by Christine Heckart

How engineering transformed a legacy business–and redefined ‘done’

Jan 21, 2021
CRM SystemsDigital TransformationIT Leadership

Agero turned its contact center-based business into a digital-first, consumer-centric company – and unlocked engineering talent along the way.

virtual call center chat bot ai covid by jackie niam getty images
Credit: Jackie Niam / Getty Images

Agero is a leading provider of driver assistance services and has been through a major digital transformation to SaaS in the past few years. If you’re broken down by the side of the road or you have been in an accident, they send help – and they do it more than 12 million times each year. Bernie Gracy is the chief digital officer, having joined Agero four years ago with a mandate to help transform a contact-center-based business into a digital-first, consumer-centric company. Bernie is also a member of ENG, the peer network of VPEs and CTOs at leading SaaS companies. He joined me for an interview on Scalying New Heights. Below are a few highlights.

Agero’s journey has been an exhilarating one, and encompassed people, process, platform, strategy and mindset. The company needed to develop a multi-sided platform, with insurance and automotive clients on one side, and service providers consisting of thousands of independent roadside assistance, towing, and repair companies on the other. The driver (e.g., customer) sits in the middle of this complex, end-to-end service chain. Traditionally, Agero has been a large contact center company, taking millions of calls. The company protects two out of every three new U.S. passenger vehicles and 115 million drivers are protected by Agero every year. The mandate for Bernie and his team was to digitalize the business end to end, and support rapidly changing consumer expectations.

“It’s like the ultimate shift left.”

That’s how Bernie explained the situation. “The heart of Agero has always been our amazing heroes – our agents, the people pick who up the phone,” he said. “When somebody calls us, they’re not happy, they’re not looking to chat, they don’t buy something. They’re in panic. They’ve been in an accident, they’ve had a flat tire, or there’s something wrong with their vehicle. We’ve always had empathetic agents, able to help them out of the situation. And we continue to do that to this day.”

But now they do so much more. “When you’re digitizing, you’re basically shifting all the way to the consumer,” Bernie said. The original Agero business and platform was optimized to make the agent experience amazing, primarily in the context of a B2B white-label relationship. Then, all of this changed.

“A B2B company had to learn to be a B2C company.”

The board and the CEO were aligned with the vision, but inside the company the shift was complex. From a sales and brand perspective, a high-touch experience was a key part of the value proposition. So what happens when you modernize that approach and inject a digital-first approach? The expectations of the consumer become central. They may want to talk to a person, they may not. To make everyone happy — sales, client services, the customer — they had to constantly optimize the experience.

“One of the things we needed to do was to recognize that when you are building this B2C experience, it’s not like you build an experience and you’re done,” Bernie said. “It’s much more like operating an e-commerce company. You are constantly analyzing how people are using the service. Why are they escaping out to an agent? Where were they confused?”

It was a huge journey of transformation, reengineering the entire company, the ecosystem, and the customer journey, from end to end. There were two milestone moments, according to Bernie. “We had a separate team that was basically creating the experience. At any point, a customer can select to go to an agent.”

To drive efficiency and a better customer experience, all the customer’s information was automatically provided to the agent so they wouldn’t have to repeat questions the customer had already answered in the automated system. “We found out that the agents didn’t take advantage of the data already captured and would make the customer go through the experience all over again – contributing to customer dissatisfaction,” he said. This happened because the people designing the automated consumer app didn’t understand all the things the agents needed to know, such as vehicle color. So the agents couldn’t rely on data that was solely captured in the app. They had to focus on every detail to get the experiences in complete sync. Eventually they declared victory.

Then the platform went down and went down hard.

They hadn’t put in place sufficient monitoring and redundancy to ensure high availability. When the system went down, all the calls reverted back to the agents, which defeated the purpose of having a digital experience and didn’t advance the efficiency goal. It turned out that they weren’t done after all. They had to redefine the meaning of “done.”

“This required a significant pullback,” Bernie said. “It’s not only the customer experience journey that’s never done. It’s thinking about all the failure scenarios and building a super-resilient, 24×7 platform with automated failover.” This included thinking about the incident monitoring and management along the way. It was also a cultural change.

Fast forward to now. The company has successfully transformed itself into a B2B2C organization. Engineering played a huge role in this transformation, not just on execution but also on strategy. “My biggest joy is that we have unlocked our talent,” Bernie said. “We had so many people in our engineering community and our product community who stepped way out of the box.”

“The clock speed of the company has changed.”

Together, they transformed a 50-year-old, classic IT company into a global SaaS company with a multi-sided marketplace. “We’ve accomplished more with less, and the people have risen to the challenge,” said Bernie. “The cultural transformation is a tremendous achievement. There’s literally no problem that this team will not go out and address.”