Back to school

For as long as I can remember, the month of August in my house has a pace that is unlike any other. It’s the time when my kids are preparing to go back to school. As they’ve moved from grade school to high school and now even to college, the preparation each year may be different but the mindset is the same. It’s time to be a student again—to buckle in for the experience of listening, learning, studying and putting in the work to finish in a place different than where they started.

About a year and a half ago, in a certain way I too found myself going back to school. I had taken the job of leading Customer Experience (CX) for Berkley One, a personal lines insurance startup. And while I came with significant experience in the P&C insurance customer service field, I knew that our future customers would not be comparing us to other insurance companies, they would be comparing us to all of the other customer interactions they had in their lives.

So I became a student. I set out to learn as much as I could about the best practices—and the secrets—of the companies that stand out for their excellent customer service. I joined CX networks, read research and met with executives from a number of industries.

I learned so much! First and most importantly, I learned that the key to delivering an excellent customer experience is to imbue it as a primary value in a company’s culture. This can only succeed if the directive to treat customers well comes from the very top of the organization. There are a lot of companies out there jumping on the CX bandwagon. They have placed individuals or small teams in charge of “Customer Experience” or to be the “Chief Customer Officer,” but many of these roles are meant to be “influence jobs,” not positions that have been given the power to change the core of how the company acts.

Many CX leaders I spoke with shared their frustrations at trying to change their large companies alone or with a small staff. When I met with councils of Customer Experience leaders, the companies known for the best customer experience were not even there. At the best CX companies, it is everyone’s job and not a separate team. So, I took out my notebook and started my lesson list.


Lesson #1: Great customer experience companies are built that way


Treating customers well is part of the fiber of the company and it comes from the top. It is very hard, if not impossible, to retrofit excellent customer experience onto an existing company’s culture and process. It has to be organic. At companies like Zappos, the Ritz Carlton, Apple and Spotify, it’s part of the DNA.

At Berkley One, we knew we had a passion for treating customers well. That was easy. It was one of our founding tenets. Our challenge was to put customers into the center of everything we did.

Before we started our design and build, we went out on the road to talk with independent insurance agents and potential customers. We were fortunate enough to be supported along our journey by industry experts, CX leaders and future customers who gave us feedback and advice, put us in touch with others, and offered input on our build from the customer perspective. We asked them what they liked in current insurance programs and what they would like to see improved. We also looked beyond the insurance industry to see what features and services customers liked best—and why—across technology, billing, service delivery and communication platforms.

Perhaps most importantly, we brought this customer viewpoint back into the company. Every trip report, discussion write-up, feedback meeting and CX survey was made available to every employee. We discussed our findings in all-hands meetings and design sessions. We challenged each other to look at everything from the customer’s perspective. And when we couldn’t decide on a path forward, we went back out and asked our network of advisors to break the tie.

As Steve Jobs said, “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”1


Lesson #2: Every function of a company affects the customer experience in some way


As head of customer experience, I’m responsible for IT, customer service and operations. The areas where customers interact with us most—policy service, billing, our customer portal and mobile—are under these functions. Another important area is our back end system, which is there to make it easy for customers to work with us.

For the design of our system and digital properties, we looked to the best financial service providers in the CX space. For bill design, we looked to American Express. We kept it simple, starting with the big picture and working down to the last detail—so the customer can decide how much they want to read. We looked to Fidelity, and how they support their great digital properties with well-trained friendly service members. We integrated leading service trends in financial services, such as multi-channel services that support quick pay and chat from your smartphone.

While billing is the most frequent interaction our customers have with us, claims is the most important. For that reason, we built the Berkley One claim experience from the outside in. Working together, we built customer journey maps for each type of claim and each step in the process. We focused on the customer’s emotions and needs at each step of the claim. We realized that ease and frequency of communication, clear visibility into the next steps and support during a claim were just as important as a fast and fair settlement. This led us to design and build a claims team with deep expertise in every area of claims, supported by technology that will speed communication, get help where it’s needed most and keep our customers updated.

But great customer experience is bigger than the obvious service interactions. As I learned, almost every decision your company makes ultimately impacts the customer.

We know that all service is moot if the coverage provided doesn’t reflect a customer’s lifestyle, so we developed coverage for the way that our customers live today, such as green rebuilding coverage, student-away-at-school coverage and ridesharing coverage.

As we continue our state-by-state rollout, we will keep collecting feedback and input from our agents and customers and use that feedback to continue to improve our products and services.


Lesson #3: Hiring the right people and rewarding them for their customer focus is key


Finally but maybe most importantly, our company is only as good as the people who work here. Not everyone is suited to work in a startup, and not everyone is suited to work in a customer-centric organization. You learn early-on that you have to hire for both—and that the two are complementary. Delivering great customer experience requires a lot of the same qualities as building a startup: personal accountability, a sense of ownership, an ability to think outside the box and an ability to collaborate and understand others’ viewpoints.

At Berkley One, we consulted with hiring and training experts to learn how to screen and interview for the best fit candidates. We used experiential interviewing and case studies to find people with track records of innovation, open-mindedness, demonstrating empathy and delivering great customer service. And then we put “delivering on the Berkley One vision” into each person’s job description.

An important component of delivering excellent customer experience is treating your own team the way you want them to treat your partners and customers. We can’t expect to deliver on our core values of being open, understanding and transparent for customers, if we don’t live that behavior within our own team. So we built a team where communication is frequent and open and where everyone not only can speak up, they are expected to. We are a Berkley company, where Everyone counts, everything matters®.

As we grow, we know it will become important to carry these core values across bigger teams and geographies. We look forward to that challenge.

As J.R. Marriott said, “Take care of the associates and they will take care of the customers.”2


Lesson #4: It is very satisfying to work at a customer-focused company


Everyone wants to be proud of where they work. They want to feel a sense of ownership and know that they are contributing value. No one wants to tell customers “no” all day. Our team loves that we are a company built on feedback, that we are committed to changing things if they are not right and that we’re always looking for ways to do our best for the customer. They believe this; it’s why they joined us.

I am no different. I know that I do my best work when I’m invested in the mission and feel passionately that I am doing the right thing for our customers. I’m excited to work at Berkley One, where I’m not the kind of CX manager who has to build business cases to justify a customer-centric change. Here, everyone is a customer experience leader—it’s the way we do business.

Susan Vella is Senior Vice President, Customer Experience at Berkley One.