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How employee scavenger hunts and essay contests increase customer satisfaction

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One company's workers get to know their clients through a series of strategically-designed games meant to bring employees closer -- and make customers happier.

At M5 Networks, a New York company that provides phone systems for businesses, employees don't just perform work duties to receive year-end bonuses. They participate in scavenger hunts and essay contests for prizes including skydiving and Space Camp.

M5's 100 or so workers get to know their 1,100 entrepreneur clients, though a series of strategically-designed games, all implemented to bring employees closer -- and make customers happier. I spoke last week with M5 CEO Dan Hoffman.

Tell me about the games.

People come to us because typically they compete on service and they do it over the phones. Service is revenue to them. We're a service company. In telecom, there's no great service company. That's what we're trying to build. Great service starts with happy employees. Danny Meyer, his line is: Take care of the employees and they'll take care of the customers. So getting that engagement and that energy and that knowledge into the staff is a service strategy. We've invented and played with a lot of games. They're not frivolous games. They're games that bring people closer to our clients. They reinforce the core values of the company. They build teamwork. They make it fun to work here. The recession was a wonderful time and an important time to do this kind of thing.

We did a scavenger hunt. It was a list of stuff from all of our clients that people had to collect. We have some of the top architects, so you had to go get a model. We have fashion clients, like Isaac Mizrahi and Marc Ecko, so you have to go out and get photographs of someone wearing their clothing. People formed teams and went out across New York City. Buttercup Bake Shop is one of our clients, so we had a cupcake eating contest. At the end of it, everybody checked in at one of our clients that runs a music studio and we have a company band and partied into the night and counted up the points. We flew everyone in from all our offices to do this. It was a blast. The winning team went tandem skydiving.

What results do you get from these games?

It had [the employees] know the clients, appreciate them as businesses. [The employees] knew each other better. We use a system to measure our clients' satisfaction very rigorously. It's a wonderful business practice called Net Promoter Score. There are usually these long, complicated customer satisfaction surveys. [Conversely, the idea behind the Net Promoter Score] is very simple: You only need to ask one question, which is, "Would you confidently refer me to a friend?" (Clients answer with a score of 1-10.) We saw our score move over the year from 26 to 42. We grew during the recession. We grew the company 12 percent.

Talk about some of the other games you've implemented.

Six-word memoir is a great one. My friend, Larry Smith, has this great blog called Smith about how everybody has a story. You can put your story in six words, which in this Twitter age is kind of a fun, powerful thing. We had Larry and his partner come in and it was literally an hour. We bought a six-word memoir book for everyone and people wrote their six-word memoirs. Some of them were fascinating. We had people write them about themselves and about the company. People really came out -- literally in a couple cases. It was just a very fun event. It brought the company just a little bit closer in a compelling, Internet-age way.

What about the essay contest?

The best companies are held together by shared values. It's important to work on them, not just put them on a poster. We talk about them a lot. One of them is: Be honest. We had an essay contest where people wrote little stories about examples of this value. It just forces people to think about it and deal with it. Being honest as a person is a lot different than being honest as a company. You really have to get your story straight. If you want to compete on honesty and transparency and service, you've got to work at it. That information has to be in the hands of the employees, so they can tell the truth and they have to know that they can err on the side of the tough truth. On that one, the winner was sent to Space Camp.

That must have been pricey.

Plane tickets for $400 and $500 for the weekend. We want to do memorable things. It's a signal to the staff that these things are important.

What tips would you give bosses who want to implement motivational games?

There's a great business guru named Jack Stack. He talks about games. I have no original ideas. I implement other people's ideas and make them work. Jack says people naturally like to compete and they like to play games. Do it everywhere. We have games around sales leads. We have games around calling clients and checking in with them. We have games around fixing operational problems and we have games around culture. It is a way to unlock some productivity at work.

Photo: Dan Hoffman

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure