Encore: Everest, AI, and Parental Leave | with Steve Whittington

What do Mount Everest, AI, and parental leave all have in common? Steve Whittington.

Steve is the Executive Vice President at Flaman and has leveraged his focus on the customer experience to drive industry-leading organizational growth. Steve has also scaled most of the tallest mountains in the world, ignited sales processes with the application of AI, and taken the time to go on parental leave.

Get ready for all the motivation you can handle on this encore episode of the Conquer Local podcast with Steve Whittington and George Leith.

Read Steve’s blog article on SteveWhittington.com, “The Three Reasons Why I Am Taking Parental Leave

Steve: Hey listeners, this is Steve Whittington. Welcome to an encore episode of the Conquer Local podcast. I had a ton of fun recording this podcast, all about the power of the customer experience, the impact of artificial intelligence, what I learned while taking parental leave, and last and probably not least, the lessons that I’ve received in climbing the tallest mountains around the world. In fact, I just got off a mountain this weekend, and what I can say is that when you get taken to the edge, it makes you reflect about how you can bring that intensity back into your everyday life. So stay tuned for all of that and more here, on the Conquer Local Podcast.


Welcome to this edition of the “Conquer Local” podcast. I’m George Leith, and it is a pleasure to have Steve Whittington on this week’s edition. He is the vice president of marketing and the head of customer experience for a company called Flaman Sales. It’s in the fitness business and the agriculture business in Western Canada. I have known Steve for well over 10 years and I’ll tell you what, I respect him a lot. He recently completed parental leave. When he told me he was going to do it I sat there in envy. That, you know, when my daughters were younger, that I didn’t get an opportunity to do that. I guess at the end of the day it was just me. We’ll get Steve’s take on parental leave and what it means in 2018 from an executive in a few minutes. But in addition to that, this guy has climbed 49 freaking mountains, one of those being Mount Everest. He doesn’t wake up to be second place. I like surrounding myself with people like that. I believe that it makes you better. Steve Whittington is coming up next on a highly anticipated version of the “Conquer Local” podcast.

The Flaman Confusion

George: Well, joining us on the podcast is Steve Whittington, the VP of marketing and customer experience of Flaman Sales. Steve, you’ve done a lot of things in your career over the years. Can you fill in our audience on what makes you tick on a day-to-day basis?

Steve: Yeah, sure. I define myself in several ways. First and foremost, I like to call myself a husband and a father, and then I would say I’m a leader. I would say I’m an athlete, albeit an aging athlete, a climber. And last but not least, I am very passionate about business and leading businesses to new heights. And how you do that, I firmly believe is by focusing obsessively on your customers and the customer experience.

George: Flaman is quite the juggernaut in Canada. Can you give us a little bit of an overview for listeners that may not be familiar about the Flaman brand and part of your role at that organization?

Steve: Yeah, for sure. The Flaman brand sometimes confuses people because we really have…there’s two main companies. So, there’s the Flaman Shortline Agriculture dealership, and then there’s the Flaman Fitness retail brand across Canada. So, Flaman Fitness retail stores, there’s over 40 across Canada, and then the Shortline Ag dealership has 10 locations in Western Canada. And people confuse the two, you know, Flaman and Flaman Fitness. But they both are leaders in their respective industries. So Flaman Fitness, for instance, is the fitness retailer in Canada. And the Flaman Shortline Agriculture dealerships are leaders in size and innovation for what they do, like the trailer division in the Flaman Shortline Ag dealership is the biggest one in North America and has won lots of awards and folks from our company get to go down to the trailer conferences, and we’re really leading the way with what we do in that industry and that, of course, carries forth in all the product lines that we sell in that shortline dealership.

So that’s kind of the two sides and it makes for a really diverse overview for my role because I’m trying to create a brand for both of those and the further complexity is the multiple ownership structures, so to have one experience across all these different divisions, all these different locations, and sometimes you’re sharing customers, and so you wanna make sure there’s the exact same experience whether you go a fitness store in Saskatoon or you walk into rent a [inaudible 00:04:05] in our shortline agriculture division just north of Saskatoon. So that’s what I do. That’s the big puzzle I try to figure out every day.

Data, data, data

George: So when you and I met over the last couple of years, we’ve been talking a lot about this customer experience and the customer journey and you’ve been trying to put together some technology internally so that you can know, you know, when your customers are in the store so that you can market to them to come back. You’re on the cutting edge of your digital marketing. You know, the name of the podcast is “Conquer Local.” Can we talk a little bit about, you know, some of the biggest challenges you’ve had in the last year or so in conquering local for Flaman sales?

Steve: So, it all comes down to data, data, data, data. And you need to get clean data about your customers so you can truly understand what your customers are doing and what is important to them. And then I have to amplify that across, you know, 40-plus locations in local markets, in different marketplaces, and get that data to a store manager or to a salesperson so they can act on it and understand how they can, to use the podcast name, conquer local. I look at marketing as, you know, we have to have a global plan that rolls down to the local level and then the local requirements have to roll up to the global plan. So it goes up and down both ways, and that’s how you create the best plan, which will be for your business and ultimately the best plan for your customers. So, to your point about how do we conquer local, well, it’s understanding the customers locally, assigning them to people, so key account management, and then managing that lifecycle of the customer through data.

“We have too many leads”

George: One of the things that you said when we last met is that you’re working on a customer service team that would be able to help some of your salespeople scale because, you know, you have salespeople that are out in front of customers on the Ag side face-to-face, but you’re’ really looking to leverage technology to help that organization be more effective.

Steve: That’s right. So, we have a problem. We have too many leads and we don’t have enough salespeople.

George: That’s a good problem to have.

Steve: Yeah. So what happens is you end up under-serving a lot of people, which creates a bad experience. So, what do you do? Well, you’ve got your top salespeople. When you have salespeople that do four, five, six, seven million dollars per person in sales, the ones that are in that range are very strategic about the accounts that they will engage with and talk to. So you get a customer…and all customers are important to us, not just the one that’s gonna drop $50,000 on some Ag implements, but you get a customer that’s looking for some water fittings, and they’re talking to one of those $7 million a year salespeople, well, how much time do you think they’re going to give to that person for, you know, $200 worth of water fittings? Not a lot. And because they get paid based on, you know, their sales volume, and you know, they eat what they kill, so the smart ones are going to go towards the bigger game.

So you need to do a couple of things, and what we did is, we’re creating and we’re still in the process of it, it’s part-time right now and it’s about eight people, a customer success team. And that customer success team is filtering a bunch of those initial inquiries, warming them up, qualifying them, and only handing off the bigger fish as needed, and then dealing with a lot of that low-hanging fruit or small-transactional-type stuff. And we’re expanding on that team, and having a lot of success with that. In the sales team, the smart ones, the most successful ones, love it, because they’re no longer having to deal with inquiries that aren’t a good return on their time. And what a salesperson would say is “waste their time” but it’s a return on their time, right?

AI to the rescue

George: Yeah. It’s really interesting how you solved that problem, and what we’ve discussed with other guests, and it brings me back to Matt and Quang from the Alexander Group, is you’re using a different sales motion so that there is a great experience for that customer, because even though they want some water fittings, it could be a big customer and you don’t want them to have a bad experience just because it’s out of alignment with what the salesperson’s commission plan might look like.

Steve: That’s exactly it. And I think if all retail operations, instead of, you know, saying, “Okay. Well, we’ve got transactional customers and then we have relationship customers…” and you really wanna focus on the relationship customers. And you’ll see sales training that goes long that way like, really figure out who your relationship customers are and focus on that. And I’m like, “You know what? No, I don’t wanna be like that.” If all organizations focused on every single customer as the key account, that you are there to solve their problem and then help them along the way, what additional business would you get, and what kind of experience would you create? And so, you know, how did we figure out how to do this? We looked at the data. We looked at how many people, you know, weren’t engaging with us further. Okay. How many customers do we do business with that just buy that initial thing? Why? Why do they only buy only one thing from us and don’t come back for three years? And when you can now do more research you can see on Facebook that this guy’s a great big farmer, what the heck are we doing here? We didn’t treat them as a key account.

George: You know, it’s really interesting, you know, coming back to that data, I have always been impressed with…and you’ll remember that almost three years ago you and I had a discussion and you were obsessing about the customer experience then. There’s an addition of “Masters of Scale” podcast where they have the CEO of Airbnb and he talks about how they built that company and they had, you know, here’s a one-star, here’s a two-star experience, here’s a three-star experience. What would a four-star experience look like? What would a five-star experience? What would a 10-star experience look like? And it sounds to me like you’re using this to drive better experience but at the end of the day you’re also realizing how to make the organization more efficient.

Steve: Yeah. I’ve used that example as well in our training, but one thing I say is, “Here’s a challenge.” Often, when organizations get a customer that is a 10 out of 10 experience, you had to pay a really steep price for that 10 out of 10, because what happened is that you messed up and then you went back and you really went overboard to fix your mess up and now you made a 10 out of 10. And I would rather get consistently a whole bunch of 9 out of 10s all the time because that costs the company less instead of going overboard to create 10 out of 10s. So that’s my take on that as an aside, but what we’ve learned is that it’s pretty easy to consistently get that 8 to 9 out of 10, and it’s the little, little things that matter.

And, again, it’s a bit of…using simple AI, you can take unstructured data and put structure around it. Here’s a good example. I wanted to know, just recently, how many of our phone calls were considered leads by using AI. So, you know, you can scribe the recorded transcript, and you listen to it, and then there’s a whole bunch of keywords in there and then, “Okay, good. That’s qualified as a lead.” And then you listen to it, you verify it, you’re like, “Yeah, no, this computer’s smart, AI is smart. Yeah, that’s right.” And then I’m like, “Well, how many times do we thank our customer at the end of the call?” and so this is what I found.

Consistently, 95% to 97% of the time, no matter our division, so we’ve got grain cleaning trailers, agriculture implements, fitness, service, rentals, no matter the division, when our call-recording software scores it as a lead, a hot one, our sales team thanks them, like 95% to 97% of the time. They know it’s a lead so, “Thank you for the call,” right? Well, then when it’s not scored as a lead, because it’s more of an information gathering call, they’re like, “Hey. I wanted to know this. Could you help me with that?” and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Fifty percent of the time, our sales team thanks them. So, you know, like these people that are just looking for some simple information aren’t being thanked, aren’t being treated at the same level as somebody that they’re going to make some commission off of. So what does that do for a brand? What does that do for a customer experience? “Well, don’t call Flaman’s. They’re not willing to help you out.” What if you flipped it?

George: So I just wanna dig into this a little bit for people who aren’t familiar with the technology. What you’re saying with the AI is you record the calls, you run a set of keywords against the transcription of the calls, and you can measure whether the rap is saying thank you on a call or not, and then go back to those and say, “Okay, 50% of the call, there is no thank you at the end of the call.”

Steve: Yeah. And you put two datasets together, right? How many are considered leads, how many aren’t considered leads, and what’s your percentage on that. AI is not like robots that are serving you coffee. AI is taking a simple thing and figuring it out and applying it to a dataset, doing the hours and hours of work that you would have to do otherwise. I mean, AI’s really simple to use if you think simply about it and try to find simple answers that can give you profound insights. One of the things that we looked at was the length of time it took for…and this is about customer effort. The length of time it took for a customer to get where they were needed to be.

So again, we looked at recorded calls, because we’re very phone heavy company, like we do a lot of communication and transaction with the customers over the phone. So it’s a very important thing for us to look at. And so it’s like, “Okay. Well, it’s taking them this long to get to where they need to be. Well, why is that?” Well, it came down to training our frontline reception staff just a couple of simple questions. And then they were able to move the customer where they needed to be faster. So here’s an example. Customer calls in, “Hey, I’m looking for a trailer.” Well, that could be three things with us. They could be looking for a trailer rental, trailer [inaudible 00:14:05], trailer parts, trailer service, or to buy a trailer.

So, depending on what that reception decided to do at that point in time, they could send them to four different people. And I’ve listened to calls where that poor customer was routed to four different departments trying to figure out…like a hot potato trying to figure out where they really wanted to be. And just by having it right upfront asking that simple question, and we looked at that piece of data like, “How long does it take for this customer to get where they wanna be?” then you shorten it down, well, that improves your customer experience, and it’s just applying simple data.

Growth by obsessing about the customer experience

George: So, what are the measurements of this? I know you’ve been at this for a while, obsessing about the customer experience, what are you seeing as far as revenue increase from that work?

Steve: Well, we’ve been at this for a little over two-and-a-half years and we’ve had over 15% compounded growth. So I think it was 17% year one, and it was 16% last year fiscal and, you know, we’re hoping to be on track for another 15% compounded growth. And we’ve reduced marketing dollars, we’ve added a few salespeople to deal with the increased lead volume, but really, I think the message is that because we’re improving our experience, more people are coming back, more people are willing to do business with us, and this focus on the customer and key account management has allowed us to saturate our existing customers so we’re helping them more, which equals more revenue for us.

George: I’ll tell you, 15% and 17% in your industry, that’s gotta be industry leading.

Steve: Well, certainly, considering the economics we’ve gone through the last two years, yes.

The leadership cliff

George: There’s another thing that you feel very passionate about and that is that there is this leadership gap. Can you talk a little bit about the leadership gap that you see?

Steve: Yeah. Well, it’s getting wider, unfortunately. To do with demographics, but the boomers, the millennials are the biggest generation in the workforce right now, and the Xers are probably the highest paid in the workforce right now, and then the boomers are the ones that hold all the power, hold all the money, and they’re not transferring their knowledge and they’re not letting go. They need to be transferring not only to the Xers but also to the millennials, and that’s not happening and we’re headed for a cliff. I believe the last thing I read is that in Canada alone, in the next 5 years, there’s gonna be something like 30,000-plus businesses turn over. Who’s gonna lead those businesses? Where are they gonna go? What’s gonna happen to them?

You know, there’s not leaders ready to jump in, they’re not ready, they don’t have the capital, they don’t have the training, you know, they, obviously even don’t have the ability. So what’s gonna happen? It’s gonna be a bit of a sad story, and I’ve seen a bunch of it happen where these businesses just sort of fold up and that lifetime of work goes nowhere. And it didn’t need to be that way if a proper transfer of knowledge, transfer of capital opportunity was actually occurring across the board in our society. So, that’s a challenge that our society has to rise up to. And I’m just talking specifically on business, but I mean, you look at nonprofits, you look at government, this is across the board. It’s a challenge, and it’s to do with the generational divides.

George: No, it’s really interesting, just this Friday night I was storm-stayed in the Toronto airport, sitting in the plaza premium lounge for my third time that day and I met a gentleman from Edmonton who was telling me that he was in the process of retiring from his engineering firm that he’d had and built to $110 million company, and I asked him how long that transfer period has taken and he says it’s a 10-year process for him to move that company to his 5 managers. He’s still gonna have a stake in it because he feels that some of them aren’t ready yet to take up that leadership, and it seems to be an ongoing story that we’re hearing.

Steve: Yeah. And he’s one of the progressive ones. A lot of folks, they all of a sudden say, “Oh, well, I’m gonna retire” and they start thinking about it two to three years before they’re retiring. That’s too late. They haven’t done any of the work required. Yeah, that 10-year plan, that gives me hope. That’s a sizeable organization that has a big economic impact and he’s being responsible. And that’s the word. A lot of business owners and leaders of various organizations are not being responsible in transferring leadership, knowledge and, you know, financial opportunity.

Climbing Mount Everest

George: So, you and I could talk all day. We’ve actually done that a couple of times. I’ve got three topics that I wanted to talk about. The first was customer experience and now, you know, I wouldn’t be a podcast host without hitting this one right on the head. You climbed Mount Everest. Can we talk a little bit about that? And, you know, that’s unbelievable first off, and congratulations, but let’s talk about the challenges around that and how long you trained, and it’s such a great story.

Steve: Well, Everest was kind of a lifelong ambition and I would say I trained 10 years for it because I went to Everest, not as the client climber but the lead climber of my group, so I had no guide, and I wanted to make sure that I had the ability to get myself up and down that mountain under my own power and not be dependent on anyone because the risks were so high. And now, I haven’t summited 50 mountains yet, I have summited 49, and I’m hoping to do the 50th one this year. And every mountain that I approach is a project and you have to have risk analysis, and the risk analysis is crucial because the consequence is often fatal.

So when you look at all this, you know, what does that relate back to your life? For me, what it does is it brings clarity. I understand impact. So when I’m in the mountains, every moment matters, and the challenges is that we don’t live our life that way, or at least I don’t when I’m back in the real world, and I remind myself of that by going back to the mountains and gaining that clarity about really living in every moment, to bring my best foot forward. And, you know, try to create consequence because there is that in the mountains where it isn’t in real life. Yeah, Everest helped me understand what I’m capable of and helped me understand that I’d never wanna go back and do it again.

George: Just one time, that’s it?

Steve: Just one time. That’s good enough for me.

George: So it’s interesting to me, you know, when you say that, you know, it’s not just one mountain, you’ve climbed a bunch of them and then that relates back to business. And, you know, when you meet Steve, he is a knock it out of the park guy like you don’t get up to the play to hit a base hit, you get up to hit home runs and you bring that zest for life and, you know, you wanna do 110% all the time.

VPs don’t take Parental Leave

George: So, all of these things lead me up to my next question because you just did…and I was reading a blog of yours and it said it was the most challenging thing that you’ve ever done. Now, this is from a guy whose summited 49 mountains, Mount Everest being one of them, he’s running the marketing for this incredibly successful company all over Western Canada, and you just wrapped up parental leave. So, let’s talk about that.

Steve: Well, if you want equality in our society, you have to walk the walk not just do the talk. And I believe that our society will be better if we truly have equality between the sexes. And one of the biggest ways to do that is by truly sharing the workload when it comes to raising a family. And there’s lots of stats around how the careers of females get sidetracked due to them taking maternity leave, the pay gap, and I mean, there’s a bunch of different factors around that but the responsibility around raising children is one of the biggest factors.

So, beyond the equality in your society, there’s also quality of your life and quality of your kids’ lives. Being an engaged dad at a whole other level made me a better person and it’s going to be more beneficial for my children. So, you don’t see a lot of senior executives doing parental leave. In fact, in Canada, outside of Quebec, you don’t see a lot of males taking any kind of parental leave. It had been at 11%, it dropped to like 9% and it’s climbing back up again. It’s just not a thing that happens. And the challenge or the roadblock is males. We’re not doing it because we’ve got this thing in our head that we don’t do it. It’s us. So I’m not willing to ever let that be a roadblock. And, hey, I fully disclose the struggles that I went through. You know, I come from a Northern mining town so I have a whole bunch of backstory and background that I dealt with but, you know, I have an equal relationship with my wife, and I had to walk the walk.

George: What was the feedback from the other senior executives at your company when you made the announcement that you were going to do this?

Steve: There was no pushback. Flaman’s is very supportive of their staff. I mean, at the end of the day, I took three months off to climb a mountain, so as if you’re not gonna let me take time off to raise my kids. So that was never in doubt that Flaman would support me that way. Really though, the big thing that I see happening is the younger generation, so the young men at Flaman’s…the vice president took parental leave, so now it was okay and a bunch of them started taking parental leave. You know, I know there was one gentleman that was deciding to take parental leave and he hadn’t announced it until he found out that I was doing it and then, he told me, he felt okay because he knew I was doing it. And I’ve always believed that leaders have to lead. So, if you want this kind of thing in your society you have to lead. It made me a far better person.

I really truly appreciated what my wife does around our household because it totally 110% fell on me, you know, I didn’t understand the mental energy of running a household. You know, I kinda like, you know, I’m a professional project manager, I lead companies, yada, yada, yada, like how hard can it be? Well, it’s frickin’ hard. It’s a lot of work. And certainly, when you got two kids you’re playing shorthanded. They’re outnumbering you, you know. And so, it’s tough. It’s tough and it’s stressful, and you have good days, and you have bad days, and it’s just really underappreciated in our society by a lot of males that are, you know, old, male and pale. Right? Like that old boys’ club just doesn’t quite get it.

George: What was it like for the kids when you went back to work?

Steve: Well, you know, it took a while for them to adjust because they really were latched on to me more so than my wife for a little while. But, you know, they’re fine like, I mean, the deeper connection we just talked about, that’s clearly there with both my kids now that I took that time. And that’s a gift that’ll last my entire life.

George: You know, it’s a fantastic blog that you wrote. Where would listeners be able to read that blog?

Steve: They can go to stevewhittington.com and they would see that and then they can link off that for the quest [inaudible 00:2549] and they can read all my musings about my Everest climb there as well. But yeah, stevewhittington.com would be the best place to find everything about Steve.

The sales Do-Not-Do’s

George: Salespeople all over the world now listening to the “Conquer Local” podcast, really appreciate everybody that is subscribing. Here is “the one more thing” from Steve Whittington, and I wouldn’t be an interviewer if I didn’t dig into this because Steve probably gets called on by more people trying to sell him stuff than any guest we’ve ever had on the program. So, Steve what I would like you to do is maybe just give us a top three or a top four of things you hate from reps calling on you so that everybody listening to the podcast will not do some of these things the next time they make a sales call.

Steve: Sure. Well, I’m gonna start with things they could do and then I’ll go with things that I hate because kind of one leads into the other. So, if you’re a member of a sales team, what you could do is you could talk to your marketing team and get the clearly defined target market profile of who you’re after and talk to them about, and really get clarity around that target market profile so the leads…it isn’t just spray and pray, spamming for lack of a better word. So, have your clear target market profile figured out, and understand that you need to be providing value to the person you’re connecting with, and a reason why that person will actually give you time and data to connect with you.

So, what do I hate? Well, I think it’s the classic ones. I hate people that haven’t spent any time researching the organization or understanding the organization, don’t even know what my role is, so they’re like investigating as to who they should talk to so I get talking somebody that’s looking for somebody that’s looking for stuff about HR, for instance, or you know, utilities. “Hey, who do I talk to you about, you know, getting utility costs down?” I’m like, “Well, I’m the operations manager,” like why are you talking to me? You know, and if you do your proper research first, I mean all that stuff is on LinkedIn, it’s on company websites, like put some time into it to do some research and don’t spray and pray and, you know, don’t just like fish around the organization trying to find the right person that you need to talk to for what you’re looking for. You’ll get a lot better results.

But the worst thing is not being prepared when I actually do give you a time to do a presentation and then you’re not on time, you’re not prepared, you know, if we had a couple of things that we’re going to go through, you don’t have that ready. You’ve wasted both of our time, and I don’t have a lot of time to waste. So that would be my biggest pet peeve of all, is when you waste my time.

George: And it seems to me, in talking to people, that happens more often than not, unfortunately.

Steve: Yeah. It does. And I default to know now almost all the time, which is unfortunate because I’ve had…some of my best discoveries have been by listening to someone contacting me but, you know, I’m very careful about who I give my time now because there’s been so many…so many people waste my time.

George: Steve, it’s a real pleasure having you on the podcast. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time, and we’ll make sure that we direct people to stevewhittington.com, there’s some great stuff there, there are some fantastic blogs, and of course, the story about Everest, it’s gripping, that’s for sure, and we really appreciate you joining us and have a great day.

Steve: Thanks for having me.

Takeaways & Summary

George: Well, I’m sitting here blown away by his takeaways from the parental leave. It’s just unbelievable. You know, you get two people in that relationship, his wife is a specialist physician, he’s running marketing for, I believe it’s $100-plus million company, it’s probably even bigger than that, and he’s got two very lucky kids that got to spend a prolonged period of time with their dad and opened up the door for other dads to do it. So, it’s inspiring. The second thing, yeah, let’s go climb some friggin’ mountains. And let’s not stop at Everest, let’s do 48 more or maybe, hey, why don’t we do another one just to get to 50? Just an amazing amount of determination in that gentleman. And the other thing is I know some of the people that work inside the organization and they are inspired by Steve and his drive to obsess about the customer.

I believe that that is one of the reasons why that organization is growing the way it is and you can see it just filter through the layers of Flaman sales. You talk to anyone in that organization, and they’re dead laser-focused on the customer experience. It’s always a pleasure to have thought leaders in the space. Make sure that you replay the part where he talks about the things that he doesn’t like when somebody is calling on him, selling him whatever it might be, do your research, do your preparation, don’t waste people’s time, there’s some really good lessons in there. As always, we’re looking for your feedback. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, and you can also reach out to us with what you like and what you didn’t like because that’s what’s crafting the “Conquer Local” podcast as we move ahead in the months to come. My name is George Leith, I’ll see you when I see you.