Taking Customer Care to Heart

Aflac CIO Gerald Shields shares how he found a model for customer service in the loss of his daughter's cherished horse

The greatest compliment that anyone in my organization can give is, "You're Dr. Matt."

That's the name of our veterinarian and the unlikely source of inspiration for a team of IT professionals. What started as a life experience for my family and me has become the model held up by my staff for how to serve the people who make Aflac what it is.

We in IT exist because of the customer. No one sits around saying, "Damn, Enron went under, but they had great IT!" I don't want to be known for having the best systems at an unsuccessful company. So this is the story I tell that best describes the spirit and the heart that I want displayed in IT and that I try to display.

Several years ago, the horse favored by one of my daughters fell so severely ill that we knew he wouldn't recover. Our vet, Dr. Matt, offered my daughter the traditional memento of her horse's tail, but she chose not to take it because she was determined to send Ribbon off looking pretty. I later found Dr. Matt still tending the now deceased horse, and asked him why. Although my daughter would never see that horse again, Dr. Matt was doing everything possible to make Ribbon as pretty as he could be. That struck me as special, but I didn't realize how special until I worked with a vet who wasn't Dr. Matt. We wanted an autopsy on Ribbon to determine whether any of our other horses could be in danger, but that vet told us it would have to wait until morning, by which time it was too late to test for anything.

My other daughter was the one to see the lesson that my team and I strive to always remember: Behind every horse, and every technology, there should be a person who cares. Behind everything we're working on, there's a person with a business problem, and we should be there to make life better for them. It must never become just a job—it must be something we have passion for.

To show that you care, you don't just do the things you're asked to do. And to turn this into reality, we send IT people out into the field. They spend time with the insurance agents, watching them write policies and talking to them about what we could do to help them. They sit in on calls in the call center and come back to analyze how to make those calls easier and faster. Because what we want is not to be a technology staff; we want our actions to show that we recognize that, at the end of the day, it will be a poor day if technology isn't there for someone.

One of our biggest successes so far has been in the call center. The group I sent into the center came back with some terrific ideas that led to the pilot development of a new system with a completely new user interface. This improved the flow of information and eliminated screens and fields, ultimately cutting down the number of keystrokes necessary for reps to complete each call. Because the changes came out of living with the old system—not just from requirements—the folks in the call center loved it. It's now in production and is shaving 30 seconds off of each call, which is a huge impact in a center that handles more than 30,000 calls each day. And we created it in less than a year for less than $2 million.

Throughout the company, our business unit partners are telling us that they are seeing this attitude change. The head of the call center, the head of claims, the head of the sales force—they're all talking about how IT cares and about how IT is now a partner in a way it wasn't before. They're talking about this at recruiting events, at monthly regional meetings, in places where the topic of IT never came up before.

We're making life easier one solution at a time. This has become our model. And we're watching it spread as more people across Aflac talk about being Dr. Matt.

Gerald Shields is senior VP and CIO of Aflac, and a member of the CIO Executive Council. To learn more, visit council.cio.com.


This story, "Taking Customer Care to Heart" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.

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