SI Review: January 2012

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Happy Clients = $$$

The Epitec Group’s service mantra ensures satisfied customers

By Craig Johnson

The Epitec Group takes its commitment to customers seriously. A few years ago, a large telecommunications firm offered Epitec an opportunity to do business. However, Epitec felt it was not set up at the time to deliver appropriately and turned the customer down.

The deal would have been a big win for the Southfield, Mich.-based information technology staffing provider. But there was a glitch. The Epitec Group didn’t feel it was set up at the time to deliver on the business appropriately. As a result, it turned down the deal. The company could have gone ahead given they were being handed a contract. But it didn’t. The Epitec Group believes in taking on customers only if it can deliver on its promises.

It wasn’t quite the end. Here’s how it played out:

Two and a half years ago, The Epitec Group had another opportunity to engage with the firm — A&T Corp. — and this time it was in a position to deliver on the contract.

The staffing firm had recently gone through a year-long effort to create a process map for all aspects of its business, and new, proprietary tools. In addition, it had a strong executive management team in place. The result: The Epitec Group feels it is ready to take on new business. AT&T is now a client and the relationship has resulted in $14 million addition to Epitec’s bottom line over the last 18 months.

The story illustrates how far The Epitec Group will go to keep a customer happy — even a potential one. It also demonstrates just one tenet of The Epitec Group’s philosophy: Don’t overpromise and don’t under deliver.

Delivering with Integrity

The Epitec Group’s ownership aimed to build a company that would last with integrity, and that means not making promises that can’t be kept, says Executive Vice President Tony Hollamon.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we under deliver,” Hollamon says. “Once you get a reputation for not being able to deliver, it spreads like wildfire.”

The efforts appear to work. The Epitec Group received the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council’s Minority Supplier of the Year for firms in the Class III category with revenue between $10 million and $50 million. Requirements for the award included polling the company’s large clients, which are in industries such as healthcare, automotive and telecommunications.

In addition, The Epitec Group was a runner-up, nearly making Staffing Industry Analysts’ 2011 list of fastest-growing staffing firms based on compound annual revenue growth from 2006 to 2010.

Training

But, it’s more than just not overpromising. When it comes to treating customers well, The Epitec Group also focuses on training internal staff, works to take a consultative approach to selling, maintains technological tools to get the job done and aims to be ranked among the top three vendors at each customer.

“Ultimately, I think we’re successful because we look at satisfying customers very holistically,” Hollamon says. “It’s ingrained in our organization, so it all starts with training. … We spend a ton of time bringing in new individuals, getting them up to speed on what’s important. Not only what’s important internally, but what’s important to our customers.”

In fact, CFO Mark Ruma says if The Epitec Group weren’t in the staffing industry, it would be in the training industry.

“We find ourselves very capable of training sales staff, and we’ve got a sales academy that we take all of our sales staff through as well as a recruiting academy,” Ruma says. “That translates directly to the service we deliver to our clients.”

Training fits in with the company’s consultative sales process aimed at getting the right match by listening to what a customer wants and then acting on that information.

“We first seek to understand what their needs are and then we look to meet those needs,” Hollamon says. “We teach our people to listen. We kind of take them through a quick process of discovery, understanding, action. Look at it for the first time, then look to understand it and then go into action. Where a lot of sales activity is straight into action, we have two steps that we backup on.”

The company’s sales process and recruiting process are tailored to meet the needs of client and employee through a process of understanding.

“It’s not too much of a stretch from eHarmony.com or MatchMaker.com where we’re just putting the needs of the customer and the needs of the employee together,” Ruma says. “When we get that match right, we hit it right on culture, we hit it right on technical need, we hit it right on team dynamics and then we get a good fit.”

The company’s focus on listening to customers is highlighted in its name. The Epitec Group is named after Epictetus. The Greek philosopher, who lived from A.D. 55 to A.D. 135, is credited with coining the phrase “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak,” according to www.BrainyQuote.com.

The Epitec Group also aims to follow the

platinum rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated.

Finding a Good Fit

“The thing that I like about Epitec is they really want to understand the client’s needs, and the client’s company culture so they can give you an individual that’s really going to fit in,” says Charlotte Decker, a longtime client of The Epitec Group.

Decker now serves as vice president and chief technology officer at the Auto Club Group, a AAA affiliate covering the Midwest as well as Georgia and Florida. However, she has worked with The Epitec Group throughout her entire career, a span of 25 years.

The Epitec Group has helped find the right employee that fits the culture of the company over the years, she says.

“They also keep their pulse on emerging IT industry trends,” Decker says, citing an example of how the company helped her locate a hard-to-find SharePoint resource. SharePoint is Microsoft software that allows online collaboration.

The Epitec Group also stays in contact with customers over time regardless of whether there are job openings in order to keep up with their needs, she says. The company builds an ongoing rapport and the last thing that may be discussed is what its opportunity is on a project.

“When the industry was kind of cold there for a while in 2008 and 2009, they didn’t shy away even when they knew we didn’t have the budget to hire,” Decker says.

Tools Matter

To help meet its goal of understanding, The Epitec Group uses technology. In particular, the company relies on its Epiworx and Epilink software.

“Epiworx allows us to capture critical deliverable information on projects to determine timelines and to communicate with our customer and capture problems, capture issues and resolve and deliver projects on time and on budget,” Ruma says. Epilink, meanwhile, enables the company’s employees to communicate with Epitec “so that we’re getting information not only from the employee side, but from the customer side. So we’re continuously being fed information from both sides to make sure that we’re delivering to the customer.”

The company puts process first, then tools and then people.

Many of the electronic tools The Epitec Group uses have “electronic quality gates” to make sure internal workers remain on track. An example of a quality gate would include such things as knowing that compensation has been negotiated prior to sending someone over to a client.

“For every 10 people submitted to the customer, three get interviewed, one gets placed,” Ruma says. “When we have a strong relationship with that customer we can increase the number of interviews per submittal. When we’re [getting to know] a newer customer, of course, we [may] have to submit more until we understand that customer’s needs and work to improve that success ratio.”

The Epitec Group also has another tool called the “Ultimate Report,” which provides information such as how many submittals per interview and how many interviews per placement. That information can be seen by the client, the client’s team, the salesperson and the recruiter.

“The same information executive management looks at, our employees look at, our salespeople look at, our recruiters look at, and it matches those critical indicators that our customers track as well,” Ruma says. “So we can match our data to customer data and determine are we doing a good job?”

Training, consultative selling and the right tools aren’t the only things.

Another program The Epitec Group follows is called “cooperative economics.” Under this program, the company offers incentives for internal employees who purchase products or services from customers. For example, an internal worker will receive $25 a month, up to $600, if he or she buys a car from a company that is a customer of The Epitec Group. In 2010, the program accounted for 21 vehicles.

In the Top Three

Overall, the company has an internal goal to be in the top three suppliers at every customer with which it does business.

A lot of the measurement is internal to the customer, Hollamon says. “It’s not our measurement; it’s theirs. Each one is a little bit different, but they’ve got their own peak performance indicators.”

The company knows it’s doing well if it’s in the top three, and falling below that metric can mean that a staffing firm is in danger of being replaced by another vendor.

“Being in the business that we are in, our customers have a very loud voice,” Hollamon says. “And when they say something we listen.”

Craig Johnson is managing editor of staffing publications at Staffing Industry Analysts. He can be reached at cjohnson@staffingindustry.com.

[SIDEBAR]

The Beginning

The Epitec Group was founded by Jerry Sheppard in 1978, and is 100 percent African-American owned. In addition to receiving the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Councils’ Minority Supplier of the Year award, the company also received Crain’s 2011 Best Place to Work award and Metro Detroit’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For. The Epitec Group also appeared on Staffing Industry Analysts’ 2011 list of diversity staffing firms. The company posted 2010 revenue of $37.5 million and expects revenue of $50 million in 2011.

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