vicki powers
freelance writer

Rosenbluth International’s Culture
Encourages Unique Service Approach

by Vicki Powers

He’s dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, crisp white shirt, and black tie. His tiny black eyes and wide smile make you smile in return. At Rosenbluth International, this fellow is a legend. Not CEO Hal Rosenbluth, whose great-grandfather started this company back in 1892, but simply a bright pink, stuffed salmon that aptly serves as this organization’s mascot. This company’s creative approach toward customers, people, and technology has encouraged Rosenbluth International to swim against the tide—just like the salmon—and achieve remarkable success in the travel industry.

With an organization like Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth International, a $3 billion travel management business, where does one begin to tell its story? You could talk about its 105-year history of servicing customers. Or its far-from-average philosophy that sprouted a book in 1992: The Customer Comes Second and Other Secrets of Exceptional Service, penned by CEO Rosenbluth. But probably the best way to begin describing Rosenbluth International is to take a virtual trip through its downtown headquarters to discover what makes this organization tick. What unique things is this organization doing to ultimately provide better service and technology for its customers?

Mission Control: Keeping You in the Know

On the fifth floor of its Philadelphia office, Rosenbluth International houses the "bloodline" to its business. The Network Operations Center, which Rosenbluth International created as the travel industry’s first electronic "nerve center," enables the company to track and communicate critical information that impacts travelers—all from a nine-screen video wall.

By combining the latest telecommunications technology with its own information feeds, Rosenbluth can predict and proactively plan based on upcoming events or severe weather conditions. Information from the Network Operations Center is consolidated, analyzed, and quickly disseminated to its front-line associates worldwide who receive a script on their terminals about the situation. Rosenbluth’s clients also receive periodical flash faxes regarding news on major industry happenings that impact travel.

One of the nine screens in the Network Operations Center displays a map of Rosenbluth’s domestic locations and a list of holidays or events that could affect travelers in certain cities—perhaps a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans . Another screen plays the Weather Channel or CNN for news impacting travel. A third screen reports conditions at major airports. Other screens monitor reservation agents’ phone lines and help determine appropriate call center routing with the Telemarketing Operations Performance Management System.

"We use network products hand-in-hand to do what Rosenbluth needs, which puts Rosenbluth in control," said Linda Brasch, network analyst. "Our competitors have to rely on a third party, which might take 10 days to process and switch 800 phone lines. Rosenbluth can switch its 800 traffic [from one location to another] in less than three minutes."

On this particular day, Rosenbluth’s Houston office is closed due to icy road conditions. All of the Houston phone lines have been rerouted to associates in other cities to handle the incoming calls. But Rosenbluth’s customers are not affected. Detailed profiles on travelers’ policies and preferences are electronically available at the touch of a keystroke to associates handling the calls. Seamless transitions make Rosenbluth International proud.

Brainstorm Beyond Words

The fifth floor also houses Rosenbluth’s newest customer-focused innovation—The Continuum sm . Rosenbluth International designed this new high-tech, high-touch facility as a work-in-progress and active research laboratory to discover customers’ issues and help plan the future of travel technology. Clients who visit The Continuum receive a customized tour of travel products and services from Rosenbluth and its 16 collaborative partners—hotels, airlines, car rental companies, and companies in other industries.

"We look at travel as a continuous process," said Rebecca Wood, one of two full-time associates devoted to The Continuum. "Our goal is to demonstrate how products meet clients’ needs at every point of travel to maintain and enhance client satisfaction."

Throughout the various rooms of The Continuum, each company highlights its phases of development through color-coded descriptions. Green depicts today’s technology, yellow stands for technology under development, and red depicts the future. This color-coded rainbow helps clients understand where future technology is headed.

Throughout the tour, customers answer specific industry- and technology-related questions on a computerized message pad. This on-the-spot survey information is then rolled up into a large database that is shared with industry leaders. Rosenbluth International is ultimately taking clients’ concerns to its partners to drive industry change.

"We are designing a new technology-based environment with industry leaders that will drive change in the travel industry," Wood said. "We have the pulse of the future and can provide our clients with their future needs."

Bobbee Rose, general manager of the Philadelphia Reservation Center and a 12-year Rosenbluth veteran, said the interest that The Continuum has sparked with clients since its October 1996 grand opening is remarkable.

"We are trying to get the interest of executives who still need to monitor the pulse of travel," she said. "These individuals are looking at The Continuum as a tool to help them get where they need to go. Rosenbluth International is almost doing the thinking for them, which makes them look good—and their job easier."

From Rose’s perspective as a long-time associate, she has seen quite a change in technology since her involvement with the travel industry. These days travel is seen as a business, not just buying an airplane ticket.

"I remember when computers were first introduced at Rosenbluth," she recalled. "Yet the organization still wanted a person to answer the phones. Customer service has always been there. We try to give a pleasant experience on the phone, and that has never changed since the day I joined here."

Cultivating a Creative Culture

Just by walking on any floor of Rosenbluth International’s corporate site, it’s evident how the organization’s culture contributes significantly to its success in the marketplace, its customers’ satisfaction, and its associates’ happiness. Every organization has a culture, whether it’s been verbalized or not. At Rosenbluth, creating and cultivating that "company feeling" takes some effort, but the payoff can be seen in the dedication and smiles of the associates — and later on the customers.

As the director of cultural diversity, Keami Lewis believes that Rosenbluth’s culture is picked up through osmosis from other associates, as well as through more "structured" experiences that reinforce it.

"The culture here takes care of itself, because people like it," Lewis said. "There are very subtle messages ingrained in the culture, and you just know when it’s not happening. We try to create a pleasing environment where associates want to come to work and feel they are contributing and growing. Associate development permeates our culture."

Actually, lessons in the Rosenbluth International culture begin in the first two days of an associate’s life with Rosenbluth International in a mandatory orientation held at corporate headquarters. Regardless of the location or job title, every new Rosenbluth International associate meets in Philadelphia to become immersed in the company’s philosophies and values as part of a formal introduction and welcome. Day Two is all about service as the orientation focuses on customers and their needs and expectations. The importance of exceptional service is reinforced as the new associates divide into small groups to discuss their service nightmares. They later create skits to alter their worst experience from bad to good and from good to exceptional. And then the goal is "elegant" service.

The highlight of the orientation experience for many new associates is the high tea on Tuesday afternoon served by top company officials. Why would this be considered part of new associate orientation? Because it closes the "generation gap" as the company continues growing. How else can new associates understand just how much "people" mean at Rosenbluth than by hearing it straight from the CEO or a top vice president in a casual, relaxed setting? Just realizing the time executives dedicate each week to welcoming and serving new associates at high tea stands for something in itself.

"Leadership has a lot to do with how a company is run versus a company run. The cultural message here, in part, is that if you put your people first, they will put the client first," Lewis said. "If associates have what they need and tensions are removed, organizations will have more competent associates who know the expectations. Rosenbluth International has removed layers of leadership to allow associates to be competent."

Live the Spirit

Once Rosenbluth International voiced what made its culture unique, the organization began hosting a companywide event, "Live the Spirit," every few years to reinforce and consciously verbalize what makes Rosenbluth International special. All associates are invited to Philadelphia for a weekend to see other associates, learn new skills, and put a face to that "voice on the telephone."

"Our suppliers and clients are invited, too, so it’s like a family reunion," said Patty McMenamin, corporate communications coordinator, who is helping to plan the next Live the Spirit in August 1997. "It’s a unique forum that allows associates to spend time with the CEO and vice presidents."

The weekend consists of educational seminars and social events. McMenamin said it’s a time to celebrate successes and discuss future plans. Somehow the actual togetherness of Rosenbluth International associates from around the world sparks a fire inside even the most dedicated and motivated associates.

"There’s some mystique about Live the Spirit," McMenamin said. "It’s a unique experience that you just have to experience yourself."

Discovering the Unique

Certain qualities exist in the Rosenbluth International culture that make it stand out from others—especially in its industry. First, Rosenbluth International associates have direct access to the CEO. While many companies have a program like this, few will actively practice it. Rosenbluth International instituted Hal’s Hotline, a voice mail program encouraging associates worldwide to communicate with the CEO on a timely basis. As CEO, Hal Rosenbluth reviews each message and returns phone calls to those who ask for a response. Lewis said this simple tool means a lot to associates who have an avenue for offering feedback.

"Rosenbluth International also has faith and trust in its associates by allowing them to try things," Lewis said. "If an individual can show competencies, we’ll show them the rest. Initially, all that’s needed is the potential and interest."

Lewis said Rosenbluth International associates live this culture each day by encouraging and supporting one another. The organization also works hard at maintaining the culture at the local offices around the country. One tool Lewis created, a notebook titled "Salmon Spirit Guide: Rosenbluth International’s Corporate Culture Initiative," provides some creative morale-boosting techniques that have proved successful for other local offices.

Bob Guy, general manager of the Cleveland Business Unit, believes the advantage and strength of Rosenbluth’s culture is that associates really don’t have to be in Philadelphia to feel it or live it.

"Rosenbluth actually has more associates who work outside Philadelphia ’s corporate office than are in Philadelphia ," Guy said. "The communications that go on at our meetings and seminars help reinforce the culture. Sometimes it is challenging, but if you use good communication skills, I’m not sure the ‘feeling’ in Philadelphia is really different from other field offices."

The organization also has empowered associates to conduct their own decision making rather than calling headquarters for every answer. Guy believes the greatest challenge for associates is remembering that many situations occur in the lives of travelers that are beyond associates’ control.

"Associates have no control over hotels that give our customers a smoking room when the request was for nonsmoking or an airline company that delays or cancels a flight," Guy said. "One thing the associate does have control over is the ability to follow up and make decisions on the spot while it’s still in the traveler’s mind. It’s the service aspect that makes clients happy."

What are some lessons learned that Rosenbluth experienced while building and sustaining a positive culture? Lewis said first it’s important not to assume that a culture will just happen. And then once the culture is established, the organization must "take its pulse" every so often as the market and industry change. Lewis reported that companies may have to change how they communicate their culture and how they translate information.

"The aspect I enjoy most about working at Rosenbluth is the people," Lewis said. "The culture is such that you want to help people. You are part of a greater whole and stretched to do things here. And other people are here to support you, too."

"Service" is actually the component that drew in Sue Rust and her organization, Consolidated Natural Gas, as Rosenbluth customers. In early 1996, her company decided to dismiss its individual travel agencies around the United States and select one national agency to manage its travel volume in a cost-effective manner.

"We have Rosenbluth’s associates on-site at three of our different sites," Rust said. "Once we established our service level, they have met our needs, and we’ve had a very positive response. I was unsure if people would buy into one agency, but it’s been really successful. I anticipate saving around $50,000 a year by pulling more volume and getting better prices for our travel."

Satisfying Clients in North Dakota

Next stop on Rosenbluth’s virtual trip is a small town in southwestern North Dakota . What started as a project to help a drought-stricken community find jobs ended up providing Rosenbluth International an office full of dedicated associates who handle reservations, accounting, and customer service. Linton, North Dakota, has been home to Rosenbluth’s Total Client Satisfaction Center (TCSC) for about six years.

"A consolidated customer service department is unique in our industry," said Ken Nardone, manager of client satisfaction. "We now research, resolve, and provide resolution fulfillment of our travelers’ inquiries in one place. Teamwork and timely communication are the keys to making it all work."

Thirty of Rosenbluth’s 160-plus Linton associates work in TCSC, which handles phone calls from clients with questions or concerns, researches issues that are important to the business traveler, and eliminates problems using root-cause analysis.

"Our TCSC associates are often the negotiator of issues between our travelers and travel suppliers," Nardone said. "Customers receive periodic call backs regarding their concerns and are kept informed of the situation." Nardone said the average inquiry can be solved in seven days if associates have to wait for a supplier to respond to their question. Rosenbluth’s own issues are resolved within 72 hours.

Prior to the TCSC, Nardone said customers’ calls were handled locally with no consolidation of information. Customers would call Rosenbluth International’s local number and often be transferred three or four times.

"Once we did an examination of our process, we moved to our TCSC concept," Nardone continued. "And the results show increasing scores in satisfaction since the TCSC opened its North Dakota doors. This is more efficient for handling requests and expediting inquiry resolution. Travel services’ associates can now focus on their primary role.

"The TCSC is like the glue that keeps Rosenbluth International together," Nardone stated. "I think the success of the TCSC can be attributed to its people. With low turnover, we have been able to develop our staff of customer service professionals that are second to none. Associates aspire to move into this area, and others migrate into leadership positions from the TCSC."

Measuring Customer Satisfaction

Being in the service industry, Rosenbluth believes it should not only ensure that its customers are happy but also analyze just how satisfied they are. For four years, this travel-minded organization has surveyed weekly 1,200 customers who have just returned from a Rosenbluth-booked trip. About 30 percent of the group responds each week to the 15-question survey that discusses topics such as agent knowledge, accuracy and timeliness of tickets, service, and overall experience. A cover letter from the CEO is attached to the survey to help organizations understand why outstanding service levels are important at Rosenbluth International and why feedback is essential.

"We use the feedback to make company improvements," said Nardone. "And it goes full-circle." Each month general managers receive report packages of survey results. Summary reports are given to the directors of Business Development.

One trend Nardone has recognized from the surveys is the correlation between high scores and sharing feedback with associates. As Rosenbluth International provides more feedback to associates, Nardone said, the client satisfaction scores continue to climb.

"We will always share information from our most recent survey with associates, and we’ll continually strive to improve." Nardone said. "By meeting and exceeding client expectations, we are continually challenged and striving to do better."

Another avenue that helps Rosenbluth International continue to develop new process improvements and enhancements for customers is its Client Satisfaction Management System (CSMS). A cross-functional team from different business units works together at Rosenbluth to achieve total client satisfaction through people, improved processes, and enhanced automation.

"The team meets monthly to review our customer service and client satisfaction data," said Nardone. "We apply this valuable information and feedback to reduce inquiries and ultimately increase satisfaction."

A Continuous Loop of Service

It may seem odd for an organization that’s known for its customer service—especially since Tom Peter’s 1989 honor naming Rosenbluth as Service Company of the Year—to spend so much time orienting, praising, developing, and celebrating its people. CEO Hal Rosenbluth put it eloquently in his own words in The Customer Comes Second:

There is probably nothing we believe in more strongly than happiness in the workplace. It is absolutely the key to providing superior service. Of course our clients are the reason for our existence as a company, but to serve our clients best we have to put our people first… The company that reaches its people’s hearts will provide the very best service. It’s the nicest thing we could possibly do for our clients.

These are powerful words, but even more so coming from the mouth of a CEO. Four generations after arranging travel for its first immigrant customers, Rosenbluth International still maintains its desire to satisfy customers. But the founder’s great-grandson just accomplishes this with a slightly different approach and philosophy. By focusing on its people, Rosenbluth International ultimately focuses on the customer.

Lessons Learned

  • Happiness in the workplace is key to superior service.
  • People are a company’s only true sustainable competitive advantage.
  • The most valuable asset of any company is its people.
  • Hire nice people who care—skills can be taught.
  • Training and associate development is key to success.
  • Remove the fear of trying something new and a company will be rewarded with creativity, energy, and innovation.
  • Open communication is key to exceeding client satisfaction.
  • Friendship, honesty, and trust are key elements in the business world.
  • Corporate and rural America can form strong partnerships.

© American Productivity & Quality Center, 1997. Used with permission of APQC.

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