Ruby Receptionists; 10 years of 'personal connection'

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The Latest
Thursday, August 08, 2013
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Jill Nelson
Founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists

Ruby Receptionists, a Portland company famous for its employee parties, is celebrating 10 years in business with an anniversary party this weekend that founder and CEO, Jill Nelson says, "is going to put all other parties to shame."

The company also celebrates reaching a ten-year goal of surpassing $10 million in revenue, after growing double digits every year of its existence. How has it achieved this feat? Nelson credits an evolution of strategy based on listening to clients, employees, colleagues and friends; professionally attending to their needs and desires; and "wowing" them with a positive, empowering response. It's all about good reception skills.

A central paradox of the business is that employees act as "virtual" receptionists for the clients they represent, made possible with a heavy dose of technology, but its growth is fueled by callers' enduring need for personal connection. "Our reason for existing," says Nelson, "both for our clients and for ourselves is really in perpetuating that human connection in today’s increasingly technology-focused virtual world."

"Many people are spread out and not connecting but as humans and as consumers we still crave that and want that in our daily interactions and so that is what we’re focused on," she adds. Remarkably, Ruby has grown just as call volume to main company numbers has diminished due to the prevalence of email, cell phones and direct lines, rendering a full-time receptionist obsolete. That's where Ruby comes in. Billing clients an average of less than $500 per month, her company will "make meaningful connections for their customers and give them peace of mind that there’s somebody that actually cares about their callers and cares about their business and even cares about their success," says Nelson. "That’s what’s really fostered our growth. And then turning around and providing that same thing for our employees so they can provide it, that’s really been our winning strategy."

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Ruby employees practicing their call sign

Nelson Laughs at the idea that this has been her plan all along: "I don’t even think I knew what I was doing. I had a business idea and a plan but in terms of strategy and overall vision and where we’re going and how are we going to get there, and what is even our mission – all of that really has evolved and sort of gelled as we sort of figured out who we are over the years."

It began ten years ago when Jill Nelson was a stay-at-home PTA mom with a background in accounting who hatched the idea of helping businesses become more efficient by taking on all their mundane administrative duties, starting with the receptionist piece. In her son's classroom, she met another mom, Paddy McCaffrey-Allen, who was looking for something to do and offered up her dining-room table as a business-planning center. McCaffrey-Allen was the first hire and is now Ruby's head of HR after a three-and-a-half-year stint as HR director at NEMO Design. Nelson christened her new company Worksource Inc. but the focus on administrative efficiencies was quickly overshadowed by a different client demand.

"It was really very very early on that we would hear from customers that it wasn’t about the efficiencies we created," says Nelson. "It was really about that impression that we gave our customers, how special we made the callers feel, and that was really our thing."

Nelson also enlisted the help or Portland creative marketing agency Sockeye which agreed to work with Worksource Inc. so long as Nelson changed the brand name. Nelson recalls her friend at the agency telling her, "Your company is really about that personal connection," and urging her to give it a woman's name. Nelson happened to see a cheesy romantic comedy at the time called Down with Love that had what she describes as "this super poppy modern 1950s retro office look." It inspired her to try to "hearken back to an era when personal service was still the norm, but put a modern fresh edge to it, too." She fixed upon "Ruby" a popular name from the ‘40s and ‘50s.

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Ruby employees at play

Nelson has also collaborated with employees all along, implementing their bright ideas into operations, promoting them from receptionist roles to managers (called "cultivators" at Ruby), the IT department and helping them to start their own office zine, Ruby Force fitness classes, knitting groups, and an endless variety of extracurricular activities, for which the company often provides budgets and meeting space. "I personally believe," says Nelson. "that you spend more time in the workplace than you do almost anywhere else, so why wouldn't you make that a community and something that is fun an inspiring to come to work to every day? I would do it regardless of whether it had a business bottom-line benefit to it."

They are not teleworkers, she emphasizes: "What makes Ruby special is the culture we create by having everybody come to the working environment." They even speak with one voice, Nelson says – "Thank you for calling XYZ Company. This is Ruby." – creating language standards to achieve the same phrasing and tone, avoiding words that might irritate callers and favoring those that tend to please people.

 In 2007, the four-year-old Ruby had sales of $1.8 million. Nelson and her team, took a deep breath, and set an ambitious 5-year goal of reaching $10 million by 2013. Last year, after it became obvious they would hit the mark – sales of $11.5 million are projected – the team came up with a goal of $50 million and 500 employees by year 15 (2018) and $100 million by year 20. This time around confidence is brimming. "We would have to slow down our growth rate to get there," Nelson says, though she admits it would still be a 33% compounded growth rate for the next five years.  To help make it happen, Ruby has launched a new leadership program to develop new cultivators, so it can sustain the growth as well as remain committed to its promote-from-within policy. "Those cultivators really are the secret sauce to what we’re doing and we need more of them as we go," Nelson says. And in spite of this rapid growth, turnover has actually declined from 63% before the recession to around 25% last year, a very low rate for the industry.

Ruby has also implemented new technology that allows it to route calls to more specialized groups within the workforce. It's new 300,000-square-foot Beaverton center is now more dedicated to East-Coast customers, for example, and Nelson may soon begin hiring her first male receptionists (there are none currently) for those customers who might prefer a deeper voice to cheerfully answer their calls. But the company has no plans to expand outside Oregon. Despite having customers in every state except South Dakota, Nelson says, "I kind of think we will get more bang for the buck staying in Oregon because we know the workforce, we know the vendors, we know having a large presence in one place you can impact more people."

"When we focus on our employees and making them feel like they’re ding meaningful work," she adds," that they can come to work every day with 250 opportunities to actually make a connection with someone, maybe make someone’s day just a little bit better, it gives them a sense of purpose. It makes them feel good about the company they work for and we’ve got the power of 140 employees excited about achieving those goals."

It's no wonder Ruby Receptionists was named Fortune's No. 1 best small company in 2012, and has been featured prominently in our 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon and 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon lists for the past four years.

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Ruby Receptionists accepting trophy as the 2013 No. 3 Best Medium Company to Work For in Oregon

Research editor Brandon Sawyer digs heaps of data about privately-held and public companies, economics and industries, and extracts relevant articles, graphs and lists, including the 100 Best Companies, Nonprofits and Green Companies to Work For in Oregon.


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