Turning strategic stretch goals into daily behavioral change has never been easy for big companies. While executives talk about customer focus, what passes for intimate financial interactions in a busy call center is often laden with tedious work-arounds, risk-adverse rules, hopelessly complex technical redundancies and platform interactions.

At one of the world’s largest mutual fund firms, serving more than 23 million individual and institutional clients, and managing more than 300 funds and $1.5 trillion-plus in assets, that is as true as anywhere else. However, a recent breakthrough in creating a culture of customer focus, known as trailblazing, helped this organization solve some important issues.

What Is Trailblazing?

Trailblazing is a participative, team-based problem solving process that targets a key business initiative – customer experience – and focuses employee problem solving teams on it. It also:

  • Applies standard quality tools and techniques in a consistent and structured manner
  • Accelerates the problem solving process through quick hits and rapid turnaround time
  • Keeps management at all levels involved through Champions, tollgates and town hall meetings
  • Uses Six Sigma-like project management to guide implementation and measurement of results

Empowering Associates

Working with an internal team, trailblazing was introduced at this organization in spring 2007 to drive some high-level business goals and strategic objectives into the open arms of the first-level associate. In essence, this initiative was intended to empower associates to make more decisions in favor of the customer, to act on their own rather than escalating common problems to supervisors or more senior associates, and to own the whole transaction rather than passing work items to other groups. In addition, it was intended to bring high-level strategy to the level of call center operations alongside Six Sigma projects and other acts of process improvement. Its structure is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Trailblazing Structure
Figure 1: Trailblazing Structure

The client services group of this organization represented the foot soldiers of the effort. These are the people who reconcile the flows (money) that wash across the numerous information technology (IT) platforms daily, answer the phones, deal with a variety of questions of bewildering complexity and make sure trades go through.

These client services professionals verify the last four digits of social security numbers, home phone numbers, account numbers, last deposits, maiden names and other arcana that customers have grown used to rattling off at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, it is not all so simple. This organization, unlike some other larger mutual fund companies that only deal with advisors, also works directly with shareholders, which is a whole other world and one of the reasons for implementing trailblazing.

Trailblazing was conceived at this organization as a continuing strategy to increase an already respectable customer satisfaction metric to achieve best-in-class performance. Despite their sensitivity to key customer issues, survey results failed to deliver the needed impetus to change the way associates on the phones worked their magic to improve customer service.

Differentiating Strategic Initiatives and Employee Engagement

As a strategic objective, achieving customer satisfaction seems a comparatively straightforward goal, one which sooner or later every service organization considers. Yet customer metrics are sometimes confusing, contradictory and devilishly hard to respond to without evoking unintended consequences. In this case, customers wanted accurate and speedy answers to complex financial problems, but when that necessitated finding a more senior associate to join in the call or escalating to a manager, complaints about waiting time arose.

When strategic goals are confused with employee engagement aspirations in an attempt to achieve culture change initiatives, the potential for confusion and inertia increases. This is partly because change is so hard to manage and because the set of actions needed to achieve these goals is often quite different (Table 1).

Table 1: Factors, Initiatives and Employee Engagement
Key Factors Strategic Initiatives Employee Engagement
Value proposition Financial Personal
Approach Markets and core competencies Incentives
Technology Enabler Barrier
Risk Planned and anticipated Accidental and a barrier
People Secondary Primary
Training Post initiative Pre initiative
Measurement Critical Secondary to cultural impact

Clearly, the key factors in strategic initiatives and employee engagement are, if not contradictory, often unrelated. While it was clear that frontline telephone associates held the keys to overall customer satisfaction, when customers had positive interactions, they often involved a dedicated associate breaking or bending rigid policy rules to make things right.

For example: An application for an account came in on the wrong form. The form used lacked a logo in the upper left corner indicating that it was the correct form. Policy dictated that the associate return it to the financial advisor to rewrite, reauthorize and resubmit, an exhaustive and embarrassing task for the financial advisor. After some consideration, the associate, instead of rejecting the form, clipped a logo from a correct form and taped it to the incorrect but properly filled out form, thus saving time and money.

Unfortunately, associates too often honor policy and risk avoidance rules and procedures in situations like this, even if it does more harm than good. Later, quality control reviews will “ding” an associate for solving a client problem while abridging an internal rule.

Finding the Right Method

Because it seemed improbable to craft a strategy that involved breaking the rules, something more detailed and specific to the wide variety of customer problems was needed. The intent was never to simply wave the empowerment wand and declare a field day on policy. Instead, targeted, specific and controlled associate degrees of freedom were needed. That said, achieving a strategic initiative through employee engagement became possible only with detailed and exacting analysis and planning.

Trailblazing, a name derived from an expression volunteered by a manager at a client satisfaction offsite meeting, is a combination of Work-out, quality circles and Six Sigma that bridges the gap between the desire to enhance customer satisfaction and the daily challenges of implementation. Like many such initiatives, it had the overripe tang of a management flavor of the month at first. Soon, however, it gained a measure of respectability and a unique traction all its own as it tested the ability of managers and associates to get their arms around the challenges of increasing customer satisfaction without overly simplifying the complexity and security of transactions.

The Mechanics of Trailblazing

In its initial rollout, trailblazing focused on three key customer service goals:

  • Know and listen to the customer
  • Deliver best-in-class customer experience service model
  • Foster engagement and alignment

Three teams were chartered with the goals of taking a single strategy and making it operational on the call center floor. Three managers, based on their own interest levels, were assigned to lead each team. That’s right, three leaders per team. At first it seemed an unwieldy arrangement, but it lent a unique leadership and learning twist to the effort as it progressed, with each manager taking responsibility for one third of the process.

Unlike many first-line quality initiatives, the managers who led the teams were not first-line supervisors, but vice presidents and senior directors, making the effort seem more serious. This was a deliberate move. Senior managers did not know the detail of life on the floor and would have to spend time listening to associates, and they brought the power to make changes.

A 12- to 16-week cycle was proposed with specific tools, milestones and deliverables. Training was offered and two senior facilitators partnered with the teams as they met twice weekly. The senior team reviewed the timeline periodically to stay in the loop and make certain that the various critical milestones were achieved. This allowed the project to be highly structured, but also balanced between creativity and performance management.

Senior management decided team leadership among the three senior managers should be rotated every four to six weeks so that each of the three managers had an opportunity to try on their team leadership hat and build skills – a task that for some was more challenging than for others. Once the managers got rolling and focused on their tasks, they recruited up to 10 associates to became equal members of the team.

How It Worked

The Trailblazing process was not only structured with respect to external controls and tollgates, it was internally structured as well. In some ways, it was deliberately designed to mimic the Six Sigma process, but with some notable differences. Six Sigma projects are entered into without knowledge of root causes. In trailblazing, the root cause is often obvious, while the solution and implementation are not.

The Trailblazing model moves from identifying the need for improvement through to action planning and implementation (Table 2). This process was intended to be more nimble than a Six Sigma project, require much less training and generate solutions more quickly. While some teams moved at different paces, the overall flow was uniform, ending with a town hall meeting in which ideas were announced and approved.

Table 2: Trailblazing Roadmap
Trailblazing Phase Key Actions Co-Champion Responsibilities Schedule
Identifying Opportunities for Improvement – Meeting schedule initiated, shared Champion leadership structure agree
– Sponsor, Champions and facilitator review theme areas, agree on assignments
– Co-Champions and facilitator organize and conduct focus groups
– Develop potential project ideas resulting from focus groups
– Co-Champions select extended team members
– Facilitator conducts initial brief training session on trailblazing process for complete team
This is the leadoff role in which Champion A gets the ball rolling by meeting with the sponsor, coordinating focus groups and selecting team members. Weeks 1-3 (3-5 meetings, including focus group sessions)
Building a Business Case – Team reviews project ideas and uses selection tool to identify project
– Facilitator and Champion develop preliminary charter/mission
– Facilitator and Champion review charter/mission with sponsor
– Team reviews and critiques charter/mission
– Facilitator revises charter/mission
– Substantive changes reviewed with sponsor
Champion A continues by taking the project ideas, distills the best and develops an agreed upon charter, reviews the charter with the sponsor and makes any adjustments necessary. Week 4 (2-3 meetings)
Generating a New Approach – Develop current and future state scenarios (use flow charts or SIPOC as needed) relative to project
– Identify all current measures and coordinate with process improvement consultant
– Conduct stakeholder analysis
– Identify any root causes that may be present
Champion B will lead the next series of sessions in creating process maps, metrics when applicable and a stakeholder analysis. Weeks 5-6 (3 meetings)
Action Planning – Brainstorm solutions, complete solution selection matrix
– Brainstorm steps to achieve future state
– Develop future state process map
– Identify potential problems in the process
– Develop countermeasures
– Develop action plans and responsibilities (names, times, status chart)
Champion B will be responsible for driving solution and identifying potential problems that may occur. He or she will develop a preliminary action plan, identify resource needs and quick wins that may be feasible at this stage of the process. Weeks 7-8 (3 meetings)

Common Themes and Critical Milestones

The trailblazing process did not proceed unhindered by the many issues that face new initiatives. In the initial meetings, it fell to the facilitators to explain what the process was all about. Part of their job was to carry the Champions at the start and to maintain momentum even when the next steps were not intuitive to the Champions or the team.

The potential power of the process only became apparent when all three teams held their first listening sessions. These focus groups were composed of phone associates as well as first- and second-level associates from other areas to provide a broader context. Each session began with a motivational video on customer service; this proved remarkably popular despite its simplicity. Next, dozens of flip charts were filled with ideas and concerns. The teams digested the feedback in meetings and used a theme selection matrix to hone down several focus areas, such as training and accountability, into high potential projects.

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