Innovative Thinkers




Into the Light
Most of us associate times of inspiration--those "A-ha!" moments when circumstance meets opportunity and great ideas emerge--with light.
But for Dave Sneider and Monica McAtee, the founding partners of Luci Interactive, their professional mission became clear only in the dark.
"We had no idea what we were getting into, but we knew that it was bigger than us," says Sneider about the moment of inception for their cutting-edge online learning company.
It all began when Sneider and McAtee had dinner with friend and business guru Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way. The book was making waves in the business world as the premiere customer service manual of a company whose very name is synonymous with impeccable service. Companies from around the globe were calling Spector for speaking engagements, eager to learn his secrets for customer service success.
"Robert Spector has so many field-tested principles to share with companies looking for that edge," says McAtee about the dynamic speaker and author. "There's a timeless quality about his business wisdom."
Spector's new book, The Mom & Pop Store, examines the essential role of exceptional customer service in a newly tightened economy.
But hiring a one-time keynote speaker or handing employees a book about customer service--even a best seller like The Nordstrom Way--is no guarantee that theory will translate into best practice throughout an organization. And, even if change is affected, bottom-line impacts can be difficult to correlate and quantify.
Walking home from dinner, McAtee and Sneider thought about ways to bring the experience and knowledge of corporate leaders like Spector directly inside a company's four walls. They talked about what would happen if Spector's principles were made immediate and applicable for employees and their impact more measurable for employers. They began to dream about pairing footage of the speaker with interactive video and Web simulations of real-life customer service challenges.
Finally, they envisioned a continuing storyline where employees could choose their own actions and see the consequences of those actions on-screen and employers could track a learner's progress.
"We had reached a city park as we were talking about these ideas and all of the park lights shut off suddenly," says Sneider. "As corny as it sounds, for some reason at that very moment it became crystal clear what we needed to create."
And while the birth of Luci Interactive--luci means "lights out" in Italian--was a fortuitous merging of circumstance, it was hardly a shot in the dark. Between them, McAtee and Sneider already had more than 25 years of experience in both the training and employee-performance management industries. McAtee, who holds a master's degree in industrial psychology, worked in sales and service training divisions at Sprint and other corporations, while Sneider led teams selling employee performance management tools to corporate clients. Both worked previously at a multimedia company focused exclusively on Web-based training.
And while they call themselves "the odd couple," the two seem the perfect business foils for one another. Sneider, who admits to having a nearly compulsive "passion for improvement," seems relentlessly fixed on the numbers--training compliance figures, retention rates, sales goals and return on training investment. McAtee, who acknowledges her softer--"not fluffier"--side, hits her stride working with creative-types and clients, shuttling between video shoots and client meetings with unusual ease.
"Part of what we do is educate our clients about what online learning can do for them," admits Sneider. "People have preconceived notions about it--that it can't be engaging. The truth is, if it's done right, online training can be highly effective and impactful."
Indeed, many of us have been jaded by memories of low-quality computer-based training--those point-and-click PowerPoint presentations where the learner's only interaction is a mindless clicking of the "next" button, followed by screens full of text and stock photos of people wearing business suits.
In stark contrast, Luci's online customer service course, Think Like the Customer, is what McAtee calls quality "edutainment." More VH1 than PBS, more Xbox than Pong, sound bytes of Spector evangelizing his principles are interspersed with video clips of real customer service interactions playing out in a variety of settings--in a bank, over the telephone, in an ad agency or at a restaurant. The pace is fast, and exchanges between service providers and customers are real-world, with politics, policies, emotions and deadlines playing into each situation. When the interaction reaches a critical point, it's the learner who chooses how he or she would respond next, then the story plays on from there.
An additional overlying storyline propels and unites the entire course, driving the action and encouraging the learner to apply the principles set forth.
"Storytelling is key," says Sneider, who adds that during the course's production, even the animators were eager to see the next installment unfold.
Reaction to Think Like the Customer has been overwhelmingly positive, says Sneider. He recently heard from a vice-president who feels the course will take her organization's customer service from good to great.
"Executives also like the course because the virtual environment is an ideal one for practicing," says Sneider. "An employee can learn from his or her mistakes without affecting the real bottom line."
Like Think Like The Customer, Luci Interactive's online learning has an applicability that seems to cut across geographical, economic, and industry lines. Coursework has spurred interest from all over the country. Equally relevant across industries ranging from retail to hospitality to manufacturing, Luci's training is poised for expansion.
"We can customize an existing course or build a new one to fit virtually any organization's needs," adds Sneider.
But while customized work makes up a large part of their business, Luci's partners aren't the kind to sell customers more than they need.
"Often we can recommend a simpler, more economical solution that the customer hadn't considered," says McAtee, who identifies her love for clients as the best part of her job. "I don't think our customers view us as just a vendor. They know we're on their team."
Customers also seem to appreciate Sneider and McAtee's straight-shooting style. Owning your own company has its advantages, especially when it comes to business process.
"We like to keep things simple, streamline the development process, cut out all the politics and the fluff," says McAtee of Luci's penchant for efficiency.
For Sneider and McAtee, good customer service also means sharing their industry expertise whenever, however and wherever it can help customers. Whether she's helping a client identify content for a course, explaining gaming learning theory to sales management or educating executives on how using social media can boost customer retention, McAtee is unequivocal about Luci's collaborative mission.
"We don't play defense with our knowledge because we know that only good can come from sharing," she firmly asserts. "And knowledge is for sharing."

words: Cisley Thummel
photo: Paul Versluis