Alex Kouzmanoff translates customer service into customer satisfaction—by listening.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“When someone is totally incentivized by sales, there is no backup after the sale is made,” says Alex Kouzmanoff, vice president, Aztec Tents, Torrance, Calif. “We wanted to focus our sales efforts on service and making sure that, whether or not the sale happens, the customer received anything and everything they could possibly want—from a member of our Aztec team.”
During the summer between his junior and senior years at Washington State University, Kouzmanoff worked at what was then called Aztec Tents and Events (currently Aztec Tents). The knowledge and experience Kouzmanoff took back to the university with him as he pursued degrees in human resource management and business management gave him insight into the theories and concepts he was studying. “It was a good tie-in to what I learned in the classroom,” he says. “I had something to relate to in the real business world.”
When Aztec’s owner Chuck Miller hired Kouzmanoff to work at Aztec full time after graduating in 1998, Kouzmanoff’s primary duties were in sales and developing new customer relationships. Working alongside the then-vice president Bill Bie, Kouzmanoff learned the ins and outs of manufacturing tents, in addition to managing sales and customer service and support. “Bill was my mentor in teaching me about the manufacturing side of the business,” Kouzmanoff says. “Learning the different aspects of the business has been one of my biggest assets as I’ve taken on different roles at the company.”
At the time Kouzmanoff was hired full-time at Aztec, the company had been a supplier of tents to the tent rental industry for two decades, but the manufacturing side of the business was essentially in place to support the company’s rental operation. “As it happens, the time I came on board was a turning point for the business,” Kouzmanoff says. “The company became more vested in its future as a manufacturer and major supplier to the industry, and that was my opportunity to develop the business into a more self-sustaining company rather than only to support the rental arm of the company.”
Kouzmanoff involved himself in various aspects of the business—including participating in cooperative planning with tent rental team members to develop new products, and working in operations to move equipment from one side of the production floor to the other as a systems development strategy. When Bill Bie became ill in 2003 and was unable to fulfill his role on IFAI’s Tent Rental Division (TRD) steering committee, Kouzmanoff finished his term. “This was not an opportunity I sought, but now, as I look back, it was great for me to step up and be a part of something bigger than Aztec.” Kouzmanoff finished Bie’s term and served two terms after that.
“Prior to that time, anyone who needed a tent from Aztec was likely dealing with a salesperson based at our corporate offices near Los Angeles,” Kouzmanoff says. “As we grew our sales team, we initially sought independent manufacturers’ reps to reach out to our customer base. These individuals were not Aztec employees but rather commission-based sales people that also sold other tangentially related products to the industry. Over the last six years we have moved to bring the sales staff as full-time Aztec employees so they would only be selling our products and could focus more fully on the needs of our clients and broaden our customer base. That created a more diverse and far-reaching sales and support staff for us, trained to the needs of our customers and our products.”
The main difference with the shift in how the sales staff was hired had to do with corporate philosophies. “After we brought the sales staff in house, they were only accountable to Aztec,” says Kouzmanoff. “It’s a totally different mindset than that which comes with an independent sales representative. It’s a psychological difference that happens when someone is focused on satisfaction as opposed to numbers.”
What do you need?
The culture and barometer of success that Kouzmanoff and his team created is driven by the clients. “Listening is one of the core values of our company,” Kouzmanoff says. “Our customers serve as equal participants in the ‘think tank’ at Aztec driving new products.”
How the clients’ feedback is collected isn’t high tech—it’s as simple as client satisfaction cards, focus groups and weekly trip reports from sales staff. “How we decide which products need improvement or how we should develop a new product is entirely a result of the customer asking for a solution,” Kouzmanoff says. “It’s the listening part that drives us.”
Client satisfaction cards go out with every order shipped. And since some customers might receive multiple shipments a week, all cards are not returned. “I’d estimate about 40 percent of clients fill out the cards,” Kouzmanoff says. “Some cards come back as all excellent, but if there’s a check box that’s less than excellent we follow up on it. We want to know how we can make a client’s experience excellent every time.”
On a smaller scale, Aztec identified a shipping glitch via the satisfaction cards that they remedied. On a larger scale, they launched a highly successful product line. “Our Tidewater Sailcloth tent line is a direct result of listening to our customers,” Kouzmanoff says. “One customer came to us saying he wanted to buy a very unique sailcloth style tent offered through another supplier. The only company that offered this product style at the time made them solely available through purchasing a franchise business; companies couldn’t solely purchase a tent or two. We worked with our clients to create a whole new product line based on that style.”
Aztec and Kouzmanoff included customers in the development process—one client expressing a need turned into several. By including customers in all stages of the process—from the drawing board to prototypes to revisions—the company strengthened the industry and built loyalty for itself.