A Culture of engagement and customer-centric core values drives world-class service delivery.
In recent years, some service providers have subscribed to the theory that companies should strive to provide a level of customer service that is just “good enough,” and should not spend the effort or resources trying to delight their customers. Customers will be satisfied if you just get the basics right, they say.
Rob Judson challenges that notion. “If you consistently go above and beyond the customer’s expectations, you will build long-term relationships and keep your customers for life,” he says. “That’s a far better business model. It might cost a little more, but it supports our culture and our core value to put the customer at the heart of everything we do.” Judson is senior vice president of contact center operations at HomeServe USA, a leading provider of home emergency repair service plans.
The judges at the 2015 Stevie Awards for Sales & Customer Service seem to agree with Judson. Impressed with the organization’s successful development of a specialized team of frontline reps whose main goal is to deliver a “wow” customer experience, they recognized HomeServe USA with Gold Stevie® Awards for both Frontline Customer Service Team of the Year and Telesales Team of the Year.
Extensive Training and Support for Frontline Staff
HomeServe USA has a long reputation for delivering high-quality customer service with consistently high ratings (98% overall customer satisfaction following a service experience and 98% mystery shopper score on call center rep performance). That’s not surprising when you consider the care that goes into selecting and developing the customer service team.
What does the ideal customer service candidate look like? Technical capability is only a small portion of what it takes to deliver a world-class experience, says Judson. Individuals who are a good fit for the company’s core values and culture have a service-oriented attitude as well as an aptitude for learning, are enthusiastic, open to coaching, and have the passion to do well and to grow within the business.
Once onboard, the company invests heavily in learning and development to ensure each new-hire’s success. The center’s extensive induction training program lasts for five to seven weeks. It begins with classroom training to learn about products, tools, technologies and various types of engagement skills. Senior management support is demonstrated from the beginning. Judson makes a point of spending time with each training class to talk with new-hires about the company’s core values, the importance of a customer-centric attitude and shares advice from his own experience working on the phones.
Once new-hires graduate from the classroom, they move into a transition training bay. The bay provides a high-intensity learning environment with a much lower trainer-to-trainee ratio (around 1:4), Judson explains. Reps begin to take customer calls in phases—a few calls at a time followed by additional coaching and feedback. As their skills and confidence grow, they migrate into full shifts.
“We have some great coaches who spend time engaging the reps and working with them to hone their skills, build their confidence and ensure that they feel comfortable on the phones,” he says. “We want to make sure that, from the first call they take, the customer experience that they provide is the same as someone who’s been here for years.”
Frontline training is not a once-and-done event. The center provides ongoing skills development training as part of its career-path program. “We continuously up-skill our people and cross-utilize them,” Judson says. “It’s a huge reason why we have such high engagement and a highly skilled workforce.”
Judson also credits the center’s training and development approach in part for the center’s remarkably low attrition (approximately 2% per month). “That’s a testament to the engagement and the support that we give our staff from the first day that they join us,” he points out.
A True Measure of Exceptional Service: Customer Feedback
Despite its high Csat and mystery shopper ratings, the contact center is constantly looking for opportunities to improve the customer experience. That continuous improvement mindset, along with employee feedback, is what led the leadership team to explore an unconventional approach to managing frontline performance: What would happen if they dropped traditional contact center metrics, such as average handle time, schedule adherence and sales conversions, and focused solely on customer feedback to determine rep performance?
“Our employees have been delivering against those types of contact center metrics for a long time. While management may use the data, it doesn’t tell you a lot about the customer experience,” Judson says. Similarly, standard quality monitoring approaches tend to take an inside-out view of the experience. “Why use a QA function to second-guess what the customer’s experience was or wasn’t?” he points out. “Why not ask the customers to rate the experience and let them be the true measure of whether we’ve delivered world-class WOW service or if we have opportunities to improve?”
The leadership team decided to test the new approach with a group of employees. Named the “WOW” team, their sole objective was to put the customer first and deliver personable customer service—a WOW experience—that differentiated the company from its competitors and customers from other types of service experiences. Realizing that this type of above-and-beyond service required frontline staff to be fully empowered, the leadership team rolled out a separate training program for the WOW team members that focused on taking ownership of the customer’s issue, accountability for first-contact resolution, and how to live the company’s core value of putting the customer first.
The pilot program was launched. Reps were encouraged to have real conversations with their customers without being restricted to time limits. While the staff was still required to adhere to industry compliance regulations, their service performance was measured solely by customer feedback via a post-call survey.
The post-call survey consisted of a single question that asked customers to rate their recent call on a scale of 1-to-5, with one being completely dissatisfied and 5 being completely satisfied or wowed. Management found that customers were more than willing to offer their feedback (70% participation rate). In the 13 months since the program launched, the WOW team’s overall performance proved to be outstanding—98.3% of customers rated their experience a 5 out of 5, and to date, the team has never had a 1 or 2 rating.
The pilot ran for three months at HomeServe’s Chattanooga, Tenn., contact center. After the first four weeks, says Judson, it was pretty clear that the WOW concept was going to be successful, and management began a phased rollout across applicable teams in the contact center. The positive customer experience in the U.S. business has also caused the U.K.-based HomeServe to test the WOW team concept in its European subsidiaries.
The WOW Team in Action
So what is a WOW experience? Judson describes a recent customer interaction with WOW team member Greg Gent. The customer was struggling with a short-term financial hardship. Although it was temporary, this customer was accounting for every dollar and, to squeeze by over the next few months, the customer felt that her only option was to cancel one or more of HomeServe’s repair service plans. The customer realized that it was a risky move—she would be exposing herself to a deeper financial crisis if faced with a repair emergency during that time.
Gent worked with the customer to set up a payment holiday to temporarily suspend plan payments for the next few months—until her financial situation stabilized. During the conversation, the customer joked that, “We really need to keep all of the warranties, so I guess our family will have to cut out the Klondike ice cream bars.” At the end of the call, the customer was grateful that she didn’t have to cancel any of her plans in order to get by for the next few months.
The next day, the customer was surprised and delighted to receive delivery of a Styrofoam container filled with Klondike bars—and a note from Gent that said, “We don’t want you to go without your Klondike bars.”
The customer was so moved by the gesture that she put her head down on the box and cried. Then she immediately wrote a letter to the customer service operations’ leaders about the experience and to request that Gent be commended and rewarded for his performance. “To us, this is what the customer experience is about,” Judson says. “It made us incredibly proud to see how a simple gesture touched our customer.”
After receiving the customer’s letter, the leadership team brought in Klondike bars for the entire call center operation and held “Klondike Day” to celebrate the entire customer service team. As Judson explains: “When you have these moments of feedback that affirm your values and vision, it’s important to share them to make sure that the encouragement continues and people truly understand that we are that customer-centric business that we focus on all the time.”
Culture Drives Employee Engagement
For HomeServe USA, having a customer- and employee-centric culture is the foundation for driving world-class service. “Culture is the heartbeat of the contact center. It’s the single most important thing to drive,” says Judson. “Our customer service philosophy and our cultural engagement go hand-in-hand to delivering the service.”
Importantly, the company’s culture is driven from the top. Every member of the management team—from team leaders to directors—shares Judson’s views. In fact, when hiring for a call center management position, he spends a substantial portion of the interview discussing culture with every candidate. “They can have the best skills in the world, but if they don’t have an appreciation for how important culture is to managing a center and to engaging employees, then they’re not a good fit for HomeServe,” he says. “Everyone has to be on board—from the CEO to the frontline rep. Our CEO is willing to stand and deliver back-to-back presentations to groups of 15 employees at a time because he wants to have that type of personal engagement.”
At HomeServe USA, a lot of thought and effort goes into creating a fun, engaging workplace. Judson is quick to point out that it’s not your run-of-the-mill “pizza and a couple of balloons fun, but wacky, off-the-wall engaging fun that makes coming to work a pleasure.” For instance, imagine taking part in a human foosball tournament during World Cup, or competing against other teams and locations in the HomeServe version of the Olympics.
“In the past week alone, we had a grill competition to kick off football season, and today is ‘Make a Hat’ day. Why? Well, it’s Tuesday… why not?” Judson says. “That’s our culture. We do it because, if our employees have a smile on their faces, if they feel valued and if they feel like we care about them, that’s going to radiate through every call that they deliver and the customer is going to feel a different experience.”
In addition to fun activities, top performance is regularly recognized and rewarded. Employees who display exceptional performance can be nominated by their supervisors for a President’s Award. Every quarter, nominees at each corporate location attend an awards dinner where the winners are announced. The winners receive an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City during the holiday season for shopping, tours and dinner with the company’s executive leadership team.
Caring about and for employees is a key part of HomeServe’s culture, and one which management takes to heart. This past winter, when a snowstorm in Chattanooga made driving conditions hazardous, management hired four-wheel-drive SUVs to pick up the staff so they wouldn’t have to drive themselves. They also put up employees at a nearby hotel so they wouldn’t have to take unnecessary risks.
Multiple Touchpoints to Collect VoC Insights
The ability to drive customer-centric values and culture requires insights into customers’ needs, expectations and desires. HomeServe USA taps into the voice of the customer via multiple touchpoints along the customer journey. In addition to the WOW team post-call phone surveys, the organization collects voice of the customer (VoC) data via independent phone surveys at different stages in the customer lifecycle, as well as post-service surveys, real-time onsite surveys to get feedback about the experience provided by the field technicians, and online surveys. More recently, the contact center rolled out speech analytics tools to capture and analyze customer insights from calls.
Charged with transforming customer data into action and goals is a Voice of the Customer Committee that meets monthly and includes representatives from senior leadership—including the CEO and members of the executive team—as well as operational stakeholders across the organization. The VoC Committee members act as “the guardians of the customer experience,” Judson says. “The committee makes sure that everything we do is aligned with our customer promise.
“The insight that we collect is so rich and valuable—it helps us to shape our customer-centric culture,” he adds. “Constantly putting the customer at the heart of everything we do is one of core values, and it’s really central to everything we do within the organization.”