are as unique as the people themselves.

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David Hillemann
, Sales Representative for Advance Relocation Systemssays customers expect added value. So he and his team are working harder—and smarter. "We are fanatical about communication," says David. "Communication is key to meeting customer expectations, for everyone in the service chain. For example, you can't always put every single instruction in the order, so we call ahead and check with the van operator to make sure he has all the information he needs.

David says such proactive communication can save the day, as it did on a recent shipment of high-value art. "The load plan was so detailed, it showed where every crate was to be placed in the trailer," recalls David. "It even showed the operator where to stow the van equipment."

But, when CSR Tanya McKelvey called the operator to review instructions for the job, he did not have the load plan. "That plan represented several days of communication between us and the client," says David. "To arrive without it would have been unprofessional. With one phone call, we dodged a bullet."

But, David says, more than service delivery must be perfect. Customers scrutinize everything, top to bottom. "You're only as strong as your weakest link."

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David Vaughn
, Owner-Operator, says customers today are more sophisticated than in years past. Most have moved before, and they come to the move with both positive and negative experiences. Even those who have never moved are savvy, using the Internet to educate themselves on the process and how to move.

"Customers are anxious, so I try to earn their confidence," says David. "First, I introduce myself and crew; I want them to see us as real people who are personable and approachable. They may be happy about the move, or they may be dreading it. We can't do anything about the circumstances, but we can make clear we're here to make the move as easy as possible for them."

David knows his role is a highly personal one. "I think of myself as a special guest in the customer's home. And I wouldn't bring anybody onto the job that I wouldn't have in my own house."

"When I come in, I make it clear that I respect the customer's property, just as I respect them. I've learned that everyone has at least one thing that is especially important to them. It may be a photo of a loved one, or a family heirloom. It may not be worth a lot of money, but it is irreplaceable. When you find what is really important to people, you learn a lot about them...and you are better able to help them."

David's consideration extends beyond moving day. When he is assigned a move, the first thing he does is call the customer. "I verify the information I have, ask about their needs, and give them my cell phone number. I ask them to call me if they have a question. If I don't know the answer, I'll get it."

"Smiling over the phone may be a cliché, but I believe it's noticeable. A customer can tell by the tone of your voice whether you will help them or not." — Scott Herrenbruck, Planner, Atlas Operations

Scott Herrenbruck, Planner, Atlas Operations, says customers are more informed today than in years past. Mobile networking allows customers to do research, and it makes them a little less patient...they are used to getting answers quickly.

Scott relies on himself as much as possible to provide those answers. "I try to keep abreast of all that I can. I want to answer questions about claims, ratings, and distribution without having to refer to someone else. I think it's more professional."

Scott says Atlas tools make a big difference. "Agents and customers benefit from Atlas technology. Atlas people rely on Internet tools from start to finish, and so do customers. For example, trailer tracking lets customers follow the progress of their shipment. This saves phone calls and allows us to work more efficiently here. Likewise, van operators can get their load information online."

"There's a competitive gene in all of us. You can see it in Atlas agents, who strive for ratings and recognition of their service quality. A reputation for quality is a big reason Atlas has withstood the test of time. Personally, I work hard to build a positive reputation for myself. I let customers know they are important and I depend on them as much as they depend on Atlas. I do what I say I will do...that's the only way you can build your reputation."

"How does Atlas help customers move cost-effectively? By offering something the other guys don't. As a development shop, we are not limited to shrink-wrapped software. When our customers need something, we respond." — J. J. Mohr, Atlas Director of Information Technology

J. J. Mohr, Director of Information Technology, sees customer expectations as opportunities to make a difference. "We can make things work better for our customers when we know how our customers work," says J. J. "We try to get in their shoes and completely understand how they do business. The more we know, the more efficient we can be in providing solutions."

Efficiency is like oxygen for IT development; without it, the process itself can suffocate. So, J. J. and team live and breathe with agile methodology. "Rather than work in isolation, we involve the customer in the development cycle as part of the team. We continually deliver something for the customer to touch and feel. The process eliminates a lot of rework."

J. J. and company stay focused on opportunities. Recently, they created a tool for better collaboration among Atlas agents. A function within AtlasNet Survey makes correspondence more efficient than phone and e-mail. They are also working to shave the span between shipment completion and invoicing. And they are refining the utility of hand-held systems for real-time interaction. The goal is always to make people more productive. "Any programmer can develop code. We develop efficiencies."

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"No one knows what customers will ask,"
 says Melanie Freeman, Interstate Operations, Advance Relocation, "but, whatever the request, you look for a way to say yes."

"You have to be flexible in this business," says Melanie. "For instance, a customer asked if we could move a lion for the National Zoo. We'd never moved a lion before. But, we figured it out. With enough time and the right preparation, I believe we can do anything. After all, people put a man on the moon."

Melanie solves problems for household goods as well as special products. But, moving the unusual gets her heart pumping. "We move rare and priceless collections to museums all over the country," says Melanie. "We play a part in giving people the chance to experience history and culture. That keeps me excited."

Gratifying, too, are the special interventions. In one case, a customer paid a premium to secure timely delivery for a computer mainframe, only to have the system fail upon installation. Rather than take the order for another expensive delivery, Melanie reached out to Atlas with a special plea. A dogged planner found a truck going that way; it saved the customer about $2000.

"You sympathize with people in those situations. You think, 'what would I want someone to do for me?' It comes down to taking a little more time and going the extra mile."

"After 30 years of service in this industry, I can say with confidence that Atlas provides the highest quality of moving services in the industry." — General Manager Rudy Fischer, Alexander's Mobility Services

From the perspective of Rudy Fischer, General Manager Alexander's Dallas and Nashville Operations, every customer brings different expectations. "Accounts are looking for the finest services and best possible pricing. For relocation companies, survey response is important. The people who are moving expect professionalism — a uniformed crew, background checks. After all, they are entrusting us to move their lives."

And everyone expects a swift response, with fewer days in the spread between loading and delivery. Rudy says it often takes creativity to meet such expectations. Training is essential.

"We hold a monthly fleet forum, delivering a consistent service message to operators and crew. And, we conduct weekly meetings to keep our sales and operations people current. We work hard to ensure all have the information and tools they need for customer service."

Those tools include varied applications of information technology. "Sales people use an iPhone application for surveys, which lets them send the information to team members immediately. Operators get information via the web and smart phone; they use navigation technology to map their routes. Thanks to a barcode inventory system, we know exactly what's in our warehouse at all times, and how much capacity we have."

But digital bells and whistles can't replace the best customer-service tool of all: the human ear. "Basically, we listen to our customers, so we understand their special requests and concerns. We let them know we heard them, and that we will respond with a sense of caring. It may be a specific date that they need delivery...or special items that need special care — a china cabinet, grandfather clock, or even their Harley bike. Our motto is 'whatever it takes.' We live by that."

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