In The Trenches

J oan Freitag is a 23-year veteran of the federal government, but to watch her work, you'd never know it. Freitag, the Federal Technology Service's Mid-Atlantic Region director of customer loyalty, sits with her back to a glimmering, mid-morning vista of downtown Philadelphia on view from her boss's office-digs befitting a corporate chief executive. She produces a pamphlet listing contributions to customer service her associates made in the previous month. It lists anecdotes about employees going the extra mile to get a job done right. Most are run-of-the-mill. But then there is the story of an employee who, upon learning that one of her "A" customers recently had bought a new cat, dropped by his place of business with a toy catnip mouse and a can of kitty treats.

Federal bureaucrats aren't famous for giving quaint "thinking of you" gifts paid for out of their own pockets, much less setting up departments that encourage such behavior. That's the kind of concierge treatment one expects from Nordstrom, not K-Mart. But this isn't K-Mart. Freitag works for the premier personal shopper of the federal government, the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service, a fee-for-service operation that buys information technology and telecommunications goods and services on behalf of federal agencies. Freitag's business is making people happy. And if her own level of job satisfaction is any indication of how her customers feel, they're probably jumping for joy right about now.

Beyond the Beltway, the legwork of FTS is carried out in its 11 regional offices. The bulk of FTS' workforce consists of individuals who've never worked in Washington. And it's in the regions that one sees the truest expression of FTS' vision of "world-class service." To design her loyalty program, Freitag met with Philadelphia branches of Starbucks and Ritz-Carlton, two organizations known for fawning over customers. She learned their trade secrets. With the assistance of her boss, assistant regional administrator Paul McDermott, who constantly quotes statistics from market research firm J.D. Power and Associates and mantras from General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch, Freitag codified the region's rules for stellar service and emblazoned them on mouse pads for all employees. Even GSA Administrator Stephen Perry got one when he visited the Philadelphia FTS office in August. Mid-Atlantic Region sales grew 250 percent in the past three years, from $57 million to $200 million in fiscal 2001, McDermott says, largely because top-level customers get what he calls "red carpet treatment."

Adding to the bottom line is an eight-year $200 million contract negotiated in January with electronics manufacturer Raytheon of Lexington, Mass. The company will provide business and scientific computing centers for NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Just 135 miles from Washington, Philadelphia seems a world away from the politics that have ensnared the Federal Technology Service. Freitag believes that FTS headquarters overlooks the regional offices, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing these days. She doesn't worry much about the size of service fees or FTS' future role within GSA. "It's a concern, but I still have a job to do," she says. Employees in FTS' Great Lakes regional office are as fired up as their East Coast counterparts. The Great Lakes Region, headquartered in Chicago, counts Wright-Pat- terson and Scott Air Force bases in Ohio and Illinois as two of its largest clients.

Assistant regional administrator Bill Griessel says his 70 employees will bring in $300 million in sales on IT contracts and about $800,000 on telecom deals in fiscal 2001.

Regional employees say the recent fuss in Washington over FTS' fees is a non-story in the field-their customers don't care. Judith Magana, a telecommunications specialist in the Great Lakes Region who markets the Metropolitan Area Acquisition Program for local phone and data service, says her clients are happy to pay a large markup when the price they pay for phone lines has been reduced by more than 80 percent in some cases.

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