Undercover Boss: a powerful CX insight tool

A conversation with Chief Customer Experience Officer Shane Bray about experiencing what customer engagement agents experience.

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What is the primary factor that influences your customer’s experience? For many businesses, it is the people who interact with your customers every day, whether you call them associates, salespeople, contact center representatives, tellers or agents. No matter the technology, scripting or guidance systems in place, ultimately the people who make up your call center workforce are the human element that determines your customers’ satisfaction with their experience.

So, how are your people on the front line of customer engagement people being trained and onboarded? I had a fascinating conversation with Shane Bray, the recently-appointed Chief Customer Experience Officer at Willis Towers Watson (WTW), one of the largest providers of corporate benefits strategies and administration in the U.S. When he began his tenure as CXO, he decided to spend a few weeks as an “Undercover Boss” in one of his many call centers. As Bray explained, “It was a priority to really understand from the inside what agent experiences were like because if agents are not satisfied or fulfilled in their job, it directly impacts customers.” On the other hand, he said, “If they truly empathize with their customers [primarily retirees on Medicare] and find meaning in serving them, the results are transformational and heartwarming.”

Bray started by seeking to understand the onboarding experience for new call center hires who would interact with customers most—acting as their guide and advocate through the complex maze of Medicare, formularies, carriers, providers, forms, rules and procedures. He was already aware that the people who tend to be attracted to their organization are drawn to its mission of supporting Medicare recipients and “want to make a difference.” He was especially curious to see if the company was helping cultivate this desire to have an impact and whether any unnecessary processes or protocols were getting in the way of them being able to show genuine human empathy to their customers.

So, on to the subterfuge! After taking great pains to get himself “hired” into an entry-level role without alerting the HR team at the location (and thus tainting the study), he arrived with fellow members of his incoming “class” of call center reps. His first impression was not a familiar one. Due to rigorous building security the group was told to stand in a line until people from the training department could escort them to the training room—a necessary measure to protect the data privacy and security of the millions of customers served by the company—but one that he was unaccustomed to as a familiar face in other locations.

This process was not the warm welcome he’d come to take for granted and hoped employees—and ultimately customers—would feel. Bray explained that one of his goals is to “Make sure we have the human touch in all channels and engagements.” No doubt the security process was necessary, but it started things off on a less than positive emotional note. According to Bray, “The way we treat each other internally ultimately translates to how we serve our customers. If we have a culture of constantly asking how can we make each other feel welcome and how can we help and serve each other, the customer will feel that.” He added, “If a company has a culture that’s about ‘how can I help my career,’ the customer will also feel that.”

Attending training sessions incognito afforded Bray an opportunity to gain a wide range of insights that helped him as he launched into his position. One of his concerns was that the average customer is a 70-year old retiree who may be hearing impaired, leading to a difficult conversation with call center representatives. Prior to his undercover efforts, Bray had spent some time getting to know some Medicare recipients and getting a sense of their lifestyle: visiting hospice, long-term care facilities and retirement communities. He recalled one incident where he observed a generally healthy, mentally alert elderly man struggle for quite a long time to put a key in a lock because his hands were shaking from tremors—a physical limitation that had gone unnoticed during the first hour of their meeting. That made Bray wonder how these types of physical realities are being considered in the design of self-service web portals or apps.

During training, Bray was pleased to see that some aspects were designed to foster empathy. He participated in a lengthy segment where new hires were asked to share their past experiences working with and helping the elderly, be it family, friends, neighbors, etc. As Bray described it, “By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, and it highlighted the opportunity we have to serve and make a difference through the work we do.”

He was also very impressed with the quality of the personnel that Willis Towers Watson was hiring. He recalled other organizations where he often observed a tendency to view call center representatives as low-level employees who must always be given precise “standard operating procedures” because they cannot be expected to utilize individual judgment. But based on the people he got a chance to know during his own “Undercover Boss” experience, he believes that the organization should be offering more latitude and trust in the judgment of CSRs. It inspired him to focus on how to create tools that would support and enable these intelligent and caring people, rather than control them. As he put it, “If we give them more responsibility and trust, I believe they will step up and help us achieve a truly human-driven, rather than system-driven, customer experience, and that would be something truly different and remarkable.”

Bray did face some challenges in remaining undercover. He did not wear a fake mustache or dark glasses, but his effort was aided by the fact that he was new to the location. Nevertheless, there was one tricky moment where HR almost kicked him out of training because he hadn’t provided all the right identification documentation (difficult to do when operating under a false identity!). He resolved the issue by confiding to the onsite HR leader who he really was and what he was doing, which allowed him to continue his fieldwork without his true identity being revealed.

In the end, Bray gathered many concrete insights from his weeks undercover. But equally important, he developed a sense of familiarity and empathy for the people that engage with Willis Towers Watson’s insureds every day. That is an asset he will be able to use in his job driving their customer experience to new levels.

Bray summarized what he learned this way, “I went into training with the question, how can I improve this experience? But I left amazed by the kindness and innate desire to do good that I saw in even the newest members of the WTW family. I think we can all learn a little about the strengths and capability of our front line agents by immersing ourselves as a member of the team, and in the process, take away a little hope in humanity that warms your heart.”

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