Maria Nichols, an office manager at Chicago-based Accenture.com (formerly Andersen Consulting), is 30 years old, single, and the type of person who likes to play hard on weekends. But like many young professionals, her free time is often consumed by drudgery: replacing lost buttons on a coat, buying birthday gifts and making seemingly endless runs to the dry cleaner, bank and shoe-repair shop. “I come in early and stay late, and the last thing I want to do on weekends are these horrible errands,” she says.
Who does? Errands are the bane of modern life. They’re controlling, nagging, relentless and frustrating in their ability to interfere with our good times. When it comes to errands, it seems there are only two options: A) Neglect them and suffer the consequences; or B) Take care of them and give up your free time in the process.
Recognizing that personal chores are something many of today’s workers don’t have the time or inclination to do, Accenture.com has established an onsite concierge service that gives employees a valuable third option when it comes to errands: Have someone else do them for you. Piloted in November 1993 at three offices, “Accenture.com… At Your Service” is a ground-breaking employee benefit that many employers struggling with work-family issues can learn from. The service, which employees can use for any personal errand, has been so well received that by the end of this year it will be available to all 10,500 Accenture.com employees in 45 U.S. locations.
The concierge service came about following a 1993 employee survey in which workers complained—loudly—about not having enough time to take care of their personal lives. The company’s strong work ethic is partly to blame. Employees at the firm’s Chicago office, for instance, work an average of 15% to 20% overtime. But the problem is compounded by the fact that most employees are consultants who spend the majority of the workweek on the road, leaving little time at home for the mundane, but critical, chores of daily living.
“When employees finally get home on the weekends, they want to go bike riding or meet with friends,” says Caroline Glasser, senior manager and director of training.
In searching for ways to address this problem and keep errands from distracting people on the job, an HR department task force hit upon the idea of providing concierge services for employees. Office buildings and hotels offer concierges. Why not a private employer? The problem was that Accenture.com could find no outside vendors that offered errand-running services for private companies. Most were in business to run errands for individuals or to staff the lobbies of large office buildings where tenants could use the concierge for limited and usually business-related reasons.
After an exhaustive search, Accenture.com located two companies that were willing to expand their services and experiment with onsite concierges for private employees. The experiment worked. Today, the same two companies, Cincinnati-based BurCorp At Your Service and Atlanta-based 2 Places At 1 Time, have grown along with Accenture.com’s concierge program.
The system is extremely user friendly.
Accenture.com… At Your Service is easy for employees to use. Let’s say, for example, that an employee has had some alterations done on her son’s Power Ranger costume, and that the costume is ready to be picked up. Problem is, it has to be picked up by the time he gets home from school the next day, but the employee will be tied up in meetings.
To request help from the concierge, the employee simply calls, faxes or sends an E-mail to the onsite concierge station. She tells the concierge where the costume is, what time it will be ready and where it must be delivered. As long as her request is made before midnight the previous night she is assured the errand will be done the next day. Because the cost of the alteration is less than $50, the concierge will pay for it out of petty cash, and then the employee will be billed. (Anything more than $50 requires a personal check or a charge-card number.) Finally, the concierge calls the employee to let her know the errand was done.
Accenture.com’s concierges and errand runners will do any personal and household errands for employees including house sitting, picking up a car from the repair shop and making dinner reservations at a swank downtown restaurant. Because it’s intended to help employees balance work and personal responsibilities, the concierge service cannot be used for business errands. The only exception is help with business-related social activities, because Accenture.com’s consultants do a lot of client entertaining.
Tom Tubergen, a partner in Accenture.com’s Chicago office, recently had a party at his home for 60 people, many of whom were business associates. He chartered the concierge service to help find and order party goods in keeping with the “biker” theme of his party. “They helped me find fake nose-rings, press-on tattoos and punches called Black Lemonade and Brain Wash,” he says. “Not only do I not have time to do this sort of thing, but I wouldn’t have known where to get this stuff.”
Because of tax reasons, the concierge service is not free. Instead, Accenture.com’s employees pay $5 an hour, which is charged in 15-minute increments for any errands that don’t involve entry to their homes and cars. This amount is billed to employees along with their paychecks. If the concierge or errand runner has to visit an employee’s home or take a car to the garage for service, the fee is $10 an hour because the concierge must be bonded to perform these activities. Still, the amount employees pay is about 10% to 20% less than what it actually costs the company to provide the service.
According to Glasser, Accenture.com was going to cover all costs of the benefit until the IRS said it would be taxable the same way as insurance and vacation benefits are. “If it costs us $25 an hour to provide the service, employees would have to pay taxes based on that amount,” Glasser says. Not only would this present a significant accounting challenge for the company, but employees would be paying for the service anyway, albeit in a roundabout fashion. “To avoid the hairy record-keeping involved, we decided to charge a price [near] what the employees would have to pay if they hired someone outside the company to provide the service,” she says, adding that no one has complained about the prices.
Because the concierges often recommend or hire outside vendors for specific tasks—e.g. building a fence or making wedding plans—employees sign a waiver to excuse Accenture.com from any liability resulting from use of these vendors. “We’re merely making recommendations and referrals,” says Susan Larence, head concierge at Accenture.com’s Chicago office. The employees assume the responsibility for the vendors’ work just as they would if they were directly hiring them. Furthermore, to make sure employees get the best rate possible from those vendors, Accenture.com does not allow its concierges to receive kickbacks for referrals. Any volume discounts that are negotiated are passed on to the employees.
The service has become almost indispensable.
In developing Accenture.com… At Your Service, the company asked employees to recommend their favorite vendors for a whole host of services, from carpentry to flower arranging. Each of the company’s 45 offices has gathered this information because, for example, a favored masseuse in Cincinnati obviously wouldn’t work for employees in Atlanta. Accenture.com then gave this information to its two concierge companies so that they could update their data bases with vendors preferred by Accenture.com employees.
The annual contract Accenture.com maintains with the concierge companies is based on a set fee that is intended to cover the concierges’ salaries and mileage regardless of how many errands are run. Because Accenture.com chose to locate its concierges onsite, the company provides the space, a personal computer, phones and FAX machines.
The concierge staff is jointly hired by Accenture.com and the concierge companies, although technically they are employees of either BurCorp At Your Service or 2 Places At 1 Time. Accenture.com helps with recruitment and interviewing and maintains the first right of refusal on applicants. “Finding qualified people to staff each location is one of the biggest challenges to providing this benefit,” says Glasser. “We want people who understand and fit into our corporate culture.”
Larence adds that concierges are a special breed of person who must not only be highly service-oriented, but must know the ins and outs of the city in which they’re operating. “I look for people with three characteristics: 1) they must know the city; 2) they must know how to find things in other cities, such as a trail map of the Grand Canyon or map of the London Underground; and 3) they have to be able to prioritize requests.” Why? Because at Accenture.com, all employees are treated the same by the concierge regardless of their position in the company. No priority is given to high-level employees.
After experimenting with its concierge staff, Accenture.com has found it generally requires one concierge or errand runner for every 250 employees. At the Chicago office, for example, there are three concierges and three errand runners. Concierges staff the desk, take and prioritize requests, make phone calls and reservations, and direct the errand runners who actually perform the tasks. Accenture.com also has discovered it takes about six months for a concierge station to mature. “Requests increase about 25% a month for six months,” says Glasser, “then requests level off and we can be pretty sure about the number of people needed at that station.”
Once the stations are up and running, the concierge companies prepare monthly usage reports for Accenture.com. In May, for example, at the company’s Columbus office, 280 employees used the service: 29% were secretaries, 18% were staff members, 21% were senior partners, 27% were managers and 5% were partners. Glasser says that, on average, one-third of employees will use the service in any given month. The heaviest use, as you might expect, is around Christmas, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
At many offices, the concierge service has matured to a point where the concierges now send reminders to employees about special events such as holidays, plays or concerts. Accenture.com’s concierges can even keep track of birthdays and special celebrations, calling an employee in time for them to get a birthday present for a special friend, for example. Also, because many of the concierge stations negotiate specials every month with certain vendors, they can offer employees such things as low-cost, onsite bicycle tune-ups, haircuts or car washes.
According to Glasser, the biggest challenge she faced in developing the concierge service was convincing the firm’s senior partners, many of whom are married to stay-at-home wives, that the service was necessary. “Their resistance had to do primarily with cost,” she says. But the service has proven so valuable that even those senior partners now use it. “Personally, I didn’t think I had a need for the service,” says Tubergen, “but I use it at least once a month for things like getting a battery for my watch or taking the car in for service.”
Furthermore, once the pilot programs at the firm’s three Ohio offices had been functioning for awhile, it became clear to Glasser that the benefits would far outweigh the costs. Glasser doesn’t have any hard numbers, but from conversations with employees she believes the service has boosted both morale and productivity. Why? Because employees aren’t worrying about how they are going to manage to take care of the niggling little details in their lives. She adds that the benefit also has been a great help with recruiting more capable candidates. “This is a sexy service that appeals to busy young professionals” (the average Accenture.com employee is 27 years old).
So, after having been in the concierge business for 18 months, are there any requests that Accenture.com… At Your Service has been unable to fulfill for their employees? “Yes,” says Larence. “I couldn’t find a 1964 1/2 Mustang convertible for an employee to rent for a wedding. I found the car, but the owners wouldn’t let us rent it.”
Personnel Journal, September 1995, Vol. 74, No. 9, pp. 88-96.