Paul Spiegelman: An interview by Bob Morris

Paul Spiegelman

Paul  co-founded The Beryl Companies with his two brothers in 1985. As CEO, he oversees strategic planning and business development for the nation’s thought-leading company in health care customer interactions and relationship management, and is the leading provider of outsourced telephone and Web-based communications in the health care field. Beryl was ranked #2 among the best medium-sized companies to work for in the USA by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Spiegelman earned a B.A. degree in history from UCLA and a law degree from Southwestern University. He is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives and mentors MBA students at Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University. He is the author of Why Is Everyone Smiling? The Secret Behind Passion, Productivity, and Profit, published in 2007.

Here is a brief excerpt from my interview of Spiegelman.

Morris: Do those who call a Beryl client think that they are speaking with someone employed by the client? If so, doesn’t this create pressure on Beryl employees to be a worthy representative of each client?

Spiegelman: Yes, every caller believes they are calling into a hospital, so it is imperative that we create a seamless, positive experience for them. Our call advisors understand that the bar for customer service has been set extremely high. They have to appear local, knowledgeable and empathetic. That pressure is what drives the systems and processes we put in place to give our call advisors everything they need to succeed. The additional challenge is that a call advisor’s next call could be one of any of the 450 hospitals we work for across the country, so they have to change hats very quickly. The key is preparing them through a combination of information in the database and ongoing training in partnership with our clients.

Morris: Please explain how you train new hires for what they are expected to do when processing inbound calls.

Spiegelman: It all starts with the recruiting process. We learned long ago that our call advisors were at the top of our organizational chart, and we needed to apply great discipline and patience to make sure we had the right people representing our customers. We like to say that we are “hiring the heart and not the head.” In other words, we are looking for people with the innate compassion and desire to help others. We can teach them the system and the computer skills, but they’ve got to bring the goods when it comes to their attitude – you can’t teach that. We hire less than 5% of our applicants and put them through a rigorous recruiting and interview process. Once they make the cut, they go through a 5-week, interactive training program that is a combination of classroom training and on-the-job training where they are mentored and coached by their peers. They must pass multiple tests along the way, but they understand that we are preparing them for the job ahead. We also immediately bring them into our culture, and build a fun and engaging environment around them to support what is otherwise a very challenging job.

Morris: You practiced law for several years before founding The Beryl Companies with your two brothers. To what extent has your legal training proved helpful to your responsibilities as a CEO?

Spiegelman: I think the training was critical, less for any legal work that we might need to do, but more for the understanding of how to build relationships in business, how to negotiate effectively, how to communicate effectively and how to resolve issues.

Morris: Please explain the title of your book. For those who have not as yet read it, what is the “secret”?

Spiegelman: When people think of “call centers,” they generally think of boiler room operations, telemarketing, off-shoring, low employee morale and even lower financial margins.  But when you walk into Beryl, you immediately notice something different.   People always tour our facility and then ask me why everyone seems so happy at work.  They continually ask, “Why is everyone smiling?”  So I wrote the book to answer that question.  The secret is that there really is no secret at all.  It is combination of many little things that we do that have a single common thread…an employee first philosophy and approach.  We call it our Circle of Growth. ™   We believe that if we invest first in our employees to give them a fulfilling, fun and engaging workplace, we are going to earn their loyalty.  If we earn their loyalty, it will drive customer loyalty.   Loyal customers will drive profit into our business.  And as a privately held company without outside investors, our commitment is to invest those profits back in our people to give them better tools and resources to do their jobs.  And the cycle just continues… 

Morris: What evidence is there that how Beryl treats its employees nourishes their passion and increases their productivity?

Spiegelman: Our results say so.  For the last 5 years we have had double digit revenue growth every year and profitability 5-6 times that of the public companies in our industry.  Most importantly, our employee attrition is a fraction of our competitors.  I can’t say that our approach was based on a specific plan.  When my two brothers started the company 22 years ago, we had no experience running a business.  We just started treating people like family and realized that if you care about your own people and treat them with respect, they will go to the ends of the earth for you.    I would describe our culture in five ways:  Camaraderie – building a sense of teamwork and fun; Caring – showing that you care about your employees in the totality of their lives; Communication – listening, reacting and implementing the ideas that they have; Commitment to learning – showing them that you will do everything possible within your means to grow and develop them; and Consistency – making sure that you deliver messages again and again so that they become part of the basic fabric of the company.

Morris: In your opinion, why are so many of those who work at other companies not smiling?

Spiegelman: I can’t say from personal experience, because I’ve never really worked at another company.  But as I spend time with each new Beryl employee, I am constantly told that what we do at Beryl is something special.  I think people don’t smile when they don’t feel valued – it is as simple as that.  If people feel like they are just going to a job and are treated like a number, they have no reason to excel for you.  Most companies don’t realize how truly simple it is to build an employee centric culture, and how little it costs.  Leaders must realize that they can touch people’s lives in a profound way by giving them a voice, sending a personal note card to their home, or inserting some fun in the workplace.  Most companies say that it is all about the customer.  I say it is all about your people, and the customers will come.

Morris: Is the “secret” that you discussed previously also relevant to companies that employ many thousands of people in dozens of different companies?

Spiegelman:  It would be naïve of me to think that you could do everything we do at a big company, but I think that the “secrets” are absolutely relevant to a company of any size.  The larger the company, the more challenging it will be for two reasons:  First they most likely have public or private stakeholders that are looking for a financial return and that makes it difficult to focus on much more than revenue and expense. Second, they move so slowly that changing from a culture based on efficiency to a culture based on people could take years to achieve. But business is essentially all about people – technology enables people; process enables people and people enable people.  Large companies are made up of many small business units, and if these business unit leaders have the autonomy and courage to focus on their own teams first, they will be amazed at the results.    Bottom line, a company of any size can start getting better tomorrow.

Morris: As Beryl’s CEO, what is the single greatest challenge that you face each day?

Spiegelman: To make sure we fiercely protect our culture as we grow.   My commitment to our team is that while most everything in the business can change, what will never change are our purpose and our core values.  By definition, growth includes adding structure and discipline where it doesn’t exist, and in an intimate, family oriented culture like ours, those changes have to be implemented with great care.  And as much as we try to promote from within, we understand that to get to the next level, Beryl has to bring in outside talent that have done before what we want them to do for us.   We spend most of our time in our leadership meetings talking about our people to make sure we have the right people in the right seats.  Everything else will take care of itself.

Morris: What have you done at Beryl to develop leadership at all levels and in all areas?

Spiegelman:  The first thing is to try to lead by example.  When people at all levels realize that we are just like them and we walk the walk, they will follow in your footsteps.  It is sometimes hard for small companies to commit the resources and effort to develop internal leaders.  It can be very expensive and time consuming.  We found that when we took our best workers and made them leaders, but didn’t give them the tools and resources to do their jobs, they didn’t succeed.  That is our responsibility.  So we’ve formalized a leadership training program and made the commitment to prepare people for their new roles.  We can see the differences immediately.

Morris: What is your vision for Beryl as it proceeds into the uncertain future that all companies face?

Spiegelman: Mostly to keep doing what we’re doing.  It is important to me that we continue to grow and improve, but no one on the outside is telling us how big or how fast.  We are transitioning from being a service provider into an industry thought leader around the subject of customer service in healthcare.  We have made a difference in the lives of millions of callers by connecting them to healthcare resources – now we want to help change an industry that has never historically focused on the customer experience.  Whatever we do, we will stay focused on our own people and let them lead the way.  In the end, all of the really good ideas come from them anyway.

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Paul invites you to visit Beryl’s website. To do so, please click here.


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