Operational excellence is achieved when every member of an organization can see the flow of value to the customer and fix that flow before it breaks down. But as a manager of people, you know that this isn’t an easy goal to achieve — especially if your team members are now working from home instead of working together in one building. As Chris explains in a story about his experience mountain climbing and running up against a 9-foot tall stretch of wall, “We make a great plan — and then we run into that blank wall. The COVID pandemic is an example of that wall.”
In this podcast, Chris and Corey have a conversation with Valerie Schlitt, founder and CEO of VSA, about what to do with the problems this wall has created for her team members and those of her clients. Valerie holds a Wharton MBA and has 19 years of experience directing a great team of her own who use their skills to help VSA’s customers develop their businesses. “Collaborating with people is one of the biggest sources of ways to solve problems,” Valerie explains. But with the work-from-home movement, how can you maintain that same group problem-solving?
In talking with Valerie, Chris and Corey ask for her expertise and share their own experiences in managing these challenges:
How do you motivate your team to rally around a radical decision?
How do you get everyone on your team to recognize the value of the expertise and
talent of the other team members?
How do you help your team members see where they themselves are deficient and then
learn to bolster that with other people’s talents?
How do you encourage everyone on your team to respect other team members when
people are so different?
How does self-importance get in the way of operational excellence?
As usual, Chris and Corey create an atmosphere of camaraderie with their podcast guests. You’ll enjoy the flow of conversation and the information these three experts share.
About Our Guest
Valerie Schlitt is the founder, owner, and CEO of VSA, a B2B call center that helps clients
generate leads and produce new business. Valerie also heads up the Philadelphia chapter of AA-ISP.
The complete transcript of this episode is below:
Corey Frank (00:34):
So today, we have Valerie Schlitt from VSA Prospecting. Valerie, it was great to lasso you or corral you into this. As Chris and I say, we don't have guests often, but when we do, it's truly a hostage situation. So, you will develop the Stockholm syndrome probably within 15, 20 minutes of talking with us. And so your hours to glean all this nectar of wisdom here, especially the topic today, which is operational excellence, which you're the perfect person. We have a Wharton MBA, right, Valerie?
Valerie Schlitt (00:34):
Corey Frank (01:05):
You went in Wharton. So, I'm the lowest IQ person on this phone call by a great factor and...
Valerie Schlitt (01:11):
Not really sure about that but...
Corey Frank (01:13):
...And then before that you were at KPMG.
Valerie Schlitt (01:15):
Corey Frank (01:15):
So, impressive. How do you manage these type of wicked smart kind of guests here where we're talking about operational excellence. Valerie falls from the sky from VSA, one of the top of funnel firms in the country, been around for about 19 years right, Valerie?
Valerie Schlitt (01:30):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yup.
Corey Frank (01:31):
And the perfect person to talk and to be Chris's foil here as we talk about operational excellence and with that, welcome Valerie. Great to have you at the moment.
Valerie Schlitt (01:41):
Oh, it's lovely to be here. It's great. Thank you both. So I'll tell you exactly how I got started.
Corey Frank (01:46):
No. That's the origin story [inaudible 00:01:47]
Valerie Schlitt (01:48):
So I have this Wharton MBA, as you know, and I really thought I was going to be a corporate person my whole life. I was climbing the ladder. Here I was, several different companies, marketing management, and consulting. And then I found myself laid off in 2001 during that downturn. And I decided to venture off and do my own thing. But unlike everything I learned at Wharton or at consulting or in marketing, I had no business plan, no Rolodex, no funding, no nothing. I sat in my family room. I met some people. They asked me if I could do something and honestly, I discovered this is my modus operandi in everything I do, I'm responding to what I say the market needs. And that's how I started to VSA, just responding to one request after another and building up our client base that way. And we've done a lot of twists and turns along the way and now we're in a group.
Corey Frank (02:41):
That's fantastic. Fantastic. So the thought of actually using the phone to create conversations at scale.
Valerie Schlitt (02:48):
Corey Frank (02:49):
What a crappy business idea. Right, Chris? [inaudible 00:02:51]
Valerie Schlitt (02:52):
Honestly, I often say, "Who ever thought of this business?" But I love it. It's real. It's great. It's real. I gravitate toward something that it really is tough and you have to just do it over and over and over again and then you make a difference. You make a difference. We make a difference in our client's lives and in our life.
Corey Frank (03:12):
Well, it's funny because when Chris and I were talking about trying to cajole you to coming on the show here, right? The first thing that we talked about was how many influencers, and I don't want to disparage anybody, but the influencers on LinkedIn and right, Chris? That "I'm an expert. I'm a thought leader." And then you have someone like Valerie who has been around for 19 plus years, quietly going about her day with her great team, growing this incredible business, right? Who probably doesn't... You have a day job.
You don't exactly post on LinkedIn every hour of the day, certainly. So, if anything that Market Dominance Guys can do is hopefully kind of nudge you a little bit that you have so much to offer to the greater community. And I think that's certainly why I like doing these things with Chris and some of the guests that we have and all the great thought leaders that are connecting sellers. There's so many younger sales leaders, and even guys like me that you need help and it's a small community of folks who are crazy enough to pick up the phone and talk to strangers and ask them for money or time. And sometimes, we need all the help we can get from authentically real and genuine and experienced folks like yourself, who've done this for more than a couple of cycles.
Valerie Schlitt (04:22):
Great. Well, I hope to give you some advice. I can offer-
Corey Frank (04:26):
Well, first, let's talk about operational excellence today. So, how about you kick it off a little bit since that done, on your recent trip from Reno to Washington, you had a lot of windshield time and this thought of operational excellence. I get a text out of the middle of nowhere, say, "Oh, the topic operational excellence. I got it. This is a good one. I got to rip." And then we just happen to have Valerie. So we have lightning in a bottle here, hopefully.
Chris Beall (04:47):
Well, I blame it on the smoke. There was a lot of smoke I was driving through. And when you're driving through smoke in Oregon, apparently the smoke has got a lot of sources and not all of it is forest fire. So that may have just kind of crept in past my protective gear that I had on it, altered my thinking a little bit, but I've had this thing in my head for a long time, probably goes back to my long career in rock climbing and mountaineering, which is that if you can think of anything you want and you can stand at the bottom of any mountain or any big wall that you're looking at. And you can, you can think, and you can plan, you can get the binoculars out and you can look at the route. I remember once up in the wind river range, my partner climbing partner, Jim Haggart, and I spent three days trying to get a glimpse of this thing called Golden Eagle pinnacle to see if we could plot a route up because nobody had ever climbed it.
And we were really, really diligent about taking a good, hard look. But when you came right down to it, about 1600 feet up, there was a nine foot dead blank wall that you couldn't see with the binoculars from across the valley. And that stopped. And I think that's pretty typical of what we often find in business is that we make a great plan, we look carefully, we talk to people, we think it over, we make spreadsheets. And then we run into that nine foot blank wall and I don't know if you've never really tried to climb anything. Nine feet is kind of a magic distance, right? You can't reach that high even I'm not the shortest guy in the world, but I can't reach up and grab something nine feet above my head and blank means blank. Like there's no holds on it.
And that's when the operational excellence question really kind of rears itself up in business, I think, and in climbing and stuff like that. It's always easy to do the easy stuff, but all the easy stuff has already been done by everybody that is competing in a commodity basis. And you have to deal with the nine foot blank wall with great operational excellence with precision operation in order to be able to get all the way to the kind of summits we try to get to whether in business or climbing.
And I'm curious in this talk and that's actually why I was thinking it over. When I was driving up here, I was thinking everything I've ever done that I looked back on and said, "That was worth doing." There was some point in the doing where there was something that had to be overcome and it had to be overcome operationally. So I think a lot of times we think operational excellence is just repeating something we know how to do, but often I think it's not, I think we're more often in problem solving mode than we think. And we sometimes know that, when we're solving a problem, we're fighting a fire or doing something that we wish we did less of, we wish we could just repeat and turn the crank, right? But it's hard to make a machine where you just turn the crank, even a machine like connect and sell there's problems every day.
Chris Beall (08:21):
To address the problems and I'm curious about that Valerie said. Okay, you started this business with no business plan, just responding to people's problems. So it's problems all the way down to start with. Do you recall any times as you were going along or even recently where you kind of came up against it and went, "Huh? How are we going to get this done?" And then you had to figure out how to not just solve it that one time, but operationalized that solution to make it part of the business. Do any of those come to mind?
Valerie Schlitt (08:52):
Well, I think that if you have a business for 19 years and you both have businesses, you are constantly facing that nine foot wall. It's not every day, but probably six times in my 19 years, I've faced that wall. And I guess one could be just recently, COVID. All of a sudden here we are, we're faced with COVID and things are changing and we're saying, "Well, okay, what are we going to do?" And I personally think that coming together with people, collaborating and getting minds to come together and thinking and bouncing ideas is one of the biggest sources of ways that I've come to identify how to solve problems. I do not work well autonomously, and I think most people don't. And when it came to COVID, it was really saying, "Okay, what do we do really well? And how can we leverage that in a different direction? What else can we do? Or what's working for us that we can leverage because these other things are not working?
So it's like going up that nine foot wall where you're saying, "Okay, I can't go up it, but maybe I can go around. Maybe I can have two people helping me." And that happens all the time. I'm not being very specific, but all the time. And I think, really had leaning on the people in the organization, I had such great people who are always problem-solving also, and as you know, Chris, we work with your firm quite a bit and we are constantly saying, "Okay, these clients that we used to work with on a regular click and dial, and now we're using with ConnectAndSell." That has been a game changer for us and we've been able now to retain so many more clients and gain more clients that way as well. So-
Chris Beall (10:31):
That's interesting. That was the solution to our nine foot blank wall by the way, we did something we had never done before and never did ask her on a climb, which is literally the boost. You know, you're a kid and you can do this, right. You get down, you lock your hands together and somebody stands on the hand and it was my turn to lead. And it was pretty freaky quite frankly, not because I was depending on Jim's hand strength, which is quite remarkable, but because he had to belay me and be my foothold at the same time, and I was kind of thinking, so if I blow this move and I'm off and away, we all go and it was some ways down. I did get a sense of this is the empire state building plus about 500 feet of vertical below our feet.
So it's not like nothing's going to happen if you could aim at that direction. But I remember we spoke at various points in this COVID process. You and I did Valerie. And one thing that really impressed me about speaking with you about the challenges that you had is you have a way of reaching out to somebody with the very specific requests, like there's something that's on your mind and it's really specific, but you're very open-minded about the nature of how somebody responds to that, including if somebody and I often do this, it's Corey and I says, " I don't know if that's the question." And I think that's pretty unusual. So, looking at COVID, what was it as you saw it all happening that kind of made you think, " Oh my God," did you ever think, "Oh my God, we could lose the business."?
Valerie Schlitt (12:10):
I didn't think we would lose the business because we have a lot of diversification. So there are other sources of revenue. However, I did think about the employees a lot. That was my driving force, is that I have a team of such talented people and they are counting on me to be on and creative and thinking about their future and the company's future. That was incredibly motivating. So, that is probably what is the single biggest thing that propelled me. But I think also innately if you're a business owner or anyone who's a leader in business, who said that, Chris, I think you, that we are problem solving more than we're not or more than we think we are. So, this drive to say, "Okay, how can we overcome this?" So what was happening in our business is we have a lot of clients who are in healthcare and in healthcare, we all of a sudden heard people say, why are you calling me?
We are dealing with the pandemic, don't call. So that meant a lot of our clients would say, we're going to pause. And therefore we had to think, "Okay, well, what else can we do? What other industries are open? What other services can we offer so that we can actually keep our people in business and thrive?" And actually, honestly, this nine foot wall is kind of also a thrill, it's a little bit of adrenaline boost. So, you want sometimes this nine foot wall, because it propels us to do things that we might not have done otherwise. So for us, it was trying to go into contact tracing and use all the skills that we already had, but in a different area. So that's another line of business that we have opened during the pandemic.
Chris Beall (13:55):
No, that's fascinating because there is nothing scary in a business than going into a new market. I mean, this show's called Market Dominance Guys because market penetration is so hard that you better dominate a market once you penetrate it or you got to get really good at penetrating. Choosing to go penetrate other markets is I think the scariest thing to do in business. It's the biggest of the unknowns. It's the Christopher Columbus equivalent of sailing off to the West and hoping it turns out okay because you really don't get to see very well. As you looked around and said, "Okay, we have to go and go after some more markets." And contact tracing is pretty far away in certain ways from helping folks get appointment, right. Really, it's pretty far away. What led you to believe that you had the operational chops to, let's say, yes, you had the dog chasing the car, right? If you catch the car, how do you think you can put your teeth around the bumper and grind it through a halt?
Valerie Schlitt (14:57):
Well, I first want to say, I knew I had a great team who was going to keep us on the track of getting appointments for our clients. So that was never going away. We were going to, and we have stayed in that business and healthcare is starting to come back. And that is where the lion's share of our businesses.
But, I think it goes to this operational excellence. Really, the entire process of what we do every day is all about doing something really well, knowing how to engage and talk on the phone, so that someone wants to talk back to you. So you're delivering the right message, but you're saying it in the right tone, a lot of what we've learned from you, Chris. Also, having the right list, knowing when to call, how often to call, those are all skill sets that you need in contact tracing as well. So a lot of the operations of what we do is in fact directly transferable. Some of these skill skillsets, even empathy, it's more alike than you think. So it was not that big of a leap. And I'm really committed to communities and helping communities. So it fit my own personality and what I like to do and in helping, not only employ people, but now help people so that they can stay alive.
Chris Beall (16:15):
Yes. That's a good one, it's pretty cool. Corey, did you ever think about adding contact tracing to what you guys are doing over there at a Youngblood Works?
Corey Frank (16:23):
Listen, eight years of community college, I'm no Wharton man, and I copy ideas, I don't pioneer them, you know that. So there's [crosstalk 00:16:32] one. I am curious though, Valerie, we like to ask this to a lot of folks, I've asked this to Chris over the years, how do you think as a leader? Because it's a scary proposition, right? Even to Chris, Chris, you and Jim on that wall, you have a couple of choices. Number one is to do nothing, basically retreats, go back down and say, "Well, that didn't work." Number two, is to try an incremental approach. And number three is just to go for it. Who stopped? You got one shot, one shot, one kill pronged, the stakes could be higher. But did you guys talk about that to deliberate it?
You mapped it out. So Valerie you go in a contact tracing, because if you're wrong, it's not going to take down the company, but it's certainly going to be an expansion. You expend capital and you expend hope because there's a lot of folks during COVID that we're trying to grasp for different things. You only have a finite amount of wishes from the genie, if you will, where they follow you. "Yes. Valerie, we're with you. We'll do this." But if that didn't work, then maybe a couple of people like, "Well, I don't know Valerie." So how do you and your team kind of rally around a decision? Is it collaborative? Did you analyze it to the ends degree? Do you trust your guts? Did you test it a little bit? Or do you just, like Chris and Jim, just go for it and say, " Listen, I know it and we're going to rally around this battle cry here."
Valerie Schlitt (17:58):
Well, when I started the business, it was much more incremental. I just took baby steps. As I've become more seasoned as a leader, or looking at the future of the business. There's something that propels me that almost there's no going back, you can't go back and you can only change or go right or left or something, but there's no going back. And so honestly, there's just a vision that I glom on to and I'm going to somehow address it now. You bring up a good point because we went into the finals in New Jersey for the contact tracing. And at first, no one believed that we could actually make it. But as we kept on going further and further and further, the whole team was like, "Wow, we're really doing this." And then they're like, " Valerie, we knew you could do this."
And then we didn't get it. So that does expand a little bit to me that said, "Wow, we got that far. That means the next time we can get further, it would be like going up to eight feet and say, next time it's going to be nine." But maybe there's some people that will lose a little faith. I think that's on them. I think taking risks is really important. And really I look at everything at what is the benefit if it works out and what is the downside if it doesn't work out? How bad could it really be? It can't be that bad. So we just stay the way we are. That's okay. But if we have the opportunity to try something else that's could be really cool and make a mark in this society. That would be great. And so let's go for it.
Chris Beall (19:29):
Question about your past. We kind of went back to the Wharton thing and all that. I think that as you know, I'm engaged to the incomparable Helen Nucci and she's she went to MIT on her own back, right. She figured out how to get in. She figured out how to get through, very similar to you in certain ways, by knowing how to reach out and ask for help from people and ask for advice. I think that's one of the greatest skills in the world is to be able to do that.
I'm very poor at it myself, which is why I thrashed around like a fish that's been brought up on a boat for a long time, but you're really, really good at that. When did you realize when you were, I'm assuming it's when you were a kid, that things that other people struggled with, that you could actually do? There has to be a point somewhere because now you do it and talk about it like, "Yeah, we go for it." Right? But at some point when you were a child or somewhere, there has to be an experience or something where you went, " Huh, that's interesting. These other folks are kind of going, I don't think we can do this and I think I can do this." Did that happen to you? Can you remember that?
Valerie Schlitt (20:40):
I remember one time, but it was not when I was a kid. So I think I was a very, very humble person. I didn't think anything I did was quite remarkable. I thought I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing. And then at some point, someone remarked on my problem solving skills. And I had just thought that was natural. I did not know that they were different than anyone else's skills. And from then on, I think I realized that I looked at problems and address them, maybe not so differently than other people, but in a unique way or that I actually thrive on it, that it's a passion of mine to solve problems. So that's the only thing I can actually say. And I don't think it has anything to do with being particularly smart or being particularly brave or being a technical capability. It's just a mindset of solving problems.
Chris Beall (21:33):
You just like them?
Valerie Schlitt (21:34):
Chris Beall (21:38):
I do too so I think pretty fascinating.
Valerie Schlitt (21:39):
I don't like it when people make things out to be so simple because I'd like to find out, well, what is hard? Let's try to solve the hard ones.
Chris Beall (21:47):
That's really interesting. Well, when you were in school and you were taking the classes that have problems in them, like math is often one that, in our English classes, we're asked to write stuff in our math classes, we're asked to literally solve problems. That's what they're called. They're called problems. Right?
Valerie Schlitt (22:04):
You're a genius in math. I am horrible in math. So I have learned that I need, Oh, here's a good example. I have learned through my experiences. I went through the Goldman Sachs program. I don't know if you're familiar with that. It's for small businesses, you take a course that Goldman Sachs put together. Even though I had my MBA from Wharton, I still went through this. And through there, I realized at the end, I really need to get someone to help me with the finances because I'm struggling way too much and I can use my capabilities someplace else. So now I have a great CFO, a fractional CFO who works with us and his honestly, if I didn't have, his name is Steven, we would be struggling, trying to solve certain problems that he can solve in an instant. So I think that's another one of reaching out. I guess we find out where am I deficient? And I am very deficient in very many ways and bolster that with other people's talents.
Chris Beall (23:04):
Well, what a talent that is. I've often bristled at the notion that we should all be doing everything. And it's often implied by these self-help types that are out there. It's like, "Do this, do that, be strong about this." And to incite, well, it's almost always a team game and the main thing we do in a team is we cover each other's weaknesses because we got them. So let's be as upfront as we can be about our weaknesses and then cover them. As you know, I sucked so badly, simple logistics that you can't hope to have me show up at something scheduled two weeks from now. And it's a conference talk or whatever. If Shelley Morrison, doesn't make sure that I know that I've got to do it and it's on this day and somebody took care of PowerPoint or one slide that we do and all that I'm hopeless.
Right? And so I'm just thrilled to be able to have somebody help me with that stuff because I could work on it the rest of my life and I'd still suck, there's no doubt about it. So, I think that ability when we're talking operational excellence, I think we often think about the individual, but the cheapest way to get it is to get a team together of people. Each one of whom is very strong in one area and let all the others be as weak as they want to be, and then make sure that everybody respects each other and lets whoever's great at whatever, take that thing and do it.
Valerie Schlitt (24:19):
I think that the idea of letting everyone respect each other is really important and hard. And I'd love to hear how you've been able to do that, to get other people, to respect differences because a lot of people look at other people and they want them to be just like themselves.
Chris Beall (24:35):
It's a tough one. It's easy to do for me and my areas of weakness, because then I can just model what I want by holding a problem-solving meeting with somebody who's superior in that area and making it abundantly clear that I see that person as the leader. I think that leadership shifts around appropriately based on the moment and making it abundantly clear. I am following now, this person is leading and being very explicit about it makes a big difference and I'm big into explicitness. Anyway, here's a story from my deep past. So I was hired at a company called CAD Information Systems that we changed the name to CADIS fairly shortly to build the world's first engineering oriented electronic catalog system that would allow an engineer to find a park that they needed to reuse in a design from the panoply of parts that might've been already sourced in are hiding and the MRP database or ERP database or whatever you call the item master.
And the first thing I did when I got the team together, there were just three people, as I said, we're going to sit in a room until we know what all the words mean. And we're just kind of put words on the whiteboard that we think are relevant to this business. And until we have an ostensive definition where we can point to one formal definition, where we can describe it in other words, a comparative definition, we can say, it's like this, a distinctive definition where you can say, it's not this, it's not this, it's not that. And do it for every word that we're going to encounter in the next 10 years of doing this. We're not leaving this room.
And of course the software developers thought I was out of my mind. But to me it was the essence of operational excellence in design is to know what you're talking about. And so get explicit. And it was painful. People yelled at each other and stuff. But when we were finished, our distinguishing feature is we had a common language of discourse forever and we could call each other out on using a word in precisely. That was a term of art in our business. I think that we do this in a way with each other, but allowing people to be precisely understood in terms of their capabilities and say, this is so-and-so's thing because they're really, really good at this. And therefore, when we're doing that, they're the leader.