ACCM Show Daily: Bill Crutchfield on Building Crutchfield

Many people talk a good game about building a “customer centric” organization, but Bill Crutchfield Jr., 63, the founder of Charlottesville, VA-based Crutchfield Corp., does more than talk about it. In fact, he’s staked his career and reputation on it.

Crutchfield, who will deliver tomorrow morning’s keynote address—which carries the unwieldy title “Building a World-Class Customer-Centric Organization by Creating an Exceptional Organizational Culture”—built his company into a $200 million-plus multichannel marketer of consumer electronics largely, he says, by treating employees, customers, and vendors with respect.

“You treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s that fundamental,” he says. Sounds simple and intuitive, but Crutchfield believes that most people do little more than pay lip service to building culture.

Creating a respectful and respected corporate culture entails more than placing motivational posters in the employee lunchroom, he says. It rests on a set of core beliefs. “If you’re a customer-centric organization, it has to start at the top. Just saying you have set a core of beliefs is hollow. The CEO of the company really has to buy into it.”

Specifically, he has to believe that the success of the company is tied to employees’ perception of the corporate culture: If you’re not good to your employees, they—and you—won’t be willing or able to gain the trust of the customer.

Sometimes the culture is tested. When the company encountered a sales decline in 1982-1983, Crutchfield found that salespeople were pushing items that were beneficial to them and not the customers; what’s more, orders were taking days to get in and out of the warehouse. “That was an emotional period,” he admits, but it helped reinforce the corporate culture.

If prospective employees don’t fit in with the culture at Crutchfield, they aren’t hired. “We would rather suffer and be understaffed in some areas than hire the wrong person,” he says, admitting that its rigid hiring policy probably hurts the marketer in hiring a full complement of IT staff.

That said, it takes more than happy employees to ensure the success of a business. “There’s so much hype with this stuff,” Crutchfield says. “There’s no magic bullet to success. There’s a lot more to running a business. All the parts of our business have to be working correctly.”

For example, Crutchfield’s legendary customer service standards—the company has won BizRate’s Circle of Excellence award for five years running, an honor reserved for the 20 e-commerce sites deemed to provide the best customer service in the industry—don’t mean a thing if the company’s data analysis, merchandising. and operations aren’t up to par.

“If we don’t have all the other aspects of the business correct we could be headed to bankruptcy court and still be number one on BizRate,” Crutchfield muses. “Customer service is just part of the equation.”

Though a significant part. When Crutchfield launched the company as a mail order business in 1974, “I wanted to treat my customers the way I would have liked to have been treated.” So he installed a second telephone line in his home so that his customers could reach him 24 hours a day.

“If people had problems in the middle of the night I wanted them to contact me,” Crutchfield says. “Believe me, I got plenty of phone calls at 3 a.m.”

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