Thursday, November 20, 2014

Building a Customer Experience Strategy with Long-Term, Tangible Results

An interview with
Alistair Firmin
Vice President, Customer Service
Standard Insurance Company

Interviewed by Sam Narisi

As Vice President of Customer Service with The Standard, Alistair Firmin serves as the executive sponsor of the organization’s customer experience effort. For a little over a year, he’s led a company-wide push to ensure the customer stays at the center of everything The Standard does.

Following his presentation at the 10th Anniversary Customer Contact 2014, West: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, we spoke with Alistair about the customer experience effort, what challenges the company has faced, and what lessons have been learned along the way.

How did your current customer experience effort begin? What made you realize it was time to implement this strategy?

We’ve been a company for 107 years, and we were founded on the basic principles of customer experience. Our founder Leo Samuel got together with some friends and started an insurance company in Portland because processing claims on the east coast took too long for the families covered. They paid their very first claim on the same day it was submitted, which is pretty incredible for 1906, let alone today. So we’ve always been about the customer experience, but our concerted effort began after the financial crisis, when everyone really focused on staying financially viable. We wanted to make sure we brought the whole customer experience back into the center of what we do.

We stepped back and took a holistic look and saw we had a mix of products, distribution channels, technology, etc. We knew we had to make sure our customers didn’t get lost in all this and that we were bringing products and services to the marketplace in a way that makes sense for them. It wasn’t that something big or disastrous happened to shift our focus; it was a natural progression for us.

Talk about the steps you’ve taken as part of this strategy.

During the first few months I talked to people and started to formulate the best way to get it going. I tried to get a feel for not just their perspective about customer experience, but also what things may have helped add to or detract from the customer experience in the past. When you’re talking about customer experience or anything else that’s not so tangible, you really need to understand the culture in the company and how you can best ride that to deliver a long-lasting impact.

For the next step, I selected six of my peers to join me on a council. Those were folks who not only demonstrated a passion for customer experience but also had controllership of key areas of the company and were decision-makers. I told them this can’t just be a flash in the pan that we put together and employees snicker about; it has to deliver tangible results. We got together and created a roadmap with the items we knew we needed to tackle first, then prioritized those efforts and put some resources behind them.

One of the elements of that roadmap that’s been extremely important for us was putting together customer champion teams. Those consist of 15 or so individuals from different functions that focus on each of our customer segments. They help map out the touchpoints and how customers feel, how important those touchpoints are, and how easy or difficult it would be to close any gaps.

What was the biggest challenge you faced along the way?

The biggest challenge we ran into and continue to run into is the time this requires people to spend away from their day jobs. The council meets every week for an hour at a minimum, and we have the champions get together several times a month for two-hour sessions. So the biggest challenge is not only getting those folks, because they’re fantastic individuals and everyone wants a piece of them, but then making sure we maximize their time and make sure they feel their time is being well spent.

This is where those efforts can easily wax and wane. If people don’t feel like their time is being respected and well used, they’ll drop off. One thing that’s helped avoid that is that we have an incredible project manager on the job. She brings a lot of energy and passion and keeps things moving forward. Another thing is the people involved. When you have a great group of people, some of them will be naturally inclined to put more effort in. So it’s important to identify those people early and make sure they feel satisfied, because they keep the energy going as well.

We also focus on recognition, thanking people for participating, and making sure we listen to what they have to say and are honest and open with them. They need to know that if they put the effort in, we’re going to listen and take them seriously.

You mentioned how important it is to have a long-term, tangible impact. How do you measure success to make sure it’s working? 

When we started looking at customer experience from a strategic perspective, we knew we needed to link it to something tangible. We’re tying our efforts to retention or what we call persistency – the willingness of customers to renew their coverage. If our customers are having a good experience, they’re more likely to stay with us. We want to keep our customers, make them feel valued and deliver a great experience. The longer any company keeps a customer, generally the more profitable they become.

As an insurance company, you work with both individuals and businesses. Do you have to address each type of customer differently? 

We have three customer segments for employee benefits. First, we have our brokers. They’re not captive to us and they represent all of our competitors as well, but we absolutely view them as critical. They’re the ones who bring us to the table with their clients. Their clients are the employers, which is another customer segment. The employers are working with us on bills and contracts, and they have to do on-boarding and on-going management of their benefit plans. Then of course, there are the covered employees – the folks who are actually using the benefits.

Each one of those segments brings a different expectation and a different view of us as a company. That’s why we have three different champion groups, to make sure we keep each one of those customers in perspective. We’ve also done some market research around customer perspectives and attitudes and what’s important to them, and we’ve dovetailed it with our branding efforts at the corporate level. The brand team has done a great job surveying the marketplace and determining the positioning for us. Understanding the attitudes and perspectives of the different types of customers is critical. Often, efforts like this will tailor to one customer type and lose the other perspectives.

This is an ongoing process. What have you learned along the way?

We learn constantly. We have constant feedback sessions and we’re always looking to the council to see if we need to change direction or shift our focus. There are multiple things we’ve learned. The biggest key here is making sure you’re constantly looking for and soliciting feedback, and that when it comes you listen to it. There isn’t one lesson I can point to, it’s lots of little lessons and constant course correction and adjustment.

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