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In 2012, Safelite Autoglass was coming off four improbably good years, the improbability extreme if you consider how the recession and tepid recovery were defining those years for other companies. From when Tom Feeney was appointed president and CEO in 2008, Safelite managed to double its revenue (from $500 million to over a billion) and boost its NPS (Net Promoter Score) over the course of those same years from the 71 to 84. [Figures and metrics in this article are self-reported. Safelite is a privately held.]
Feeney, however, wasn’t satisfied. “I mean, I was happy, don’t get me wrong, particularly because it was our people who drove those results. Nonetheless, I wasn’t satisfied. I had a feeling that keeping on as we’d been keeping on wasn’t going to prepare us for the future. Even though the status quo seemed rosy, I was worried about what lay below the surface.”
The question that brought focus to his thinking, Feeney says, was one he found in the book, The Discipline of Market Leaders, by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema: Was Safelite a product-driven company, and operationally focused company or a customer-centric company? “We concluded that Safelite was, at present, operationally-focused, and that this operational focus was inhibiting our full potential, and that to get to where we wanted to go, we needed to become a company that was focused on the customer.”
Yet, it was reasonable for Safelite to have been operationally focused. The operational challenges of the auto glass industry are more ticklish and knotty than someone outside the industry could picture. To pick just one, the complexity of the technology in and around windshields has grown exponentially in every recent year. Feeney bluntly referred to my 2013 sedan as a “Flintstones-mobile, a very nice Flintstone-mobile,” when held up in comparison to the technology-laden automobiles coming off the line today. (Feeney is the kind of CEO who can say this sort of thing and still leave a smile on the target’s–my–face. Although he helms a now- multi-billion-dollar company, he has what used to be called “the common touch”; it’s hard to imagine him in an executive lunchroom but easy to imagine having a tuna salad sandwich in the cafeteria alongside the crew.) And a lot of that post-Flintstones automotive technology (collision avoidance, lane tracking, and the like, which in the aggregate are referred to as advanced driver-assistance systems, or ADAS), says Feeney, goes right through, or is projected onto, the windshield. The result is an ongoing need to retrain Safelite technicians to address concerns that previously didn’t exist, such as “windshield calibration” (I didn’t ask for the details of this, but it sounds touchy).
To the eyes, though, of Feeney and team, while nailing such operational details remains essential, the way those details had come to dominate the organization’s thinking needed to be mitigated before it dragged the company down into the weeds. So, early 2013, Safelite launched its initiative toward becoming a customer-driven organization, a drive that Feeney says, “led us to turning inside out the practices that we’d previously adhered to, to look at them again from the customer’s perspective.”
Step One on the journey was language: Safelite leadership decided that the venerable company, which was then turning 65, needed, at long last, a statement of purpose. For me, as a customer service consultant who works with companies on similar culture-of-customer-service initiatives, it struck me as lucky that Safelite, through all those previous years of company history, had managed not to be saddled with a jargon-infused word jumble of a purpose statement, the kind of flowery, jargon-infested statement whose inevitable fate will be to languish, unremembered, in somebody’s desk drawer. Indeed, what they came up with instead was a refreshingly unpretentious and direct 14-word statement:
We exist to make a difference and bring unexpected happiness to people’s everyday lives.
This is a brief and unassuming distillation of what they hoped the new Safelite would become, written in clear language, with short simple words (the only words that stray beyond two syllables are the salient ones: “unexpected,” “difference,” “happiness,” and “everyday.”) Note in particular the key word, “unexpected.” Safelite almost always intersects a customer’s life on the kind of day in which happiness is the last thing the customer is expecting, yet, according to the new purpose statement, Safelite is fully devoted to bringing happiness–unexpected happiness–in the course of their duties. “We’re in the ‘negative services’ category,” says Feeney. Customers aren’t in good frame of mind after a rock hits their windshield breaks, or, even worse, after someone breaks into their car, shattering the glass on the way in. “So this is a very specific goal here, to ‘bring unexpected happiness,’ which suggests that we’re going to wow customers with something that has them very frustrated.”
Customer-centric hiring and performance criteria
To bring life to this purpose statement and goal of becoming a customer-focused company, the company next created a set of performance and philosophical pillars called the “Safelite Spirit”:
- A service mindset
- A can-do attitude
- A caring heart
Feeney: “Let’s start with the service mindset: In a business like ours, you won’t fully succeed unless you enjoy serving others, not only when things are as easy and straightforward as you imagined when setting off for work in the morning, but in the face of the stressors you find out in the field as soon as you interact with the first customer or logistical challenge.” This, says Feeney, needs to be backed up by the second pillar, a can-do attitude: “This is a feeling that we can solve anything, work anything out, for our customers better than anyone else in the business.” Finally, the caring heart, “that we’re going to go about our work sincerely caring about you, the customer, as well as safety and quality of the work we do on your vehicle.”
Feeney went on to tell me that the three elements in the Safelite Spirit are so central to the company’s new conception of itself as customer-centric, that they’re used as hiring criteria.
I had an impertinent question at this point.
“Tom, have you gone through a Safelite Spirit profiling session as a subject yourself?”
Feeney: “I have not.”
I immediately felt bad about my impertinence. “That wasn’t a fair question. Your job’s so different.”
Feeney, “No, my job isn’t different! I like to think I’m assessed on those three criteria every day, the same as the rest of my staff. Because I have to live those three characteristics every day. I have to do tasks and approach tasks in a way that’s service-minded, I have to have a can-do attitude–“
Micah: “Including putting up with cheeky interviewers”
Feeney: “Including that! And, finally, a caring heart.”
Micah: “So, a more serious and fair question: How do you use these criteria with the people you’ve already hired?
Feeney: “The Safelite Spirit criteria are used in our performance reviews. If someone is falling down in one of the areas, we would discuss the need to step it up. And, sometimes, it becomes clear that an employee will no longer be a fit at Safelite in the face of our new emphasis on these three points, if someone isn’t willing, or able, to stretch to get there.”
Listening to customers, literally and at length
The final of fundamental change that Safelite made was to start listening more thoroughly to what customers had to stay, to stop paying so much attention to the metric (NPS) that had defined customers for them up to that point, and to start running their business based on a more full-figured source of input. “In early 2013, we decided to stop worrying about the numerical NPS score and instead pay attention to what the customer’s verbatim [the free-form part of the survey] was telling us. This is a fuller, more textured way to be looking at our business through our customers’ eyes.”
Much of what Safelite learned from these longer-form commentaries was that it was time for the company to undergo what Feeney calls “a digital transformation,” improving ease of use online: “We’ve taken the number of clicks down from 40 to less than 15 clicks to complete the scheduling of a job with us: In 15 clicks and about three minutes, you’ll have told us who your insurance company is, you’ve picked the part, you scheduled it, we’ve assigned a technician to you, and we’ve identified the part in our warehouse and have married the part, the technician, and your desired time and location. In another innovation suggested by customer verbatim commentary, Safelite has an Uber-like system called “On My Way”: a text message telling the customer exactly when a technician will be arriving and including a picture and bio for that technician, to provide reassurance that the person about to show up at their door is indeed a bona fide Safelite employee.
Certainly, with the many factors that affect business performance in a specialized sector like autoglass, it’s hard to pin financial results on any one initiative, but Safelite is enthused to report that the five years coinciding with the intentional transformation to a customer-focused company have concluded with, by 2018, another doubling of revenue. Which, Feeney says, bodes well for the future if they stay the course.
December 23, 2018 at 08:30PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs