Forging A Strong Chain.

Nov 02, 2009


Everyone who has ever made a purchase knows what "customer service" means. It's the way you are treated during the transaction. It's how you feel afterwards. It's an impression that stays with you – and influences your next purchase.

For the people who are Atlas, the term holds special significance. As keepers of the Atlas brand, they are charged to provide "integrity, quality, and solutions" for every customer, every day. Each understands that he or she is a link in a chain – an interconnected team, working as one to deliver on the brand's promise. The efforts of each individual determine the chain's strength, which is ultimately measured in terms of customer satisfaction, referrals, and repeat business.

Forging this chain represents a continuous journey. To help employees along the way, Atlas is conducting an internal education and communications campaign throughout 2009, "Customer Service First, (CSF)." It is helping the people who work at Atlas headquarters be the strongest links they can be.

"It starts here."

"Customer service starts here at Atlas headquarters," says Senior Vice President Account/Agent/Claims Services Mark Spiehler. "We are the central service provider, and we set the tone with best practices. We want to make sure every customer gets their money's worth and is treated in a professional and courteous manner."

Mark, along with Human Resources Vice President Nancy Priebe and Vice President Sales Development David Coulter, helps steer the CSF campaign. But Mark is quick to point out that every employee is essential.

"Each link is critical to the strength of a chain, so we are drawing on everyone's input to make this effort effective," says Mark.

A focus team keeps employees apprised of CSF activities and solicits thinking from throughout the organization. The goal: keep awareness high and continually invigorate the collective effort. To transform ideas into action, the team evaluates peers' suggestions and makes recommendations on how they might be implemented.

"All employees have a unique perspective, based on their own interactions with customers," says Nancy. "We encourage everyone to share their individual insights and to be open to other ideas."

Refreshing the Fundamentals

During the first quarter, senior managers and directors became oriented to the CSF initiative with a seminar conducted at Atlas HQ by the renowned Kelley School of Business. It covered the essentials of customer service and how managers can empower employees to deliver.

"For Atlas, customer service also means creating a culture that empowers employees to go beyond the norm to create a satisfied customer," says David Coulter. "Customer service is one of the few ways we have to differentiate ourselves from competitors, and each person has an important role to play. It's not just good business, it's absolutely essential – it can make or break our ability to keep a customer, or to land a new one," says David.

In March, senior managers held town-hall style meetings to kick off the campaign for every employee in every department. As part of this introduction, groups viewed a video on Southwest Airlines and its famous focus on customer service. And everyone received a CSF T-shirt to reinforce the campaign purpose and enhance awareness.

Training Trifecta

"At Atlas, our focus is, always has been, and always will be, the customer," says Training Director Stephen Watson. "We're changing so fast, with new tools, systems, and processes rolling out almost daily. In the midst of such change, we can't lose sight of our strengths. Training helps us keep our focus and everyone's skills sharp."

Employees are attending three customer service courses in 2009. The first began this summer. It covers four pillars for earning customer loyalty, starting with knowledge of the business and the Atlas organization.

"We want employees to shock customers with how much they know about our business and our industry," says Steve. "Everyone should learn something new every day."

Steve cites a popular game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," as an example. "When a contestant phones a friend for help, you can almost hear that friend typing keywords into an Internet search engine. In the same way, we don't always have the answer. But we do have the resources – and it's important to know how to use them to get an answer and solve problems."

Customer loyalty also hinges on ownership and the ability to solve problems; two closely linked concepts. "When we have a problem, we want to fix it forever, not fix it over and over," says Stephen. "If we are continuously fixing the same problems, they never go away. Our customers deserve follow-through to make sure they get a true solution, not a temporary fix. Taking ownership of a problem means you have stake in the solution. It's like flying a have to run with it for a while, baby it until it gets aloft. Then you can stand back and watch it fly. Follow up, follow up, and follow up, until that customer's problem is solved once and for all."

Having fun may be the easiest aspect of excellent customer service. Ideally, every employee brings their individuality, humor, and friendliness to customer interactions. "We should look for ways to make every contact a rewarding experience for the other person," says Stephen. "For example, if humor suits you, use it. Having fun shines through to your customers. If you're having fun, the customer hears it in your voice. They know you're enjoying your work... and they get a little of the joy where they are."

Beyond customer loyalty, classes in telephone techniques and e-mail etiquette are providing refresher instruction on skills Atlas people use every day. "If we are focused on customer service, we should also focus on the two primary tools at our disposal," says Stephen. "We all know how to use these communication tools, but training provides a means for us to review and spot-polish areas to strengthen the chain of service."

Stephen adds that customers and agents like the fact they can contact Atlas and get a real person. But they don't like being transferred frequently. "Although oftentimes we do have to transfer a call, the solution to a problem isn't just to get rid of the caller."

Sharing a Vision with Cartus

Kevin Kelleher, President and CEO of Cartus, visited Atlas headquarters on July 8 to talk about the "who, what, when, where, and why" of customer service. Cartus, an industry leader in global mobility and workforce development support for organizations worldwide, is a major client partner to Atlas. Like Atlas, Cartus is known for service excellence.

In a special presentation to Atlas employees, Kevin brought insights on the Cartus culture. He described the chain in which every employee is linked (I'm as dependent on you as you are on me) and said that last impressions – not first ones – endure. He described customer service as "the ticket" that "gets you in the game," i.e., allows an organization to compete. And he stressed that customer service must ultimately become part of an organization's DNA. Kevin challenged all to ask each morning: What am I going to do today to make things better for the customer?

Forging the Future of Customer Service

Activity heightened during the first full week in October, in conjunction with National Customer Service Week. Daily events – from quiz games that test business knowledge to "minglers" where Atlas professional van operators share tricks of the trade – focused on learning in an atmosphere of fun. Plans are ongoing to keep the Customer Service First initiative fresh, so the instillation of service in Atlas' DNA will grow ever stronger.

"Customer service is a never-ending journey," says Atlas Chairman and CEO Glen Dunkerson. "It evolves. Atlas is determined to stay on top of that evolution, to continue to forge a chain of excellent customer service and, without fail, answer with integrity, quality, and solutions. Our customers deserve no less."

Let's Talk About Customer Service...

"My relationships with our established customers have evolved over the years... Most of them have revealed wonderful stories about their families and they in turn inquire about mine."
– Darlene Duff, Manager – National Accounts, Avail Resource Management


"Customer service is doing all that it takes to make sure the customer has a positive outlook on our company... knowing that when the move is over, he or she will recommend our company to anyone that asks..."
– Lisa Carter, CSR, Avail Resource Management


"A customer service approach to business is something inside you... you like people, you want to do the right thing for people... "
– Eric Halverson leads the Global Mobility Team at eBay, Inc.


"If you don't have a passion for what you do, you should look for a new vocation...attitude is paramount."
– Jack Griffin, President & COO, Atlas International


"Good customer service is doing what you say you're going to do, all the time."
– Mike Shaffer, former Chairman & CEO, Atlas World Group


"Good customer service helps our company, because if our transferring clients are happy, it makes our jobs easier."
– Sherri Bacigalupo, Global Mobility Leader, Dow Chemical


"We look for an innovative approach to business from our supplier...we're open to new ideas..."
– Pat DeDonato, VP Supply Chain Management, Cartus


"Our agents are our customers, they bring us our business... we strive to add value to the services we provide them."
– Bob Clark, President and COO, Atlas Canada


"Whatever it takes to calm a person down, make sure they're comfortable with their upcoming move, that's what you do... everyone in that family has to be comfortable and ready to go, otherwise you're going to have a difficult move."
– Bob Shetler, President, Shetler Moving & Storage


"Every person, no matter how involved they are in the (customer service) process, is important."
– Tom Philbin, VP & General Manager, Nelson Westerberg of Illinois

At the Forum on Moving in April, Atlas Marketing Communications Director Barbara Cox, a member of the CSF focus team, interviewed Atlas sales people and customers about service and captured their comments on video. The CSF Focus Team is using segments of the recordings to convey different perceptions of service and reinforce key concepts throughout the HQ organization. "We are working to keep service top of mind for everyone," says Barbara. "A vigorous communications outreach makes use of banners, electronic messages, and video clips to elevate awareness and reinforce performance."


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