SI Review: January/February 2013


Power Seller

Between the Lines

How listening to the voice of the customer can fuel innovation and boost sales

By Teresa Carroll

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to innovate. The pace of change in the workforce and workplace is accelerating, and “adapt or die” might not be an understatement.

While everyone in an organization can take part in innovation, those in sales are in a unique position. Being face-to-face with customers allows us to listen, capture their voice, and take action to meet their needs. But going one step further and “listening between the lines” is a way to explore how those actions can be applied to a broader audience or enhanced to create greater value for other customers. As a result, the ever-important voice of the customer fuels innovation.

It Takes a Partnership

Innovation in partnership with customers paves the way for growing your sales strategy. The evolution of the MSP program at Kelly Services is a great example. In the mid-1990s, Kelly was the master vendor for commercial staffing at a leading global company that had concerns with its temporary IT staffing. The supply of IT talent was tight, and its process of getting the requisitions to its IT suppliers and then sifting through the résumés was inefficient. To top it off, it wasn’t getting specialized candidates who matched its needs.

We suggested a solution that would manage its talent acquisition process by interfacing with its IT suppliers, temporary employees and hiring managers — a relatively new concept at the time. Its success got us thinking about how we could sell the solution to other customers.

Another master vendor customer saw great value in the solution, and we implemented the program for all of its professional and technical labor categories. Then this customer wanted reporting and real-time data, so we continued to innovate by incorporating technology solutions to meet their needs. Before long, we were selling the expanded program to customers we didn’t have a master vendor relationship with.

But the evolution of the MSP program didn’t stop there, because we continued to innovate based on the voice of the customer. What began as a conversation about IT talent acquisition evolved into a program that includes many other outsourced talent and labor categories and compliance and risk mitigation for a much broader range of skills, geographies, and services.

Listening to many voices can also fuel innovation. Many customers were telling Kelly they were frustrated about being unable to engage specialized talent they needed, because niche suppliers couldn’t afford the required insurance to become eligible for consideration. The suppliers were frustrated as well, because the insurance expenditure outweighed contract profitability. It was a no-win situation.

In response, Kelly partnered with an insurance company to launch the staffing industry’s first supplier insurance program. Initially, the program was for small to midsize, niche staffing suppliers on Kelly-managed contracts, but was later expanded to add coverage for independent contractors and comprehensive primary insurance for contracts not managed by Kelly.

Participation in the program has doubled in the past year. As customers become more concerned about compliance, diversity metrics and the employment relationship, this program will continue to help us win contracts and enhance our value to customers and suppliers.

No Limit

Innovation doesn’t always have to be so grand. While both examples in this article were game-changing innovations for Kelly, they are like continuous outward spirals embedded with incremental improvements that perpetuate the innovation process. For example, adding technology to the MSP program and extending insurance to independent contractors are incremental innovations. Modest, stepwise improvements can be made to any product, process, or service and still impact sales.

Innovation certainly isn’t anything new, but embracing it from a sales perspective is. History has shown that successful organizations adapt to new challenges and opportunities. In order to adapt in our rapidly changing marketplace, we must continuously refine products and services in our industry based on the voice of the customer.

Incorporating a mind-set of innovation into the sales process won’t happen overnight. Talking at customers less and listening to them more is one way to start. Before long, you could be listening between the lines and watching your sales grow.

Teresa Carroll is senior vice president, Centers of Excellence and general manager, KellyOCG for Kelly Services Inc. She can be reached at


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