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Getting Into the Zone

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Kevin Sinclair loves it when he goes to a party and someone asks what he does for a living. “Their eyes light up and they’ve got all kinds of questions,” he says. “‘What’s coming next?’ ‘How fast will it be?’ It just reflects how attached we have become to our wireless devices.”

Sinclair is managing director of Wireless Zone, which has some 450 primarily franchised retail units in 28 states. Started in 1988 as “The Car Phone Store,” in the past two years the company has opened 110 franchises; earlier this year Canadian wireless giant Glentel bought the chain for $83.3 million with plans to continue opening franchises across the United States.

“The bottom line is, our formula works,” Sinclair says. “Of course people will shop and buy online, but when you’re dealing with high-tech products … lots of our customers want to come in and hold them and try them out first. ... Our tag line is ‘National strength with a local presence.’”

The focus of the business is heavy on customer service to separate Wireless Zone from online retailers. “The customer in rural South Dakota has the same expectations as the person in mid-town Manhattan,” Sinclair says. “We have to know what their needs are and fill them.”

Employee well-being
The Wireless Zone formula starts with finding a prospective franchisee who knows — or, better yet, is from — the local community. “Someone in a small town who knows the area and the people is going to do much better than a manager who sweeps in from somewhere and opens a corporate store,” says Sinclair. “They’re in touch with the chamber of commerce, the local charities and civic organizations. This is a huge emphasis in our company and we look hard to find the right people for each market.”

The company co-brands with Verizon and sells its offerings exclusively; the more than 2,000 employees are required to maintain training in order to speak knowledgeably about Verizon products. “Because new products are always introduced and technology is changing rapidly, this can be a real challenge,” says Sinclair. Most of the education is done through Verizon’s learning management system software or online, but it still adds to the time it takes to get employees ready for the sales floor.

Partially due to that time investment, Wireless Zone’s corporate culture puts a large emphasis on employee well-being. “It’s not cost effective for us to hire someone, give them lots of training then see them leave after a short while because they were unhappy,” says Neil Ryan, a co-owner with Scott Gladstone of several Wireless Zones in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

“We try to go above and beyond with our customers, and do the same with our staff. Expectant parents get baby gifts, we’ve helped employees buy their first homes and we’ve assisted those who’ve had hardships. We know that if our employees are happy, they’ll make our customers happy.”

As part of its service commitment, the company helps customers sync and load new devices with their music and pictures, and will even assist in activating the Bluetooth capability in their cars. Customers can also access the company’s website, which features a series of videos by “Cellular Chloe” that provide answers to many basic questions new device users have.

Charitable giving
Another critical element to the company’s success is its emphasis on charitable giving. “The public wants to support businesses that support them,” says Gladstone. “It’s very simple. If you get out into the community and show that you’ve got good products to sell, you’ve got happy employees and you love where you do business, good things happen.”

Ryan and Gladstone’s stores have become involved in school and Little League fundraising, toy giveaways at Christmas and even some smaller, less-publicized events. “Around some of our stores, there have been instances where someone has been in an accident and doesn’t have insurance to pay their medical bills … and a group of people have come together for a fundraiser,” says Gladstone. “If we hear about that, we’ll donate.”

“It’s also about being smart when you donate,” says Sinclair. “We donate with our checkbooks, but we’re also asked for products. For a charity golf tournament, we could give away a sleeve of balls with our logo that guys will hit into the rough and lose, or we can donate a gift certificate as a prize.”

The company sees the need for personalized contact growing as ever-more-sophisticated technology meets an aging population. “Whether it’s a new phone, or syncing a car’s audio to the device or figuring out a [wireless router] system, these are questions that are sometimes best answered one-on-one,” Sinclair says.