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Customer Service Focus Prompts Employee Exchange

October 1, 1992
Related Topics: Service, Behavioral Training, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
Last July, John Herman packed his suitcase, kissed his girlfriend goodbye and headed down the highway from New York to Chicago. At the same time, Vince Bates loaded up his leased car and set out on the road for New York, watching the lights of Chicago disappear in his rearview mirror. Twelve hours later, the cars approached their destinations and the two men had switched places.

As participants of a partnership program between their employers, Eastman Kodak Company and First Chicago Corp., the two employees were given the opportunity to learn about the other company from the inside. When they returned home six months later, not only had they both gathered information that would benefit their companies in their business dealings with each other, but they also had strengthened the relationship between the two corporations and advanced their own careers.

The exchange program began as a result of a high-level management meeting between First Chicago National Bank and the Business Imaging Systems division of Kodak, located in Rochester, New York. Kodak displayed products, such as optical disks, compact disks and computer output microfilmers, that could be used by the bank for data storage. Mike van der Kieft, who was then Kodak's regional vice president for the Midwest and has since become the vice president and director of alliance management, and Don Hollis, a senior vice president at First Chicago Bank, were two of the executives present at the meeting. Afterward, van der Kieft drove Hollis to the airport, and the two discussed what had taken place. "I asked him how he enjoyed his visit and the opportunity to see some of the Kodak products," says van der Kieft. "He said that he thought the products were terrific, but that we needed to understand better where the bank market was going, and that we needed to focus more on customer solutions than on products."

Van der Kieft took this suggestion seriously. The biggest market for the Business Imaging Services' data processing products is the financial segment, and banking in particular. Understanding banking was a necessity for the Kodak division. The best way to accomplish this, van der Kieft decided, would be to integrate someone from the banking industry physically into his company, to work side by side with the Kodak employees developing the products. Having a Kodak employee work at a bank would help Kodak gain valuable insight into the banking industry's product needs for information management.

Before Hollis boarded his plane back to Chicago, van der Kieft suggested the idea of exchanging two employees, a plan that he said would benefit both companies by:

  • Allowing Kodak to understand the banking business better, to understand where it was going and how Kodak's products would fit in.
  • Providing an opportunity for First Chicago to obtain a better idea of what Kodak was doing from a research standpoint and, to the extent possible, influence the course that Kodak was taking.

A detailed selection process.
Hollis liked the idea, and the program was set into motion. The first thing that needed to be done was to identify a person from each company to work at the other company from mid-July through mid-December 1991. A detailed selection process took place at both companies. At First Chicago, Hollis enlisted the help of Jeremy Farmer, vice president of human resources, to help determine who the company should send to New York. "You've got to be very sure that the person you send on this type of assignment is going to represent the company well," says Farmer. "You've got to be very comfortable with anyone you put into this position, because he or she is representing the bank and what we stand for with the customer, and obviously can have a strong impact on future relationships with that customer. So selection becomes very important."

Farmer, along with Hollis, talked with department heads of the data processing department, the systems area and the cash management side of the business to determine which employee was best-suited for the assignment. The person they were looking for needed a strong technical background. Discussions with multiple layers of management turned up one employee as an obvious choice, and the assignment was offered to Bates, a variant staff member who does technology planning on a project-by-project basis. Not only did Bates have a strong technical background, he also had had experience developing presentations for nontechnical audiences on how technology can be applied to banking. Part of his work had been to look ahead at products that, if not available today, would become available within the next few years. Because of this, Bates was considered an excellent candidate to help Kodak understand where technology in banking was going. In addition, because his workload consisted of as-needed projects rather than routine duties, his six months' absence wouldn't cause a hardship on the company to replace him.

At Kodak, five managers in the Business Imaging Services division were asked by Dave Gettings, the former manager of marketing for the group, to recommend a participant. Gettings was looking for someone who had had experience in sales or marketing and able to interact with customers. The participant would need to be a self-starter, willing to make contacts, be visual and technically oriented.

Based on that criteria, one manager, Jim Cooke, immediately thought of Herman, a supervisor in the manufacturing division of the imaging department. Cooke previously had discussed career advancement goals with Herman and believed that this opportunity would be something Herman would be interested in, as well as qualified for. Cooke was right. Herman submitted his qualifications and, after being interviewed by Gettings, was chosen for the assignment from among eight recommended employees.

Having decided on the participants, the next step was to set up the exchange. "It was relatively straightforward to arrange," Farmer explains. "We kept everybody employed in the same way. We essentially just sent one person over there, and one person came to work with us, over here." Both employees remained on the payroll of their original companies and were paid as usual. Each company provided housing for the other because corporate housing already was available.

Herman and Bates were encouraged to talk to employees and managers at the companies in which they would be working, to get a feel for the work environment before starting the assignment. Their preparation also included some product training.

Herman took a week of training at one of Kodak's education centers, before leaving for Chicago, to become proficient in his knowledge of the equipment the company sells. Bates spent his first three weeks in New York with a group of beginning salespeople learning about Kodak products.

Employees with special privileges.
When it came time to make the exchange, both employees felt comfortable with their assignments. Their preparation, combined with the support of their temporary co-workers, enabled the two men to adjust relatively easily to their new work settings. Bates says the Kodak employees treated him as a regular employee, so much so that he was invited to attend all meetings and became actively involved in Kodak's product marketing planning. "He became one of the family," says Graeme Roberts, Bates' supervisor at Kodak.

Herman also says he was treated as an employee, but with special privileges. "I was given a lot of latitude and flexibility. I saw parts of the bank that employees didn't see. My indoctrination into banking was much more thorough than it is for regular bank employees. Doors were opened to me that outsiders normally never would have seen. Employees of First Chicago, perhaps even during their entire careers might not receive as broad an introduction to the bank as I did," says Herman. For example, Herman was given access to seven different senior vice presidents of the bank, each of whom gave him an overview of the bank and what he or she considered important. He also had the opportunity to work in different areas of bank operations. He spent one week working on the trading floor of the merchant banking operations, sitting with the traders and learning about their business. Another week was spent working in depth with the credit department to understand its needs.

The First Chicago employees were helpful to Herman in his quest to get as much out of being there as possible. "Anything I wanted to do, they were more than willing to support," he says.

Perhaps the company was so accommodating to his requests because support came from a high level. "Hollis was supportive of whatever I needed to accomplish my objectives. He allowed me to talk to other vice presidents about their departments and activities. Without his help, this experience wouldn't have been as successful," says Herman.

Herman's objectives at First Chicago included:

  • To obtain a broader knowledge of banking
  • To understand areas and applications within the bank that could use imaging technology
  • To understand the customer needs in banking.

This would enable Kodak to design and develop products that would help the bank meet those needs. "My task was to be aware of our technology, what the needs of the customer are, where the customer is going with its business, what's important to the customer, what the bank is going to do with its information and how Kodak can leverage its products or develop new products to help First Chicago meet these goals," he says.

To accomplish his objectives, Herman's days at the bank involved both observation and hands-on work. "It was a fairly loosely defined assignment," says Herman. "These types of activities tend to be fairly undefined, so you have to be willing to operate with a minimum of direction."

Although he was assigned to a supervisor and to one work group for the full six months, Herman worked with other bank people as well, when needed, providing them with as much information as he was receiving. "The important challenge for us," says Farmer, "was to get as much out of his being here as possible, not just on the technical side of his knowledge base, but by gaining an understanding of what Kodak is doing in terms of quality, how it runs its teams, the strides it has made toward more employee involvement and empowerment, and so on."

In return, First Chi-cago's employee provided information to Kodak that was just as valuable. Bates was assigned to a data processing group in the business imaging division of Kodak to help the workers identify applications for their products. "The thing that was of the most interest to us," says Kodak's van der Kieft, "was to have Bates identify applications for the compact disc (CD)," a technology that he says the company has spent a lot of time developing. He says that, although the technology originated for consumers in the photographic industry, it has wide uses in commercial business as well, for storing images or data. "What we needed to understand was the application for CDs in financial institutions. Bates helped us with that, identifying several applications that can be used in banks."

In addition, Bates was able to contribute a unique point of view to the product planners. Although the Kodak workers would approach a product from the point of view of a vendor selling a product, Bates would look at it as a customer having needs to be filled. Bates' supervisor, Roberts, who was the director of marketing and planning for data processing at the time of the exchange, says that having Bates there was like having a specialized planner dedicated to the financial segment.

For instance, one of the projects that Bates produced while at Kodak was a plan that broke down the financial sector into different segments and identified the activities and needs of each one. As the work group planned new products, it took this input into account.

In one case, Bates' input resulted in an entirely new market that the Kodak employees didn't know existed for a particular product. After sitting in on a meeting in which a system that had been developed for a major telecommunications firm was demonstrated, Bates suggested that the same system could be used effectively in presenting bank statements to large corporate customers. "In time, as we develop that system more, that will be one of the markets that we'll target," says Roberts. "It's something that never would have happened if he hadn't been here."

In another situation, Bates helped that identify a problem in a selling strategy Kodak was using. Kodak had been making computer peripherals and selling them mostly through small system integrators—companies that put the systems together and then provide them to the end user. Bates explained to the Kodak employees that in many instances that isn't acceptable, that large companies, such as First Chicago, would prefer to deal directly with another large, stable company, such as Kodak, because of such issues as service, price discounts, maintenance and supplier responsibilities. "That changed our thinking about how we should work with large customers like First Chicago," says Roberts.

A potential for problems.
Bates' contributions to Kodak gained him a wide acceptance. This acceptance as an employee, however, became the cause of one conflict. At a meeting that he was invited to attend, there was talk about a competitor of First Chicago's. "The information that they talked about would have been of some interest to my people back in Chicago," says Bates, and he was forced to make an ethical decision of whether or not he should pass the information on to his employer. He chose not to, and then reminded the people at Kodak not to talk about those kinds of things around him in the future. The problem never occurred again. "It was a kind of interesting issue that may well come up when the company paying your salary isn't actually the company you're working for at the moment," says Bates.

This same conflict was avoided at First Chicago. "I made sure I let people know that I didn't want to see anything that was inappropriate or that would have required any kind of confidentiality agreement, or anything like that," the Kodak employee says. As a result, he was excluded from one meeting that took place with a Kodak competitor.

As an HR executive, Farmer recognizes that there's a potential for these types of problems, as well as others, when an employee on one payroll is working for another employer. Liability could become an issue if something goes wrong—such as a bad business deal made by the visiting employee or accusations of harassment, sexual or racial, against the visitor—and legal ramifications could occur. "We've been very trusting," says Farmer regarding this first employee exchange. "I think in the future, however, we have to be quite clear where the responsibility lies as far as the employee is concerned and what the employee does while he's working for another employer." He suggested that companies seek indemnities to protect the salary-paying employer against responsibility for business decisions made on behalf of the company where the employee is working. However, he warns against letting the legal technicalities hinder the relationship between the companies or get in the way of the long-term benefits.

For Bates and Herman, the transition back proved more difficult than expected. For Bates, it was a matter of returning to a place in which he was just one in a crowd from a place in which, as he says, "Whatever I said, everybody wrote down and passed around. It was somewhat of an ego trip."

In addition to returning to his previous work, Bates now had the added responsibility of putting to use what he had learned for the benefit of the company. Based both on what he and Herman learned, he has put together an imaging processing strategy that encompasses all the areas the two identified that could benefit from Kodak's imaging products. The strategy is being put slowly into action.

For Herman, the adjustment was even more difficult. While he had been gone, his unit had undergone a massive reorganization and his old job had been eliminated. It took some time after his return to sort out and find exactly what position he would be taking. He says, however, that even if his job had remained, there never had been any intention for him to return to it. "The whole idea of the assignment was that it was in part a career opportunity for me. The whole understanding was that, when I came back, I wouldn't be doing the same job." Herman is now the manager of advanced planning for data processing products, a career move that was a direct result of his involvement in the Kodak/First Chicago partnership and one that allows him to use what he learned from the assignment.

There were other benefits for the two employees as well. "I felt that it was the ultimate in employee empowerment," says Bates. "I was sensitive to the fact that the company that was paying my salary had essentially zero input into what I was doing, and that they simply trusted me somehow to find the value for our company and to represent it. It's a heavy responsibility"

Although Herman says that empowerment is a basic characteristic of Kodak, and that this assignment showed no greater commitment to that concept than anything else they've done. He, too, appreciated being trusted enough to be allowed to participate in an untested program. "It gave me a sense of excitement and creativity, because I felt that people here at Kodak were willing to take risks and try something new. It was something no one had done before, but, to develop their people, they were willing to take a chance. I think it's a positive thing."

The impact will be felt for years.
Certainly the arrangement was a business risk, but one that paid off. Both companies realized their goals for a better understanding of each other—although the real value of the program, in terms of product development, and product sales and usefulness, will take years to materialize. In addition to this, however, the partnership helped strengthen the relationship between two companies that are customer and vendor to each other: Kodak does banking with First Chicago, and the bank buys products from Kodak.

Herman says that the contacts that were made and the exposure they had to senior management at each company has improved the already-positive business relationship shared by the two corporations. Roberts agrees, and adds that, after seeing the inner workings, the two employees understand the quality of the staff at each location, and can spread to their peers faith in the other company's ability and willingness to do the right thing.

Roberts says, for instance, that an employee was concerned recently about a piece of Kodak equipment that had been installed at First Chicago. Bates assured him that the problem would be cleared up, and called Roberts, who reached the people who could remedy the problem.

Another impact of the exchange, according to Farmer, is that First Chicago is now interested not only in continuing the program with Kodak but also in expanding its focus. Encouraged by the results of the exchange with Kodak, First Chicago currently is engaged in a similar program with another one of its customers, S.C. Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin.

Instead of being an exchange of employees, however, First Chicago has sent one of its cash management specialists to S.C. Johnson to fill in for the customer's cash management specialist, who will be on maternity leave for six months. First Chicago took the precaution of seeking an indemnity against any liability for investment decisions made by its employee on behalf of S.C. Johnson. According to Farmer at First Chicago, it was done on a friendly basis and in no way has detracted from the arrangement's purpose, which was to provide the manufacturer with an experienced cash management person and to save them from having to hire someone for a short term. At the same time, this had the advantage of enabling the First Chicago representative to understand the customer's product and service needs better.

Says Farmer, "It's all about people who depend on each other for their own success learning about each other." As Herman says, the best way to learn something is to live it—by trading places.

Personnel Journal, October 1993, Vol. 71, No. 10, pp. 32-38.

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