Foster Innovation by Prioritizing People
I created Intradiem in 1995 to solve what I thought was a fascinating problem: call centers were engaged in a lopsided battle of responding to dynamic demand (fluctuating call volume) with undynamic supply (pre-scheduled agents). The challenge was to give call center operators effective tools to right the imbalance between supply and demand, and the solution would be based on technology. But not just any technology; the complexity of the challenge meant the solution would require serious innovation.
A few years after launching Intradiem I expanded the mission from financial success to achieving financial success by doing things the right way—treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve. The innovations Intradiem would bring to market would originate with our customers and employees. Our success would depend on their success. They were, first and foremost, people with families and bills to pay. They needed to be the company’s top priority. So, we decided to put people first, and we’ve found that it works.
Contact Center 101
The contact center supply-and-demand dilemma has an impact on all of us. Thanks to this fundamental inefficiency, we spend an average of 123 days of our lives on hold, in line or otherwise waiting for a service technician. That’s inexcusable in the 21st century. A technology to realign supply and demand could return much of that lost time to customers—which means all of us.
In the contact center, call volume ebbs and flows under normal conditions, and storms, product recalls and other events sometimes cause abrupt spikes. Staffing levels are set in advance and difficult to adjust on the fly, so centers overstaff to make sure enough agents are on hand to handle potential call spikes.
But when call volume dips, the center finds itself paying too many agents for the demand at hand. This inefficiency and waste costs the company money, and has created a decades-long focus among financial executives to drive cost out of contact centers. This in turn creates pressures that end up being bad for agents, customers and call center operators.
Since 75 percent of call center budgets go to labor costs, simply throwing more bodies at the problem is costly and wasteful. What if there was a technology that could detect shifting call volume in real time and make staffing adjustments on the fly? That would eliminate waste and save companies a lot of money. But with investment budgets eaten up by labor costs, there’s not much left for technology. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and the only way out is through innovation.
Most people think innovation just requires hiring a bunch of geniuses to come up with great ideas. But the real key to innovation is listening, because the best innovations are the ones that solve real problems. Many software companies take a “product-out” approach— creating or acquiring products, inventing a problem those products solve, and setting out to convince the world that they have this newly-invented problem and can only solve it with the company’s products.
At Intradiem, we use a “problem-out” approach instead—asking customers to help us understand their business problems, exploring potential solutions together, getting customer feedback as products are being developed, and then releasing products that directly target real business problems.
This process requires hard work and dedication from a lot of people. It requires employees who will make the effort and adjustments to truly listen to and learn from customers each day to keep a spirit of innovation alive and advancing.
How do we find such employees? I don’t believe pre-formed geniuses are out there just waiting to be plugged in. I think talent is partly innate but that it always needs to be properly cultivated.
At Intradiem, we’re guided by a “people first” philosophy. We eliminate distractions to keep our teams focused on creating and delivering solutions our customers need to succeed. If employees are worried about a health plan that doesn’t cover their needs or a schedule that doesn’t permit an afternoon off to watch their kid’s soccer match, they won’t be able to fully focus on customers’ problems and innovating solutions to those problems.
I’ve found that it’s incredibly beneficial to the company to make sure employees understand that the company “has their back,” so they can focus on customers. Employees treated with respect and dignity will respond with loyalty and a deeper commitment to creating the innovative solutions that drive Intradiem’s success.
I also believe our strong company culture generates its own immune system, constantly reinforcing itself by pushing to the surface employees who don’t buy in to Intradiem’s people-first approach. When values are clearly defined and widely shared, it’s easier for employees to recognize for themselves whether or not Intradiem is a good fit for their talents and ambitions.
That’s why I think it’s such an important part of my job as CEO to convince each employee to fully embrace our core values:
• Servant’s Heart—caring enough about other people to understand what their problems are and placing the needs of colleagues, customers, and others over personal objectives.
• Craftsman’s Attitude—taking pride in the work we do and creating solutions that really solve the problem at hand (and trying again if the first attempt doesn’t do the trick).
• Revolutionary Spirit—leaving the world a better place than it was when we found it, and doing things we would be proud to brag about to our grandchildren.
A Recipe for Success
I’m convinced that putting people first is a recipe for success. It creates a virtuous circle, as satisfied employees dig deeper to satisfy customers, and satisfied customers contribute to company growth. Business success—as measured by traditional financial metrics—can be achieved by treating employees with the respect they deserve rather than as cogs in the machine. Intradiem is thriving today, in large part because of our people-first approach to innovation.
Baseball Hall of Famer Leo Durocher famously said that “nice guys finish last.” I and the rest of us at Intradiem are dedicated to the proposition that nice companies can actually finish first.