Kate Lavender is passionate about motivating staff to create compelling customer experiences that ensure highly satisfied customers. Serving her apprenticeship as director of customer services for Air Miles, Kate went on to work with companies such as AXA PPP Healthcare, Last Minute.com and Sony.
This story shares how the strengths approach helped AXA PPP customer services move on from post merger chaos to achieve ongoing success …
“It can’t be that bad…”
When Kate drove away from her interview for the role of director of customer services at AXA PPP she thought, “It can’t be that bad. It just can’t.”
The organisation had demutualised and had been through several rounds of mergers and acquisitions. The work done to make the business as attractive as possible had left customer services, the interviewing team told her, in melt down.
Living the consequences of a series of cost cutting measures, including merging three sites into one, was having its toll:
- 9 months worth of backlogged claims
- 1000s of complaints
- 100s of doctors not being paid
- staff leaving in droves
- a team with a less than desirable reputation, many of whom the leadership team believed, had to go.
“It can’t be that bad,” Kate thought, as she drove home.
That thought was still with her when she got the phone call the following day. So, of course, she accepted the job.
A game of two goals…
“Some of what I had been told was right. Thankfully the bit they got wrong was about the team. They had great people there already, they just had them in the wrong positions. I sensed this immediately and working out how to help place them so they played to their strengths was one of my first goals,” advises Kate.
Having built successful departments before, Kate knew that spotting and aligning strengths was absolutely the first goal. It became the key strategy enabling her to deliver her second goal too:
Goal 1: Stabilise the current situation, quickly.
Goal 2: Reengineer the business to enable it to flourish, come hell or high water, for the long term.
Focusing on her first goal, to get some quick wins, Kate spent a month just setting the tone by talking to people.
Kate’s view was that every opinion was valuable no matter where you were in the organisation. People soon realised that she meant it. Kate listened and learnt.
What did Kate learn?
“It was obvious from day one that some people with very strong motivational skills were stuck in roles requiring more analytical strengths and some with strong analytical skills were leading teams of people who were becoming less and less motivated to do well.
“Kerching! Realigning people to roles that played to their strengths got the ball rolling. Meeting people and inviting feedback unearthed so much knowledge. Between us we were able to boil down the 101 things we need to do differently to the top 3, and most importantly, the top 1 – the one thing we needed to do to get a quick win,” remembers Kate.
This one thing, the thing AXA PPP could address immediately to get the maximum payback was quite simply Processing CLAIMS!
How to make that happen?
“Well, we had to make some tough decisions and communicate them well. ‘Short term pain will deliver long term gains’ was the mantra. People bought it. It worked.”
The short term pains which enabled paying the claims quicker included:
- outsourcing the phone calls;
- dealing with claims on a first in first out basis;
- giving lots of keynotes and presentations to reassure board members, staff and other stakeholders that strong and positive action was being taken, creating faith in the new leadership team;
- continuing to realign roles so that individuals were playing to their strengths;
- continuing to make members of the leadership team available to the wider team.
Whilst making these quick changes to the existing culture and infrastructure, Kate never took her eye off the second longer term goal: re-engineering the business to enable it to flourish whatever the weather. Indeed she was building a corridor from the old culture to the new the whole time.
“Deeper work was being done on both the people and process side of the business from day one. On the people side, whilst individuals were enjoying being moved into strengths based roles, we were working behind the scenes to create a new career path. The new path rewarded both generalists and those who wanted to focus on a specific part of the wider role. Experience was teaching us that we had some people who just wanted to process the claims and didn’t want to talk to any customers. They did a great job processing claims, got through far more whilst maintaining the quality than people whose style was more generalist. So we created a structure which rewarded them and gave them career progression opportunities that suited their styles,” advises Kate.
On the process side of things, some of the knowledge accessed during Kate’s first month revealed that 10% of the calls taking up so much of people’s time were to do with paperwork being confusing. All paperwork was simplified.
A large proportion of complaints were around people being upset their claims were rejected after they had been treated. So the system was changed to enable customers to get pre-authorisation before receiving treatment.
“The biggest strategic change though was setting up a back office operation in India to process claims. This was radical. It could have been rejected by all our stakeholders. It wasn’t. The board bought the message ‘this will massively reduce the cost of claims leakage’. The staff bought the message ‘this will free up your time’ and became very supportive to the Indian office. Customers bought the message ‘your claims are being dealt with quicker’ because they were.”
Kate used the strengths approach to turn around a failing department of one of the UK’s leading healthcare insurance providers.
- a disenfranchised customer service team with a poor reputation;
- a structure that had evolved from post merger and acquisition cost cutting exercise which paid little regard to customer service;
- a 9 month backlog of claims;
- 1000s of complaints;
- high staff attrition and low staff satisfaction.
Within two years she had created a legacy of:
- a strengths based career structure;
- a department with the reputation as a local talent pool;
- a reduction on absenteeism and staff attrition from 45% to 20%;
- a reduction on claims “leakage” of 15% each year;
- a reduction on expense budgets of 4m over two years;
- a reduction on turnaround time of 50% on all claims;
- outsourcing claims administration to India, where 175 full time employees now actively manage over 80% of the claims received
- a 25 % increase in quality level according to established quality assurance system;
- an increase in customer satisfaction from a low of 68% to a high of 84%;
- a robust and effective business wide forecasting model to facilitate planning processes;
- a network of outsource providers to smooth peaks in customer demand;
- the AXA PPP healthcare CRM programme;
- a full organisational/process review of the customer service area;
- a portfolio of recruitment/ induction programmes to reduce maturation time and maximise fit to individual "learning style";
- a career structure with professional accreditation for all customer service employees. Through this over, 1000 promotions were awarded & 13 people gained accreditation from the Institute of Customer Service (external) awards;
- a communication framework equipping customer service staff with all relevant customer information (launched an Intranet in 2000 which was completely redesigned in 2002 to create a state of the art knowledge management tool.
Kate has since used this approach:
- to create a multi channel retail project for Sony;
- to create an integrated organisation structure for lastminute.com;
- to re-engineer a failing service delivery function for Alphameric.
“It works everytime,” explains Kate.
So was it “that bad”?
“Absolutely not. I enjoyed every single second of it and look back on it fondly and with great pride. Although I was already competent at building strengths based teams, thanks to learning on the nursery slopes of Airmiles, I really feel like this project was where I gained my masters. It is certainly where I learnt that I love the buzz of challenging roles and projects. Long may they keep coming my way!” concludes Kate.
Kate has mastered building strengths based teams and businesses. Her personal strengths have lead her to perfect this corridor approach, as described by Mike Pegg in his post 3 tips for recognising 3 types of builders.
A key player in the Strengths Foundation, she has even used this approach to help bring our community to life by setting up and managing our Linked In discussion group whilst waiting for the new Strengths Foundation portal to launch.
All this, and she still finds time to run a successful consultancy based business around this model.