Inside Track: Answering service owner finds her calling in family business
Learning curve steep but commitment strong as cancer accelerates transition from father to daughter
There was a time Sue Cunningham-Milito didn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps.
While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management at Aquinas College, Cunningham-Milito worked in the call center at Grand Rapids-based Cunningham Communications, an answering service her father, Dick Cunningham, founded in 1989. But after she graduated, Cunningham-Milito decided she wanted to branch out, so she did — working in sales at the Amway Grand Plaza and Steelcase Inc.
But in 2003, Cunningham-Milito decided to return to Cunningham Communications as a sales manager, alongside her father as his “right-hand lady.”
“I’ve always believed in customer service, so I went out and did my own thing, met a lot of great people and contacts, but realized I really enjoyed working for my dad and learning from him,” Cunningham-Milito said. “He taught me so many things over the years, like the importance getting back with people — even today we’ll return calls and people will be so thankful just for calling them back. It’s kind of a lost art.”
She began to learn the intricacies of the company with the plan of taking over when her father eventually retired. Those plans were accelerated when Dick Cunningham was diagnosed with cancer. He died of the disease in December 2014.
Cunningham-Milito had already purchased the business from her father before his battle with cancer, but the plan had been that Dick Cunningham would be around to help ease her into the role. After his death, Cunningham-Milito and her then-fiancé — Paul Milito, who joined the business shortly before Dick Cunningham’s diagnosis — had to quickly adjust.
“My dad had worked so hard, and I’d seen him (starting) when I was in high school, what he made this business become,” Cunningham-Milito said. “And I want to keep it going and keep it strong for him, and continue to grow what he has created. That’s what kept me going, because it’s so important to me to keep it strong for him and for us.
“There’s passion there when it’s family.”
With a strong focus on organizations based in West Michigan, Cunningham Communications services industries from medical and law professionals to one-man operations, such as repair technicians and plumbers.
And because of her experience working in the call center in college, Cunningham-Milito already had a strong working knowledge of the wide range of companies serving West Michigan.
With 13 years of experience with the company, Cunningham-Milito was already well-acquainted with the business. And after years of being turned down, her father had finally persuaded Paul to join the family business, bringing an outsider’s perspective.
“I’ve grown up knowing the service forever, and sometimes Paul will suggest different ideas that I never even thought of,” Cunningham-Milito said. “And of course my dad had seen a lot of potential in Paul, so he set it up so that we could grow this business together.”
Though they had known each other for years, having both graduated from Grand Rapids West Catholic High School, the couple didn’t begin dating until about seven years ago, when Milito first asked out his future wife by — how else? — leaving a message on her answering machine. The couple married in August.
Milito joined Cunningham Communications after a career in the tool and die sector, and it didn’t take long for him to learn the ropes. While Cunningham-Milito was helping her father through chemotherapy, Milito helped with many of the day-to-day operations. Milito said he was surprised to find out how many people didn’t know what an answering service was or how valuable it can be, especially for smaller businesses.
“If someone calls and the business owner who’s taking those calls has his cellphone in his pocket, doing whatever, that could be lost revenue,” he said. “When you have a live person answering the phone and we’re able to connect to a person they need, that’s what some people are looking for, and it’s been a joy educating people on what it is that we do.”
Cunningham-Milito plans to grow the business by 50 percent in the next five years. Since its inception, Cunningham Communications has grown through word of mouth and referrals. Now the company is looking to take a more aggressive marketing strategy to achieve that growth.
With the advent of cellphones and rise of a culture steeped in constantly being connected to the world, the idea of an answering service seems foreign to many, Cunningham-Milito said. But the value is there, especially for businesses that might not be able to afford a secretarial staff.
“We answer for service companies, restoration companies where people are in these dire situations — and they’ll just hang up and call the next one if they don’t get an answer,” Cunningham-Milito said. “So there is a value to having an answering service that can connect them with the person who has the answers for them, because I think that ultimately, as much as people like to text, when you want to talk to a roofer or serviceman, you want to talk to them directly.
“And it’s that loss of customer service in the last few years that we’re trying to help make up.”
In that regard, it’s no surprise that keeping her company focused on interpersonal connection is important to Cunningham-Milito. Cunningham Communications employs 20 workers — three managers and the rest in the call center — and occasionally one of the Militos’ golden retrievers, who often can be found wandering about the office.
It’s that personality and passion for her employees and clients that Cunningham-Milito wants to avoid losing as she looks to grow the business.
“Our whole goal is the personal service factor, and we’ve got customers who have been with us 25 years, and our staff knows all of them by name,” Cunningham-Milito said. “As soon as you get into this monstrous call center, you become a number, not a name. And that’s not what we’re all about, it’s just not who we are.”
In her short time owning the company, Cunningham-Milito said the biggest change has been in her mindset. Managing a business that operates 24 hours, 7 days a week is no simple task, and Cunningham-Milito often takes her work home with her.
She says her father always taught her to never leave the office without resolving the day’s problems — and if that means constantly thinking about what’s going on back at the office, working to find solutions off the clock, that’s what she does.
“I really do find myself digging in now. It’s not just a matter of going in and working 8-5,” Cunningham-Milito said. “The creativity gets flowing, and that definitely is a big part of it. … The amount of stuff I’ve had to learn in the last year is just insane. But it’s fun to meet those challenges head on, and it’s something we’re passionate about.”