During our early years with Integra Telecom, when we first began to shoulder our way into the über-competitive communications market, the giants of the industry—like Verizon and AT&T—employed a centralized service strategy, with large, monolithic call centers and huge, centralized provisioning operations. Even today, if you were to contact your cable company or your data company, you’d probably call an 800 number and, after considerable hold time, talk to somebody in a different part of the world. You’d hear many conversations going on in the back-ground, because the conventional wisdom and its accompanying strategy was, and still is for many companies, something like this: If we centralize our customer service functions and streamline our operations, we’ll achieve economies of scale and bolster our bottom line. Blah, blah, blah.
Our retort to all that blah, blah, blah was a simple rejection: No, that’s not the way to do things. This is a service business. It’s not a widget manufacturing plant. At the end of the day what’s going to create an experience for customers unlike anything they’ve had before with their communications provider (our Mission) is an actual human relationship, and the best place to cultivate a human relationship is at the local level. We wanted our employees to have their kids in the same schools as the kids of our customers. We wanted them to shop in the same stores, drive the same roads, and picnic in the same parks. We sought to build a local model, where consumers look their provider in the eye and have real, personal interaction and an authentic service relationship.
So that was the vision. I put a lot of thought into how to energize hundreds of people to deliver on this model—not an easy task, given that many of these employees came out of the same big telecom companies that used centralized service models. I realized they might not find energy in this vision. I knew that I needed to create that buzz and get people fired up.
One way I went about it was to attempt to demonstrate the power of the local model through my own behavior, with the intent of inspiring others to deliver the message and communicate the vision. I made it a priority to spend a considerable amount of my days, as CEO, out in the field, in the offices where these local people were supporting our customers. So I would frequently travel and set up office next to the Integra Telecom employees who were serving customers. I saw the virtue of getting out of the proverbial ivory tower and sitting down with the frontline people. In time, I learned to look for what I called “a golden nugget,” an employee suggestion that would create an opportunity to make our model slightly better, something that would help elevate our service from a solid A to an A+. I prospected for these golden nuggets everywhere I traveled within the company.
Ultimately, these golden nuggets became building blocks for our shared Mission and our culture, which was the power of the close-to-the-customer local model. By going out to meet people on the front lines and implementing many of their recommendations, I was able enlist their “authorship” in the Mission, and, together, we exercised a long-term, ongoing vision.
I must say it’s a wonderful feeling to know that these simple little events had a truly profound and long-term impact on many people in terms of how they thought about the business. While the world of data communication might be quite boring to some people, it makes our world function. This little thing allowed so many people at Integra Telecom, including me, to conclude that we can make a difference. We mattered.
I’ve written a lot about the selfish-ego-versus-collective-ego struggle. The two egos definitely engaged in battle when it came to me traveling to spend time in the local Integra Telecom offices. I’d visit the other offices about ten times a year. Now, the selfish ego—that narcissistic, some-times lazy, always what’s-in-this-for-me creature—would try to persuade me to stay close to family and the cozy comforts of home. And sometimes, I’d succumb to the selfish ego and stay put in Portland. But fortunately, the collective ego won its fair share of victories, because that part of me knew I needed to get on a plane and— well—get local.