Ep3: Coaching: The Value of Formal Route Check-In Processes With Dana Horne
Eric: Welcome to the latest episode of Laundry Talks, and I can't wait to introduce today's guest in just a minute. But first, a quick recap. This podcast aims to have great conversations with industry leaders. We're only a couple of episodes in so far, and we've focused on the evolution of technology in the laundry industry. However, we're going to cover a whole lot more than that this season. One of the great things about this podcast is that it's for everyone in the textile rental space. It doesn't matter if you're an operator, supplier, owner, GM, or if you're in service, AR production, or even on the route.
In our last episode, we talked about technology and tools that can help your RSRs on the route become superstars. If you're interested in a simple and easy-to-use calculator to learn about how much time and money you can save on the route by implementing handheld technology, you can check it out using the link below. Technology is amazing when used properly, and one of the ways we need to figure out how to do that is through training, coaching, and repetition.
Today's guest is someone who has done almost everything there is to do in the textile rental industry. She's been on the operator side, the supplier side, and has worked for both an independent laundry and a national chain. She's a speaker, trainer, and someone I've had the pleasure of learning from many times myself. Please join me in welcoming Dana Horne, the General Manager of Consumer Textile Corp based out of Clinton, Oklahoma. Thank you for being here, Dana.
Welcome to Laundry Talks, the podcast for the textile rental operator community, to learn new things, share ideas, and drive conversations. I'm your host, Eric Smith. This episode is brought to you by Alliant Systems, our valued sponsor. Thank you for supporting us in bringing valuable content to our listeners. Let's dive into today's episode and explore exciting topics in the textile rental industry.
Dana: Thank you so much for inviting me. I was excited to get on here and interact with the Alliant team.
Eric: Yeah, well, thank you. Um, I guess before I jump into some of the, um, some of my questions, the most important one I'm going to get right out of the way, uh, right at the beginning here. Tell me a little bit about who I'm seeing on this calendar in the background over your shoulder.
Dana: Um, I didn't know y'all could see it. Right now, I can't see it on my screen. But, um, if you know me or if you met me in the past or whatever, probably one topic of my conversation will be my dogs. Um, my husband and I love our animals very much. And, um, we have two chocolate labs that they don't mind for me to dress them up for the holidays. They're good participants in that. So, I created a calendar because my friends and family got a kick out of it. So, I created a holiday calendar that has them on there. Um, they're very well trained. My husband does AKC and UKC hunt tests with them. But, um, they're also family dogs. So, they don't mind, you know, dressing up for mommy.
Eric: They're really good sports. What are they? What are their names? Are they brothers?
Dana: No, sister, and she's from Louisiana. And, um, Chief is from Wisconsin.
Eric: Okay, well, cool. Now that we got the important stuff out of the way, we can talk some business. But tell me a little bit about, uh, your role and CTC. Tell me a little bit about the company.
Dana: CTC is out of Clinton, Oklahoma. I am currently running there as their GM, even though I live in Clinton, North Carolina. People often wonder how this arrangement works. Well, I have been working remotely from home for over 12 years, and I travel to CGC once a month. I am always available through phone, Zoom, and email, so it feels like I'm there with them.
I also enjoy traveling to be on the floor with the team. It's an atypical GM role, but it's working out well. As most of you know, training is a big part of who I am, and that's what I focus on here. While most GMs only concentrate on numbers and profits, I believe it's important for my team to understand the meaning of those numbers, where they come from, and how to work with them. In my experience, numbers are often thrown around without employees truly understanding them. They may nod along, pretending to understand, but I want them to feel comfortable asking questions and gaining true knowledge. I break down the numbers and help them understand, just like you would with budgeting or running your own business. This empowers them to make confident and informed decisions.
Eric: And that's, uh, thank you for sharing all that. Could you tell me a little bit about the product mix and the industries you serve at CTC?
Dana: Yeah, so as we all know, in the industry, it depends on where you're at and where you're located. Clinton, Oklahoma is very rural. It is about an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half from Oklahoma City. So, there are a lot of small towns along the way. Additionally, there are many ranchers and oil fields, which make up a significant part of our clientele. We serve a mix of customers, including small rural mom-and-pop places, as well as larger areas like Oklahoma City and Lawton. However, our dominant focus is on dust-related products.
If you've been to Oklahoma, you know there's wind and red clay, and these customers need mats to maintain a clean atmosphere and uphold the image our industry portrays. We are Image Makers. So, having that clean image is crucial. Dust-related products account for a significant portion of our business, followed by linen and uniforms. We also offer dry cleaning services and janitorial products through our retail division. We have a diverse mix of offerings, but we are working on narrowing down our skews to focus on what we do best.
Eric: And that's, that's fairly common when you, you're, you are—I think you said it correctly—depends on where you are. And usually, when you get into the more rural areas, uh, you find that you kind of end up dipping into a little bit of everything because that's what is needed, um, versus being able to specialize. Yeah.
Dana: The owner of CTC has a big heart for locals and local communities. Unlike many big players, who won't touch those small towns or communities, she is passionate about supporting them. These communities often have limited options, but with our wide range of offerings, we are able to provide them with choices and support their local economies. We take pride in being able to support and uplift local and small-town communities.
Eric: Perfect! So, some of the questions I've got are going to delve into the training for Route service reps. But before we get into that, I have a lead-in question. You also have some experience working with national chains, and I believe that's how you initially entered the industry. Would you mind sharing a little bit about how you found yourself working in the laundry industry? I'm always interested in hearing how someone ends up in a particular field. Could you tell me a bit about how you got your start?
Dana: Yeah, isn't that funny? I think there are a lot of hilarious stories about how people end up in the industry. It's not usually a chosen path, you know? It's one of those things that not many people even know about, even though it can be applicable to any business. Personally, I live in a small rural town which I consider my home. As they say, home is where the heart is, and mine is in a small rural town with limited opportunities.
I actually have a Master's degree in accounting and initially thought I would become an accountant. However, I soon realized that my personality and accounting didn't always align. I was getting bored because I'm a social person who loves interacting with others. One day, I came across an ad for a management trainee position at Cintas and decided to apply. It took me about three months of persistence to finally get accepted. My husband was initially skeptical since we had college debt to pay off, but I was determined to pursue this new path.
Funny enough, I was initially rejected because they assumed I couldn't handle the job as a woman, especially in a visible and dirty role. I'm not offended by those assumptions because I understand the stereotypes associated with our line of work. However, they didn't realize that country girls like me aren't afraid to get dirty. That's when Dave Graham, a legend in the industry and my mentor, stepped in. He saw my potential and hired me. I'll always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity. Sadly, he passed away earlier this year, which was incredibly difficult for me.
Dave challenged me to push myself to the limits. He would ask me questions and expect me to take action, even when I may have been nodding my head in agreement while secretly thinking about it. I learned so much from him and appreciate how he pushed me to grow.
Eric: Okay, I appreciate you sharing that, and I'm sorry for your loss. You may have heard before, during the introduction, I was talking a little bit about how technology has removed a lot of the manual tasks that Route Service Representatives (RSRs) used to perform in their job. However, I want to take a moment to discuss what the job was like before we had some of that technology.
In the past, RSRs would go on their routes with manual invoices, relying on paper-based systems. During that time, most companies had some form of face-to-face review or check-in between the RSR or customer service representative and a supervisor. I'm curious to know from your perspective why that process was so important and what the goals were behind that face-to-face interaction.
Dana: I think back then, and even now, it's not just about ensuring that the money is coming in correctly, that's just the basics. Route reps have a deep understanding of their job and the tasks at hand. As I often tell people, there are so many things we handle in the laundry industry, and even with the advancements in technology, there are still numerous tasks and interactions with customers to manage and remember.
The important aspect of the face-to-face check-in process is the coaching and training that takes place. It's not just about checking a box like it used to be. The handheld devices may have replaced some of the old checkbox tasks, but now it's evolved into more of a business strategy session. It's an opportunity to evaluate what was achieved that day, what improvements can be made, what changes need to be implemented, and how to pre-plan for the following day.
Another crucial element is ensuring that route reps understand they are not alone and have support and guidance. During my experience working with various Route reps across the US and Canada, I frequently heard route reps feeling like they were on an island, especially if they arrived late and found no one available for support or to answer their questions. That sense of isolation can be challenging.
Though your question was a bit mixed up, I don't see much change from the past to the present. There are still goals to achieve, and during my time at Cintas, I created a training college program specifically for check-ins. It provided a step-by-step guide on what to do, what questions to ask, and how to coach the team members. We would review their key performance indicators (KPIs) and address any necessary course corrections right away, rather than waiting a month and looking at numbers retrospectively. By being proactive during check-ins, we minimized issues and focused on prevention rather than reactive problem-solving.
Eric: And you even told me, because if you're familiar with the process from a manager's perspective, you understand what it's like for a new route rep entering the industry. They may not know certain things that are often assumed to be known. In fact, I believe you shared a funny story about the need for basic training. Before our conversation today, you mentioned it. If you'd like, feel free to talk a little bit more about it.
Dana: I've noticed, and I often mention in my trainings, the dangers of assuming. I must admit, I am guilty of making assumptions at times as well. That's why it's crucial to take it back to a step-by-step approach - one, two, three. Route check-in provides the perfect opportunity for training and continuous education. Each day brings new situations that need to be addressed and coached upon. We cannot assume that route reps know how to handle every instance without proper guidance.
In today's world, with an abundance of information and technology at our fingertips, it can be overwhelming for people. That's why we need to make the training process simpler and more streamlined. I shared a funny anecdote last week while training my team in Oklahoma. I noticed on my McDonald's cup that there was a line indicating the level to which ice should be filled. They even had a sign specifying that only tea and soft drinks could go in that cup. It reminded me of the importance of breaking things down step by step, even for seemingly simple tasks.
This approach can be challenging, especially for those of us who are old school and tend to assume that certain things are common sense. However, we must stop thinking for people and make instructions as simple as possible - one, two, three. This is my biggest advice, particularly considering the influx of new hires and the changing thought processes and shorter tenures of the new generations entering the workforce. We want to avoid having to go back and correct mistakes that could have been prevented through effective upfront training.
Eric: Yeah, as I mentioned before, this discussion is truly insightful. With the advancements in technology, many of the manual tasks we used to handle can now be automated, such as pricing enforcement, minimums enforcement, and getting invoices signed. However, the personal interaction during check-in remains crucial to ensure that route reps don't feel alone in their work.
This interaction provides a great opportunity to have discussions about customers, especially those with larger accounts receivable balances or those approaching their renewal period. As you pointed out, the face-to-face check-in is not just about reviewing what was done that day, but also about planning for tomorrow. It's about strategizing and preparing for future customer needs and ensuring that the necessary steps are taken to maintain strong relationships and business growth.
Dana: You know, one of the things that both the younger and older generations appreciate is having someone they can talk to and exchange ideas with. It's important for them to feel connected and informed because route reps miss out on a lot while they're out of the building, unaware of what's happening in the facility or plant. That check-in point serves as their opportunity to catch up and stay in the loop. If we take that away from them, they'll feel isolated on their own little island.
So, how do we maintain communication and ensure they still feel like part of the team? After all, they play a significant role in servicing our customers, which directly impacts our profitability. They are the ones who interact face-to-face with our customers, representing our company. Therefore, it's essential that we take the time to have meaningful interactions with them.
Even back when I was leaving Cintas in 2011, I noticed a shift away from route check-ins. I'm not sure if they eventually brought it back or made changes, but as someone who pays attention to people's emotions and connection points, I believe it's crucial. It's one of the reasons why I enjoy training and working with people - to understand their needs and establish meaningful connections. While technology can make certain aspects easier, it doesn't replace the need for human interaction.
People want someone they can communicate with, discuss ideas with, receive training from, and even receive support and recognition from. They appreciate that pat on the back when they've done something well. How will they get that if all they do is check boxes without anyone to talk to? Building these connections and fostering a sense of camaraderie is essential for their job satisfaction and overall success.
Eric: And I completely agree. It's not just national chains that have experienced this trend. With the advancement of technology, we've seen a shift where certain layers of management, particularly middle management, have diminished. This has led to the disappearance of some of the soft benefits that come with face-to-face interactions. While these benefits may be challenging to quantify, they play a crucial role in combating the feeling of isolation that can arise when employees show up for check-in and find no one there.
This sense of being alone can be detrimental to the long-term retention of valued employees. So, let's delve into the idea of designing the best kind of check-in process, starting from scratch. Considering that handheld devices can handle many tasks efficiently, we can explore incorporating them into the check-in process. By utilizing handhelds, we can streamline operations, enhance communication, and ensure that route reps feel supported and connected. Let's brainstorm and develop a best-practice approach that maximizes the benefits of technology while maintaining the human element of interaction.
Dana: We're not there yet, but this is my dream. I envision a check-in process where the image is paramount. We are image makers, and I believe in creating a clean and inviting atmosphere. When route reps come in, they should step into a nice, air-conditioned room with comfortable seating, perhaps even a couch. It's important that they feel at ease and have a space where they can work on their paperwork. In this room, I imagine having a small refrigerator stocked with refreshing drinks because I know how tough their days can be, especially in the heat.
The check-in process should begin with paperwork, ensuring that everything is documented accurately. But it shouldn't stop there. I want the route reps to be able to approach their check-in person, and their manager, and engage in meaningful conversations. It shouldn't be a checklist of tasks completed, but an opportunity to discuss how their day went, what went well, and what challenges they faced. I want the check-in person to ask open-ended questions and genuinely care about the route rep's goals.
As a manager, one of my priorities is understanding people's dreams and aspirations. I want to know how I can help them achieve their goals. By knowing their dreams and what motivates them, I can provide proper guidance and coaching. The check-in person should embody this mindset: someone who cares about the company, the employees, and the customers. They should see themselves as part of a three-legged stool, ensuring all bases are covered.
In my dream check-in process, route reps would actually look forward to it. It wouldn't be a dreaded task, but an opportunity to have meaningful conversations. It wouldn't take too long, just a brief exchange, but by the end, the route rep would leave with a clear understanding of where they stand, with more knowledge and confidence. They would receive recognition for their accomplishments, acquire the necessary tools to excel in their job and feel prepared for the challenges of the next day.
I believe achieving this dream check-in process is not as difficult as it may seem. It requires buy-in from everyone involved, especially the check-in person who needs to understand and embrace this vision. With a shared commitment and understanding of the benefits, we can transform check-ins into valuable interactions that drive employee satisfaction and success.
Eric: Yes, one of the reasons I am highly interested in having well-trained and coached Route Service Representatives (RSRs) is because operators in this industry invest significant amounts of money into their plants and equipment. They strive to have the latest and greatest technology and resources available. However, from the customer's perspective, 99% of the time, the only representation they see of the company is the person who delivers the product. This makes it incredibly important to have consistent, knowledgeable, and professional RSRs.
In today's world, where turnover rates can be high, maintaining consistency becomes even more crucial. Having RSRs who feel empowered in their roles, and who receive coaching and support, is more important than ever. These individuals are the face of the company, and their interactions with customers directly impact the company's reputation and success.
Hiring new route reps can be a challenge for everyone. I am curious if you have any successful strategies or tips to share regarding bringing on new route reps. Are there specific qualities or traits that you look for? Any effective strategies that have worked for you in the past?
Dana: I've made numerous attempts to address the challenges of hiring in our small rural town, where finding individuals who are capable, motivated, and excel at the work can be difficult. While I have tried various strategies, I must acknowledge that the hiring landscape has changed since my time in HR with Cintas. This is one of the reasons why I decided to transition into the operator side, as it allows me to gain a firsthand understanding of the current dynamics.
Previously, it was often about attracting candidates who desired higher compensation and better benefits. However, nowadays, I find myself needing to remind people to consider the benefits package, as their focus primarily lies on increased wages. Sometimes, candidates express a desire for flexible working hours or more leisure time, which is challenging to accommodate in our industry due to the need for timely product delivery.
Exploring alternative approaches to recruitment is an ongoing process, and while I haven't yet found the perfect solution, I'm confident we will get there. Assessments play a vital role in the hiring process, as traditional interviews can sometimes be misleading. Candidates have become skilled at presenting themselves in interviews, and the person you hire may differ greatly from the one you initially interviewed. Personality and knowledge assessments can help uncover potential red flags and ensure a better fit for our culture and training path.
Additionally, I emphasize the importance of conducting ride-along for route reps. This firsthand experience gives candidates a realistic understanding of the job's demands. It helps weed out those who may initially underestimate the challenges involved. Just like a marriage, both parties must be fully committed and aligned for the partnership to succeed. Identifying red flags early on can save valuable time, energy, and resources that would otherwise be invested in training someone who may not be a good fit.
In summary, I have been focusing on identifying red flags, utilizing personality and knowledge assessments, and implementing thorough ride-along to ensure we onboard the right individuals who align with our culture, training path, and long-term goals.
Eric: Do you have other employees who get to ride along and observe the daily activities of the route service trips? Additionally, from a management perspective, do you also have managers riding the routes to conduct assessments on the efficiency and effectiveness of the routes?
Dana: In a perfect world, it would be ideal to have employees ride along and observe the route service trips more frequently. However, due to turnover and other constraints, it doesn't happen as often as I would like. I strongly believe in this practice because it serves as a support system for the employees and allows them to see firsthand what they are doing or how they can be coached to improve.
I do have managers ride with employees fairly regularly, and I find it to be a valuable coaching mechanism. My dream is to have everyone in the facility, from soil sorting to the office manager, participate in these ride-alongs. Personally, I am a visual person, and I need to see and touch things to truly understand them. This element is sometimes lacking for certain individuals who may not fully comprehend the entire process.
For example, if someone is a soil sorter but doesn't understand how the products come in or how to sort them, or if someone is a laundry operator but doesn't understand the customer's needs or what happens when bundles are mixed up, it can create challenges. However, by having everyone experience a route and understand the struggles, they can better perform their jobs to support the customer, which, in this case, is the railroad.
All route representatives go through a training process in the plants, where they spend time in each department. I schedule this training a bit later in their onboarding so that they already have some experience on the route. This way, they understand the questions to ask, why they are in the office or plant, and what the customers ultimately see as the end result. By witnessing the other side of the operation firsthand, they can confidently answer customer inquiries about quality control and other aspects of the job because they have experienced it themselves.
Overall, I believe that incorporating ride-along and providing comprehensive training across departments helps create a cohesive team and ensures that employees have a deep understanding of the entire process.
Eric: It's always great to have the quality of asking questions, even if they seem basic. Not everyone feels comfortable seeking clarification, so training that caters to the lowest common denominator can be beneficial. Sometimes, the most basic things are not obvious, as exemplified by your McDonald's cup story.
I do have a couple of questions for you as well. I'd love to know if you have any recommendations for a good book to read, a favorite movie or show, or something fun you have recently done. Please feel free to choose any of those options and share your thoughts.
Dana: That sounds fun! I also enjoy historical fiction. I recently started a book by Pat Conroy, a great author known for his works set in the Charleston area of South Carolina. Have you heard of him? By the way, did you join me on that tour?
Eric: Uh... I went on a food tour with you in Key West, I believe.
Dana: Yeah, but this particular tour was in Hilton Head, heading to an island called Daufuskie. Pat Conroy changes the name in his book, but it's inspired by that location. He has written several books, and I am currently reading "The Lords of Discipline." There's a part in the book where Quinton discusses quitters and how important it is not to give up. It resonated with me as a valuable life lesson because there are many challenging moments in life. However, if you dig deep inside yourself, you can overcome them and make things happen.
Eric: Well, thank you for your kind words. I'm glad that what I shared resonated with you and reinforced everything you already knew about me. It was truly my pleasure to be a part of it.
Dana: Thank you all for inviting me, Eric. It's always a pleasure to be around you. I genuinely enjoy your company, and I admire you not just as a good person, but also as an excellent businessperson. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk and share my insights. I hope that any little piece of wisdom I can contribute may be helpful to you. Please know that I also learn from each and every one of you every day.
Eric: Well, thanks! I believe we've gathered a bunch of valuable insights, just like filling up a whole bag. So, thank you for your time. Alright, hey guys, thanks for joining us on today's podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. We have a fantastic resource available if you're interested in learning how to streamline your routes. We've created an ROI calculator that only requires a few details about your operations, and it will calculate how much money and time you can save each day. Click the link below to visit the webpage. If you're listening, you can go to alliantsystems.com, click on resources, then select Laundry Talks Podcast, where you'll find a blog recap of each episode and a link to the calculator. Thanks!