When Colleen Abdoulah took the reins of WideOpenWest four years ago, she decided then and there to run the company differently from all the companies she had worked for in the past. As president and CEO of WOW, the 47-year old Abdoulah and her team have managed to exceed financial projections every year. But more important, she has created a culture that looks beyond just numbers by also closely tracking customer and employee satisfaction.
“Anyone can deliver the services we deliver,” Abdoulah said. “But what differentiates us is us. It’s how we choose to operate. We’re militant about processes to make sure they are customer-centric.”
That doesn’t mean WOW isn’t focused on growing its business. In the last four years, it has organically expanded its overall customer base by 100,000 and 19 months after launching its phone service, the company counts over 100,000 phone customers. That’s a remarkable increase given its customer base of less than 400,000. The trend continues: WOW is expected to best its financial projections by 6% this year, “all while retaining our customer base with churn levels below industry averages,” Abdoulah said.
Indeed, WOW ranked No. 1 in customer satisfaction in the North Central region by J.D. Power & Associates for the second year in a row. J.D. Power also ranked WOW tops in customer satisfaction among high-speed data providers.
Abdoulah was thrilled to take on the leadership challenge at WOW when it was presented to her in 2002. “It was the first time I got to put into place the principles I believe in and see whether they worked. And I am pleased to say they do,” she said. The first thing she did was “put the right people in the right place.” She then opened up dialogue with all the employees. “We all talked about what we wanted to be as a company,” she says. “We wanted everyone to benefit from how we operated — our customers and our employees. Anyone can set values, but we have operationalized our values so that they affect everything we do every day.”
WOW prominently displays its principles and ideals on its Web site. “Respect: Treat others as you wish to be treated. Integrity: Choose between right and wrong. Accountability: Own your part of any situation and work toward a solution. Servanthood: Embrace the attitude and honor of serving others rather than be served.”
That credo looks outward toward customers, but also looks inward as well, according to Abdoulah. “Everyone rallies to help each other here,” she said. “If we’re serving each other internally, we’re sure to be serving our external customers as well. The field and call centers are closely aligned. The vice presidents are there to serve management, who are there to serve the front line. We all work together by breaking down the hierarchal and territorial functions.”
Abdoulah’s ability to energize those she comes into contact with is one of the things that Melissa Risteff learned to harness when Abdoulah mentored her five years ago. As director of strategy and business development and director of business intelligence for Sun Microsystems, Risteff was partnered with Abdoulah, who guided her through the “politically charged environment at Sun,” Risteff said.
“As Sun grew explosively, Colleen helped me navigate and develop in an environment with little senior leadership,” Risteff said.
Abdoulah credits much of her leadership style and skill to her father, who was an immigrant and started working at age six. When Abdoulah was a young girl, her father had his own restaurant and she was working there when she wasn’t in school.
“I learned three things from my dad,” Abdoulah said. “No matter how much you earn, you’re no better than anyone and they are no better than you. Know what you don’t know and hire people who are smarter than you are. And lastly, create partnerships. People need to feel ownership if you want them to succeed.”
It’s little things that make employees and customers feel appreciated at WOW. Internally, the company has an awards program that recognizes exceptional performance and excellence in creating a connection between staffers and senior management. Employees are also encouraged to take chances and are recognized when they do.
“Not all the people who are honored with the 'Take a Chance’ award are winners. They may have made a mistake or done something new,” Abdoulah said. “But culturally, we say that if we don’t challenge ourselves, we’ll not survive.”
Case in point: Brian Blair, broadband supervisor in Illinois, won the “Take a Chance” award in the first quarter even though his idea of having contractors take on service calls related to their completed installs didn’t turn out as he had anticipated. On paper, the program should have saved the company time and money. Yet it was flawed and ultimately scuttled. But the company recognized that the initiative he took was worth honoring. He learned a valuable lesson and the company kept a good employee, Abdoulah noted.
Every non-customer-contact employee — including Abdoulah — has to drive around with a field tech or answer customer calls at one of the company’s call centers every quarter. Monthly excursions are preferable. “And they have to write a report every time,” Abdoulah said. “I’ve climbed ladders and rummaged around attics and I love it. Every time I do it, I learn something.”
WOW has changed procedures and processes more than once after some of those field trips, she said.
“If you believe in a person and empower them, they will work their hardest to be successful and they won’t let you down,” Abdoulah added.
WOW’s top executive takes pride in her company and staff for always trying to put the customer first. “A few years ago, we had some customers lose Internet access when we were transitioning some technology,” she recalled. “We sent fruit baskets to those customers who were affected by the outages. People couldn’t believe we would do that.
“We also sent flowers to a family one time after they fed one of our techs. The installation was taking longer than expected and there were issues that took longer to resolve than initially thought. Now, because we encourage our employees to do things right the first time, this tech was still at their house by the time dinner was being served and they invited him to sit down and eat with them. When he came back and told his supervisor the story, we sent them flowers for being so kind to him.”
Abdoulah was introduced to cable in 1983 when, as an advertising executive, one of her clients was Warner Amex Cable in Cincinnati. An executive from TCI/Taft Cable Partners hired her in 1984 to do a marketing assessment for the company. The six-week gig turned into a 20-plus year career, which has included turns as senior vice president of cable operations at Tele-Communications Inc. and executive vice president of wireline services at AT&T Broadband.
“The changes we’re going through right now are more dramatic than the industrial revolution,” Abdoulah said. “It’s a very exciting time and it’s the reason people stay in the industry. The relationship we have with our customers is everything.”