At Omnitel, storytelling is an important skill for all employees. CEO Ron Laudner tells us how and why it’s important for everyone to be on the same page.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What can you do to get your employees on board and helping tell your story? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth once again. And I’m joined on this episode by Ron Laudner of OmniTel. Ron, thanks for joining me.
Ron Laudner: Pleasure. Glad to be here. Thanks.
Andy Johns: Ron is president and CEO at OmniTel. He was involved in a panel discussion here at RTIME. You probably noticed in the background, we’ve got some ambiance with the attendees here at the expo at RTIME. If you are not aware, RTIME is kind of the center of the rural and independent telco universe this week as the NTCA’s big annual event is going on. We’ve got a lot of folks coming by here. But I wanted to take a minute with Ron to talk about the session yesterday, because the session was a lot about storytelling, which is obviously a lot of what we’re about at WordSouth and the StoryConnect podcast. So Ron, if you don’t mind, for the folks that weren’t able to attend or the folks that aren’t here, kind of give us an idea, you know, when NTCA comes to you and they’re telling you the premise of the session, what was the goal of your session yesterday?
Ron Laudner: Well, I think, you know, there are companies that do a good job of branding or providing services or marketing to their customers. And all of that is fine and dandy if your employees aren’t engaged in that. Yet I feel that it may be a lot of work and a lot of expense for nothing. So we go back, we take it back, everybody’s got a market. Everybody’s got, you know, a budget to do all those sorts of things. But we want to make sure that our employees are engaged — and you’re going to hear me say that word a lot and probably get overused — but if they’re not engaged with what it is that you’re trying to do, they don’t feel comfortable selling it. Then it doesn’t make any difference how much money you throw at marketing, if they don’t buy into it themselves. So making sure that everybody across all aspects of the company, when they run into a customer in any scenario, whether they be in accounting, customer service, IT or the techs out there in the field, they’re confident in what the story is and what they can tell the customer.
Andy Johns: Got it. Because I know, like you said, you may have the marketing materials and communications, but that doesn’t always help at the grocery store when, you know, somebody walks up to one of your employees and asks them or the ball fields or church, wherever it is. So what kind of things do you guys do to equip and empower your employees to be able to do that, answer those questions and get that message right?
Ron Laudner: Well, as a lot of rural, independent telephone carriers are doing today, they’re investing a lot in new technologies, building fiber, you know, creating a lot of newness for their communities, but a lot of newness for their own employees as well. And so that can be a little daunting sometimes, even if they’re used to something you’ve done for five years. But you’ve got to change out the technology. It’s, “oh my God, here we go again. How am I going to get my head around this?” So making sure those that know that technology and are comfortable telling that story — engaging with the customer service or engaging with the accountants or engaging with people that may run into customers — that they understand internally the product and what it is that we’re doing and why we’re doing it and those sorts of things. But in the end of the day, if somebody just may not want to buy in or sign onto everything that’s going on, I want them to at least have the confidence to say, “I’m not sure, but I can get you the answer. I don’t know how that works, but I know we have somebody that does.” So, it’s at least the stories across internal departments are: somebody here knows and somebody here can help the customer.
Andy Johns: Got it. And when you mentioned the internal departments. That’s kind of where I wanted to go next, because you guys have done quite a bit to get folks working between departments, kind of cross training. Tell us a little bit about what you guys have done there to get people understanding the jobs that their coworkers do.
Ron Laudner: Well, it stems from having the message and what message we want to give our customers at whatever the level be, either in marketing, coming into the offices or on the streets. So having the different departments trained for whatever that aspect is. But that’s all fine and dandy too. But if the customer doesn’t trust you that you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying. So we find that along with the message, along with the brand that we’re trained to create, the customers are going to be comfortable with talking to us. We coined a couple of phrases, and it’s probably been used, and they’re not ours, but it’s “let’s talk technology. Come talk to us.” So you’ll see that on the side of our trucks. You’ll see that in all of our campaigns. It’s “let’s talk,” and “we make technology fun.” So, you can engage with the customer that technology is fun. What’s fun about it? Then, it’s what can you do with it? What are you trying to do with it? And it opens up a whole gambit of dialogue with the customer, other than it just costs $69.95 for broadband. It’s, this is what you can do with broadband, because it’s fun. I asked the question yesterday in the panel how many of the companies at least had a TV up in their office showing the Apple TV or showing the fire stick or showing something so that a customer comes in wanting to know about it. It’s not that we don’t sell the Apple, and we don’t sell Firestick, it’s that we sell broadband, and you need it. And boy, this is a fun way to be able to use it. And you need a certain size of capacity for your broadband, and let’s talk about those things. So it’s changing, not just “here’s our market. Here’s what the cost is. Pay it, or go.” It’s, “here’s how it can help you.”
Andy Johns: And I think that’s so important. We talk about that a lot. Talking about the benefits of the service, not necessarily just the features, the bits, the bites, the dollars, like you said. So when you, and you touched on it earlier, but whenever you have the newness, like you were saying, of a new service, you’re going to have some folks that are running to it, embrace it right away, and enjoy it. Other folks either don’t know or may be a little hesitant. What all have you guys done that you felt like really helped those folks that maybe, like you said, are little more hesitant? What are some things that you guys have had success with in catching them up on that learning curve to understand?
Ron Laudner: And it works both ways. By doing it with the employees and having the employees, again engaged, but in that process, whatever it may be, that they’re going to interact with the customer, it’s beneficial to both. So both may be not understanding the technology. So, for example, last year we had a campaign. Every quarter, we took a segment of our employees alphabetically, so it wasn’t by department, so they were working together. We had IT along with tech along with customer service along with accounting in each quarter. And we handed them an echo dot. Now, a lot of us in technology already have 10 of them in our home. But this may be the first one that even our employee has seen. And now they’re encouraged to go out and give that technology to a customer. Pick them. Don’t pick your Aunt Susie just because you like Aunt Suzie. Pick somebody that could benefit from using that technology, and then understand how to approach them with training them on the technology. So that forced somebody that may not know or embrace from an employee standpoint to sit down with an IT person to say, “what can we really do? I don’t want to say something wrong, and then go out and talk to a consumer and tell them that same story, a consumer who may not be embracing that technology.” So you educate both in one fell swoop. So it’s little campaigns like that that force our employees to engage with the customer that just extends your brand. I didn’t market echo dots for $29. I gave my employee a dot, enforced them to go out, give it away, and educate both.
Andy Johns: And hopefully they feel good giving it away and then showing the folks. I love that idea. That’s great.
Ron Laudner: And there were testimonials that we videotaped. We made all the employees come back in and tell about the experience. And so, you know, there are good people on air. There are bad people on air. And so based on how well they did, we took a handful of them — but everybody had to come in and do a video and tell about their experience — but we encapsulated that in a little video thing and gave it to all the employees to watch, so that everybody could see everybody else’s experience as well.
Andy Johns: What a cool idea. That’s an important follow-up to that. I like it. So what are some other things that you guys do, and you talked about it with TV in the lobby, with the echo dot. Are there any other ways either at an annual meeting or technology days, anything like that where you guys are working on that customer experience to show them hands on where stuff is, you know, how they can use technology?
Ron Laudner: In our particular case, you know, we’re fortunate enough to be able to have some of the capabilities to be able to utilize and produce some of those things. But in this particular case, we needed another center where people could come. We changed our hours. And this may sound counter intuitive, but we went to four, 10 hour days. But we split up the employees so that we really got more coverage. But all the employees got 52, three day weekends. So they were encouraged by working harder, shorter for that. And we built a customer technology center, and we force all the employees to spend time in the customer technology center providing service, whether it’d be an IT question, technology question or customer service. And in there, we also then perform or produce a training for customers, and we bring them in. And we have quite an aging population, so it’s everything from as simple as how to send an email, how to attach a picture to be able to send or what does Instagram mean. So it’s all those sorts of things. And we don’t just have the guy that knows, we have people with him that can get educated as well. So everybody takes a turn in the technology center, and is part of these training campaigns to be able to educate our customers. And also there you can come and play. You can see the gaming system. You can see the cameras at work. You can see the echos and the Google homes and all those things at work. It’s kind of a play center where people can see the technology at work.
Andy Johns: Let’s run down that road a little farther. Tell me about what the technology center looks like. Where did you guys put it? Yeah, I’d like to go into that a little further.
Ron Laudner: All right. Again, counter intuitive, but we went to one of our smaller communities. But it was centrally located, and it was easy to get at for everybody else. So if you needed on a Saturday, you know, a question answered or something like that, it had ease of access. So, it was one of our smaller communities. We went in. We cleaned up a lot downtown, not a lot of main street activity. So we put in this center, and we tried to make it kind of a contemporary old warehouse, you know, retrofitted to look like a new loft or those sorts of things. But we made it look contemporary, but very comfortable — bricks and warm colors and leather chairs, but glass frames and metal stands and those sort of things. So, it looked technology-cool, but it was very comforting. And a comfortable place for people to come and sit, have access to the internet if maybe they don’t and need to upload a file. Kids come in and game, and then maybe do some homework or some things like that as well. So it’s a little something for everybody. So we created little spaces in there, so it’s like walking into your home.
Andy Johns: What a cool idea. I like it. That it seems to be a theme. You guys have a lot of good stuff going on there. Well, what advice would you have if there’s somebody out there who, the idea of focusing on storytelling and getting employees to tell your story, if it sounds a little squishy to them and then they may not want to get into it. What advice would you have for somebody in terms of getting the company culture involved in sharing that story and that message?
Ron Laudner: Well, it may sound like a mean, bad word, but force. But to that extent, also giving them the tools, so they’re not having to look and run and say, “well, how am I going to do this?” Giving them the tools, but again, making them take advantage of it. So it’s things like, you know, the meetings. IT has to put on a meeting with a new technology that come out, or maybe just show him a camera and how a camera works and why it takes more bandwidth, so when you’re talking to a customer about what it is they want to do. It’s kind of hard maybe for accounting to come in to do a training for something like that. But it’s good for accounting to hear customer service coming in and documenting, you know, during the course of their day, the questions they’re running into. I’m having a lot of customers talk to me about bandwidth. I’m having a lot of customers talk to me about cutting the cord, a lot of streaming, a lot of how do I do those sorts of things. So having the IT come in and interact with them and hearing the stories from the customer service directly, what the customers are asking and have the IT answer that to them. So it gives them, again, another kind of weapon in the quiver, so to speak, another arrow to be able to talk to the customer like, you know, they’re confident, and they know what they’re doing.
Andy Johns: And I think that’s so important to get that communication going. When everybody’s hearing the same questions over and over again, then that should be a pretty good clue that you need some messaging there. Well, is there anything else that you wanted to cover? Any last thoughts to add before we wrap up here? I appreciate your time, and I appreciate, the session you did yesterday. Anything we haven’t covered that you wanted to touch on?
Ron Laudner: Well, I just would say, it took a while. You know, and we built a technology center. And you know, we probably have a creative marketing department, and everybody doesn’t have that. But what’s very simple and easy is to give your employees the latitude to be able to ask. You know, put the TV up. Let them spend time streaming. I mean, if, God love my wife, but if she doesn’t go on her fire stick for a couple of weeks, she goes, “now what button do I push? And how do I do that?” But allowing the employees time every day or every other day or as much time as they want to be able to sit and play with those things, gives them again more confidence when a customer comes in and says, “now how is this going to work for me?” So you just got to let your employees, you know, be engaged with the stuff, and let them take the time. And it can be as simple as a TV. It can be as complicated as a whole Google home project.
Andy Johns: Nice. I wrote that down. Give employees the latitude to ask questions. I think that’s important. If that’s the one take away from everybody, I think it’s well worth it. Well Ron, I appreciate it. He is Ron Laudner. He is the president and CEO at OmniTel. Thanks for joining me.
Ron Laudner: You bet. My pleasure.
Andy Johns: And until we talk again, keep telling your story.