More than 500 of Yellow's best customers pay big bucks to attend an education blowout unlike anything else in the transportation industry.
Marykay Yeley should be tired. She's just finished a few days of attending nonstop seminars, general sessions, and a. But she's psyched. Her eyes are shining.
Her company, Big R Ranch & Home Supply, in Bozeman, Mont., shelled out roughly $1,800 to send Yeley, the chief financial officer, and two other executives to a meeting sponsored by Yellow, their transportation company.
Wait a minute. A freight company is charging its customers to attend one of its meetings? And they're excited to be there?
Exactly. Yellow Freight System, a $2.8 billion subsidiary of Yellow Corp., has been on a four-year journey of re-inventing itself from a business-to-business “trucking company” into a “transportation provider.” The Overland Park, Kan. — based company developed this unique employee/consumer conference to convince internal managers and customers alike of its new service-oriented corporate culture. Instead of showering attendees with perks, Yellow sponsors educational sessions on business strategies, industry trends, and personal growth, and has a trade show with all the latest industry technology. And its customers get the chance to mingle with each other and more than 1,000 Yellow managers.
“Putting people in an educational atmosphere is good for everyone's business,” said President and COO James Welch during a brief break at the most recent conference, held in January in Las Vegas. “The conference allows us to be in front of our consumers and to convey to them who we are, to understand who they are, and to get their feedback and ideas.”
A Company Morphs
Back in 1997, Yellow Freight System was in transition. Then-president Bill Zollars, now CEO of Yellow Corp., describes the old Yellow as big, slow, and “somewhat limited in our ability to respond to customers.” His goal was to reinvent the 75-year-old trucking company into a customercentric, high-performance, diversified service provider.
Enter Gregory Reid, now senior vice president and chief communications officer for Yellow Corp. Reid was hired to help reposition the company — and he used meetings as a tool to accelerate that change. “You can't change culture by e-mail and telephone,” he says. “Meetings can help transform a company in a high-impact, highly visible way.”
Subsequent conferences did just that, beginning with the company's first two systemwide sales meetings in Atlanta in 1997. “Things were changing, but our employees weren't getting it,” notes Welch. “So we decided to get the sales force together to see for themselves that the company was going in a new direction.”
As Reid puts it, the first step was to change people's perceptions. “They thought of us as a stodgy old company. And we found that much of the time there were other problems with things like inaccurate billing or damaged goods. We pushed these facts in front of employees at our first sales meetings and said ‘This is how the world views us. We need to wake up and change.”
A Customer Conference Is Born
The initial sales conferences were so effective that Yellow execs decided to have a similar meeting for operations employees in 1998. That led to a 1999 gathering in Kansas City that brought sales and operations managers together for a joint planning meeting. In January 2000, Yellow moved the planning meeting to Las Vegas and expanded it to include a “business and logistics” conference and trade show. Attendees at the new conference not only included more than 1,000 employees but also 300 customers — who paid a registration fee and all transportation and hotel expenses to attend. For the Transformation Conference 2001 (held January 31 to February 3 at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas), the number of customer attendees swelled to more than 500 and the fee to $695.
Why invite customers? “To begin with,” says Welch, “it was ineffective going to industry conferences to get face time. We had lots of competition for customers' attention.” He points to Yellow's competition, which includes transportation companies such as Roadway and Consolidated Freightways. (As a common carrier, Yellow handles all kinds of freight, including chemicals, exhibitions, retail, industrial, and import/export.)
The conference set Yellow apart from the competition because of its educational content. There's nothing like it in the transportation industry — and that's why companies pay big bucks for their people to attend. “The consumers we compete for all go to industry functions that are basically about wining, dining, and golfing,” says Reid. “We wanted another way to engage them and show them how different our vision is.”
And it worked. Said one customer, Robert J. Hopkins of National Traffic Consultants Inc. in Birmingham, Ala., at this year's meeting, “My experience here involved me with Yellow in new ways. It showed me that they're about more than just getting freight on the truck.”
Yellow managers not only like the chance to network with customers, but also with their far-flung associates and corporate leadership. “It's meaningful to have our president and our CEO, in person, telling us about the direction of the company,” said Craig Anderson, PC and Internet support manager at Yellow headquarters, while awaiting the arrival of keynoters George and Barbara Bush. Anderson has attended every conference since 1997, but said this year's conference had a strong sense of teamwork. “All the senior leadership is here, giving us the initiative and momentum to go get it.”
Indeed, sustaining corporate momentum was a key strategic goal of the 2001 conference, says Welsh. “We haul the economy. We know it is slowing down. In this climate, it is crucial to forge ahead with our vision. We're trying to create our own economy and our own momentum with an expanded portfolio of offerings. The conference is an important vehicle to keep that momentum moving.”
Picture this: You're one of the 500-plus customers of Yellow attending Transformation 2001. You've just heard a rousing opening presentation by motivational speaker Keith Harrell and now a drum major costumed in “Yellow” regalia leads all 500 of you out of the conference room and down the hall. You don't know what to expect, but you go with the flow. As you enter the exhibit hall auditorium, more than 1,000 Yellow employees are on their feet in the bleachers, wildly waving, clapping, and cheering you on. The thundering applause lasts for more than five minutes — and it's all for you, the customer.
“If you weren't motivated by that applause, you had to be dead,” said attendee Mike Steele, transportation manager for Millbrook Distribution Services in Harrison, Ark., shortly afterward. “There's no way to come out of that experience without good vibes.”
The positive energy flows throughout the next day and a half, as Yellow managers and consumers mingle during a very full roster of keynote speakers and breakout sessions. Futurist and author James Taylor talks about how to remain competitive in a “networked economy” by promoting new ideas, investing in training, and having an “attitude of engagement” about the future. Former President George Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush share family anecdotes and personal philosophies. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, closes the conference by getting people thinking about life and classical music in new ways.
The topics of this meeting's more than 30 breakout sessions (compared to fewer than 20 last year) are the direct result of pre- and post-conference telephone surveys of consumers conducted by Yellow in 2000. “Understanding consumers' business challenges helped us to structure the 2001 meeting and focus the content,” explains Cheryl Lightner, manager of market analysis at Yellow. For example, when asked to identify the most significant changes in their industry, 27 percent of respondents said e-commerce and technology. When asked to identify the most significant change faced by their company, 26 percent said rapid growth. When asked about work-related personal challenges, 39 percent completely agreed that developing new skills and increasing financial security were top on the list. All of these results influenced the selection of speakers and topics in 2001.
Return on Investment
Reid and his executive team at Yellow, including Vice President of Strategic Market Planning & Communications Mike Brown, take a very hands-on approach to planning the conference. They work with various partners, including independent meeting planning firm ProActive Inc. in Chicago (on logistical details such as promotion, site selection, hotel, registration, and production) and the Center for Services Marketing & Management at Arizona State University's College of Business (on content). In fact, for the past four years Yellow has been collaborating with Arizona State's center to help position itself as a service company, including sending employees to various symposiums and MBA programs.
“Our mission is to help firms like Yellow identify how service can be used as a competitive advantage,” says Steve Brown, director of the Center for Services Marketing & Management.
Every year, Reid has to justify the conference by proving a return on investment. And every year, he does. Led by Mike Brown and aided by outside research firms, a team at Yellow conducts extensive pre-, post-, and on-site conference research. They survey employees and consumers on their business concerns, their response to specific conference sessions and speakers, and their attitude about Yellow. For attitude questions, the conference is a baseline to measure against.
“We did two sets of consumer Internet surveys this year,” says Brown. “One asked a battery of questions about business concerns. The other asked about people's attitude toward Yellow. After the meeting, we do another survey that asks the same attitude questions. We can show changing perceptions about the variety of services we offer.”
Last year, similar research was conducted by telephone. When asked if “Yellow is committed to helping your company succeed,” 53 percent of the respondents strongly agreed before the conference. Afterward, that number shot up to 70 percent. “Year in and year out, you can see an upward trend from pre- to post-meeting,” says Reid. “The research also helps us make the conference better each year. If we don't see significant improvement, we can develop strategies.”
Yellow also tracks the business of each consumer attendee and measures it against those who did not attend the conference. “We can show several percentage points of revenue growth between those who came to the conference and those who didn't,” notes Brown.
Employees are asked approximately 28 pre- and post-meeting attitude and job satisfaction questions, which are analyzed by different measurements such as job title, job location, and how long an individual has worked for the company. After the conference, ratings typically increase, says Lightner. In 2000, when asked if “Yellow has what takes to set a new precedent in the transportation industry,” 31 percent strongly agreed pre-meeting, and 45 percent strongly agreed post-meeting. When asked if “Yellow has a positive direction,” 29 percent strongly agreed pre-meeting and 54 percent strongly agreed post-meeting. And results from the question, “I know what I am supposed to do to accomplish my 2000 goals” skyrocketed from 27 percent strongly agreeing pre-meeting to 50 percent strongly agreeing post-meeting.
While it's too soon to know the results of Transformation 2001, Reid isn't worried. “Judging from all the consumers and Yellow managers I talked to, there's going to be a very strong response again. I don't need a formal survey to tell me that.”
From the Top
Yellow's Core Purpose and Vision: Make global commerce work by connecting people, places, and information. Be the leading provider of guaranteed, time-definite, defect-free, hassle-free transportation and related services to business customers worldwide.
Meeting Objectives: Reinforce the image of Yellow as a global service provider in the minds of middle managers and key customers. Continue a forward momentum even in the face of a general business slowdown.
Meeting Strategy: Bring 1,050 managers to Las Vegas for its annual planning meeting, followed by an educational conference and exposition that is also attended by more than 500 paying customers. Provide a professional and personal development experience not available elsewhere in the industry.