Donna West and her sons Jim and Tom Reandeau – the spearheads of outsourced answering service and acclaimed industry forerunner Focus Answering Service – still laugh at the winter mom made a huge pot of chili for the entire team during a blizzard.
“I had nowhere to put it,” Donna recalls. “It was a humungous snowstorm, so I put the pot on our back porch because it was colder outside than anywhere else in the house.”
She chuckles. “Well, the neighbor’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever came over at some point during the night and ate the entire thing. I think the neighbors were more upset than I was.”
Focus has certainly seen its share of snowstorms throughout the years. The communications company celebrates its 35th anniversary this month.
Back in the day – before remote operations – West and Company purchased a 4-wheel drive SUV to transport workers to and from their homes and the office during inclement weather. With agents manning phones and driving conditions dicey, food was a great, and consistent, morale booster.
“I would send in beef stew and chicken noodle soup and chicken and rice casseroles and beef stroganoff and all of those comfort foods,” Donna says. “I would buy these big aluminum foil pans, and I would make triple recipes and send batch after batch to Focus because everyone had to eat.”
Sharing meals has always been a constant at Focus. From backyard barbecues at Donna’s home to many Thanksgiving feasts prepared by Tom – himself a gourmand and proprietor of the catering company Tucker’s BBQ – the topic is a favorite among Focus leadership.
You may wonder what breaking bread could have to do with the success of an answering service. Nothing, maybe.
But it has everything to do with the success of a family.
All in the Family
Focus’ Director of Operations Misty Hill has been with the team for 25 years.
Her mother worked IT for the company, and Misty would frequently shadow her, intrigued by the telephone equipment that dotted the workplace.
“I’d follow my mom around the office and drive her crazy asking, ‘What does this button do,’” Misty laughs. “Eventually, she started answering me instead of shooing me off to do something else.”
When she was old enough to get a work permit, she began doing data entry for Focus. “Then, when I turned 16, I took the agent training, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Misty even courted her future husband Ian here.
“We met in high school, but we didn’t start dating until I started doing data entry work in the office. He walked down the hallway on the way to his interview and I spotted him and went, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It gave me another opportunity outside of high school to get to know him. We didn’t get married until well later in life, but Focus was a big part of our relationship.”
And the relationship was part of something even bigger.
“Every job interview you go on, you hear, ‘Oh, this company is like a family.’ And then you come on board, and they treat you like garbage, or like a number,” Misty says. But not Focus.
Focus, she says, is the real deal.
“We’ve had so many people leave to try something new, because they had to move or take care of somebody or whatever the case may be – they’ve left, and they’ve come back.”
Misty, herself, took a brief hiatus between late 1999 and 2001, before rejoining the fold and being welcomed back with open arms.
“You just don’t see that anywhere else,” she says. “I think that speaks to who we are.”
When asked about the secret to the company’s longevity, Donna West wastes no time with her answer: “Easy-peasy,” she says. “Openness and honesty. We don’t hide anything from our people. If there’s something bad, we get it out there and we all work to overcome it.”
Donna, who founded the answering service in 1987, believes this is one of the most important pieces of business advice anyone could ever offer or receive.
“When you’re connected with your team – and you make them a true part of your company – that helps with your turnover, which everyone is worried about right now. And when you have people that go back 30 years or more – that says something. It says you’re including them. People want to be included. They want to be in the know. They don’t want to find something out accidentally or have something misrepresented. It’s all gotta be out there – good or bad.”
As Focus CFO, Jim – who joined the company in ’93 after an Air Force career as a Tech Controller – says this transparency is all part of Focus’ “family atmosphere.”
“Even though we no longer work in the same office, we all still have each other’s backs,” he says. “Over the years, there’s always been that camaraderie. Everyone wants to work together for the common good.”
His brother, Tom – Focus’ VP of Operations – agrees.
“Our employees mean everything to me,” he says. “We have people who have been with us for 30 plus years. Most have been with us for quite some time. It’s created a family environment. And when new hires get to experience that, they want to be a part of it, too.”
The sense of family doesn’t end between the company’s management and its agents, however, but informs every account they oversee, and every phone call they answer.
“There’s always something new we can do for our clients,” West says. “There’s always something amazing that our clients will approach us with and ask, ‘Can you do this?’ We’ve become so deeply ingrained in their businesses, and I think that’s the most gratifying thing. Not only have our employees become family, but our clients also have become family. It makes me so proud.”
Never On Hold
Thirty-five years ago, Focus didn’t just open its doors – it made an indelible mark on an entire industry. To say Focus wrote the book on answering service protocol isn’t hyperbole – it’s fact.
Donna’s team was responsible for creating a comprehensive instruction manual for office answering services, which was ultimately adapted into a trio of training videos. Filmed at Focus’ then-headquarters and showcasing its employees, the series has long been considered by agents, supervisors, and customer service representatives as the gold standard.
“My first thought is, ‘Where did it go? Where did all of this time go?’” Donna says. “I can look back and I can pick out milestones, good and bad, but the day-to-day is just a blur.”
The answering service industry has undergone vast technological changes in the ensuing years, however. And being open to that change has been paramount.
“It’s amazing that we’re still in business with all of the technology that has come in the last 35 years,” Jim says. “With all of the apps and text messaging – everyone has cell phones and email. But we’re still in business and still servicing the clients who need us.”
Through it all, Focus has continued to innovate and adapt and – in many cases – stay slightly ahead of the curve. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Focus team had already been working from home for almost a decade.
“We were already remote, which worked great for us,” Tom says. “As soon as COVID hit, so many other answering services called us to ask things like ‘how do you train remotely?’ and ‘how do you set up remotely?’”
Once again, Focus donned its teacher’s hat, leading various presentations and forums on the subject.
“One of the best things about our industry is that we’re very open to helping each other out. But it’s just been kind of one wave after another of, ‘Here’s this new thing coming, how do we deal with it?’”
Making New Connections
Work-from-home scenarios have led to a hunger for increased connectivity, across the board.
“There’s no more office, there are no more office supplies, there’s no more, ‘Hey, who ate my lunch that was in the refrigerator,’ you know?” Tom adds. “A lot of issues went away after we went remote. But new issues were added.”
Focus is currently onboarding a new software package that will help to address these issues while providing further outlets for employee engagement.
“People Praise is a new tool that takes all of our data, from employee performance to call volume statistics, and puts it together in a fun format that allows us to keep track of our team, conduct reviews, and closely monitor the quality of calls,” Tom explains.
The software also incorporates a distinct gamification element that will allow the entire Focus team to have some lighthearted fun while building morale.
“There’s a social media element, where agents will be able to post pictures of their dogs and cats, the party they went to last night,” Jim adds. “It’s a way to help us learn more about our coworkers in this remote era we’re living in.”
“Once we’ve got that,” says Tom, “we’re going to be a company that’s on fire.”
The Never-Ending Power of a Person
Recently, Tom and Misty launched a fireside chat series, exchanging ghost stories, gaming tips, and more with new recruits via Microsoft Teams just as easily as if they were sitting around a campsite.
“Even though we’ve been working remotely for so many years, over the last few, we’ve brought in a lot of new team members,” Misty says. “So, we really want to focus more on our culture and on engaging our staff.”
And after a full day of listening to callers air their concerns and grievances, it gives the agents themselves a chance to share.
After all, Focus built its reputation on “the power of a person.” Its clients are represented with a personal touch, a compassionate ear, and a knowledgeable and reassuring presence that doesn’t demand button-pressing and grating on-hold music.
“Our goal is always to provide customers with clear information. We want to be professional while also being compassionate and kind and respectful of others,” says Misty. “We’re here to help make other people’s lives better.”
And the Focus team does this from all corners of the nation.
“Our key people hail from Florida to New York, from Las Vegas to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We even have agents who live in Mexico who work for us,” Donna says. “And we send them baby presents and wedding presents and condolences just as though they were right next door.”
There must be a better adjective than “amazing,” Donna stresses, as it somehow fails to aptly describe the pride she has for her Focus family. “They just take my breath away.”
Eventually, she says, when she retires, she is heartened to know that Focus will be in good, caring hands.
Technology may change, but “the value of the company and the leadership of the company and the integrity – they’re all going to remain just as they are now,” she says.
Such a vote of confidence is not lost on Jim, who started as entry-level personnel and worked his way up through the ranks.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work for Focus,” he says. “Not because I worked for my mother, but because I earned the position. I’m grateful for the opportunity she gave me, and that she would not let her sons work for the company until we had real-world experience.”
It’s just one more example of how Focus has been making the right calls for 35 years.
“People will always need people,” Donna says. “Zoom is good, but it doesn’t replace a hug. It doesn’t replace a hand squeeze when life is tough. When people make a phone call, or what will probably be a video call in the future – or whatever it turns out to be – they need compassion and they need empathy, and they need care. And that’s why I think some part of our industry will always remain. To keep those connections.”