How Jacqui van der Riet Keeps A Finger On The Pulse Of...

How Jacqui van der Riet Keeps A Finger On The Pulse Of A R200 Million Business

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Jacqui van der Riet
  • Company: UDM International
  • Turnover: R200 million
  • What they do: UDM International is an up-market direct marketing company. Established in 1995 it currently employs 400 staff members. Its focus is on direct sales campaigns in the insurance, cosmetics and educational fields.
  • Visit: udm.co.za

The first job Jacqui van der Riet ever had was as an assistant at a law firm. The experience left a very bad taste in her mouth.

“As an assistant, you didn’t matter much. You were treated very, very differently from the attorneys and partners,” recalls Van Der Riet.

It was a very hierarchical environment, dominated by impressive designations and plush corner offices. Even today, as managing director of UDM International, she remembers the place well, and she has made it her mission to create a very different working environment.

UDM International operates in a tough sector. It’s a direct-marketing company, which means that it operates call centres. And call centres are not always the easiest to manage. There are tough targets, young and inexperienced employees, rude and irate voices at the other end of the line.

UDM, however, has managed to do something quite impressive: It has created a call centre environment that is simultaneously successful and fun. Unlike the visions of brutal boiler rooms that the term ‘call centre’ tends to conjure up, UDM is a place where employees are not only effective, but also happy and self-motivated.

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How has the company accomplished this? It all comes down to hiring well and managing intelligently.

1. Hire slowly

UDM International is always on the lookout for new talent. In fact, a fresh intake of trainees arrives every Monday morning. Importantly, though, becoming a trainee in no way guarantees that you’ll be offered a permanent position. A mere 5% of trainees are eventually offered jobs.

Many companies might balk at this kind of approach — spending so much time and money on trainees who won’t even end up becoming employees. For Van Der Riet, however, it’s the only way that the professionalism and culture of the company can be maintained.

Indeed, it’s all too easy to underestimate the long-term effect of a bad hire. It will cost you time and money — more time and more money than a trainee programme ever will. Moreover, it’s notoriously hard to judge the potential of an employee based on a CV and an interview. A great interviewee is not necessarily a great employee. For these reasons, a trainee programme makes a lot of sense.

“You can get a great sense of who will work out, and who won’t,” says Van Der Riet. “Also, by the time a trainee finishes the programme, he or she is ready to really tackle the job.”

UDM has an entire training floor where trainees receive a lot of coaching and assistance. There is regular training, and experienced agents often sit in on calls to help trainees through calls and improve
their performance.

Even after trainees become full-time employees, they spend a few more months on the training floor. “We like to ease them into things,” says Van Der Riet. “Staying on the training floor provides a bit of a safety net, and ensures that we can keep an eye on trainees until they become truly competent and confident.”

Van Der Riet also spends time with each trainee. “Every Friday, I meet with each trainee individually. It’s a way for me to keep my trainers performing well and to find out about the trainees. One of the best things I ever started doing was setting up regular one-on-one meetings with trainees. Firstly, it allows me to see the potential in a person. UDM is very data driven, but the data doesn’t always tell you everything. By actually spending time with someone, you often see potential that the data doesn’t reveal. You discover that, with a little bit of targeted coaching, someone’s potential can be unlocked.

“Meeting with trainees also shows them that you care about them. When trainees discover that the MD or CEO is taking time to get to know them and review their performance personally, they tend to rise to the occasion.”

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2. Use talent smartly

udm-international-marketing

The problem with many sales environments is that the best sales people end up closing the easiest deals, leaving the newbies to try and crack the hard sales. It’s easy to understand why this happens: Experienced sales people develop solid client lists, which means they spend more time selling to existing customers than new prospects. They often also receive the most promising leads.

By letting this happen, though, you waste resources. All the training and experience represented by a salty sales person isn’t tapped into when trying to turn weak new leads into long-term clients.

Van Der Riet together with her clients realised this, and came up with an innovative solution to the problem.

“I asked my best people if they would be willing to join a new ‘elite’ team that would focus on closing the hard deals. In exchange, they would be given a great working environment. They were moved to a private area, allowed to choose their own high-end chairs and served coffee and snacks all day long.

“I was surprised how keen people were to sign up. And it wasn’t just about the perks. These driven sales people were responding to the challenge of closing the harder deals.”

But perks are still important, especially when you’re trying to attract top talent. “I realised early on that we were competing for the best people with large corporates that offered great perks and great salaries. So, if we wanted to be able to attract the best talent, we needed to compete.

“Also, we ask a lot of our people. Our standards are high. So we believe that we should reward them accordingly. We pay for Gautrain travel, provide good medical aid, give women higher than normal maternity leave benefits, etc. We also pay salaries that we are told are well above the industry standard.”

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3. Manage with data

As alluded to earlier, UDM International is a very data-driven organisation.

“We manage and measure just about everything,” says Van Der Riet. “And we don’t just look at performance, but at all over productivity. We can see how often someone goes to the bathroom, how long their lunch breaks typically are and how much time elapses between every call made.

“But the aim is not to treat employees like children — to micromanage them and criticise their behaviour. We use it to help them. We don’t hire the sort of people you need to keep tabs on anyway. We hire people who are driven and want to do well. So we use the information to help them see how they can improve performance. Employees often come to us because they feel like they’re not reaching their full potential. Thanks to the data, we can help them see how they can improve performance. Often, a small tweak — a slightly shorter lunch break or less downtime between calls — can result in a significant improvement.”

Key to this approach is the fact that UDM encourages each employee to view his or her desk as a personal business.

“We view our employees as entrepreneurs, really, and it’s in the best interests of everyone to have them performing well. It’s our job to enable them to do their job to the best of their abilities.”

That’s where data comes in. “I really don’t believe in letting go as a company grows and getting less involved with the day-to-day running of things. It might work for some companies, but it doesn’t work here. As with the one-on-one meetings with trainees, I find things go better when I’m more involved and keep my finger on the pulse.

“The best way to do this is through data. It helps you to cut through the rubbish and get at the heart of a situation. I get a performance update every single afternoon, so I always know what’s happening. I never get a shock at the end of the month. Data is there to help you, provided you know what you’re measuring, and you use that information appropriately.” 

Take note

Data can be a great tool to empower employees and improve performance, provided it’s used correctly.

GG van Rooyen
GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.