Customer Service Focus
Does Disney-like overmanaging have its place?
Jeff Bezos, Amazon chairman and CEO, commenting on the customer experience once said, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little better.” That’s pretty heady stuff from the CEO of a behemoth organization that interacts with its customers almost entirely over the Internet and rarely sees its customer face to face.
At the other end of the spectrum, consider the epitome of face-to-face service, the Walt Disney Company. Born in 1923 as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, the Walt Disney Company has grown into one of the most beloved brands in the world—and one that has also placed a continual emphasis on exceptional customer service.
There is no magic in an insurance policy itself. The magic occurs when insurance professionals imagine an outcome that is better and “make the magic happen.”
Honestly, the challenge of providing exceptional customer service is daunting in the insurance arena. While there are some exceptions to the rule, consumer demands and expectations in our industry are high, and overall we do not rank very well in the customer experience world. We know that we need to communicate in an omni-channel manner for insurance consumers to interact with us and for us to interact with them. Now, put that alongside all the other challenges of running an agency, and we can find ourselves spread pretty thin.
Applying customer service techniques used at world-class companies can be of immense help in improving the way that we conduct business every day.
Both Amazon and Disney are masters of providing exceptional customer service. In this article, I will examine some of the foundational concepts consistently used by these organizations in their never-ending quest to constantly raise the bar by which they measure a successful customer experience.
Small details can make a big difference
One of the most important concepts is not overlooking the small details that are often overlooked by others. The impetus for focusing on small details that can make a big difference to customers can be clearly observed in the statements made by the founders of Amazon and the Walt Disney Company.
For example, in The Disney Institute Blog titled, “Success Is In The Details: How Disney Overmanages The Customer Experience,” Bruce Jones, senior programming director of the Disney Institute, relates a story from 50 years ago concerning the development of the Enchanted Tiki Room at the Disneyland theme park. According to this legendary story, Walt Disney observed that the animatronic birds that appeared to blink and sing did not appear to breathe. While the technicians believed that few customers would notice this detail, Walt Disney’s reply was, “People can feel perfection.” He was right, and that is something to keep in mind when it comes to your customers.
The Disney Institute Blog uses the story of the animatronic birds to illustrate Disney’s consistent use of “overmanaging” the small details that are often “undermanaged” at other organizations—details that can “chip away at the customer experience.” As noted in this blog, “If people can feel perfection, what might a blind eye to detail convey to customers and potential customers?” Chances are it conveys exactly what you would think—a lack of understanding of the customer’s perspective.
Bezos agrees with this philosophy: “We’re not competitor obsessed; we’re customer obsessed. We start with what the customer needs and we work backwards.” How does that concept apply at your agency, and how could you change things to anticipate and proactively address the needs of your clients and prospective customers? Think back on the animatronic birds. From the look and functionality of your agency’s website to the entrance to your office, to the way that the phone is answered, to every proposal or piece of information that leaves your office or is sent from your agency management system, all these elements speak volumes to your customers.
Most agencies say that they provide great customer service. What is that statement based on? How did you determine that the service you are providing is what customers want? Have you established service levels for your customers? Raise them! View what are baseline “typical” or corporate best practices as opposed to merely an acceptable standard. Are your customer service levels just statements? How are you measuring them? Diving deep into each of these questions will bring better understanding and better customer service results.
Think of your agency operations from the viewpoint of delivering an outcome that exceeds the customer’s expectations rather than what you think the customer wants. Over manage those details—that means you really need to understand your customers’ expectations.
Create an emotional connection
Your agency’s ability to create an emotional connection rather than a purely transaction-based connection leads to more than just a momentary positive economic outcome. What is a more successful endeavor in attracting customers—describing an insurance product’s features and price, or giving them a true story of how a specific insurance product helped in a loss situation? We know that stories are always more effective. Why? Because they create an emotional connection with the client. Clients identify with the protection that you are trying to provide for them through this personal touch.
Customer satisfaction by itself doesn’t count as effective customer service. There must be more. There must be an emotional connection. The effectiveness of Disney’s storytelling is so pervasive in our society that it is easier to count those who do not have some sort of emotional connection to the company than those who do. And Amazon appears to be on the same trajectory, with an extremely loyal customer base, although it operates in a digital world where it is much harder to establish an emotional connection. In both cases, however, the research is clear: Customers who have an emotional connection develop trust, and that results in increased purchases and referrals, as well as longstanding customer loyalty.
Your clients have little choice when it comes to purchasing insurance. They do have a choice as to where that purchase will be made. What if customers perceive your agency (among all their choices) to be an oasis staffed with people who take a personal interest in them and their various, and yet specific, insurance needs? What if they find a staff that demonstrates integrity, pleasantness, and knowledge, rather than just being “insurance sellers”? You’ll find that this combination of traits and demeanor creates an emotional connection with customers where, as Walt Disney said, “They’ll come again and bring their friends!”
Every agency that I know of claims to have “great service.” Without testing the validity of that perspective, how then does an agency differentiate itself from every other agency with “great service”? Significant differentiation occurs only when your agency ruptures widely-held industry stereotypes, much as Walt Disney intentionally disrupted the theme park industry at the outset and has continually “imagineered” the customer experience ever since. Bezos has done no less in the role of an industry disruptor.
Aside from a general perception that places the insurance industry just above used car sales in terms of trust, ease of doing business, and integrity, what other industry stereotypes do we need to disrupt? What are insurance disruptors . . . disrupting? Let’s consider four major areas:
- Risk management and its accompanying insurance protection
- Customer communication
How can you disrupt consumers’ perceptions of how we, the insurance industry, protect their assets and livelihoods? Does your agency help clients understand their exposures from a risk management perspective? Does your agency project a positive image, and is there an air of energy in your customer-facing operations? Do your clients and prospects find that you’re ready to serve at all times? Are agency personnel courteous? Do you tend to lapse into insurance-ese or lofty language as a way of showing your insurance expertise, or do you provide risk management and insurance solutions in a manner that helps the customer understand why your solution specifically meets their need? Finally, do personnel use time and resources wisely, delivering service in a manner that ensures that customers get the most out of their interaction in as an efficient manner as possible?
You may not think of your agency as Amazon.com or the Magic Kingdom, but don’t underestimate yourself. There is no magic in an insurance policy itself. The magic occurs when insurance professionals imagine an outcome that is better and “make the magic happen.”
Answering the questions raised in this article can move you in the right direction, but there are many opportunities to think in innovative ways when it comes to customer service. Think like Jeff Bezos or Walt Disney. Because thinking that your agency can’t improve its customer service, well . . . that’s just goofy thinking! Ah-hyuck, gawrsh!
Charles O. “Chuck”’ Hembree Jr., CIC, CRM, is president of Clark-Lami-Hembree Insurance in St. Louis, Missouri. Chuck is a national faculty member for the Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR) program, and a past member of the CISR Board of Governors.