Tag Archives: ritz-carlton

Building a Customer-Service Culture

First, let me say that I don’t make a habit out of staying at Ritz-Carlton hotels. But I have had occasion perhaps a dozen or more times to stay at a Ritz while attending a conference. I’ll have to say that, not only did I never experience a problem, but, without exception, each stay was an exercise in indulgence. I’ve also experienced several outstanding displays of excellence in customer service.

On one occasion, I was preparing for a workshop and realized that I had forgotten my overhead markers. Stepping into the hallway outside the meeting room, I asked a housekeeper who was dusting ashtrays (really) if she knew how I could get in touch with the A/V people. In many other hotels, I’ve been lucky to get a shrug or Freddie Prinze-ish, “That’s not my job, man.”

Not at the Ritz. The lady insisted on tracking down the markers herself (my program was scheduled to begin in minutes) and, remarkably (no pun intended), she returned with a new, unopened pack of markers within five minutes. She had been taught that SHE “owns” any request by a hotel guest.

On another occasion, I was convinced there was a shortcut to a meeting room on the second floor (where my sleeping room was located), so I wouldn’t have to go down and through the lobby, then back up some stairs to the second floor again. I stopped and asked a guy who was painting some trimwork if he knew how to get to the room. It would have been easy for him to say he didn’t know, but this guy laid down his brushes and escorted me through a maze of corridors to the meeting room. What this gentleman did is the rule, not the exception, at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

If you’ve ever stayed at a Ritz-Carlton hotel, I’m betting that your experience was outstanding, too. (In an independent survey, 99% of Ritz-Carlton guests said they were satisfied with their experience, with more than 80% “extremely satisfied.”) How can they do it so much better than most hotel chains? Yes, you do pay a premium for their services, so we can attribute some of this to a larger budget. But, for the most part, the Ritz does it by creating a corporate culture almost solely devoted to serving the customer. If you spend the night at a Ritz, chances are the person making your bed received more training than you did getting licensed!

EVERY Ritz-Carlton employee receives a minimum of 120 hours of customer service training. That’s THREE WEEKS or more of training devoted to one discipline. Most first-year employees receive 250-300 hours of total training. How many of your CSRs have received 120-300 hours of any kind of training? This type of commitment to service and training pays off by allowing the Ritz to charge significantly higher rates for rooms and facilities while developing a clientele that is fiercely loyal. Many people WILL pay more for greater quality and service…the kind of people most businesses would want as long-term customers.

See also: How to Enhance Customer Service  

The Ritz-Carlton, at the time this article was originally drafted, is the only hotel chain to receive the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and the only two-time winner (1992 and 1999) in the service category. In a study by Cornell and McGill universities, the Ritz was selected “Overall Best Practices Champion” from a field of 3,528 nominees.

Let’s take a look at some of the foundational principles of the Ritz:

The Ritz-Carlton Motto:

“We Are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”

The Ritz-Carlton Three Steps of Service:

  1. A warm and sincere greeting. Use the guest’s name, if and when possible.
  2. Anticipation and compliance with guest needs.
  3. Fond farewell. Give them a warm good-bye and use their names, if and when possible.

The Ritz-Carlton Credo:

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.

We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests, who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed yet refined ambiance.

The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.

The Ritz-Carlton Basics:

  1. The Credo will be known, owned and energized by all employees.
  2. Our motto is: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” Practice teamwork and “lateral service” to create a positive work environment.
  3. The three steps of service shall be practiced by all employees.
  4. All employees will successfully complete Training Certification to ensure they understand how to perform to The Ritz-Carlton standards in their position.
  5. Each employee will understand their work area and Hotel goals as established in each strategic plan.
  6. All employees will know the needs of their internal and external customers (guests and employees) so that we may deliver the products and services they expect. Use guest preference pads to record specific needs.
  7. Each employee will continuously identify defects throughout the Hotel.
  8. Any employee who receives a customer complaint “owns” the complaint.
  9. Instant guest pacification will be ensured by all. React quickly to correct the problem immediately. Follow up with a telephone call within 20 minutes to verify the problem has been resolved to the customer’s satisfaction. Do everything you possibly can to never lose a guest.
  10. Guest incident action forms are used to record and communicate every incident of guest dissatisfaction. Every employee is empowered to resolve the problem and to prevent a repeat occurrence.
  11. Uncompromising levels of cleanliness are the responsibility of every employee.
  12. “Smile – We are on stage.” Always maintain positive eye contact. Use the proper vocabulary with our guests (Use words like – “Good morning,” “Certainly,” “I’ll be happy to” and “My pleasure”).
  13. Be an ambassador of your Hotel in and outside of the work place. Always talk positively. No negative comments.
  14. Escort guests rather than pointing out directions to another area of the Hotel.
  15. Be knowledgeable of Hotel information (hours of operation, etc.) to answer guest inquiries. Always recommend the Hotel’s retail and food and beverage outlets prior to outside facilities.
  16. Use proper telephone etiquette. Answer within three rings and with a “smile.” When necessary, ask the caller, “May I place you on hold?” Do not screen calls. Eliminate all transfers when possible.
  17. Uniforms are to be immaculate. Wear proper and safe footwear (clean and polished) and your correct name tag. Take pride and care in your personal appearance (adhering to all grooming standards).
  18. Ensure all employees know their roles during emergency situations and are aware of fire and life safety response processes.
  19. Notify your supervisor immediately of hazards, injuries, equipment or assistance that you need. Practice energy conservation and proper maintenance and repair of Hotel property and equipment.
  20. Protecting the assets of a Ritz-Carlton Hotel is the responsibility of every employee.

Real Reason Health Insurance Is Broken

Healthcare is broken in this country; I don’t think I really have to convince too many people of that. Whether your political leanings are blue or red, whether you’re a senior citizen or a teenager, really whether you’re rich or poor — just about everybody senses that something is wrong with how we manage care. This is not a quality-of-service issue, not so much an access-to-care issue and not really a lack-of-options issue. No, the problem most Americans rightly recognize as being wrong in current system boils down to one word: price.

But how do you fix that? For 20 years now, I have tried to help employers manage their healthcare costs for employees and their families. For at least the first 15 years of my career, that job mostly entailed comparing options from the national and regional carriers, negotiating the lowest rates possible, making suggestions to help lower benefits to offset rising premiums and then preparing spreadsheets of all those options for our CEO, CFO and HR director. Basically, my job was to bring in bad news, but to try to bring in the least bad news. All to get new clients and keep old ones.

Any time a business owner would ask me, “Why are our premiums rising so much?” I’d turn the question around a bit and ask what she thought the causes were. Inevitably, I’d hear the same three things. First, those “staggering profits of the insurance companies.” Closely behind that is America’s notorious “increase in obesity.” Then third — every once in a while — someone would actually get closer to the truth and say the reason is that “medical costs are rising.” And all of these are true, no doubt, to one degree or another. But none explains how health insurance premiums have historically risen at a rate five times or more beyond normal inflation.

When pressed for an answer on higher premiums, I’d explain how we receive very little information from carriers (especially in the fully insured market), but you’ve got a higher-than-desirable loss ratio — or I might mention the aging employee population, declining overall health, new taxes and regulations perhaps related to the Affordable Care Act. Again, all those reasons, to some degree or another, have a real impact.

The one that kept coming closest to the truth, at least from an insurance insider’s perspective, is the steady rise in costs. Or, unfortunately, as most consumers see it, the outlandish profiteering manufactured from the suffering, confusion and fear of others.

To truly find a more meaningful answer — something consumers and advocates and carriers and even legislatures could theoretically one day use to craft a lasting solution — I started to look at the actual unit cost of medical care. That’s vital, because it strips away taxes, fees, insurance profits and many other considerations like America’s decreasing health, or the continued drop in smoking. It clears all that fog and gives you a hard-number comparison. And what I discovered was that we as a nation spend more per unit of care than the next seven most-expensive countries COMBINED.

That deserves repeating. Not only do we as a nation maintain the world’s most expensive healthcare system as a whole, but at the individual level you are likely to be billed more for the same procedure than similar patients in China, France, Germany, Canada, Malaysia, India and the U.K. if all their bills were rolled into one.

Comparisons

To put things in better perspective, I looked at other common costs we incur going back as far as before the Industrial Revolution. And what I found was that the price of a car has not wildly changed in all those years. Nor do gas prices rise against inflation. Meanwhile, prices of computers and technology have historically gone down. So how then do healthcare premiums justify such leaps?

Housing is a great example. Since 1970, housing costs have only gone up 15% — 15% in 45 years. In that same time period, medical care costs have jumped 1,800% — 18 times greater since 1970. How about since 1935? According to Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, costs have risen 4,200% in that time.

When further comparing health insurance and healthcare itself against any other goods and services we might buy, I realized that Americans, in general, tend to apply common sense and rational thinking to many other purchases, but that much of that practice somehow goes out the window when it comes to medical care.

We’ve become very good at consuming health insurance, but does that mean we’re actually good consumers? The executives at businesses do what they’re supposed to: compare costs, co-pays and deductibles presented by their broker/consultant each year. And when these executives do decide which plans to roll out to their employees, they are good shoppers. They compare their employers’ costs with their spouses’ employers, compare against the Obamacare exchanges (or individual plans pre-ACA) and consider other important factors — your out-of-pockets, your deductible, your premiums….

The goal is to control overall healthcare costs. But look at other types of insurance.

Many of us likely will shop out our car insurance every few years. After all, 15 minutes could save us 15%, right? Yet we know that any savings only apply to the insurance. We don’t expect shopping around for our car insurance to actually affect the price of the car. But the price of the car does affect insurance: A higher price tag means more expensive insurance.

The same is true in healthcare. We CANNOT lower our healthcare costs by shopping our insurance. Our healthcare costs are not at all affected by our insurance costs. This has been proven with the “consumer-driven” model of insurance (which has had limited to no impact on premiums long term). Yet our health insurance costs are almost fully driven by our actual healthcare costs. As a matter of fact, a provision of the Affordable Care Act known as “medical loss ratios” practically guarantees this.

Imagine that your teenager just got his driver’s license. After some good old-fashioned consternation and badgering, you’ve agreed to let him take out the car out unsupervised for the very first time, only to go to the corner store to get some much-needed milk. You hand over the keys and try not to stress too much. Of course, less than 15 minutes later, you get the dreaded phone call: He’s been in an accident.

Rushing to the scene, you’re relieved to discover it’s only a fender bender. The other driver, seemingly a reasonable person, agrees to accept your offer to not file an insurance claim, and instead pay him directly for what appears to be, let’s say, $1,000 of damage. After all, you’ve got a $500 deductible, and a claim filed by your teenager just weeks after getting his license could jack your rates up much more than the difference. Or, worse, your carrier could drop you, jeopardizing your freedom completely! So paying out of pocket makes sense, right?

But would we do ever this with our healthcare? Can you imagine anyone walking into a cardiologist appointment, especially with a co-pay plan, and saying, “I don’t want my insurance company knowing I may have heart disease, so let me just pay the $500 charge instead of submitting the claim and paying the co-pay”?

And let’s look at how oddly blind we are to the actual quality of healthcare we receive. For instance, in an operating room, a strong argument can be made that the anesthesiologist is the second most important person on the surgical team. After all, when you’re under general anesthesia, it’s her job to control the machines that keep you breathing. She also controls how “under” you go. She makes sure you don’t go so deep that you slip into a coma, but, equally important, makes sure you don’t wake up mid-procedure. Yet, with all that responsibility in her hands, who among us has even known who the anesthesiologist would be until five minutes prior to being knocked out? After all, for such an important role, wouldn’t it be nice to develop a relationship with this doctor, and maybe even have her be the one who administers sedatives for future surgeries? Maybe you’d just like to know if she only graduated medical school last week? That might be pertinent, too.

Instead, we juggle our healthcare purchases like nothing else we buy. Imagine if we consumed hotel stays like we do healthcare. We might have a high-deductible “hotel” plan. Say we had a $500 deductible before our plan covered stays at 100%. So if I’m only staying one night, I might look into cost and quality, maybe compare rooms on Trivago. But what if I needed a hotel room for a week, or a year, and I knew I’d be hitting that $500 threshold no matter where I stayed, from the most rat-infested hotel to a five-star resort? Wouldn’t I be inclined to stay at the Ritz Carlton in a $1,000-a-night because I know I’m hitting my deductible either way.

One of the pushbacks I get is that we, as patients, are not doctors and must rely on the pros. After all, when faced with a major medical condition, we’re usually not in the best frame of mind to make intelligent decisions. “I should just trust my doctor” is a common reaction, maybe the most common. And a very understandable one. But I’d argue that dealing with a major medical condition is the exact time to be most involved. Most aware. Most informed. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and yet our awareness is disturbingly low.

If we bought houses as we buy healthcare, it’d be like finding a reputable real estate agent and then asking him to go ahead and pick out a neighborhood, a house and the price we’ll pay. We’ll just meet him at the closing. Sounds crazy, right?

Where Insurance Is to Blame

Please know that I’m not holding insurance companies blameless. I do, for instance, blame the insurance industry for a major shift in our overall thinking. I hold the industry responsible for creating an environment in which the cost of care, and therefore the quality of care, becomes irrelevant. This was mainly born out of HMOs, of course, which, you’ll recall, lowered costs tremendously at first, and were hailed as the cure to all that ails our system, before things went so horribly wrong.

Here again, comparison can be useful. A while back, I was in a meeting with service department workers at a car dealership. I asked if they’d agree that most people, when paying for their own repair, would care about both the cost and quality. Everyone nodded — of course they would. I asked how that differed from a customer whose car was still under warranty. In that situation, they told me, the customers generally don’t care at all about cost, and, in fact, will likely come to a dealership on a warranty job specifically BECAUSE it’s the most expensive. After all, someone else is paying, right?

What most people are unaware of — mainly because they don’t ask — is that you can get warranty work done at many non-dealer repair shops.

Most people think of their health insurance a lot like they do a car warranty. The total cost, the competitively and fairly priced service, and, to a large extent, how good the work is just doesn’t matter so much when we’re not reaching into our pockets.

Doesn’t that tell us precisely why the “consumer driven” model hasn’t worked?

The idea was that if our plans have us paying higher deductible and co-pays, we’ll care more about the overall cost. Yet in 2015, the highest out- of-pocket allowed by the Affordable Care Act is just $6,600. If I’m going in for a procedure that may range in cost from $25,000 to $125,000, what exactly is my incentive to go looking for a deal? Or even ask questions? Not when I know I’ll be hitting my $6,600 threshold regardless of where I go.

And we inherently associate higher costs with greater quality of care. Is that a fair assumption? Not with the system we have. Actually, the opposite generally proves true.

Transparency

All of these things keep coming back to a singular issue for me: transparency. We simply don’t have the information we need to make wise decisions. Like finding out how good a specific hospital is at replacing hips, or how much it actually charges compared with another facility.

However, I believe the reason this information is not systematically available is the same reason why, if it suddenly were available overnight, with the wave of my magic wand, there would still be little impact. What is that reason? Because today, under the system and mentality we have, there’s simply no consumer demand for it.

Let’s look at it from the pharmaceutical side. The cost at a retail pharmacy for the generic Lipitor can vary from $16 to almost $80, depending on where you go to. But if you have a $10 co-pay, or have already reached your 100% coverage, how can I convince someone to go three miles out of his way to get the lower-cost prescription? How do I get him to even ask the question?

Another argument I hear frequently when I ask customers to identify the problems with healthcare: “Isn’t it the insurance company’s job to control cost? Don’t companies set up networks for this very purpose?”

Yes, they certainly do. But look at what really matters. Walmart started a list of $4 prescriptions. Many other pharmacies quickly followed suit. Try showing your insurance ID card for one of those drugs next time you go. In most cases, you’ll find the insurance company would pay a significantly higher price. Why? Because you have much more power than the insurance company does. Having you be willing to spend your money at a store is far more compelling to the business than anything an insurance company can negotiate.

We treat our own health like a discount haircut. We basically know as much about the professionals and facilities charged with saving our lives as we do with the stylists at Supercuts. It’s an insanely ill-informed way to manage the most important thing we have.

What can I leave you with in terms of possible solutions? They do exist, even though the Affordable Care Act limits some options.

What needs to happen is we have to encourage patients to care about the quality AND costs of the care they receive.

I envision a day when I can go on my smartphone and, using a basic app, find all the suitable places for replacing my hip, how well they’re rated, how often they do the operation and, of course, how much they charge. How many of us would walk into a new restaurant without the benefit of any word-of-mouth or knowing anything about the specialties, pick from a menu but only find out the price when you get your check? We do that every day with sprained wrists, broken bones, personal addictions, genetic illnesses, respiratory issues and even open-heart surgery,

The bigger picture here is really using our consumer dollars to force providers — meaning hospitals, doctors, drug manufacturers, pharmacies, etc. – to compete on the cost and quality of the services they provide, like nearly every other provider of any products or service we buy.

We’ve seen it work: In areas of healthcare that insurance typically doesn’t cover, like laser eye surgery or even cosmetic surgery, the change is already happening. The costs in those areas have gone down considerably while the quality has increased.

Naturally, I recognize that making the comparisons available and getting consumers to use them would be a huge challenge. What can we do in the meantime?

Well, some tools do exist. There is an online service called MediBid that allows hospitals and providers to actually bid on your medical care. When providers respond, patients can compare costs and quality among those providers.

Another possible solution: Instead of an annual deductible of, say, $2,500, we could have a monthly resettable deductible of something like $200. How would that help? Well, it would give us, as consumers, a little skin in the game year-round. It would encourage us to participate in lowering overall costs by not applying the car dealership model to an already bloated and wasteful system.

Another push, an indirect result of the ACA, is more self-insured products. Many times, these are appropriate for smaller businesses. Not only does the self-insured employer have significantly more transparency on costs but also, more importantly, has real incentive to control those costs.

Some employers negotiate reasonable pricing and, if they use a service like MediBid and it results in a significant savings, may offer to pay the employee’s deductible and even cover any travel expenses.

One innovative carrier has actually tied physical activity to a patient’s out-of-pocket cost. Any adult on the plan can opt-in to wear a step tracker, like a Fitbit. If certain goals are met, people can earn as much as $4 a day, or $1,000 a year, off their deductible and out-of-pocket.

Which brings up the topic of wellness, which has become a real buzzword in the last five years or so. While I do agree that getting “well” can translate into consuming less care, wellness programs don’t address the fact that nearly all people will consume care at some point in their lives and that many diseases are completely unrelated to lifestyle. My approach, the one I believe in: More transparency on the healthcare process and a community of well-informed consumers can help lower costs and improve quality on all care.

Conclusion

I believe that 90% of our problems would right themselves fairly quickly if only patients had the right incentives. If only information were made readily accessible. If only patients were allowed to be consumers, to shop for based on quality AND cost, just as we do with nearly everything else we buy.

This change would naturally force providers to improve their quality and lower their costs at a far more rapid pace. The pattern of unnecessary and duplicate testing would go down. Prices would quickly become far more competitive, as they should be.

And I believe Americans would start to see a more direct link between their financial picture and the decisions they make about their own health. If all this happened, if we had the transparency we need, then that dollar menu at McDonald’s might not seem so affordable once we understand the health and cost impact a double-cheeseburger really has down the road.

How to Hire for Attitude: 5 Steps

What do companies like Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton and Zappos have in common? They hire for attitude and train for skill.

It’s a simple mantra but one that has a profound impact on how to successfully recruit and select new employees.

Prioritizing Soft Skills

During their hiring process, these companies weigh “attitudinal” characteristics very heavily.

These are personal attributes that it’s difficult to train employees on — such as being a people-person, having an upbeat personality or possessing a keen ability to learn.

While these firms won’t ignore technical skills (Southwest doesn’t put unqualified pilots in the cockpit, no matter how bright and cheery they are) they nonetheless look very carefully at these soft skills — far more than most employers do.

These companies gain a lot from this hiring strategy. By focusing on attitudinal characteristics that align with their company brand, these companies reinforce their distinctive company culture with each new hire.

And because they’re hiring people whose values align with that culture, the result is a workforce that’s happier, more engaged and less likely to turn over.

But the benefits of this hiring process don’t stop there. When a workforce embodies the company brand (think how Southwest employees exude “fun”), it differentiates the customer experience where it counts most — in consumers’ one-on-one interactions with your staff.

If you have any doubt about the power of that dynamic, just consider how Southwest, Ritz-Carlton and Zappos have dominated their respective markets.

Five Steps to Hiring for Attitude

So how should you go about hiring for attitude, seeding your workforce with true brand ambassadors? You could run your applicants through personality tests and behavioral assessments — but that can be pricey, time-consuming and onerous for the candidates.

Fortunately, there are other approaches you can employ to put this strategy in practice. Here are five simple, low-cost ways to hire for attitude:

1. Be clear about expectations.

Take advantage of candidate self-selection by clearly broadcasting what qualities you look for when bringing on staff.

For example, if you tell the world that you’re in the market for extroverts – fewer introverts will apply (and that’s a good outcome for you and them).

By defining what personal qualities you’re searching for up-front, you make it more likely that candidates with those attributes will throw their hats into the ring.

2. Be aggressive.

Don’t just wait for people with the right attitude to apply for a job – spot them in the marketplace and make your pitch!

When you see someone who clearly embodies the qualities you want on your team, give her your card and invite her to apply for employment.

As any great recruiter knows, that extremely attentive waiter, remarkably patient sales associate or well-spoken repairman could be your next great hire.

3. Focus on the person behind the paper.

Gauging attitude from a resume requires insight and vision. Consider how the personal qualities you seek would manifest themselves in a candidate’s resume and background.

For example, individuals who are adept at overcoming adversity may have demonstrated that spirit in how they responded to a layoff. People-oriented extroverts may belong to a variety of business associations and community groups. Skilled communicators will likely design and organize their resume content in exceptional ways.

In addition, your interview questions can also reveal attitudinal characteristics. Looking for someone with customer service in his DNA? Ask about the most over-the-top service he ever delivered (the best service people never forget such stories).

Looking for someone with a sense of humor? Ask about the time she laughed the hardest.

Whatever attitude you seek to hire, the key is to look beyond the words on the resume and search for more subtle clues about a candidate’s character.

4. Observe applicants when they think no one is watching.

Want to see a candidate’s true colors? Then see how he behaves when he thinks no one is watching.

How did the applicant treat your receptionist? Did he strike up a conversation with other applicants in the waiting room? Did he eat alone in the cafeteria or introduce himself to a table of strangers?

What the candidate says and does outside of the hiring manager’s view can give you a glimpse into her true personality (which may differ from how she presents in an interview). Use these clues to help judge if the applicant will really be a good fit in the culture you’re cultivating.

5. Enlist today’s stars to spot tomorrow’s standouts.

Toward the end of the hiring process, see if it’s possible to have your job finalists spend some time shadowing existing employees.

This serves two objectives. First, candidates get an unfiltered look at the job they’d be performing, so there’s less chance of unpleasant surprises and post-hire buyers’ remorse.

Second, by pairing these finalists with the best employees (the ones who embody the desired attitude), your existing staff can help identify those applicants who have the right stuff.

Hiring for attitude is about building a distinctive workplace culture and company brand that, unlike skill sets, can’t easily be copied in the market. It’s what gives Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton and Zappos their unique character — and competitive advantage.

Follow the lead of these legendary firms as you look to recruit great candidates. Don’t just hire for skill; hire for attitude. It makes all the difference.

This article originally appeared on monster.com.

Who Owns the Customer Experience?

Who owns the customer? For insurance companies that work through intermediaries, it’s a controversial question that often stirs spirited debate between carriers and producers. But there’s another question that’s even more important: Who owns the customer experience?

Regardless of who insurers think owns the customer, the reality is that key parts of the policyholder experience are shaped by external parties—the agents, brokers and financial professionals who distribute insurers’ products.

This presents a difficult challenge for insurance companies, many of whom have kicked off customer-experience improvement initiatives in recent years. After all, how do you holistically manage the customer experience when you don’t control it in its entirety?

Some carriers skirt the issue by focusing on what they do control—customer touchpoints such as billing, correspondence, 800-line interactions, etc. That’s a reasonable approach to start with, but it has its limits.

Consumers don’t always know where the lines are drawn between carrier and agent, where the handoffs occur between the two parties. Their experience, and overall brand impression, is shaped by a wide array of touchpoints spanning pre-sale to post-sale, field office to home office.

For this reason, it’s neither practical nor prudent for carriers to ignore those elements of the customer experience that are administered by their field producers.

But how can a carrier insert itself into aspects of the customer experience that are clearly overseen by the producer? How can the insurer propagate customer-experience best practices beyond the walls of its headquarters and into its field offices, where so many significant consumer interactions occur?

Whether the company works with captive agents or independent brokers, this can be a thorny issue. Many financial professionals consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, and they have strongly held opinions about how to run their businesses.

Overcoming that sentiment requires some diplomacy. If producers sense that the carrier is encroaching on their territory, dictating the “right” way to do business, then friction will ensue, and the insurer’s customer-experience improvements will be relegated to the home office—a poor outcome for carrier, distributor and their shared customers.

So, if you’re an insurer looking to engage your field force in a constructive effort to improve the customer experience, consider these five tips:

1. Acknowledge shared ownership

Disarm territorial sensitivities by readily acknowledging that you don’t own the whole customer experience. Neither the carrier nor the distributor can claim such ownership, because each plays an instrumental role in shaping policyholder impressions.

Such an admission by carrier executives sends an important signal to the field, opening the door to a more collaborative approach for shaping the customer experience, from pre-sale to post-sale.

2. Make the case for action

Demonstrate to field partners, in a vivid and compelling way, why focusing on an improved customer experience is smart business.

The field may acknowledge that happy, loyal customers are good for business —but do they truly grasp how powerfully the customer experience can influence the top and bottom lines? Particularly in the insurance industry, given the economics of up-front commissions and long product tails, small improvements in retention can have a surprisingly significant impact on profitability. Even just from a sales standpoint, an increase in qualified referrals from positive word-of-mouth can be a game changer for any insurance agent/broker.

Perhaps one of the most convincing illustrations of how a great customer experience drives business results is an analysis of stock market performance for customer-experience “leaders” and “laggards”: For the past six years, customer-experience leaders generated a total return that was three times higher on average than the S&P 500.

This is the kind of head-turning data that insurers should put in front of field producers who are skeptical about investing time, energy or money into improving the customer experience.

Whether you’re a public or a private company, the message here is clear: A great customer experience pays off, paving the way for higher revenues, lower operating expenses and better overall financial performance.

3. Educate and equip

Given their entrepreneurial disposition, most agents and brokers won’t take kindly to having the mechanics of their organization’s customer experience dictated by some far-removed insurance company.

Instead of prescribing solutions, carriers would be better served providing tools and education to their field offices. In this way, the insurer can help equip its producers with the knowledge they need to effectively diagnose, and then differentiate, their organization’s customer experience.

That’s a much better solution over the long term, as it helps the field office embed customer-experience management best practices into its operations, as opposed to just tweaking a few isolated customer touchpoints.

Note that this is about more than just traditional “customer service” training. It’s about giving the field office a strategic understanding of the operating principles that customer experience legends rely on to create raving fans.

What great companies like Amazon, Apple, Disney and Costco have in common is an ideology around the design and delivery of their customer experience (see the sidebar that follows). Help your field understand and embrace a similar ideology, and you’ll influence their business practices for years to come.
4. Open the feedback spigot

One example of an ideological component that customer-experience legends share is a commitment to soliciting and acting on customer feedback.

Oftentimes, there is an arrogance in organizations— a belief among executives that they know what delights and what frustrates their customers, what will strengthen their brand experience and what will weaken it.

But as J.C. Penney learned during its recent meltdown, businesspeople can have a myopic view when it comes to understanding what truly makes customers happy.

Help your field offices avoid that pitfall by supplementing internal views with external ones. Carriers can use their purchasing power to bring robust “voice of the customer” survey programs to their affiliated agents and brokers. At the very least, they can offer field offices tutorials about feedback instruments.

Armed with these feedback instruments, your field offices can cultivate customer insights that will help them first shape, and then continually recalibrate, their experience improvement efforts.

5. Co-create the experience

For some parts of the insurance customer experience, field and home office interactions are so intertwined that it makes sense to tackle them with a united front (application and underwriting being a classic example).

This is perhaps the highest step on the customer-experience management maturity curve, where manufacturer and distributor work together to shape an experience that’s impressive and seamless.

Assuming all parties have been educated in the same customer-experience engineering principles, it can be valuable to bring field producers and home office representatives together to dissect, diagnose and redesign a particular piece of the policyholder journey.

By incorporating field and home office perspectives up front, a joint experience design effort is likely to yield a better outcome for all involved.

In today’s social media-connected, information-rich marketplace, customers are more empowered than ever. Nobody truly “owns” them.

But ownership of the customer experience is a different matter altogether. Great companies do take ownership of that, by very deliberately managing the many touchpoints that shape customer perceptions. Great companies even seek to influence parts of the experience that, on first blush, might seem out of their scope. (Consider how Amazon famously obsesses over the experience of physically opening a package once you receive it from their shipping partners.)

For insurance companies that don’t sell directly to consumers, the path to a differentiated customer experience must cross through their field offices—hence the importance of involving and influencing that key constituency. By deftly engaging distributors in the customer-experience improvement effort, insurers can make progress on two important fronts—creating a more positive impression not just on their policyholders, but also on their producers.

The 'Secret Sauce' of Customer-Experience Legends

Companies that do customer experience well tend to use a specific set of operating principles to help shape their customer interactions, from sales to service. The principles that elicit customer delight are remarkably consistent across industries and even demographics.

Below are three examples of such principles, which fans of Amazon, Disney and Ritz-Carlton are sure to recognize:

1. Make it effortless

Be it at point of sale or point of service, the less effort customers must invest to accomplish something with your company, the more likely they are to be loyal to your firm. Look for opportunities to minimize the amount of physical and mental effort that people must expend to, among other things, understand your value proposition, navigate your product portfolio, interpret your customer communications and secure post-sale service. (Case in point: Amazon’s patented One-Click purchase button, which makes it absolutely effortless to buy from them.)

2. Capitalize on cognitive science

Customer experience is about perception, and there are proven ways to leverage principles of cognitive science (i.e., how the mind works) to improve people’s perceptions about their interactions with your business. One example of this is giving customers the “perception of control,” because it’s human nature that we feel better when we’re in control of things and ambiguity is removed from our lives. Something as simple as clearly setting expectations for customers can make all the difference—e.g., how long will I be standing in this line, how many steps are in this purchase process, when will I next hear from you? (Case in point: DisneyWorld’s FastPass, which lets park guests avoid standing in line for popular attractions, making them feel like they’re more in control of their vacation.)

3. Be an advocate

It’s rare that people see companies paying more than lip service to the concept of putting customers first. For this reason, when people come across a company that truly advocates for its customers in a very tangible way, it cultivates stronger engagement and loyalty. One decidedly low-tech but highly effective way to accomplish this is by fostering a workplace culture of exceptional ownership. When your front line—the people actually delivering the customer experience—take personal accountability for owning every request that comes to them, it projects a refreshing sense of advocacy that will distinguish your firm from the “not my job… pass the buck” mentality that customers typically encounter. (Case in point: Ritz-Carlton, whose staff, when asked for directions within the hotel, will refrain from pointing guests in the right direction—instead, they personally escort them, to ensure the guest gets exactly where they need to be.)

This article first appeared in LOMA Resource.