Talking customer service with team members at CITEC Business Solutions in Plattsburgh feels a little like standing in front of a triple-paned, dressing room mirror that large, traditional department stores have. Stand in the center and you can see your reflection multiplied on into infinity.
That’s because CITEC is in the business of mirroring good business practices for employers in the North Country. With offices in Plattsburgh and Potsdam, the not-for- profit economic development organization’s mission is to help small to mid-sized companies in New York’s seven northernmost counties look at their operations and develop ways to be more competitive, profitable and ready for growth.
The CITEC team consists of executive director Reg Carter and business advisor Debi Pettit, who are based in Plattsburgh; and in Potsdam, business advisors Kate Chepeleff and George Mauch, business development director Robert Oram, CITEC office manager Milner Grimsled, and office assistant Ellie Newvine. They offer consulting services and training designed to help companies cut costs and increase profits through effective strategic planning, marketing, manufacturing process improvements, human resource development, and strategies for business growth.
Pettit, who handles human relations, customer service training, and supervisory and leadership development programs, said, “I think customer service is what is really going to set companies apart in this digital age.”
As a non-profit, CITEC receives financial support from Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation—which works to integrate innovation and technology into New York’s economic development efforts— and serves as ESD’s designated Regional Technology Development Center for the North Country. CITEC also gets fund- ing from the Manufacturing Extension. Partnership (MEP) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. There are nearly 350 MEP locations across the country, with at least one in every state. Because of its size, New York has 10; CITEC is the MEP Center for the state’s seven northern counties.
As an MEP Center, much of CITEC’s core clientele is manufacturing; however, the organization serves all types of businesses. Since joining CITEC nearly six years ago, Pettit has developed customer service train- ing for about 20 companies ranging from manufacturing companies, auto dealerships, physicians’ practices, local governments, non-profit organizations, to staffing agencies. In fact, the demand is such that Pettit and executive director Reg Carter are currently developing a customer service certification for companies in the form of a series of workshops that focus on the “soft skills” such as communication and leadership that are necessary to succeed at customer service.
Customers Service — Good Communication
Pettit said these skills are in demand across all sectors, even in manufacturing, where only a fraction of the work force may perform what we traditionally think of as front-line customer service. The reason, she points out, is that good customer service goes much deeper than the traditional, externally facing customer service department. It touches businesses at every level. “Especially in human resources,” said Pettit, “while you don’t necessarily have external customers that you deal with very much, depending on the operation you may have 200-300 internal customers that you’ve got to take care of every day.”
Pettit is a firm believer that it all boils down to good communication—especially active listening and basic civility. “One of the things that I teach our client companies is that the way management treats its employees is the way employees will treat their customers. It’s being polite and interested, and treating people with respect—showing them that you’re willing to meet their needs, that you’re knowledgeable about the product, and that you’re going to deliver what was promised.”
That philosophy reflects CITEC’s overall approach. To Carter, the most important aspect of customer service when working with any of CITEC’s clients is, “Making certain that we clearly understand the customer’s expectations and that the service we’re providing aligns in a way that will enable them to meet or beat their business goal.”
Reflect that philosophy and training back on a company’s “internal customers” and it can help employees at every level understand the big picture—how their work benefits both their co-workers and the final, external customer who uses their product or service.
Making the Big Picture Clear
That “big picture” understanding is especially important with the generation coming into the workforce now. It’s no longer enough to bring in an employee and have them do a job for eight hours a day. Pettit, who also serves on the North Country Empire State STEM Hub, said that young people who are graduating from STEM and P-TECH programs want to know “WHY?”—
“Why do I do this? Why does it matter? Why do I care?”
As a result, much of CITEC’s supervisory training is designed to get employers ready for millennial employees by working on how to communicate the big picture, making both end-use and internal customers real. Even for employees who don’t have direct contact with end-use customers, CITEC’s customer service and process training helps employees see that if they don’t do their job quite right, it can really affect someone “downstream” in the production process. “It’s a matter of helping people see the big picture and focusing them on the end customer and their internal customers as well,” said Pettit.
Carter, who came to CITEC after a long career working as a senior-level executive at such companies as General Electric, AB Electrolux and NiSource, said, “I’ve been both a customer and a supplier, as most people in business have. Regardless of what side of the relationship you’re on, it should be open, honest and productive.”
Just like any of the businesses they work with, CITEC works hard at keeping the big picture in mind and being good business partners to one another. With staff at two locations, they’re a virtual team, whose members can be out consulting in any of the seven counties in the North Country. Keeping in contact by email and phone calls is important. Every Monday, they have an online conference call to share documents and see what everyone else is working on or what assistance somebody might need. Once a month, the team gets together in Potsdam.
They each have a niche, but when working with a business, they sit down together, look at what each particular customer needs, and which members of the CITEC team are the right people to deliver. “One of the things I like most about working at CITEC is we’re all treated and respected as the professionals that we are, and for the things that we bring to the organization,” said Pettit.
“There’s really no difference in classification; we’re all one team; we all just have different parts to play.”
Carter is proudest of the trust-building and long-term relationship building work the team has done, “where CITEC is viewed as a true business partner that is playing a key role in our clients’ successes.”