Putting Customers First

Steve Harmon (fifth from left) attributes the company’s $3.7 million revenue growth since 2006 to its focus on customer service.

"The customer is always right" is a mantra held sacred by all employees at Spartan Logistics, from the truck drivers to the father-and-son duo at the helm of this economy-defying company.

At Spartan Logistics, president and managing director Steve Harmon strives to keep all his employees focused on the same goal. Whether you’re a truck driver, a warehouse associate, or a member of the management team, the charge remains the same: put the customer first. At a time when many businesses have been forced to close their doors, Spartan Logistics has been expanding. The company added locations in Cincinnati and Cleveland and about 20 employees in June 2010. Even more telling are the numbers, with Spartan Logistics boasting a $3.7 million revenue growth since 2006.

Steve Harmon attributes this growth to the continual need for the company’s services—and good employees focused on customer service. “Our employees, our associates, our team members, our leadership team have been critical to our success,” says Steve. “These are the people who daily are listening to our customers and responding to their needs.”

His  father, Ed Harmon, started Spartan Logistics in 1988 in Columbus, Ohio. Today the company operates warehouses in six cities across three states—Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Cleveland, Ohio; Marion, Indiana; and Anderson, South Carolina. Focusing primarily in the food-and-beverage industry, Spartan Logistics offers a wide range of services, including storing and shipping commercial goods for its customers.

A fter leaving a job with one of the Big 6 accounting firms, Steve joined Spartan Logistics full time in 1996 as chief  financial officer. In July 2010 he became president and managing director of the company. “I tell friends of mine that are in business with their families, particularly their sons, that it’s the best thing you could ever do or the worst,” says Steve’s father, Ed, who currently serves as chairman of the board of directors. Fortunately for him, his decision to work with his son was a great one. “We have total admiration and respect for each other,” Ed says. And Steve agrees, describing the opportunity to work with his father as “one of the great joys of my life.” Ed Harmon says the primary lesson he hopes he’s taught his son about business is the importance of putting the customer first. This focus, Ed says, even helped maintain a healthy professional relationship with his son.

“When we’re at work, we’re two individuals [who] are committed to our success,” Ed says. “It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s what’s best for our customers.”

The value of good customer service certainly has not been lost on Steve. He works to lay out a clear, common goal for his employees, one that he says is much like that of the hotel industry. “The vision that I’ve cast for our employees is very simple,” he says. “Make sure the customers are happy and the buildings are full. If you do those two things, we’re a great company.”

This vision has truly been embraced by Josh Ledford, director of sales at Spartan Logistics. While Ledford’s duties include seeking out new business for the company, he also works to make sure the expectations of current customers are being met. “If our current customers aren’t being served or aren’t happy, we need to make sure we take care of them,” Ledford says. “It’s more important to keep the customers that you have.”

So how do you build a company of employees who will be committed to working toward a common goal? Ledford says it’s all about hiring people with the right attitude. “Our employees take ownership in each and every truck that they unload and product that they touch,” Ledford says. “We spend a great deal in training our managers to hire good people.”

Steve admits that he asks these questions when considering his employees: “Are we hiring people we want to work with? Are we hiring people that we like?” He goes on to explain, “This isn’t to say we’re hiring people that are just like us.” Instead this means choosing workers who will be team players and will forgo gossip to be good communicators and problem solvers.

While Steve believes his customers should come first, this doesn’t mean he neglects the well-being of his employees. In January of 2011, Harmon launched a program to help employees with three of the most common New Year’s resolutions. The company sponsored a weight-loss contest with cash prizes to encourage workers who wanted to get in shape. The company also offered to reimburse employees who successfully completed smoking-cessation programs. And the company matched employees’ social-security rebates to help them put away more money in their 401k plans.

After all, Steve knows that actions speak louder than words. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he says. “I can tell them all the time that I care about them and I want them to succeed in life and I’m here to help them, but it doesn’t mean anything until they see it.”