Three years ago, American Freight-ways, an Arkansas haulage company, had a little wooden "suggestions box". Its 13,300 staff dropped in about one offering a month. But things have changed. It now has a contract with an out-sourced, telephone-based employee feedback service - and receives 200 calls a month from its workforce. Suggestions have ranged from how to maintain equipment to the best way to bid for work on certain routes. "All people have to do is pick up a phone - it has been very beneficial," says Mr John Sherman, rice-president for "people management". The person behind In Touch is Feter Lilienthal, a Minneapolis businessman. The concept is simplicity itself vet clients as varied as Pillsbury, Chase Manhattan, Arthur Andersen Consulting and Coca-Cola have nothing but praise.
In Touch provides a freecall number, which the client's employees can dial at any time. Messages are then transcribed verbatim and forwarded to the company's executives within one working day. For companies with 5,000 employees or more, In Touch is will provide a monthly breakdown of calls, highlighting areas of concern, and so on. It can also provide some foreign language services - Spanish, for example. It is successful, says Mr Lilienthal, partly because the service is independent and, unlike typical in-house communication systems, callers can remain anonymous.
Having watched tens of companies implement the system, Mr Lilienthal says it is almost impossible to predict what the response will be. But he notes that there is often a quiet interval at the out- set; while employees wait to see whether messages will he taken seriously. That is followed by a period when minor, bottled-up grievances emerge. Finally, once the system is established, the number of calls typically falls away, and their value increases. This, too, is confirmed by clients. Pillsbury, which began using the service in the early 1990s, shortly after it was acquired by Britain's Grand Metropolitan, says it still receives about 50 calls a month.
Mr Lilienthal has a couple of tips for anyone introducing the system. First, make sure the service is relatively unrestricted, and not advertised as a "complaint" line. Second, convince workers that calls will be taken seriously. American Freightways, for example, promises to get back to all employees who leave their name within ten days. Executives to whom the messages are forwarded are given five days to respond. Pillsbury makes a point of publicising the most relevant messages, together with responses, via its in-house newspaper or internal e-mail system.
from the Financial Times
1. Look through the whole article and put these paragraph headings into the correct order.
a) Typical response patterns after the system is introduced
b) How the system works
c) Hints on how to introduce the system
d) A new system for employee suggestions
2. True or false?
a) American Freightways is based in Arkansas.
b) Before, the suggestions scheme received no suggestions at all.
c) The new suggestions scheme is run in-house.
d) Employees make suggestions by e-mail.
e) The system is hard to use.
f) American Freightways' vice-president for people management thinks that the system has been very useful.
g) On the whole, other clients for the system have been satisfied, but they have made some criticisms.
3. Find expressions that mean the same as those in italics.
a) In Touch gives a number that people can call without paying.
b) What the callers say is then written down word for word.
c) They are sent to the company's managers.
d) In Touch will give details of the numbers of different calls.
e) In Touch will give details of the things that a company's employees are particularly worried about or interested in.
f) Callers do not have to give their names.
4. Put these phases for the system into the order they may typically occur.
a) a phase with a moderate number of calls
b) a phase with a high number of calls
c) a phase with a low number of calls
5. Now match each phase in Question 4 to typical employee reactions for those phases.
a) The system settles down, and people call less often, but what they have to say is more useful to the company.
b) Employees hesitate to use the system because they don't know if it will work.
c) Employees call more frequently, often to complain about things that have annoyed them for a long time.
6. Which of these hints to managers for making the system successful is not mentioned?
a) Don't say that the system is mainly for making complaints.
b) Make the system relatively open for anyone to use.
c) You should promise not to try to find the people who call without giving their names.
d) You should respond to messages within a particular time.
e) Publicise the most important messages and their responses.
f) Where relevant, you should get the appropriate manager to respond to messages.