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Building lasting customer relationships has many benefits, including increased revenue, positive word-of-mouth recommendations, and saving on acquisition costs. But how does one build customer relationships that truly last? In this interview series, we’re speaking with CROs and other RevOps professionals who can share their “Top Five Tips For Building Lasting Customer Relationships.” As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Battaglia.

Deborah Battaglia

Deborah Battaglia

Deborah is the Senior Vice President of Enterprise Customer Experience (CX) at Assurant, a global provider of protection products and services, and is accountable for driving and implementing a holistic Customer Experience culture and practice throughout the global Assurant enterprise. She leads a diverse team working to develop differentiated end-to-end experiences across products and channels using voice of customer / employee and human-centered design methodologies to shape and execute strategy and project efforts.

Thank you for doing this with us! To begin, can you share a bit of your backstory and how you got started in your career?

When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t think anyone as a little kid was thinking, “ooh, I want to be in insurance when I grow up.” But it is funny how things work out. I was working at a temp agency doing administrative work when a friend told me that USAA was hiring and that the people there were nice. So, I started out in the contact center on the phones, got my producer license and began working with customers.

Once I was in, though, and began to see the opportunities to grow and develop and really have a career, I was hooked. I did a lot of different things before I landed in an official CX capacity, but honestly all of them added a little something different to my toolkit—and in hindsight, every role I had was essential to me eventually taking on this job, which I absolutely love. I pull on something I’ve learned from every single role, in every single day, and it is really a fun job—I’m a professional problem solver, and there’s much fulfillment to that.

Can you share an interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway? 

I’ll share one of the ones that sticks out to me, even though it wasn’t very funny to me at the time. I was working on the phones as a senior rep, taking escalation calls, and we had a standard process for sending service recovery gifts to customers who had had a bad experience with us, like pens, stickers, stress balls, little branded items like that.

One customer had been declined for an Umbrella liability policy. So, I handled his concerns, calmed him down about the “why” and offered to send a little gift—then I flew through the pages, selecting a gift randomly and shooting it out. It wasn’t until I logged back on after break and read through my notes before closing the file that I realized the gift I had chosen was an umbrella. Totally an accident, but how do you think that would have played out if that was actually the gift the customer received?

I had to move mountains to get to the mailroom and packing department before the order was fulfilled, but it left a lasting impression on me to always double check my work when doing something that will impact the customer—it’s often a small thing to us, but it is usually a much bigger deal to the customer. 

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Tell us about it!

One of the things we’re working on is to elevate the way we listen to, analyze, and respond to customer feedback across multiple channels. Surveys can tell you a lot, and if there’s not a basic survey strategy in place, then that’s a good place to start, but building on that with cross-channel feedback, including text/chat and voice sentiment analytics is really the next-generation of building outstanding omni-channel experiences.

Many folks mistake multi-channel experiences—“can I do the same thing in different channels, like IVR / phone / chat / web” for omni-channel—but omni-channel is when all those channels are then talking to each other, making channel switching easy for customers to seamlessly pick up the conversation or transaction from one channel to the next. We’re using innovative technologies to ensure that we’re building sustainable and scalable ways of tracking customer activity and customer feedback across all those channels, so that we can be in front of anticipating customer needs and ensuring we don’t leave any gaps in the experience. 

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience with building lasting customer relationships?

It started for me with my eight years in operations. Talking to and engaging with customers daily for that long, and then leading folks who are doing the same, I got really clear on the fact that all customers are unique—they may have some similar experiences and journeys, but every customer’s path through that journey is unique to them, and we need to be listening to and designing for their specific needs as they move throughout that experience.

One anecdote I can share that really opened my eyes to the meaning of human centered design was when I was already in a CX role, but I was doing “sit-alongs” with folks handling escalation calls in auto claims (a technique I highly recommend to fully see the tools utilized in supporting the customers). One customer called in to complain that he hadn’t had to talk to his adjuster. He had submitted his claim online, been approved rapidly, and had his payout sent via electronic funds transfer all in the same hour. He was furious. He said, “here I’m paying all this premium to supposedly have a great claims experience, and it hardly seemed like an experience at all!”

Now, we had specifically designed this experience to be fast, easy, and seamless to reduce touchpoints and get the customer their money as fast as possible. But this customer really wanted a “white glove” level of service—insurance is so intangible, and he wanted to make sure he was getting his money’s worth. It really helped me see that the quality of the experience is in the eye of the beholder and gave life to one of my most often shared sayings about CX: “experience management is expectation management”. It’s what the customer expects that matters. And we need to be both setting and exceeding those expectations all the time. 

In today's fast-paced and constantly evolving landscape, what strategies do you employ to maintain a strong connection with your customers and anticipate their changing needs?

The customer listening strategy is first and foremost—we have dedicated CX practitioners who are responsible for listening to, analyzing, and acting on customer pain points and priorities, and specifically looking for changing trends in the marketplace as well. They partner with their peers in sales, operations, marketing, digital, IT and strategy to make sure that we’re always keeping CX top of mind and not only reducing pain points in existing experiences, but also proactively designing new products and services that we’re bringing to market to ensure they’re stellar experiences from day one.

They run a ton of workshops, listen to a ton of calls and voice of customer, and always make continuing education and professional development a priority to ensure they’re on the leading edge of the CX tools and methods they bring to the table to solve critical customer problems. 

What strategies can companies employ to strike a balance between driving revenue and profitability, and focusing on building customer relationships and loyalty?

Anybody who is working on delivering a product or service in a customer environment is driven by revenue and profitability considerations. That’s just business. But customer relationships and loyalty are factors that can hugely improve an organization’s revenue and profitability. The way that I encourage my CX practitioners to think of it is like a balancing act—we constantly need to balance the multiple responsibilities of optimizing the acquisition funnel, retention of existing customers and profitability.

Price elasticity is a huge factor to consider, especially in a strained economy. If customers don't think that the product or service that you're offering is worth the money that they're paying, then you could run the risk of not acquiring them or losing them as an existing customer. If price, revenue, profitability, and the experience you’re offering (the value the customer gets) are in the sweet spot, then you're going to be able to grow by acquiring new customers, and you're going to be able to retain existing customers because they see the value.

So, the relationship we try to manage through experience is around the question “does our customer understand what our product is bringing to their life? And then how much is that worth to them in terms of what they're willing to pay for it?” CX and product / pricing / design decisions go hand in hand because there are many factors which impact the answers to those questions. Everything from where and how people are falling out of the digital funnel, where your sales strategy is and where you're investing your profits. All of those are strings and levers that you must pull as an organization—so we try to think globally and strategically, while aligning our tactical actions to support that balancing act. 

Rapid Fire Question Round

Rapid Fire Question Round

What quality is most important in a leader? Trust

What bad work habit should cease to exist? Death by PowerPoint.

What other company are you admiring right now? Disney, always – for being experience giants and sticking to their core values.

What are you reading right now? It’s summertime – fiction! Brain candy in the sci fi / fantasy realm

What is the most valuable software in your tech stack? Data management

How do you measure the success of your customer relationship-building efforts, and how do you identify areas for improvement?

Our beacon metric for customer relationship at Assurant is NPS, which stands for ‘net promoter score.’ NPS is basically a measure of, “would you recommend us to your family and friends?” It's a good assessment after somebody has interacted with you. We use that primarily because if they're going to recommend you to family or friends, then they thought it was a good experience. It's also easily benchmarkable across industries and across competitors so you can get a good sense of how you're doing. But there are way more measures and metrics than that, including customer satisfaction, representative satisfaction, overall satisfaction, customer effort score, and measures that give us varying degrees of touch points and pain points. 

So, the way that we identify areas for improvement based on those metrics is to home in on where customers are saying it's not easy to work with us, or where there is pain or friction in the experience. We ask ourselves “where are customers saying that they didn't have a pleasant experience?” and then we match that up with business metrics on the back end.

It's one thing to say, “I thought that was a terrible experience,” but the magic is in finding out what would have made it better. So, we add in and compare business metrics to round out the picture. For example, we often see that the longer it takes to get to a claim payout, the more the NPS drops. That tells us that speed to resolution or speed to file closure, that's a driving force and that is what customers need to have a good experience. We strive to match up business data with the voice of the customer to make sure that we've targeted the areas we need to improve in our experiences.

Regarding customer-facing teams, what steps do you take to ensure they can deliver personalized, proactive, and efficient support, tailored to the needs of each individual customer?

The first step is teaching them that each customer is an individual. It’s never a one size fits all perspective and/or one size fits all approach. With customer facing teams, the biggest thing is to equip them with the tools and the resources they need to do their jobs.

I always say employee experience and customer experience are two sides of the same coin. If you are not equipping the customer facing teams with the tools they need to be efficient to do their job well, they might still achieve good results. But if they have to go to heroic measures to achieve those results, then it's not sustainable in the long run.

So, you have to give the teams the right tools, knowledge and training proficiency. Are you caring for them as an employee?  Do they see a path for development? Are we hitting all those human motivation factors with them? And finally, teaching them how to provide empathy is important, including how you take a customer step by step through the process they need to go through in a way that makes sense to them. 

What tips do you have for responding to negative feedback from customers, and what steps can be taken to turn those experiences into positive outcomes?

I would say the first step is to look at every piece of negative feedback as an opportunity to improve. I think companies tend to be very defensive when they receive negative feedback. But it is important to recognize that customers don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of a product or service to know whether or not they’ve had a poor experience. They're laypeople, so they don't always understand our business or see things through the industry lens that we see through.

When building a process or interaction, CX professionals need to ask, “did we make it easy for the customer, who knows nothing about this business or product, to understand?” It's very powerful if we’re able to look at ourselves through that lens of how the customer perceived the interaction. It’s simply an opportunity to improve and to serve them better.

Even more important is to take the next step: thank them for providing the feedback and then do something with it. Those are the two biggest things—respond and then act. Acknowledge that the customer gave feedback, and then show them that you took action to change. That’s all they’re really looking for. 

How do you use technology or AI to enhance your customer relationships, and what tools have you found to be most effective in building and maintaining them?

That’s such a big question! To break it down a little, I’d say the quality of a customer relationship is equal to the sum of their experiences with your company. Those experiences are often underpinned by technology, but any technology is only as good as how well you deploy it. So, for us at Assurant, given our B2B2C business model, we have to keep a few things top of mind when we think about technology and AI and how they support our customer relationships.

First and foremost, what’s the purpose / outcome we’re trying to attain? Is it scalability? Security? Innovation? Technology is just the undercarriage of experience—if you don’t build things in the right way to deliver for customers, then the technology doesn’t really matter. So, when it comes to customer relationships, I focus more on process and experience. Process is the backbone of experience—to fully understand how an experience is performing, you must understand the processes below it—and the connections between technology and process are documented in blueprints.

That may sound really technical, but we do try to balance the empathy and human aspects of building experiences with the detailed understanding of how they’re coming to life backstage. So, we make sure that whatever we build is modernized using API architecture that we can connect into our client’s infrastructure, and that the technology aspects of the experiences are fully mapped back to the front stage and journey maps of how we expect that experience to play out for the end consumer.

When it comes to AI, the key is to leverage it only when and where it adds value for the customer. There’s a lot to be learned there, and our culture is great at “test-and-learns” to rapidly assess and deploy new technologies, but again as a B2B2C company, info security for our clients is of the highest priority. 

Based on your experience and success, what are the five key components of building lasting customer relationships?

1 . Anchor into your brand promise, company purpose, and customer commitments – what is it that your business offers to customers, and what problem are you trying to solve? Or what customer need are you trying to fill? And how does the customer perceive (what expectations do they have about?) what you’ve promised them? If you misjudge this, then you’ve missed the mark from the beginning. A great example of this is when Netflix pivoted from DVD delivery to streaming. That was a super hard transition for their loyalists, but they had to ask themselves, what are we delivering? And the answer was not DVDs, it was entertainment

2 . Listening to and understanding your customers – documenting their journey/life cycle from an external viewpoint – think like your customers, not about them. Document the experience and the processes end to end to look for gaps. This helps you highlight unmet needs. A good example for this one is the Apple iPhone – it was truly an unmet need at the time, but nobody was asking for it. Nobody even knew they really needed it until it came out. But the inventors had taken the time to really observe users, paying attention to all the devices an individual was using in the course of a day, which they realized could all be rolled into one. 

3 . Design experiences using HCD from the beginning – leverage your knowledge and understanding of the customers to build something that meets their stated and unstated needs. This can happen at ANY stage but is most effective when a product or service is first being conceptualized. Determine where on the spectrum an experience exists. We use a matrix of complexity vs. emotion. We automate or digitize what is simple and low emotion and give white glove service for things that are high in complexity and very emotional for customers. A great example of HCD in practice is the Venus razor. The product team utilized user feedback to determine that women shave during a shower or bath, while men often shave at the sink. So, the handle of the women’s razor was redesigned to be non-slip and easy to use in a wet environment. 

4 . Measure how well the experiences are performing – use multiple metrics, at multiple touchpoints, at all stages of the journey, and pair qualitative and quantitative data to pinpoint areas of opportunity. Disney really fits this category.  No matter how good they are, they are always seeking to improve by continually re-inventing parks, rides, and experiences. 

5 . Deploy / iterate / improve – HOW your teams work together to move solutions is important. Agile development, with user testing along the way, and frequent touchpoints, are super important. 

How do you ensure that these ideas are implemented throughout the customer journey?

Purposeful design and homing in on the important things to tackle (be mindful of resource utilization), as well as holding people accountable to key outcomes. 

Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the most people, what would that be? 

Prejudice can’t survive proximity—people from all walks of life are more alike than we are similar. Break down the barriers and get to know people who don’t look like you.

How can our readers further follow your work online? 

You can connect with me on LinkedIn

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Phil Gray
By Phil Gray

Philip Gray is the COO of Black and White Zebra and Founding Editor of The RevOps Team. A business renaissance man with his hands in many departmental pies, he is an advocate of centralized data management, holistic planning, and process automation. It's this love for data and all things revenue operations landed him the role as resident big brain for The RevOps Team.

With 10+ years of experience in leadership and operations in industries that include biotechnology, healthcare, logistics, and SaaS, he applies a considerable broad scope of experience in business that lets him see the big picture. An unapologetic buzzword apologist, you can often find him double clicking, drilling down, and unpacking all the things.