Counter Intuition at FedEx Kinkos

August 21, 2007
Many companies are eschewing classroom training as too costly and time-consuming. Dallas-based FedEx Kinko’s Office and Print Services isn’t one of them.

    During the past year, FedEx Kinko’s, a subsidiary of a global package-delivery company FedEx Corp, has been rolling out instructor-led training classes to heighten customer service at its 1,600 retail franchises worldwide. The stores provide a range of document-management and business services to small business, including graphic design, signage, professional finishing and digital printing.

    Because of the focus on customers, company officials decided to forgo cheaper Web-based or e-learning approaches. The classes underscore the importance of personal interaction when serving customers.

    "Delivering good service means looking customers in the eye," says Sherry Vidal-Brown, the vice president of learning and development for FedEx Kinko’s Office and Print Services. "That’s why we want service training to be face to face."

    The aim is to cultivate the "on-time" mentality of FedEx Corp.’s express package-delivery business within Kinko’s printing and copying stores. By focusing on behavioral competencies, FedEx Kinko’s is hoping to build a culture of service and quality that is uniform across the organization.

    All 22,600 FedEx Kinko’s employees, including 17,000 retail workers, are required to take the customer service training. That includes employees who don’t deal directly with customers, such as support staff and top executives. Requiring everyone to participate is intended to break down employee resistance while fortifying a sense of mission.

    Respect for co-workers, embodied in the creation of a "servant-leader" culture, is a key component of the training.

    "This training isn’t only about how to deliver great customer service; it’s also about learning how to treat each other and serve each other within the company," especially how managers deal with employees, Vidal-Brown says.

    Delivering the material are FedEx Kinko’s 64 trainers, who facilitate learning through games, role-playing and other exercises designed to teach empathy, patience and the handling of difficult situations. Employees are expected to greet customers as soon as they enter a store, listen to their needs and suggest products and services, as well as follow through on project deadlines.

    The curriculum is having an impact on customer service scores, according to Vidal-Brown. During the first six months of the program, customer complaints decreased by 65 percent, while on-time delivery of customer projects rose 26 percent.

    Using classrooms to bolster customer service skills is a wise approach, experts say. Online learning provides cost benefits associated with delivering certain types of training, but classroom instruction remains the best way to enhance people’s service skills.

    "When it comes to customer-service training, people tend to learn better and retain more of what they learn when they’re actively engaged face to face," says David Saxby, president of Measure-X, a measurement, training and employee-recognition consultancy in Phoenix.

    FedEx Kinko’s officials want to raise customer service levels to ward off competitors like Staples Inc., OfficeMax and Ikon Office Supply Solutions. All of them are angling to sell similar products and services to small and midsize businesses.

    Boosting customer service and investing more heavily in employee development are two of the top three priorities cited by FedEx Corp. for its FedEx Kinko’s division, according to the company’s recent financial statement.

    Vidal-Brown says FedEx Kinko’s spent $15 million on training in 2006, including leadership and career development initiatives.

    Adding to the pressure are ambitious expansion plans. FedEx Kinko’s plans to open about 300 new retail franchises, boosting its total to 3,000 stores by 2008.

    Retailers in general are seeing razor-thin margins grow even narrower, so reliable service can be a differentiator, says Todd Beck, a customer-service training consultant with AchieveGlobal Inc. in Tampa, Florida.

    "Building a culture of service is neither simple nor quick," Beck says, but once in place, it is not easily displaced. In fact, "it can build on itself and create a virtuous circle," he adds.

    When FedEx acquired Kinko’s for $2.4 billion in 2004, it wasn’t immediately apparent how the companies were going to complement each other. FedEx Corp. built its reputation by guaranteeing on-time delivery of customer packages, using air, freight or ground express transportation. Its service model is embodied in the corporate slogan: "Done Right, Done on Time."

    Before its acquisition, Kinko’s had operated as a collection of independent retail franchises. Becoming part of FedEx presented a novel challenge: how to consistently guarantee the same level of quality service at all its retail stores.

    The newly launched training aims to substantiate whether employees are adhering to the company’s corporate promise to "make every FedEx experience outstanding," Vidal-Brown says.

    One of the highest hurdles is arriving at a companywide definition of quality. Projects may be vastly different from one another, as will be the perceptions of quality among customers. The goal, says Vidal-Brown, is to train store employees on consultative selling, which means working with customers to decide what needs to be done and when a project needs to be finished, then guarantee in writing that it will be ready.

    "It’s more about consulting with a customer upfront and making sure that we’re meeting their needs," Vidal-Brown says.

    Store managers say it’s too early to tell if the training is having a lasting impact.

    "Speaking candidly, I think it depends on the individual," says Jim Schenkelberg, 27, an assistant manager at a FedEx Kinko’s franchise in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. "It’s very hard to quantify in a business like ours," in which employees deliver customized projects according to customer specifications.

    Customer service training aside, FedEx Kinko’s is taking a longer-term view of employee development as well. The company in 2006 launched its career development program, a series of initiatives that uses blended learning to teach the requirements of each job.

    It enables employees in one position to advance to another job by completing a series of requirements, which can include classroom instruction, online tutorials and on-the-job activities. Tailoring training for the various opportunities within the company gives employees a clear roadmap for career growth, Vidal-Brown says.

    Employees and their managers collaborate to customize training, based on a person’s career goals and desired position. The training can be used to prepare for new opportunities within the company or to improve the knowledge and skills needed in their current jobs.

    People who move into a new position are expected to fulfill the training requirements of that job within their first 90 days on the job. Completion is a prerequisite to being considered for promotions.
"Our overall goal is for people to see FedEx Kinko’s as a place where they can grow and contribute. We have found that focusing on an individual’s development does help us drive retention," Vidal-Brown says, though specific retention figures were not immediately available.

    Since the career-oriented training program’s inception, more than 13,500 FedEx Kinko’s employees—more than half its workforce—have enrolled. The company’s career initiative recently was honored with an "excellence in practice" citation by the American Society for Training & Development.

    The company also unveiled a leadership development program in 2006 to aid managers. Open to store managers and assistant managers, the two-week course provides instruction on a range of skills, including people management and understanding financial data.

    Schenkelberg, the store manager in Wisconsin, says the program taught him the importance of performance counseling and showed him how to nurture potential leaders.

    "It’s helped me focus on how people view me as a manager and what I can do to try and get the most out of people," Schenkelberg says.