stilllearning

Interview with Lorri Kern, owner of KSS International

Company Overview: KSS International (KSS) is a privately owned company, headquartered in Boston, MA. They schedule, recruit and edit for the mystery shopping, merchandising and demonstration industries. Currently, KSS has the resources to provide contractors throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico.

KSS enjoys an A+ rating by the Better Business Bureau. New shoppers can register at www.kernscheduling.com

MSM talks with Lorri Kern, CEO & President:

MSM: What was your work experience prior to establishing KSS?

Lorri: I actually went to school for accounting, and that’s what I did for several years, prior to having my first son in 1991. At that point, I decided to quit working full-time and be a stay-at-home mom. My second child, a daughter, was born in 1994, and my third child, another son, in 1998. I HATE housecleaning and, with three young children, I really, really, really wanted to hire a housekeeper once a week. I decided to try to find something to do part-time while my older two kids were in kindergarten and second grade. Mystery Shopping seemed like the perfect fit!  So, I started mystery shopping in my free time to earn enough money to pay for a housekeeper to come once a week. That was my sole goal. But then, I got hooked.  Before I knew it, I was earning about $2,000 a month from mystery shopping, and I could (mostly) take my new son with me!

MSM: What began as a vision has turned into “the oldest and largest scheduling company in the industry”. What events led to its creation, what was the progression and what was the moment when you knew KSS was going to be a successful venture?

Lorri: While I was mystery shopping, I became good friends with a Mystery Shopping Company (MSC) owner, (no longer in the industry) who was also a mom and about my age. She was fighting breast cancer and was really struggling to get all of her shops done. She was really worried about losing her clients and her business. Since I was also a volunteer “Community Leader” on AOL in the “Parent Soup” community, I asked her if she’d like for me to reach out to my other online “parent friends” to help her get her shops done, and she gratefully accepted.  Now, you have to remember that in 1998 almost all mystery shopping was completed via fax and mail. There were no online systems, although Prophet was in the works, and soon SASSIE as well.  So, my idea to recruit online was very novel. It worked VERY well. I helped her for several months while she was going through her cancer treatments and built up a pretty amazing database of shoppers.

Later that year, the MSPA held its very first “Annual Conference” in Scottsdale, AZ.  She invited me to attend with her to talk to other companies about utilizing the Internet for recruiting.  Believe it or not, the MSCs used to cold call, going through the white pages of the phone book to find shoppers!

I went to that conference and met lots of people, and to this day some of them, like Marci Bikshorn of Service Excellence Group, Tom Mills of HS Brands, and Gary and Christopher of Beyond Hello, are some of my best friends in the whole world – even attending my wedding in person a few years ago!  I also met a number of industry influencers/connectors there – Mike Bare of Bare Associates, Mark Michelson of Michelson & Associates, Mike Green, now with Customer Impact and Brad Worthley and many, many more. These people were very interested in my recruiting techniques and asked me if I could do the same for them.

So, working from home with three young kids (and a fourth in 2001), I built a business. To be honest I never really planned for it to be a “business”, just a way for me to not have to clean my house! But soon, it was more than I could handle, so I had to hire someone to help me out. In 1999, I ended up hiring a friend of a friend, Kim Motl, and she still works for me today!

The company has grown a lot over the years, to the point where we now schedule over one million mystery shops each year, in eleven different countries! It’s been a wild ride!

My husband likes to brag that I created a whole industry, not just a business. I’m not sure that’s exactly true, but I think that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones that identify a need and figure out a solution to fill that need. Then, the business just comes, right?

MSM: The majority of KSS schedulers are salaried employees. They not only receive a full benefits package, but also have the opportunity to earn monthly bonuses. Why did you opt to go this more expensive route instead of utilizing the services of independent schedulers?

Lorri: Well, we did go the independent contractor (IC) route up until about seven years ago.  At that time, there was a lot of noise in Washington DC about changing IC laws and requiring companies that abuse the practice to pay back taxes. A lot of companies got hit and the penalties were stiff. The MSPA had some of the best authorities on independent contractor laws in the country investigate this issue in depth. After being educated on the criteria to make the determination between employees and independent contractors, it became pretty clear that the vast majority of shoppers ARE independent contractors; and most schedulers for scheduling companies ARE employees.

We couldn’t afford the penalties that would inevitably come with an IC audit, so we decided to just make the change right away. It was very expensive to do it, but I saw it as the responsible thing to do. In doing so, I lost a lot of really great ICs, but my loss was a gain to other scheduling companies, most notably Judith Gill of Summit, a previous KSS employee who branched out on her own. Because we had corporate nexus with the states in which they resided, I was able to convert quite a few of my hardest working ICs, like Emma McGarity, Sally Craig and Shelly Martin – all shopper favorites and who have been with KSS for over eight years – into employees,

In the end, I do think that centralizing our team and being in an office together is actually better now that I’ve gotten over the initial expense. We really are very much like family, which is another benefit to working with KSS!

MSM: The reviews from current KSS employees on Glassdoor.com are highly complimentary of the relaxed work atmosphere and the sense of community within the office. Aside from the Friday cocktail hour, how are you able to create and maintain such an environment when the work itself is so time-sensitive and, we’ve got to think, frequently frustrating?

Lorri: We do lots of “small things” to keep things light in the office; we joke around a lot; and we try to not sweat the small stuff; and I am continually coaching my staff to let the frustrations roll off their backs. It really does take a certain kind of person to enjoy this kind of work – it can be VERY frustrating work.  Depending on thousands of independent contractor shoppers to come through for you every month is TOUGH! For the most part, our shoppers are amazing….but there is always the 10% out there that makes the job so hard.

For perks, we don’t have a dress code, which is nice. Since a lot of our account managers (schedulers) are recent college grads, not having to purchase a real “work” wardrobe is a benefit. I also try to keep our break room fully stocked with sodas, coffee, tea, lemon water and an overabundance of snacks. I buy whatever is requested, along with our standards: Swedish Fish, York Peppermint Patties and Jelly Bellies 🙂

We do have a great benefit package, which includes dental and health, a guaranteed 3% 401K contribution every year and a generous Paid-Time-Off (PTO) policy.  We also do company sponsored lunches several times a month and periodically do little “field trips”, like working in the sunshine on Boston Commons or walking to the waterfront for lobster rolls. We had the WORST winter this past year in Boston, and worked from home more days than in the office. I think everyone enjoyed the fact that this job could be done remotely, when necessary.
MSM: After almost 18 years, you still are actively involved in the day-to-day operations of KSS. Surely, there must be times when you contemplate handing the reins over to someone else and doing something a lot less stressful. What are your biggest challenges and what motivates you to keep on doing, what you’re doing?

Lorri: I guess admitting to being a “control freak” would probably not be the right answer here? Although I have an amazing Operations Manager, Nola Penny, who does a fantastic job managing a lot of day-to-day things and staying on top of projects and deadlines, KSS is my baby…..so turning it over completely just doesn’t feel possible. I love this crazy industry; I love my clients; I love my shoppers.

As far as motivation….my oldest son graduated from college last year, and I still have three kids and two step-kids to get through college. But if that’s not enough motivation, I can tell you that most of my clients have actually become my friends over the years and I honestly couldn’t bear to NOT do a good job for them.

There is a great feeling of accomplishment that comes every month when we hit our deadlines and that last shop is finally submitted and I know I don’t have to dread answering my phone the next day! I love the challenge of that – I am very competitive by nature, and this is like beating the Rubik’s Cube every single month (or not)! By now, I should be doing it blindfolded 🙂

MSM: On the KSS website, HS Brands is referred to as “our partner”. What exactly is the relationship between the two companies and what initiated it?

Lorri: Ahhh… yes, that is confusing, isn’t it? I probably should re-word that. Although they are not a business partner, per se, in terms of corporate ownership, they are absolutely a strategic partner. To explain, back when we first started KSS, we partnered with a couple of other private investigators (PIs) in NV, since the Nevada laws are quite rigid concerning mystery shopping, and that worked out okay, but none of the PIs we worked with really understood mystery shopping. We didn’t want a “gotcha” mentality and our clients didn’t want that either. We were really just trying to measure the customer experience.

HS Brands (Service Sleuth) had been a client of KSS since approximately 1999. About ten years ago, Tom Mills, who is the CEO of HS Brands, told me that he was getting his PI License in NV and wanted to know if we would work with him on hiring/training/scheduling shoppers there. I was a little leery at first, since all of my other clients were obviously competitors of Tom and his company. I felt concerned that there might be a conflict of interest.

Eventually, Tom and I worked out a legal agreement that allowed me to handle all of my client’s work in NV, using his license (my shoppers are technically his employees) and he agreed to remain “hands off” and have no knowledge of my other client’s work, clients, forms, etc. This arrangement made my clients and me feel comfortable and so we become “partners” in that sense. However, to be clear, there is no co-mingling between the two companies in any other sense of the word. Our businesses are completely separate!
MSM: In researching posts on the Mystery Shop Forum, although the majority of the members had praise KSS, there were several complaints, which appeared to mainly stem from lack of communication from a scheduler. What is KSS’ policy regarding responding to shoppers’ emails and phone calls?

Lorri: Our policy is that every email and phone call must be returned within one business day. So, if you are emailing Monday through Friday, you should never have to wait more than 24 hours for a response. Most of our team does not work on Saturday and Sundays, although occasionally they will log in and reply to urgent emails, but it’s not a job requirement.

If shoppers use Yahoo, Hotmail or AOL, our responses very often end up in spam filters. Unfortunately, sometimes shoppers mistakenly think they haven’t gotten a response, when the response(s) actually landed in their spam folder. I SO WISH that all shoppers would use Gmail!!!  All of our lives would be so much easier!

MSM: Earlier this year, we interviewed John Hsu, Co-founder of SurfMerchants. He cited you as being instrumental in helping the new company understand scheduling systems. How did this come about? And how did you have the time, since you were in the process of launching your own business?

Lorri: Well, how it really happened was that Tom Mills, of Service Sleuth (HS Brands), hired SurfMerchants to create software and said “For the scheduling side, you have to talk to Lorri Kern, she is “the queen of scheduling”. So, Tony & John reached out to me to ask me a lot of questions about how scheduling works, how shoppers think, what works, what doesn’t, etc.  At the time, they thought I was elderly, because they had been told I’d been “doing this forever”. (I was BARELY 30 at the time!)  They were speaking to me very loudly on the phone and asking me very simple-ish questions.  I honestly thought they were being condescending and didn’t like them at all, but I answered their questions as a favor to Tom, who happened to be one of my largest clients at the time.

And how fortunate that I did!  We work on dozens of mystery shopping software platforms every month, a lot of proprietary ones as well as all of the common ones that everyone is familiar with, but SASSIE is the only one that is actually intuitive enough for schedulers to use with minimal training.

At the time, I did not realize that SASSIE would be sold to other Mystery Shopping Companies or that it would make life universally easier for not only my team and me.. but for my competitors as well.. I was just doing a favor for a friend!  So, all the work I put into helping SASSIE become the most intuitive scheduling platform has resulted in making life easier not only for me, but also for my competitors. It has also made it easier for mystery shopping companies to do what I do without me. I am pretty sure that guarantees me some really good karma going forward, right?

MSM: We love fairy tale endings! Could you please share with our readers, “the rest of the story”?

Lorri: Let’s just say that first impressions aren’t always accurate … John and I get along MUCH better now.  🙂

MSM: What an interesting beginning…and such a happy ending! Thank you, Lorri!