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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
- Happiness in the workplace is key to superior service.
- People are a company’s only true sustainable competitive
- 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
- Corporate and rural America can form strong partnerships.
© American Productivity & Quality Center, 1997. Used
with permission of APQC.