What would happen if you treated your customers the way Michelin star restaurants do?
Listen Time: 27 Minutes
Learn how adopting a fine-dining approach to agency work is unlocking growth and driving business results for Br8kthru, a Minneapolis-based digital agency, and its customers.
Join the conversation between Br8kthru’s founder, Jon Lenz, and Smart Route podcast host Courtney Tyson as they discuss what it means to apply Michelin star restaurant standards to a company on every level. From hiring employees to embodying company values and entering new projects, learn from Minnesota’s 2021 Best Digital Marketing Agency how a fine-dining approach can help you conquer plateaus, raise standards, and yield results.
Want to learn more?
“If [you] are interested in experiencing what working with an aspiring Michelin star marketing and technology firm is like or have a complex challenge to solve, feel free to connect with me or anyone on my team to chat, stress test, or challenge anything.”
About Jon Lenz
When Managing Director, Jon Lenz, started Br8kthru in 2013 he was looking to build on what he learned in agencies and as a consultant. He wanted to grow a team who felt the same way he did—that listening, asking questions, and truly collaborating with clients is the path to successful projects. As Br8kthru evolved, they leaned into these values, creating the potential for meaningful alignment between their partners. Over the years, they’ve grown into an award-winning national agency with the technical expertise to succeed and the human-centric culture to make it last.
Hello and welcome to episode 16 of Smart Route, I’m your host and strategic partnership manager at CallTrackingMetrics, Courtney Tyson
Today we’re speaking with John Lens managing director at Br8kthru about his fine dining approach to customer relationships and how this has led to great success for both Br8kthru and their partners welcome John thank you for being here excited to talk with you today.
Thank you Courtney great to meet you and thank you for having me.
So just to give you a little of our audience a little of background on you John has been helping companies unravel their complex customer journeys for more than 10 years but started as a career in copywriting before quickly segueing to account management digital and technology strategy. Had founded Br8kthru with the intention to build on what he learned both working in agencies and as a consultant and so with that John can you tell us a little bit more about Br8kthru.
Yeah sure, so Br8kthru is a Minneapolis based marketing and technology firm and we strive to deliver Michelin star standards.
I know we’re going to talk more about that later. So I’ll keep going. Um the way we approach things we work to solve complex problems with marketing and technology to unlock growth and drive business results generally, we’re doing that in a couple key verticals industrial automation healthcare. And all the many facets of healthcare and then ecommerce companies and all these companies you know we’re working to help them engage with their ideal customers generating demand nurturing leads and transforming digital systems. So we’re just over a little bit more. We’re just over 20 people strong. And have some of the best and brightest minds on this side of the mighty Mississippi I know you can’t see my face but I’m kind of pedantic and that’s an inside joke because we’re in the twin cities and we straddle the Mississippi River so we have a tremendously strong team. Ah, and were fortunate to be recognized in 2021 as the best digital marketing firm in Minnesota. We were nominated for that award this year and have yet to learn if we’re going to be takubg home to the top prize but that’s a little bit about Br8kthru.
That’s fantastic, Well congratulations. Obviously so you are award winning and and that’s you know, based on how you’ve built your business so tell us more about you know the core values behind your approach to customer relationships.
Yeah, well I mean it probably would help to just kind of state what they are and then I want to quickly sidebar. But so our core values are empathy, continuous improvement, collective accountability and Michelin star standards.
If it’s okay with you I’d like to take a quick sidebar and do a little bit of a history in terms of how we got there which I think could be helpful for listeners and then share my hot take of the day. Is that juicy or what?
That sounds great sounds great. Let’s do it.
Okay all right? So how we got there, you mentioned some of this.
You know I started Br8kthru in 2013 just as some grad school side hustle around 2016 we started having employees and you know fast forward a couple of years we were profitable and growing but our our culture and positioning was maybe lacking clarity and definition as we kind of hit that next step of growth which I would call maybe a couple million dollars in revenue. So again things were going fine I just wanted to have a bit more clarity in terms of where we were headed in the future. Um, so I actually I’m an athlete. Ah.
I’m a collegiate athlete, a retired athlete now but I was a collegiate athlete and have basically been coached all of my life. And how that translates into today is I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have friends and advisors and mentors like in my circle or on my bus. Um, so it was actually late 2019 early 2020 pre pandemic I engaged a business coach um to you know it took the the process to find the right person took a little while but with with really 2 main reasons one was to become a better leader and two was to help clarify and get more focus and clarity of like where Br8kthru was going to be headed.
I very much acknowledge that my role needed to change and evolve to start thinking that way. Um, so six to nine months of that coaching engagement was challenging in the sense that we were working on really future focused strategic plans and so. We followed the scaling up methodology but it’s very similar to Eos Or Traction I’m sure a lot of your listeners if not yourself are are familiar with those frameworks and and so the first big effort was mapping out your page strategic plan and so that basically starts with, Hey what’s your 10 year big harry audacious goal and for Br8kthru I determined it was to be the best marketing and technology for the midwest so by 2030 that was our goal and then there are other attributes to that like we want to have 50 or 60 employees. We want to be known as consummate professionals. We want to have an amazing office and a satellite presence. So there’s a lot of qualitative metrics but also a lot of quantitative metrics as well. Um.
I’m not gonna get into that component of it but you take that 10 year big hairy audacious goal and then you begin to break it into a five year plan and a one -year plan and a 1 year plan and then suddenly 90 day goals and you’re developing this cadence. Um, so that. That holistic document that one page strategic plan or the equivalent of that vision traction. Organizer is up in our office today. We still look at it. We still update. It. But that mapped out the plan for the second piece that we did as a part of this pretty foundational work to engage in some of these frameworks. Reevaluate our core values as we started to grow. Um, this was really difficult. I’ll just qualify that it was a lot of reflections and a lot of reading from my standpoint and then working sessions with our coach and with our leadership team to determine if our core values at the time really reflected us and where we wanted to go.
Then we decided you know we need to enroll the team in this needs to be a collaborative effort that the team needs to feel invested in so we provided additional reading. We gave him a survey and then you know tried to prep them to come in a mindset. Um, for a couple of working sessions to define what they are and so we landed I empathy. You know, continuous improvement collective accountability and michelin star standards but then rolling them out. We even defined them. So there’s a supplementary document for anyone that joins Br8kthru or like hey here are our core values. But here’s what they mean to us. And Br8kthru and here are some examples you know this is storytelling but like here are some examples of other employees who have exemplified these over the years um so that was a little context on how we got to those core values make sense so far.
Yes, that’s I mean it’s a wonderful story right? So you engage the coach who would help you establish your goals in terms of your overarching goals to the you know I guess more granular goals and then you you know, plan it out over a period of time.
Got the team involved in establishing those core values and those kind of core values are just to confirm empathy continuous improvement collective accountability Miche and star stand standards which I love that’s ah, it’s a wonderful story. So I guess let’s talk a little bit more about you know this michelin star standard i.
Love that you use this right? You know I’ve worked in building customer relationships my entire career. So I’m very passionate about this. And you know building those strong relationships and I love that you use this standard. So what role does the Michelin star play in the business both internally?
Yeah I want to get there but I want to I want to give my hot take for for listeners just because I think it’s going to help ground our discussion so in in my mind as I was as I was prepping for this I almost struggled because you know not everyone is going to aspire to provide Michelin star standards for whatever customers in whatever business.
But really I think if you ladder that up just a tad or 1 level my take is really that what I want what I want to kind of be my thesis for listeners is that really core values define the culture and positioning of your company. Truly committing to those core values is what’s going to create those opportunities and unlock success.
And I’m here to say unfortunately for Br8kthru it has you know so far so good. But you know for listeners we’re gonna talk more about Br8kthrus commitment to Michelin star standards and I hope that we can apply some learnings based on how we’ve evolved in our approach but the headline is that like.
Finding those core values and really that resonate for those organizations and really leaning into those and committing to those is what are what is going to lead to success right? So that’s just my hot take um, so to your point about how Michelin Star Standards plays in it factors into our business internally and client facing is that correct so well today we aim to have these values really drive every interaction that we have with our clients. Our employees our community and other stakeholders.
And yeah, that’s also for the academicians out there that is a contrarian opinion to Milton Friedman’s take about how an organization sole purpose to generate profit. But I think at first it’s easy to look at that of the lens of just client relationships. But then it’s easy to expand it as well.
So it’s an interesting core value because there is duality um from a practical standpoint we can evaluate every facet of our business based on a standard a really high bar that we’ve done a lot of work internally to understand and acknowledge and get on the same page but aspirationally this also aligns with our 10 year big hairy audacious goal.
Being the best marketing and technology firm in the Midwest So there’s a lot of runway and we’re pretty early in the journey. Um, so from a practical I mean from a practical standpoint some of the changes that were inspired by this commitment if I can go into this.
So on the practical side employee retention and recruitment I’m really working to find the right kind of employees for the team that we were building. Um that impacts things like our interview strategy the goal of finding employees that are going to be a long term fit not just filling a seat. It has trickled down to updating our job descriptions. Um the copy and content on our website updating our interview process like we’ve talked about what is a Michelin star standards interview process look like and even what the follow up to candidates look like if we don’t move forward with Them. So instead of just like hey sorry you weren’t a fit for our position like we’re working to provide thoughtful, thoughtful constructive feedback on what was impressive about this individual and why they didn’t why we didn’t move forward with them at Br8kthru and in a couple of cases.
We’ve actually referred candidates that we’ve spoken to in the last like six months to other opportunities because it’s like hey. You would be a great fit here and we would love to stay connected. I’m happy to be an advocate and help introduce you to Xyz company. Um, if possible right? Um, so beyond interviewing and employee retention. It’s really impacted our onboarding process.
Think onboarding is a really hot topic in business in general right now with just all the changes in the market and going hybrid. So just a lot of big improvements to how we onboard employees not just over the last 12 to 18 months and I think it’s less about onboarding employees so that they can get in and start doing the work.
It’s more onboarding them and getting them acclimated with the culture and the values and the soft skills so that they’re able to have autonomy to make decisions in a way that aligns with our values and drive the company forward from the bottom up.
Right? So let’s ingrain that confidence in them as they come through the doors. They could really blossom right.
Yeah, yeah, um, we made a body system. Ah that was I can I take no credit for this but it’s a lateral pairing of team members that are on. You know, diverse team members on on opposite teams just to ensure they have another resource and outlet for. Cultural onboarding. So we’ve dedicated budgets to this. There are scheduled coffee meetings and 15 minute huddles and lunches for the first six months to just make sure that this and you know that as a new team member. They are supported by someone not in their direct pod of employees to get. More culturally ingrained and acclimated with Br8kthru. And then lastly I mean we implemented a wellness program which is probably the least surprising thing of any company during Covid but it continues to get revamped and updated. Um and actually this last Quarter. We can’t take credit for this because we had a client that did it but we implemented a quarterly mental health day. So I report out on on business performance to the team fifteen days following the close of of the quarter and for us that’s a calendar quarter and what we’ve said is that the the following Friday. So basically after we’ve closed out the corridor and shared out performance as the team the the following Friday is a quarterly mental health day and the only requirement of our team is to take a picture of what they’re doing with a little description and share it to ah a company slack channel um to kind of spread the wealth and knowledge and inspire others to to do other. Um, health and wellness activities. So it’s been pretty impactful.
That’s great and very necessary in today’s world. That’s a wonderful benefit so we talked about how your core values affect the business both internally amongst the team hiring right? Also when client facing um like we talked a little bit about client facing right? So I guess let’s talk a little more about that right? your core values and how.
You know you expect our team members to I guess maybe embody them right? when they’re client Vc or when they’re approaching new clients as well.
Sure yeah I’ll take that I’ll take that two ways. So I think client facing there’s so we’ve applied a lot of these to this level of service from the hospitality industry and we did a lot of work to educate and benchmark. Not only restaurants and hotels understand that like the human component it is absolutely critical. It’s not just the quality of the deliverables. It’s the service you provide? Um, but on the work quality. It’s absolutely caused us or Benennis to be a catalyst for us to review work products and deliverables and even what we’re proposing you know, pre pre-sale to make sure that this is going to align with michelin star standards and that it aligns with client expectations that the education is there. Um there’s definitely a heightened awareness on our team to level up to those Michelin star standards. Um, and I think first thing that has very much organically happened is we the team has really endorsed the idea of doing kind of post-mortems or swot analysis on our workflow and process and output you know after big projects or launches. Client engagements like we could be mid client engagements. But if we get through a big launch or a big campaign, that’s a really good opportunity to enroll the team but make sure that we’re capturing what went well and where we can improve and it’s almost in a way like identifying how we can improve the customer experience in real time.
So I guess we talked about knowing your core values and how your team is using them. Um I Guess let’s jump into this question about. The impact that you know of this approach you’ve taken in using your values to find new clients and has had on the business so culturally and on your bottom line does that make sense?
I think we’re kind of 2 questions but I’ll take it and course correct me as it relates to approaching new clients I think in today’s market there is no shortage of business to be had. Um, even with all the external noise about macroeconomic factors like looking at today. There’s a tremendous opportunity for companies like ours to help with digital marketing and technology that also means it’s a very saturated market for vendors and clients. I think the biggest change that we’ve experienced is the amount of due diligence that happens on the front end of a potential engagement to determine if we are a fit for our clients. Um, and interestingly I think it’s resulted in a much shorter and direct like a midwestern guy right? So maybe on the East Coast this is pretty normal but we’re much more direct and to be clear like many times this is like our pitch is not a powerpoint deck. It’s a candid conversation on who we are, what we do, how we help and our expectations of each other in a partnership.
Certainly share those core values and they get it. They get a feel for how those guide our interactions. Um, but it’s like the clients that work with us understand that results are table stakes and long term relationships of trust are what you are investing in with Br8kthru and I have I have actually done this.
I mean I’m batting I’m batting a thousand so I can’t say I’ve done it a ton but I’ve actually shared in a pitch that like I could subjectively sit here and say that our digital marketing team can do a better job than XYZ competitor but I can objectively say you will not find a more buttoned up team dedicated to you or your goals than you will at Br8kthru.
That’s why we work with fewer clients. That’s why we have deeper partnerships and that’s why our average client duration is nearly four years um
Right? The values are driving that team to take the time to get to know these prospects under our customers and nurture them and really understand what their wins are whether it be on a professional weather level a team level a companyide level. Maybe personal right? like that’s I think that’s a big part of building those customer relationships to what they are working for if you help them achieve this goal right? Well well what are you helping them to win on the other side. Um, and that’s something that I think you’re right? It is a very unique approach but it means a lot because. You know we we all we all we’re we’re human, right? We want to talk to each other right? We want to learn about each other. There’s so much that we all learn from one another? Um, but you need to learn about your customer in order to ensure you’re serving them appropriately and you can be successful and that’s what I’m hearing your team does.
Yeah, well Courtney I mean I mean we could always do it better. But Courtney I think interesting with your point is that like I think this this window of a pitch is definitely shorter and tighter. But actually I don’t necessarily mean that our sales process has necessarily condensed itself.
Cause I actually think there’s more. I think there’s a more controlled pace to any potential new client or opportunity like it’s not a fire drill. It is a deliberate conscious and very human centric approach. Um, and those conversations can still take a fair amount of time but where we’re.
You know and part of leaning into our core values and our positioning is like we’re not getting into a low price battle. We’re not going to get into scoping you know, scoping up a bunch of work only to submit a bid that’s going to be a bit of 1 of 5 right? and I think that has led to more brutal relationships, more candid relationships of trust on the front end. Um and and more powerful engagements over time.
Right? Because that’s your team. They know the questions to ask right to get the answers they need to understand if that customer or prospect or prospect or no project right? is going to be a good fit for you and if that relationship would align well with your values.
And I think to your point of building customer relationships for so many years Courtney I think sometimes asking the question is even an indicator of if this is going to be the right client for us right? If they want to rush through a process just to get a bid or if.
Ah, client and I’m making ah all clients aren bad. But there are fringe cases where just the response of the client can illustrate that something like this might not be the best partnership or like we’re a tremendously collaborative group. Um, we pride ourselves on Michelin star standards and we’re positioning ourselves as a premium offering.
So there are a lot of companies that could provide a lot of value. There are a lot of other partnerships that can work. We just we might not be the right fit. So I think understanding what we’re looking for and really owning who we are and being up front with that I think allows both parties to make a real informed decision.
About a partnership rather than about a like tactical project.
I agree someone might need to buy on price right? They might need to buy on based on where your your your service hours I mean you, you know you don’t know and that’s fine right? It’s just not a good fit and it’s understanding that from the onset to make sure it’s a good experience for everyone involved whether or not they’re your client right? So I think that’s wonderful. Um, so what would you recommend or guess what would your recommendations John be for a company that’s currently rethinking their values and approach customer relationships I know that you talked a lot about reevaluating your core values. Yeah, like what look.
But timing. Do you suggest for that and what other things should companies be doing to ensure that they’re they’re establishing these values and really understanding who they are right finding themselves in a sense.
Yeah, it’s a great question Courtney I think well one and I hope listeners learn from the things that I’ve learned sometimes painfully but value should not come from the top down they really need be. They can be generated anywhere but they really need to be derived from the team. And that team needs to be fully enrolled and invested from the bottom up or however, your team is organized. Um I would also say that it’s ah it’s a challenge it really forces people to think differently, especially you know if this is something that is and it normally is like it’s something outside of the norm.
It’s going to require a different level of thinking. It’s a different type of task or activity. Um, and so you’re asking people to think differently? Um, and with that I think from a leadership level knowing it’s going to require communication and communication and more communication and just. All those things that come with change management. It’s going to require a lot of that. It’s going to be uncomfortable I I had a mentor once tell me that growth happened and I was I think it was actually during part of this like early pandemic really trying to a job change that like said John growth happens when you’re uncomfortable and there’s certainly a tipping point. There.
But in a way you kind of need to get the team uncomfortable or or get them acclimated to exploring into some of this unknown territory. Um, so that they can all be fully invested and enrolled but it is so worth it. I think about another angle. Um. Is to explore the buyers’ journey I touched on this a little bit briefly earlier but we’re also taking a look at and we’ve begun to map out just this is it initially it was a whiteboard exercise but let’s look at the buyer’s journey or our our client experience from. Brand awareness and presale through engagements in the ongoing relationships and and all those different touch points on where where the customer is delighted and where things are going great or where maybe where there’s not ah, not necessarily the most valuable added touch point. So I think looking at it like this we’ve begun to map and assess that out to understand where their high points may be, where there may be valleys and and where we can look at other areas to really level up and provide this Michelin experience. Um, that helpful.
It’s extremely helpful and and I think like so as I said before it it makes it makes sense of sense and I think that your approach is unique but people value it because they they they don’t want to waste time right? I think that’s something you’re helping a lot of folks with right? It’s either. We’re a good fittter or not., But the fact that you’re taking the time to understand what their goals are what are their pain points. What’s really going to help them to be successful and then you know rolling with that that is all about getting to know the customer. It’s funny because I’ve I’ve like I said I’ve worked in account management. Whole life and it’s never been having that sign deal that makes me happy. It’s always knowing that the client is walking away happy knowing that I help them achieve something that’s going to make make them look good right? Like that’s what what makes me happy and I I feel that you probably share that same sentiment.
Yeah, yeah, it’s more of a output isn’t the right word like it isn an output but the ultimate like the ultimate deliverable isn’t the the one signed to deal. It’s the the long-term relationship of. Trust.
In our words, knowing that there will be many more and that there’s going to be rough batches and there’s going to be hiccups. But you’ve established a relationship usually with more than 1 stakeholder that can rise above to work through those challenges you know in a professional services business like like like Br8kthru.
So I have to ask have you ever been to Michelin star restaurant?
Um I have um and now that you ask that my team Geez this is well now my team’s going to razz me even more um I have been to a few Michelins Star restaurants. My wife and I have been fortunate to travel internationally. Um.
I I have been to ah contrast with a k and that was in Oslo norway um I also went to a mission star restaurant in Sydney Australia um, and we went to one in italy as well I will see.
Um, very cool. Ah.
I will say so now my team is going to be like John what are you bringing us to like there’s plans in the works to get team Br8kthru but I will say um, we did late in 2021. We actually did an eight week curriculum it was a quarterly rock for the team around. Getting more alignment around Michelin star standards right? because not everyone is a huge shooty and really understanding like what here are the first like here’s how it here how it originated here are the standards that are applied and like how can we apply those standards to our business but we so there was kind of a homework assignment weekly and then we had a discussion. And then that was capped off with with a pretty cool event but like we we watched a specific episode of chef’s table and then had a discussion about it. We listened to a podcast from a restaurant tour. We read a white paper by Deloitte about how the future of of hotels are people-centered um like activities like we watch Girojis of sushi. And then to cap it off. Um, and I think this is kind of my response to it doesn’t necessarily need to be a Michelin starred restaurant because we’re applying this to our business but we had a local chef yiveng here here in Minneapolis who’s actually now been nominated for a James Beard award for best chef Midwest but.
We had y-vein come in and give a private you have a private dining experience and it was actually called a venai feast he’s of hmong heritage and was a among immigrant and Vanna was actually the concentration camp where his family grew up so it was a tremendously powerful evening but he laid out.
Stacked tables together. There was no silverware. He laid out banana leaves and then constructed this feast for you know our team of 20 and then talked for about 45 minutes or an hour about his background and his heritage. But also we got to ask some questions around how he can apply high standards and of that Michelin caliber. In in a completely different type of type of restaurant or type of business. So yes, I’ve been fortunate to go to a couple of Michelin star restaurants. But I think um, there’s I don’t there aren’t any in the state of Minnesota. But I think it’s more around understanding that level of service.
Yeah, and obviously those standards have been very translated very well and to your company. You guys have had great success and you know congratulations and we certainly wish you continued so success.
And the relationship that comes with that really brings loyalty.
Well thank you.
Um, John this has been very very insightful, very much enjoyed speaking with you so before we recap and say goodbyes or anything you would like to plug.
Well um, if any of your listeners are interested in experiencing what working with an aspiring Michelin star marketing and technology firm is like or have a complex challenge to solve we should chat outside of that I think.
Feel free to connect with me or anyone on my team to chat stress test or challenge anything I said we could spar or just connect in general around our core values our business and how we’ve grown or anything else. The pandemic has forced me personally to get a lot better at generating connections. You know through Linkedin and other platforms that are much outside of my normal social circle in my geography. So happy to connect virtually or on another podcast as well.
Yeah, this is really great and obviously super beneficial for our customers who you know are and obviously own their own business or our entrepreneurs or who you know are just working at companies right? who are looking to establish core values or build their core values and you know what we’ve learned from John today is that.
You know your core values are kind of based on this fine dining approach but they are the foundation for Br8kthru, it’s not only the foundation of your team internally. But how the team works externally with customers and kind of uses that as the foundation of relationships with customers as well. Um, and it’s you know, making sure you’re evaluating these squeeze values as you go to ensure that you’re always kind of known as a company like who you are where you want and where you want to go. So thank you John this has been great. So again, we wish you continued success. We very much appreciate the opportunity to highlight.
Agency or accomplishments looks forward to working with you again in the future. And thanks to our listeners as well for your support keep up with us on Twitter at Smartroutepod and just be sure to also subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts so you could be the first to know when our next episode drops. Thanks again and we’ll talk to you soon.