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Serving Up a New Level of Customer Service at Quebecor

March 26, 2001
Iat’s a business nightmare. What do you do when an employee’s total lack of customer-service skills results in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars? If you’re the head of human resources, you jump in and do something - and fast. That’s what Marc Shapiro, senior vice president of human resources for Quebecor World Inc., did when he made the decision in early 1998 to embark on the largest training initiative ever attempted in the organization.

    After extensive research, a yearlong assessment, and prompting by some sharp suggestions from management experts at New York City-based McKinsey & Co., Shapiro identified strategic, and pressing, business realities. The business climate for the printing industry had changed dramatically within a short time. Competitive advantage was being measured not in months and weeks, but in hours and minutes. The company would no longer be able to compete on price and quality alone.

“We asked ourselves, What’s going to differentiate this company from other companies in the printing market?” Shapiro recalls. “And we decided that customer service was going to be a huge differentiator.” Adds Wanda Breeden, president of Innovative Organizational Concepts Inc., based in Brooksville, Florida, who was hired to help lead the training effort: “We realized during the assessment process that this might be the competitive advantage for the company going forward.”

Based in Montreal, Quebec, Quebecor World Inc. is the world’s largest printing company. It encompasses 160 printing plants located in 14 countries and employs 43,000 people. Quebecor World is part of the $10 billion Quebecor Inc. empire, which also includes Quebecor Media Inc., a media property holder. Publicly traded Quebecor World prints periodicals and books including Time, Sports Illustrated, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

For implementing a training program that has helped the firm achieve world-class customer-service skills that have increased customers’ satisfaction, decreased turnaround time and lowered the cost of errors, Workforce Magazine gives Quebecor World its 2001 Optimas Award in the Competitive Advantage category.

The Allstar Customer Service training program was one of the first major courses to be housed under the firm’s newly formed Quebecor World University, which combined and enhanced elements of each of the two merged firms’ former training programs. The classes are closely tied to the firm’s career-development program.

vFrom his office in Dallas, Shapiro explains that Quebecor had invested in other customer-service training initiatives over the years, starting in the 1990s. “Senior management commitment was there previously, but the resources weren’t there to really do the kind of job we wanted to do,” he says of the company’s former customer-service training programs. “So when we refocused, we started taking a look at what we wanted Allstar to improve: customer service.”

Shapiro’s overarching goal for this program, which started in April 1998, was to educate the firm’s customer-service and account representatives from its North American operations in world-class skills. “We were hearing from our customers that our people in the plants were so different that each plant was like a different company. We needed continuity,” says Jerry Tomczik, a customer-service manager at the firm’s facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The program’s objectives and initiatives were set at several levels and included improving understanding of customers’ needs; improving account-management skills; and achieving a high-performance, team-based, customer-oriented culture.

When the firm merged in October 1999 with World Color Press to become Quebecor World, the HR team designed the training to address the additional need to blend those two cultures as well as those of many other acquisitions that had been brought on board in previous years.

In addition to measuring the impact of the training in increased customer satisfaction and cost containment, Shapiro’s HR team also determined that the training:

  • Should be so unique and challenging that everyone would want to go.

  • Ought to involve senior management to reinforce the goals of the training.

  • Should give Quebecor World a unique competitive advantage through world-class service to its customers.

It was a mighty tall order for a single training initiative. However, because other initiatives hadn’t measured up to the challenge, and because customer service was identified as the single most important issue to focus on going forward, Shapiro decided that a higher-level, and more creative, approach was needed.

The HR team designed Allstar to be more like executive training than a boring, sit-down-in-a-cafeteria training session. When a senior manager or president from one of the company’s nine divisions kicks off a session, and outlines goals and expectations of the training investment, participants know the company means business.

“I have been in the training field for years, and this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work on such an exciting endeavor that takes all of the buzzwords of training and makes them reality,” Breeden says. “Senior management support? We’ve got it. Return on investment? We can show it. Support the business plan? You bet. And this is the first time I’ve seen group presidents make a training effort such a vital part of their future growth plans.”

Shapiro selected the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management in Chicago to partner with them in designing, conducting, housing, and bringing the program to life. Several weeks separate each three-day session. “We wanted to get people out of the workplace so they could concentrate 100 percent on learning,” Shapiro says.

Program leaders designed the training as three intensive sessions of three days each, during which no more than 25 participants would learn new skills. During one of the sessions, Quebecor employees participate in a team-building cooking exercise. The Team Banquet challenges customer-service representatives to design, prepare, and serve a banquet meal within two hours without any instruction. The team-building exercise makes participants work together to come up with focused solutions in a short time. It has been very effective in both building students’ self-esteem and helping bond the firm’s culture.

There are theatrical presentations of role-play situations between plant and customer partnerships. There’s a low-ropes course during which participants have to climb over a 15-foot wall and navigate other challenges.

During the last session, participants make presentations to senior managers covering what they’ve learned and how they’ll apply it back on the job. Students receive a certificate when they’ve completed the entire program, and people who miss a session don’t get a certificate until they complete it. “We want to make sure the training means something, that it’s an accomplishment,” says Shapiro. About 760 customer-service reps and managers will have completed the training by the end of the year.

An advisory team composed of representatives from all levels within the company helps ensure that training is always relevant and reflects current business trends. It also makes sure that case studies are accurate and reflect the real world of printing. Curriculum is continuously improved to reflect business trends.

Participants evaluate the program immediately after going through it. Alonzo Reese, an account manager for Quebecor World Printing in Dallas says the Allstar training “was incredibly serious, incredibly professional, and incredibly fun. It was the most intense, most fun, most knowledgeable training that I’ve been through in 30 years in this business.”

Workforce, March 2001, pp. 40-41 Subscribe Now!