E241 | Delivering Outstanding Customer Service with Gene Browne
Are you delivering customer service that makes you proud? Or do you feel your industry is exempt from having happy customers? Our guest on The Melting Pot this week believes that whatever the industry, great service should always be at the forefront of a business.
This week we learned from Gene Browne, founder of The City Bin Co. Gene has led this company to be a five-time winner of the ‘Deloitte Best Managed Company’ in Ireland, as well as a two-time National Winner of the European Business Awards – Customer Focus Category for 2013 and 2017.
In this episode, Gene walks us through his journey from founding his business, how he scaled up, what tools he used, and how important Rockefeller Habits have been to him, how he then did a reverse takeover and cultural transformation of a business in the Middle East.
Download and listen to learn more.
On today’s podcast:
- The beginning and rise of City Bin Co.
- Delivering great service, no matter the industry
- Starting in the waste management industry in the 90s VS today
- Building a culture around service
- The secret to getting outstanding NPS scores
Follow Gene Browne:
How To Deliver an Outstanding Customer Service In The Waste Management Industry
Founder of The City Bin Co., Gene Browne, has led teams across Ireland as well as the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Doha and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Under his leadership, The City Bin Co. has been profiled extensively in various management books and articles.
With a background in Quality Engineering, and prior to founding The City Bin Co., he founded and operated a Business Excellence consultancy and lectured in Statistical Process Control, Quality Management and Reliability Engineering at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (Ireland). He’s been a member of the Young presidents’ Organisation (YPO), Greater Europe & Dublin Chapters, since 2005 and has twice served on the YPO European Regional Board.
Gene considers himself a ‘reluctant entrepreneur’ that ended up in waste management due to ‘50% naivety, 50% luck’. Back in the early 90s, he came out of college with a Quality Engineering qualification. Back then, everybody wanted ISO 9000 accreditation, and he was among the first out of college with it. Gene was fortunate enough to have worked with the Multinational DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) at the time, a huge business that subsequently was sold to Gateway and then to Hewlett Packard. So, he got really early training at a multinational on how to do things right.
Starting a waste management company
He was passionate about service quality, specifically manufacturing quality, and there was a great demand for the role at the time. So, at the age of 24, Gene set up his own business as a consultant.
“I never called myself a consultant. I felt I was way too young. But I certainly had expertise in the area. And after a couple of years of that, I knew I could talk the talk, but I didn’t know if I could walk the walk. So it’s easy to go into somebody else’s company and tell them, you should do X, you should do Y. This should be better, the process should be better,”
Gene didn’t have any exposure to the financial part of those organisations, so he wondered whether he would be as good with his own company as he was telling other companies they should be. Would he be able to work within these constraints? He knew he wanted to set up an operating company, but he’d never worked at it. He would keep the consultancy and then work in the operating company one day a week.
“I would go on a Friday and consult nearly for free and put the systems in, because systems I was very interested in and I had very strong theories about customer service. So I wanted to create something. I go in and consult in it. I wouldn’t work on a day-to-day basis, but I put the systems in and I put the platform in, etc.”
So, he teamed up with a friend in the US and spent a year looking at different industries, from cleanroom technology to hospitality, to software. It was 1996, a time the Dotcom was just starting. They didn’t have the skill set or the money for cleanroom technology.
“And we stumbled across the waste business and we thought, wow, this is the one. And there were two reasons. One, my partner Glenn could drive a truck. He had a HTV license since he was 19, and he really wasn’t afraid to turn his hand to anything. And I could barely drive a car and I didn’t know anything about trucks, but I knew about business and I knew about systems. And what attracted me to the waste business was the service in the waste business was the worst. I mean, next to cable TV at the time, I think it was just the worst customer service. It’s changed a lot since then.”
Great service, no matter the industry
In the beginning, there was an attitude among the general public in Ireland where you wouldn’t expect great service from the waste people because, ‘if he was any better, he’d be doing something else’, says Gene.
“We just changed all that. We took best practices from everywhere. And if this is a service business and you’re paying for it, you should expect the same as you get from an airline, from a bank, from an insurance company, from whatever service that you’re getting. So we just came out, and said, hey, ‘we’re the waste guys. You’re paying for this. It should be delivered on time, it should be a good service, it should be reliable, it should be dependable, and it should be a job done.’ And we came with that philosophy and stole best practices from everywhere.”
When Gene was doing consulting, he was also doing a lot of quality auditing. He had the privilege of going into a different company every day in different industries and getting paid for auditing them. But he was benefiting on a different level from them too.
“I was actually learning more in that company than I was giving. You see different ways of doing things, and we just literally stole in the best way possible and applied all these to the waste management business. Never considered ourselves to be in the waste management business. We were completely delusional. Even to this day, I never really once got out of bed thinking about waste management in the purest sense. I got out of bed thinking about service.”
Starting a waste management company: now and then
It took about 18 months for everything to flow completely. Gene was also teaching at one of the local technical universities in the west of Ireland. Waste management is a very capital-intensive business, says Gene, so they were working day and night at that point, and he used the funds from the consulting to grow the waste business. He admits they were fortunate with timing, as they wouldn’t be able to start the same business today with the same money as they did in 1997.
The reason for that, says Gene, is mostly regulatory changes – small things that are taken for granted today. For instance, if you go back thirty years ago, everything went into one bin outside the restaurant, the pub or a house. And that was taken three miles down the road to the local landfill. That means, you only needed one truck.
“We had one second-hand truck, which we bought in the UK for the equivalent of €6000 today. And a new truck costs €250,000. So that’ll give you an idea of where we were.”
If you went to a big client, like a hotel, everything would go into the same bin. You put it in the truck and drove away. So, it worked for Gene and his partner where one would drive, and the other would be at the back picking up the bins. However, he says, if you wanted to start the same business today, things would be quite different.
“If we wanted to start today, I need a truck for recycling, a truck for compost, a truck for paper, all these different things because of the legislation. And the landfill is no longer 3 miles down the road. They’re like 100 and something miles away and the trucks have to be in better condition. All of these things are progressive and good, but we were just fortunate. From an environmental point of view, the model is a lot better. From an operational entrepreneurial, startup point of view, it was much easier then. So the barriers to entry have risen significantly.”
Scaling up the business
For the first couple of years, The City Bin Co. was experiencing a 25% compound annual growth. Although in the beginning, competitors didn’t feel threatened by them, Gene and his team’s ambitions always outweighed their resources.
“We called the company City Bin Co. because we didn’t want to be confined to one city by calling it after the city. And we didn’t call it Browne & Ward waste after ourselves. We always had this bigger ambition. And we used partners at different times. We brought in different equity partners, always strategic. That took us into Dublin at one point, and then we bought them back out.”
Then, they landed in the Middle East, and, for six years, they operated across five countries in the Gulf, after which they bought that partner back out. Their native equity partner has been Carlisle. For Gene, the key to their success lies in two factors:
“We always A) educated ourselves and then, B) brought in expertise and stood on the shoulders of giants at different times in the industry.“
Getting into the Middle East
In hindsight, their move to the Middle East sounds extremely strategic, says Gene. However, he admits it was only partially strategic, but they also had a bit of luck, tactics and took advantage of the environment at that given time.
“If you go back to the 2008-2012 period, particularly in Ireland, the economy was on its knees. The banks had pretty much collapsed. You couldn’t get a car loan in Ireland, never mind a loan for financing trucks and bins. And there were a lot of casualties in our industry and as a high CapEx industry, it was a very difficult time. But we did have our own software, which we had developed from day one, and we built the first versions of it ourselves in-house and then we outsourced it.”
At one point, the company had eight software engineers. They had a diamond in the rough in that period. So, the idea was to extract the software from the operating company and commercialise it for the waste management companies globally. Gene was pitching this idea to Silicon Valley and London when he was approached by two gentlemen from a company in the Middle East that wanted to know more about the company. They were interested in Gene’s software, but what they wanted was to buy the company.
“And I said I don’t have a mandate to sell the company. I have partners and shareholders. And they said we’d buy them out and we want the management philosophy that you’ve got, the systems that you’ve got and the management team that you’ve got.”
They were the biggest privately owned waste management company across the Middle East and Africa. Gene and his partner sold out to them and off they went into a new journey, taking over their B2B operations across eight cities in the Gulf, South Africa and some other places.
“It was an extremely exciting time, particularly because back in Ireland in that period, there was no growth, everything was gloomy, and it was just fantastic to test our model, test our theories and our software platform, which we ended up building out there. And test the culture, because that’s the most important thing. And if you have a company culture, then how do you bring that into another geographical, national culture in the bigger scheme of things? How do they marry? So it was really exciting.”
Building a culture around service
Back in Ireland, City Bin Co.’s culture was built around service. They didn’t think of themselves as a waste service. In fact, when they drafted the original business plan in 1996, they stated that their mission was to provide excellent customer experiences and the whole culture was built around that.
“We wanted HGV drivers who had a very strong customer service ethos. We weren’t looking for HGV drivers who had a HGV license. That was no good to us. We needed a particular type of HGV driver who was very high on the customer service piece and who understood it.”
They had a progressive culture that allowed for autonomy for everybody. It was very clear what the goals were in terms of service. Everything was built around NPS and their NPS score. Their bonuses were paid on NPS, and not based on other types of productivity. As a young company, they wanted to be a fun place to work, but they always had the end user in mind: the householder getting great service.
“Articles and studies were done on us because of that, because nobody could imagine that somebody in our industry could be rated so high in terms of service or be known for service.”
City Bin Co.’s outstanding NPS scores caught the attention of journalists and authors, like Verne Harnish. Gene admits it was all down to their culture. Nobody in the business considered themselves as working in the waste business.
“Why would you want to work in the waste business? It’s not a nice business. It’s not a great business to be in. So why would you want to be number four or number five in the waste business? You got to make it a great place to work for your employees to come. It’s a tough job, but there’s got to be something in it at the end of the day other than the paycheck.”
Getting outstanding NPS scores
When their NPS scores drop even a point, City Bin Co.’s team gets really upset. They don’t for other things, but the one thing they’re not happy about is an unhappy customer. “It really stops everything else. It reminds you of the Toyota production line where anybody can stop the line if there’s any kind of fault.”, says Gene.
Their NPS have always been high – from day one. They started taking them through Satmetrix, based in California. Gene believes that, when he first contacted them, the team at Satmetrix must have thought they were ‘just another client’. At the time, City Bin Co. had about sixty thousand customers and they were sent the NPS on day one.
“By about four o’clock that afternoon, as soon as the guys in the US came into work anyway, I started to get emails from them saying, ‘wow, can we understand a bit more about what’s going on here? Because our scores were upper Apple and Amazon. They were up at 82. It was in the top 5%, and they couldn’t understand it.”
Satmetrix realised then that City Bin Co. was the first waste company that reached their platform, as these kind of companies don’t usually measure customer satisfaction. They saw an opportunity to open a new vertical within this industry.
“So they thought, if they can do the case study on the US, then they can go to the big US players in waste management and show this is possible. So that’s what they were doing. So that’s the kind of history that it’s still up to this day. NPS is around the 70s at the moment. Still extremely high, and we’re very proud of it.”
Measuring staff engagement
As well as measuring customer satisfaction, City Bin Co. was looking at employee happiness. At one point, they had their own learning Engagement Officer, they brought in a brand promise for employees that stated that as well as treating them with fairness and gratitude for choosing City Bin Co. as a place to work, they’d also support their educational goals. Because 90% of the people who work for them work out in the field, and most of them didn’t have the opportunity to go to third level, particularly the guys on the back of the truck, adds Gene.
“And one thing that I’ve been extremely fortunate about is since my time in starting with the company, I’ve been able to educate myself a huge amount over the years. And I always believe that everything else can fail. I mean, the company can fail. You can lose the company, you can go bankrupt, you can lose your house, you can lose everything, but nobody can ever take education off you.”
Gene and his team have been very involved with their field staff, helping them achieve whatever they want to be.
“If they want to go on to be a mechanic, or go on to be an accountant outside of the company. Because if we get three to five years off somebody on the back of a truck, that’s amazing. And if they have the right attitude, that’s brilliant. And if we can help them move on to something else that they want to do, we’re really proud to be able to do that.”
In terms of staffing, Gene adds that if you don’t have a service attitude and you don’t understand customer service and you go to work at City Bin Co., you’re going to think they’re freaks.
“If you’re just a driver with a HGV license and you don’t have any kind of customer empathy, you’re probably going to quit or you’re not going to last at the company. We’ve got very good at the hiring and the filtering, and we use some systems on the way in and some psychometric tests designed to attract people within the service industry because it’s only a certain type of person that can work in the company.”