In 1990, US telecommunications giant AT&T launched an all-in-one credit and long distance telephone calling card, the Universal Card Services (UCS), as a way to build new revenue streams and expand its relationship with customers. Within two years, AT&T had what it considered a winner on its hands: the card had overtaken competitors to become the second most popular credit card in the US. The Baldrige programme, a US-based institute dedicated to "process excellence," presented AT&T with its annual award in 1992.
This month I catch up with a man whom I consider to be a mentor: Rob Davis, Chief Quality Office for AT&T’s UCS division at the time. He shares the secrets behind AT&T’s credit card success story.
JC: Rob, thanks for talking with me today. I was a fan of yours long before I ever met you. In the early 90s I visited AT&T UCS after they won the Baldrige. The culture at UCS was absolutely unbelievable. My colleagues were ready to quit their jobs, move to Florida, and answer phones for a living. What were a couple of the secrets you used to build such a palpable, dynamic culture?
RD: At Universal Card Services (UCS) we were obsessed with "delighting" customers — not just satisfying them. This put customers clearly at the center of our universe. Here are just a few of the ways we did that. We kept the customer foremost in everyone’s mind. When an associate "delighted" a customer, we let everyone know — the story became a part of our collective story. We used the stories to help tell what we learned in an extensive structure of customer surveys that were frequent, thorough, and relevant. We made sure those of us leading the business heard from customers first hand. The top 25 leaders in the company were required to meet face-to-face with customers every quarter. At these wonderful face-to-face customer sessions, we told the leaders about any new findings in the research. This put a face on the facts in order to encourage action.
JC: Could you give me a concrete example of how the customer would have experienced this transformation?
RD: There are so many examples, but a big one is that almost all customer questions and requests were resolved on the first call. Our associates found ways to say ‘yes’ to customers. They were fully empowered to resolve any customer issues - even to increase credit limits on the spot. "One call resolution" was then and remains today a big source of customer satisfaction. Empowerment of associates was the most important part of that process. It meant extensive education, a powerful suite of technology tools, and an attitude of ownership on the part of associates.
JC: Nothing breeds excitement like success. We took our executive team to UCS for an in-depth visit, and when they returned we were primed to make a lot of positive change. Did sharing your success story with others drive similar change in other businesses?
RD: After we received a Baldrige Award (an annual US-based award for process excellence), we took seriously the need to share with other businesses, and share we did. Our once-a-week sessions quickly filled, and we soon filled sessions four days a week. We kept learning from the guests — we challenged every visitor to share with us at least one of their best practices. We also structured the visits so that many of our managers and associates participated in sharing the UCS story. This helped us reinforce the good practices and learn new ones from others. Our team loved to tell the story.
JC: When I worked with you in the late 90s, a favorite phrase of yours regarding communications was "Eight times. Eight ways." For those readers driving process change in their organizations, communications are vital. Can you share a little about the meaning of that phrase and how you implemented it?
RD: Communication is often a big challenge. We always took the position that the person with the message is responsible for ensuring it is understood by the recipients. Just because you say or write it does not mean anyone heard and understood it. Since everyone is busy and people receive information in many different ways, we used a rule of thumb that if it is an important message we need to share, we communicate it "eight times and eight ways." An example might be a change in metrics used for the associate compensation. 1. Announce the plan in the newsletter. 2. An e-mail from a manager. 3. Have the immediate supervisor discuss it in a staff meeting. 4. Show it on the metric reporting dashboard. 5. Have one of the leaders address it at an "all associates" meeting. 6. Have a note appear on the check in screen at the beginning of a tour. 7. List it on the metrics big board. 8. Include a note accompanying the bonus check. We even looked at an AM radio station available as the associate neared the office. Today, there are even more social media opportunities to communicate.
JC: Lastly Rob, you’ve helped a lot of people over the years, and you are currently an independent consultant. What are some of the tips you’d give to your clients today when it comes to managing change inside a Six Sigma or similar effort?
RD: Whatever name we give it — quality, Six Sigma, process improvement, Lean… — it all comes down to helping businesses solve important problems and improve. I challenge my clients to identify what is most important and then select a comprehensive approach. Most importantly, consistently execute the approach with passion and persistence.
JC: Thanks very much Rob!