Baldrige National Quality Award 1996 Recipient
Custom Research Inc.
Custom Research Inc. (CRI), a national marketing research firm, leverages
an intensive focus on customer satisfaction, a team- oriented workforce,
and information technology advances to pursue old-fashioned ends: individualized
service and satisfied customers. Since 1988, when CRI adopted its highly
focused customer-as-partner approach, client satisfaction has risen from
already high levels, and gains in productivity, sales volume, and profits
have out paced industry averages.
CRI's steering committee, composed of partners Judith S. Corson and Jeffrey
L. Pope and two executive vice presidents, is responsible for crafting
CRI's goals and strategies and views customer loyalty as the firm's most
valuable business asset. With all CRI employees as members of customer-focused
teams, a flat organizational structure helps make executives immediately
accessible to employees, customers, and suppliers. Well-developed systems
are in place for understanding customer expectations, soliciting customer
feedback, and monitoring each facet of company, team, and individual performance.
Together, these systems help set the course for CRI efforts to meet or
exceed customer expectations that can serve as a model for other professional
A Quick Look
Founded in 1974 and based in Minneapolis, privately owned
CRI conducts survey marketing research for a wide range of firms. The
bulk of its projects assist clients with new product development in consumer,
medical, and service businesses. Revenues of more than $21 million in
1996 place CRI among the 40 largest firms in the highly fragmented,$4
billion marketing research industry that is characterized by low entry
costs and tough competition. The firm credits a reputation for quality
for making it one of only a handful of companies that has remained independent
while growing over the past two decades.
Besides its Minneapolis headquarters, the firm has electronically linked
offices in San Francisco and Ridgewood, N.J., as well as telephone interviewing
centers in St. Paul, Minn., and Madison, Wis. It employs approximately
100 full-time staff members, most of whom are cross-trained to create
the flexibility needed to accommodate the demands and schedules of research
projects. Contractors assist CRI in doing the interviewing.
Choosing in 1988 to concentrate its business on high-volume, repeat customers,
CRI has reduced the number of clients it serves. In 1995, CRI's clients
numbered 67, down from 138 clients in 1988; the number of larger clients
during this period increased from 25 to 34. This emphasis on large accounts
has paid off with a doubling in revenues, achieved without increasing
'Surprising and Delighting' Customers
In recent years, CRI senior management aimed for a new level of consistency
and competence in delivering quality services by organizing, systematizing,
and measuring quality. CRI's steering committee distilled requirements
for each research project to four essentials: accurate, on time, on budget,
and meeting or exceeding client expectations. Before the first survey
data are collected, criteria defining these requirements are determined
in consultation with clients when CRI executives and project team leaders
interview clients and they do that extensively.
The company was reorganized to make maximum use of customer-focused teams
and to merge support departments in order to reduce cycle time a growing
client priority. All CRI teams have the same goal of "surprising and delighting"
their clients. CRI captures the essence of this goal in its Staricon.
Quality at CRI is client driven the center of the Star and is integrated
into the company's business system as captured by the five key business
drivers that are the points of the star: people, processes, requirements,
relationships, and results. With extensive employee involvement, the steering
committee annually sets corporate goals for the company, which then tie
to the goals for each work unit. Quarterly, account teams review with
the steering committee the business plans and results for each client.
Meeting customer-specified requirements depends on efficient execution
of well-documented, measurable processes. Most professional services firms
believe their services cannot be "standardized." At CRI, while each project
is custom-designed, the process for handling it flows through essentially
the same steps across all projects. CRI developed and heavily uses a project
implementation manual for interviewing. Internal "project quality recap"
reports completed for every study track errors in any step of the project
flow. CRI measures the accuracy of results and the quality of personal
and telephone interviewing. For example, over the last several years ratings
for interviewers show sustained average quality scores of approximately
95 points out of 100, up from 83 points in 1990.
Customers have ample opportunity to advise and critique CRI. At the end
of each project, clients are surveyed to solicit an overall satisfaction
rating based on the customers' expectations. Each month the results of
the client feedback are summarized and distributed to all employees. Internally,
end-of-project evaluations also are conducted for CRI support teams and
key suppliers. Personal interviewing contractors, for example, are evaluated
on performance and contribute ideas for improving the quality of their
People Make the Difference
CRI uses a "high tech-high touch" approach to satisfying customers. On
the "high touch" side, CRI uses its flat organizational structure and
relatively small size to assure that information flows freely within the
company. Just as importantly, they view continuous improvement as part
of their jobs. Staff members are surveyed annually, giving CRI senior
managers specific feedback, including data on their own performance as
viewed by CRI-ers.
A variety of recognition programs; bonuses based on achievement of corporate,
team, and individual goals; and a peer-review system for evaluating personal
performance serve to reinforce worker commitment to continuous improvement.
CRI has a company-wide education plan, used to align individual training
with business and quality goals. Each employee has a development plan,
which sets annual and long-term goals for improvement and helps to identify
training needs. In 1996, the average CRI employee received over 134 hours
of training. All new employees receive company-wide and job-specific training
that addresses quality and service issues. CRI bases company-wide training
requirements on client feedback, performance reviews, CRI's education
plan, CRI development plans, on-the-job reviews, interviewer monitoring,
and employee surveys.
The "high tech" component to CRI's business is reflected by its alertness
to technological opportunities to improve its performance or to devise
new services that respond to customer needs. "Managing work through technology-driven
processes" is one of CRI's key business drivers. CRI led, for example,
in the use of computers to assist in telephone interviewing, data collection,
and analysis. Software enables CRI to use technology to integrate all
stages of a project: produce a questionnaire for computer-assisted interviewing,
control the sampling and autodialing for interviewing, edit and then tabulate
the answers from the questionnaires, display them in tabular format, and
generate report-ready tables for the final report and pre- sentation.
The use of computers has reduced cycle time for just one of these steps
tabulating data from two weeks to a single day.
CRI views its major software supplier as a key partner. The long-standing
relationship extends to annual planning sessions during which CRI shares
its goals and the two firms determine how the software maker can contribute
to meeting the goals.
These and other quality-promoting actions including an unconditional satisfaction
guarantee aim to build client confidence and loyalty, which, in turn,
generate a variety of business benefits. Since 1988, feedback from clients
on each of its projects shows steadily improved overall project performance.
CRI is now "meeting or exceeding" clients' expectations on 97 percent
of its projects. Seventy percent of its clients say the company exceeds
expectations. CRI is rated by 92 percent of its clients as "better than
competition" on the key dimension of "overall level of service."
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Last updated: 11/29/2011