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Practical Lessons from the Deep: Growing an Ocean Tech Company

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Robert Haydock

CEO

The only thing worse than poor customer service is poor customer service from an organization that claims to care.  At AML, we want our customers to expect more.  To fuel that expectation, in January of 2018 we went live with a brand promise: We Make it Easy. 

When did you last experience poor customer service?  The frustration of being placed on hold with an automated attendant while an impersonal voice informs you that you are a valued customer? 

The only thing worse than poor customer service is poor customer service from an organization that claims to care.  At AML, we want our customers to expect more.  To fuel that expectation, in January of 2018 we went live with a brand promise: We Make it Easy.

We believe our customers are looking for some simple things:

  • reliable operation of their equipment
  • timely technical support
  • prompt customer service  

Put simply, our customers want to know that we give a damn.  ‘Making it Easy’ – as in reliable, timely, with a caring attitude – seems like an accurate summary of what our customers are looking for.

We also know that many companies make empty promises, communicated glibly in ‘Marketing Speak.’  Marketing emits one message, while the actions of the team say something completely different. 

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We didn’t want to fall into this trap.  We wanted our promise – “We Make it Easy” – to ring true in the day-to-day experience of our customers.  To make that happen, it was important to sharpen the pointy edge of the sword; we needed to create consequences for ourselves if ever we behave in a manner that isn’t aligned with our promise.

We decided to take the uncomfortable step of underpinning our marketing message with financial guarantees, effectively asking our customers to hold us accountable to our brand promise.  We offer four guarantees, which together embody our “We Make it Easy” promise:

1 – Easy to Trust.  You are happy with your purchase of AML SV, SVP or CTD instrumentation OR you may return it for a full refund of the purchase price within 90 days of purchase.

2 – Easy to Buy.  You receive a personalized response to your sales query within 1 business day OR you get $200 USD off your next AML purchase.

3 – Easy to Support.  You receive a personalized response to your technical support query within 12 hours OR you get $200 USD off your next AML service.

4 – Easy to Integrate. Your first OEM sound velocity sensor for integration into commercial projects is free.

Easy, right?  Communicate our commitments and wait for the magic to happen!  In fact, implementing our brand promise was a three year process.  The journey from there to here was complex and challenging, largely because “We Make it Easy” can only be consistently delivered by a team that truly cares.  Customer focus must be alive not just in market facing departments like Sales and Service, but throughout the entire organization.  Every single member of the AML team has to be dedicated to perfecting the customer experience. 

To announce our brand promise and guarantees with confidence required no less than a full rewrite of AML’s culture.  How did we do it?  We took the following four steps to refocus our culture on customer success and Making it Easy.

Step 1: Daily Huddles

Everyone loves meetings, right?  Imagine, then, the skepticism as we implemented a mandatory, daily huddle where every single team member is expected to share a personal story from the previous day!

Why personal stories?  As we got to know each other better, something fundamental shifted.  We no longer behaved like a collection of loosely connected people and departments – Sales, Manufacturing, Engineering, Supply Chain – with separate goals.   We became an integrated team.

Why is this important to our customers? 

A connected team – a team of friends rather than a team of work colleagues – is exponentially more likely to honour the commitments of front-line, customer facing team members.

Step 2: “Rules of the Road”

Like many 40 year old companies, AML evolved with no clear rules for selecting new recruits.  All too often we filtered candidates on technical skill alone when we should have been selecting on mindset first and technical skill second.

The second step in our transformation was the creation of explicit ‘rules of the road’ that every AML employee was expected to live by.  These principles guide our employees in unpredictable or even unimaginable situations, and so the guidelines had to focus on higher-order behaviours rather than specific situational responses.  We expressed our ‘rules of the road’ as three core values that must be present in all employees.

I know what you are thinking. What’s the big deal? Almost every office I walk into has posters espousing generic concepts like teamwork, passion, and excellence plastered on the walls of their reception area.  But naming the values is table stakes.  What’s truly important is that the values are alive.  For that to happen, the entire team needs to get uncomfortable. 

In our huddle, we began sharing employee values stories – hundreds of small stories of individual AMLers displaying our core values in daily work situations.  Values stories have a few rules: they must be shared verbally, in front of the entire team, while recognizing a specific employee for displaying a specific value.  The stories are always peer-to-peer and are not management generated. 

At first, most AMLers found our focus on values stories uncomfortable: hokey, soft, new age…overall, a waste of time.  Nominators and nominees alike were hesitant to expose themselves by sharing positive, heartfelt feedback in a public setting.  We gained traction story-by-story, each story further reinforcing how good it felt to acknowledge and be acknowledged for our contributions.  As the values started to come to life, each public acknowledgement spurred the team forward and inspired even more extraordinary acts.

Without a doubt, daily values stories were the linchpin to embedding our new rules of the road.  These values stories are now every AMLer’s favourite part of the daily huddle. 

Why is this important to our customers? 

Put simply, it means that the entire AML team is committed to our ‘rules-of-the-road’, which in turn are linked to our desire to make it easy for our customers.  We believe that outstanding customer service is not a result of a single, shining star, but rather consistent delivery from the entire team.  Clear rules of the road clarify the standards that we expect our entire team to work to.

Step 3: Add Numbers

With our values alive, we had more trust in the room.  At this point, we were able to introduce individual metrics.

Today, every employee at AML has a daily number that focuses them on what is most important.  It takes time – and failed attempts – to uncover the right number for each employee.  You’ll know you’ve arrived at the finish line when every employee is excited by the idea of communicating their daily number and assessing its status in traffic-light style: red, yellow or green.

Why is this important to our customers? 

Metrics mean every critical function in our organization – instrument builds, case resolution, order scheduling – has an owner who is clear on how they can maximize their impact each and every day.  The numbers highlight in near real-time where we need to throw more resources to improve the customer experience.  Our organization – the entire team – executes better when every team member is guided by their critical number. 

Step 4: Socialize the Strategy

Have you ever worked for an organization where strategy is stale the moment it is born?  In most organizations, strategy is a 30 page book written at the start of the year and then shelved for the following 12 months.  We knew we needed to break that cycle. AML’s strategy – to make it easy for our customers – needed to be alive.  To be alive, it needed to be simple and succinct.  

How do you create aliveness?  In AML’s case, we ‘test’ for strategic alignment by asking employees – all employees – to explain key elements of our strategy in the daily huddle, in front of their peers.  Ad-hoc testing makes sure that the entire team is fully aware of what is important.  More importantly, it has been our experience that employees don’t challenge strategy until they are asked to present it.  This is a critical insight.   Only when they are asked to verbalize the strategy – essentially, to own the strategy, even if only for a brief moment – will most employees identify challenges, missings, and difficulties in the chosen path. 

Why is this important to our customers? 

All day long, AMLers make decisions based on the information they have at hand. If each and every employee truly understands where we’re going and what is important, they can make better decisions.  At AML, better front-line decisions generally means greater momentum towards a better customer experience.

And now?

Over the past 3 years, we have reset expectations at AML.  It has not always been a happy or easy process and we have made mistakes.  That said, I am delighted to say that we have a team of committed, engaged individuals who care deeply about the customer’s experience.  It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.  It means we strive for better.  And it means we care.  

That, in turn, gives us the confidence to offer you – our customers – a guarantee that “We Make it Easy.”

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Robert Haydock
Robert joined AML Oceanographic in 2002. President since 2006 and CEO since 2009, Robert guides the AML team on its mission to “Make it Easy.” For the past four years, Robert has focused on embedding the Rockefeller Habits business methodology at AML. In light of that experience, in 2016 Robert became the Chair of the Board of Acetech, an organization dedicated to teaching best practices to CEOs of technology companies. Fluent in English, Spanish and French, Robert has lived and worked in North America, Latin America, and Europe.
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