How 150-Year-Old Recognition Firm Makes Shift to Engagement
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Steve Lipic, principal of Lipic's Engagement, formerly known as Lipic's Recognition, said he had an epiphany of sorts at the first Enterprise Engagement Alliance conference four years ago in Westchester County, N.Y, at which the original framework for Enterprise Engagement was presented. His company, which he purchased from his father, was founded in 1863 as a writing instrument manufacturer. Over the decades, as similar companies founded at that time discovered, there was also a significant market for their products in the corporate promotional products and gift marketplace. Out of that trend, Lipic's Recognition emerged about 15 years ago.
A Focus on Regional Clients and Personal Service
While Lipic's has annual sales well into the seven figures and handles national accounts, it focuses on companies based near his location in St. Louis, because, as Steve put it, “It’s all about customer service and accessibility. The more involved we become with our clients’ business,” he said, “the more they appreciate the fact that we can easily get over to their offices to brainstorm in person.” Consequently, most of his clients are good-sized organizations you would never have heard of unless you were from St. Louis or the surrounding area, or are specific, little-known divisions of big companies that are based in his area. While Steve has a track record that suggests he could compete for many services with the largest companies in the field, he says he rarely has to.
Steve, a Cornell graduate who become involved with the family business 18 years ago before purchasing it from the family, said that he always believed the key to long term success was to focus on the goals his clients were trying to achieve, not just the underlying products that were part of the process. At that first Enterprise Engagement Alliance conference, he said, he clearly saw the broader context in which his products were being used, and realized that he could take advantage of offering his clients a formal framework for applying a broader range of services besides products to help them achieve their goals. As Steve happily admits, no one who knows Steve would accuse him of being impulsive. Since his business remained profitable despite the serious recession, and he saw continued demand for his products, his real reason for making the change was to clearly distinguish himself in the marketplace to create a new business. He took his time, watched how the market was changing, and spoke regularly with clients. “We’re a 150 year old company,” explained Steve. “We like to take our time when it comes to making big decisions because if we’re going to make a promise, we have to deliver it.”
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Beginning the Shift to Engagement
About two years ago, his company embarked on making some fundamental changes. While not taking his eye off the ball of the business that has provided for his family for generations and which is an integral part of the engagement process, he began to actively prepare himself and key members of his staff to offer a broader range of products and services. The new focus was to apply a formal framework to help them develop and implement strategies to achieve specific sales, marketing, human resources, and community-building goals with the support of all of the people critical to success.
This meant that he would have to be equipped to help organizations create a formal engagement business plan and implement many of the coaching, communications, learning, rewards and recognition, measurement, and other aspects of the program well beyond rewards and promotional products. Upon analyzing the framework and the services he provided, Steve knew that to offer an effective solution, he had to start with knowledge. He decided to champion the effort himself within the organization with the help of one person on his team he felt best suited at the current time for a consultative sale in the area of engagement, and joined him in attending the Enterprise Engagement learning program at the last Rewards and Recognition Expo in 2013.
They both read all of the available curriculum on the Enterprise Engagement framework, and paid to have the EEA come to his organization for nearly a full-day training program with his entire team. He and the team member he selected to support his effort prepared for and passed the certification program. The day membership became available in the EEA, he signed up.
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Listening to Customers
While all of this was going on, Steve continued to engage with his customers to feel them out on their needs. He continued to detect a keen interest in the topic of engagement and a willingness to learn more about how to apply these principles in a concrete way to his business. Along the way, he identified that a key way to help organizations integrate all of these aspects of engagement is an easy-to-deploy, inexpensive technology that integrates all of the key elements of engagement to achieve specific goals. Most corporate Intranets, he said, reflect the same silos that stand in the way of effective integration of engagement solutions. In addition, “corporate I.T. departments are buried. They don’t have time to rework the entire Intranet to mirror Enterprise Engagement best practices. I had experience creating our own technology and while that worked for years, I had to question whether I wanted to be in the technology business. After careful analysis of his options, Steve found that most traditional incentive and recognition technology in the marketplace focused on carrots, recognition, or social media rather than on integrating all aspects of engagement. “After looking at the framework of Enterprise Engagement, I wanted a technology that made it easy to deploy, and, upon analysis, I realized I wouldn’t think of creating my own software for customer relationship management or for managing my accounting and inventory,” he said. “My first choice was to find a technology platform I could adapt to my business needs.”
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The Technology Solution
After what he says was an exhaustive search, Steve turned to Engagement Technology LLC. (Full disclosure—the owners of Engagement Media, contract publishers of the media products of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance—helped create Engagement Technology LLC and have in it a minority stake.) “To start with, I needed to offer my clients a program management portal technology that could integrate all of the elements of engagement on a single platform, as well as support multiple programs,” Steve explained. “I needed a highly customizable portal technology that could be connected to whatever rewards make sense for my client, and I needed it as configurable, flexible and automated as possible so that I would need minimal resources of our clients’ I.T. departments.”
At the same time, Steve rethought his strategy for rewards delivery. “Rewards and recognition are critical elements to engagement, but they are not the only elements. So, I needed a solution that would enable me to have a highly effective rewards experience, meaning that my clients have an infinite selection to choose from at the lowest possible price and best service, while our organization benefited from a high degree of automation and control. ET’s Universal Rewards Exchange product was the only one that fit the bill, and we did our homework.”
Steve started by creating a demo of the portal product for his clients and found a lot of interest.
The challenge, he quickly realized, is that the portal has a longer sales cycle. “Even though the demo makes it clear that it’s incredibly ease to integrate communications, feedback, collaboration, rewards, and clients clearly get excited at the potential, you quickly run into the silo issue. Because the platform makes it so easy to have programs for consumers, distributors, all sorts of salespeople and even vendors and communities, and because it can address leadership, communications, collaboration, recognition, rewards, measurement, and more, whomever I show this to immediately begins thinking of the others they will have to talk to…and that takes time.” Also, because of the multiple programs involved with portal clients, the portals have to have their own URLs and servers, which adds about five hours to deployment or more if there is integration with a corporate Intranet.
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So, as Steve began developing clients for the new portal platform—“the sales cycle is at least three to nine months for that product”—he at the same time worked with ET to create Engagement Express. This version is focused on helping companies rapidly launch specific programs focused on communications, rewards, recognition, and measurement, so that they can get started within a week or even a day if all of the information is in place. “Because of the simplicity of Engagement Express, I don’t have to create a separate instance of each program while preserving complete security around that program’s information. That simply is not possible with multi-program portals.”
Engagement Express is now available to all ET clients and he has already sold it to clients. “That’s the interesting element of this technology model,” said Lipic. “On the one hand, I help fund a platform that helps others, but what I get in return is other enhancements I don’t have to pay for. As part of our development program for Engagement Express, we received a mobile catalog we didn’t even expect.” Steve said he had his first program sold to a current customer the day he showed it to them, and will have deployed at least three programs within the first three months of offering it. “Most of these clients are prospects for the portal technology,” Steve explained. “This is a means of bringing them along.”
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Expertise, Leadership, Proximity, Not Technology, the Key Differentiator
Doesn’t Steve worry that he is giving up a differentiator by using platforms available to others? “Absolutely not! No more than my using Zoho for customer relationship management or my accounting platform or presentation technology gives up my competitive advantage. What makes Lipic's different is our experience, our breadth of services, our cutting-edge commitment to engagement in which most of my traditional competitors are years behind. It’s how we use the technology that makes the difference.” Providing solutions is all about “asking the right questions, learning about our clients’ businesses, applying the framework to help them take the journey out of engaging the critical people to do what’s right for the organization.”
Ironically, Steve believes his use of the ET technology gives him an advantage. “The fact that I have competitors using proprietary technology for their program management systems or maintaining their own rewards inventory or fulfillment systems gives me an advantage because we can do it better, cheaper, and faster, and more transparently, with the ability to offer the most customized solutions available to maximize engagement.” As he put it, “There is no way we could have built Engagement Express as quickly and affordably as we did with ET, and to our specifications no less. And we don’t have to worry about continually investing in updates because that’s what ET does. This is all good for our clients.”
Another factor in Steve’s willingness to help support organizations like the EEA and the ET technology, even though these services also help his competitors, is easy to explain, he said. “I grew up in the era when the advertising industry really came into its own…I saw how that industry, by working together through their organizations, expanded to become an enormous marketplace with advertising and marketing agencies in every town and industry…I believe in the same potential for Enterprise Engagement.”
He added, “Every organization, for profit and not-for-profit, even governments, need a strategy to engage the people critical to achieve objectives. This process is even more effective and measurable than advertising because it takes advantage of technologies and the permission of participants to engage so that any organization can measure the results almost on a one-on-one basis. The pie is big enough for far many more of us than have already embarked down this road, and the industry will grow only larger faster as more companies get involved. I’ll have been proud to have been an early pioneer and know that I will be able to profit from that early commitment.” Steve sees the EEA as a way for “me to continually learn about new tools to help us solve client programs as well as companies that can help us deploy them, just like advertising agencies work with their partners in that field.”
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A New Name
Four years after it embarked on this journey, Lipic's Recognition formally became Lipic's Engagement. Again, no one ever accused Steve Lipic of being impulsive. “I look forward to many more years of working with clients, my colleagues at the EEA, and Engagement Technology to take advantage of this highly rewarding revolution in business because it does so much for the success of our clients, our community, and our business.”
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