UX Magazine sat down with Sylvia Veitia, Vice President of Member Experience at AAA at the Forrester Customer Experience Forum. This discussion was part of our ongoing effort to profile business UX leaders so other businesspeople can learn from the examples set by other managers and executives, and so practitioners and consultants can hear about UX from the client's perspective. You can read more about the Business UX Leaders Series here.

Part 1: How AAA views UX and Customer Experience (CX), and how UX and CX fit into the organization

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Part 2: Identifying opportunities to invest in UX and CX, measuring the payoff of those investments, and bringing business units onboard with CX strategy

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Part 3: The UX of internal systems, and how attending to internal needs affects external customer experiences

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Part 4: Where design resources are situated in AAA, and how AAA uses vendors and partners

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Part 1 Transcript

What's your and your business unit's role in AAA?
Veitia: User experience is one of the three primary components of my role. It is the digital version of the customer experience, and for AAA customer experience is part of the call center experience, the retail experience, and the digital experience. So it is a third of our role around customer experience. It is perhaps the most challenging in that it’s still evolving in metrics and trackability and ability to understand what happens in a path of a consumer. But by far, one that’s becoming more and more important to AAA’s role, as well as many others.
Is UX a subset of customer experience (CX), or how do you view the relationship?
Veitia: User experience is different from customer experience—it’s the customer experience in the digital space. And it’s really the path, the navigation, the output conversion, the success, and the return, as well as many other metrics around what happens in the digital space for members, interacting both with AAA directly and our partners, that also complement our offering of services within our website.
Is CX seen as a strategic priority at AAA?
Veitia: There is a customer experience strategy for the organization, but also, as an organization, when we set our strategic vision for the year and years to come, there has been interwoven into that a very clear commitment to customer experience, and it’s stated as such. There are words such as "Doing what’s important to our members" that are part of that strategy. There are specific initiatives by business lines, as well as by fulfillment channels that deal with optimizing customer experience in every moment of truth.
What has AAA's approach to CX been historically?
Veitia: It was very important for AAA, 110 years in the business, to really focus on the expectations members had, which was that we were not just an organization they transact with, but an organization they hold a relationship with—an organization they can trust at a moment of need at 2 a.m. on a highway for roadside or a total loss in a home, or another important moment. So it was important for us that we took that experience seriously and not only provided a product, but enhanced the relationship through providing that product. And it is critical for us that the experiences are enhanced throughout the entire catalog and portfolio of our products.
What prompted AAA to identify CX as a strategic priority
Veitia: Well, I would say that in most organizations that are customer-driven to customer-centricity, it’s at times a result of something that is in need of change—driven change by customers asking for a change or asking for a voice to be heard. In our case, I would have to say it was top-down, as a strategic opportunity that our organization saw. We have been very blessed to enjoy in our organization a 90% renewal rate for many years, which is as close as you can get to 100%, considering people do move and unfortunately pass away. So I wouldn't say it was brought as a result or response to an upheaval or request from the consumer to be included, which we do actively through our legislative government group. But it was probably more of a business strategic decision that was from the top down as an opportunity for AAA, unlike many others in the industry to extend a hand to the member and to create a relationship, longer and beyond that transaction.
The beginnings of this sort of evolution, probably about six years ago, we had an "ah-ha" moment where we realized it is an operational competency that’s going to take this. We don’t produce widgets of any specific, unique value as a technology company would do, and others. But really that our core value is about the relationship that we have with our member, and what we can do to advocate for our members in providing them what they need. It is a great space to be in, because we can be quite nimble and flexible. We can be anything our members want us to be. So it became very clear to us that we could focus on our experience with our members and be able to provide for them what they needed.
Did the move toward CX require a large organizational shift?
Yes. We came to realize very early on in the process that customer experience is not an operational unit, but it is a cultural shift. It is a competency. It’s something that is shared by all and needs to be a commitment from all. There was a very important point where we believed that customer experience—whether it be the call center, retail, or online—needed its own attention. I think it was also brought up at the same time by the importance that our customer relationship management tool had shown us, which has evidently shown that when we take wonderful care of our members and our customers through that extra "wow" moment, we can measure and really serve metrics as to the impact to the business as a result of doing that. So I think it was both culturally important for us to make that a unit of itself, and also promulgate the importance of that throughout the organization. But also the metrics that came from our customer relationship management system became quite compelling.
How have the various business units of AAA reacted and responded to the CX strategy?
Veitia: Well, because customer experience is a strategic imperative to the organization, every business unit and support area, including IT and marketing and others, must develop their goals and plans for the year in support of those strategic imperatives. So, inherently within the process, they will be asked to formulate initiatives and tasks and projects that support such . It is within conjunction with customer experience that we develop those.
Do you have people whose primary focus is UX?
Veitia: Yes, and those staffs are both within my unit and within the units along the organization fulfillment points mostly. In the e-business group, we will find HFI-certified usability experts who took five weeks of intensive training and a painful process in testing and passing for the certification. Their focus is about usability. It is the magic of meeting the business goals with the user needs and making that navigation and experience a success for both.
Is UX design seen as just being about usability?
Veitia: I think the user experience is much broader and much more critical to the organization than just usability. Usability is a medium or a way or one component—a way to get to the user experience and optimize that. But you can work on usability without necessarily strategic vision or plan on the experience. You can optimize things to just be more effective. But if it’s not necessarily guided by a user experience or customer experience common goal for the organization – you may not be able to make the investments that you need to bring things to the next level.

Part 2 Transcript

Have you identified instances where attention to CX have paid off that helped you build support for your work within AAA?
Veitia: You have daily opportunities, and there are positive opportunities that you can proactively address, and there are some challenges that come along the line. We had recently an analysis of a business unit who changed a bit of their model and, for real good reasons, decided to limit the number of letters or paper that went into the mailing for cost reduction purposes. Unfortunately, that compromised the clarity of the message and resulted in 30,000 calls to a call center and a very challenged experience for the consumer and the member. And when you can put on paper the money that was saved on postage and the costs to the call center, and layer on top the customer experience, it becomes very clear, even to the CFO, that it is in our best interest to do things with the member in mind and the customer perspective—that if it wasn’t clear enough for the customer, that mailing would have only created more challenge for us. So it isn’t daily that that happens. We learn from our mistakes. But also on the proactive end, we are able to influence things like the onboarding first-year process, where one single point on renewal rate improvement can mean millions of dollars to our organization. And if you start looking at usability and center your operations around usability and customer experience, you can find very quickly metrics that will justify more than the necessary investments in what needs to be done.
Is it difficult to isolate the effects of UX and CX investments to measure their impact?
Veitia: It is always a challenge to do that, to isolate that. There are plenty of opportunities that we find where not much will change in the course of a year or two years. Product selection will be the same. The materials and communications will be similar. But the change in the experience itself was the independent variable that has improved or driven that to a higher return.
Has it been difficult to bring other business units onboard with your CX efforts?
Veitia: Yes. Absolutely. And it is not that difficult because we have been member advocate organizations for many years. So I’ve not gotten yet to a unit that said to me, "We don’t do things for member experience" or, "We can’t seem to blend that in to what we do." Every unit, from our government relations and public relations group, which advocates daily for the rights of the motorist, for the rights of the travelers, for the rights of the insurer. And whether we’re in Capitol Hill or we’re at a state house, that’s what they do. They advocate for the consumer. We’re able to go through the entire organization and find a very clear path and way for every unit to affect and impact those metrics.
How do you identify opportunities to improve and innovate on AAA's customer and user experiences?
Veitia: We have a series of steps. I am a huge advocate—obviously in my role, but I think also in my DNA—of spending time in the front lines. I was three days ago in the front lines and spent seven hours listening—double-listening—on the call center to understand what’s happening. And I saw systems that were not working the way that they’re supposed to. And I can quantify now the time that it costs a call center employee to bypass that weakness in the system and I can bring it back to a decision on investment. Are we willing to invest x number of dollars to save ten times that in our human resources that are in call centers?
But the process needs to be one of immersion. It cannot be one of observation. It can be as simple as in our call centers, we record calls and our members know when they call that their calls are being recorded for training. We select great calls and we select horrible calls and we play that for our CEO and all our executives. And they sit in a room and ponder, "What have we done?" Great "ah-ha’s" have come out of those, where we say, "Oh my goodness! We’re asking them to do what?" And why was that? Well, because 25 years ago we asked them to do it and it hasn’t been changed.
But it has to be one of true immersion, so I urge anybody getting into this themselves to get to the front line, whether it’s call center or retail, and experience not only their website but the competitors, and bring in their key stakeholders. Because there is an emotional part of hearing somebody who is calling and is telling you they don’t how to obtain a third copy of a death certificate because they sent the first one to the life insurance policy, which is probably a more-needed copy, or sent another one to the Social Security office. In some way to feel the pain of the consumer who is going through that. Who has taken the time, 3 or 4 days after losing a loved one, to call AAA to ask for whatever residual value may be to be reimbursed. It is not something you can read in a transcript. You need to hear the customer go through that to then understand, What are we doing to our consumer? This is truly needed. I bet there’s hundreds of examples, but you have to bring yourself and bring your stakeholders to the front line, listen to the customer, learn from it, remove the obstacles, and try to learn from it, because if you don’t do it, there is not magical metric that will indicate that.
We had, up until probably a few years back, looked at innovation’s process, or the process through which we innovate, heavily dependent on what our partners and what we thought internally was probably most important to our members. I would say that in the last several years, it’s become quite evident that our members are quite knowledgeable and quite committed to telling us what they would want in products and services. And it is in our best interest to look and listen to what they have to say. We do that through many, many, many ways, but our social media is becoming a huge component of that, listening not only to what they don’t like, which is just as critical so you can subset and reformat or tweak what you have in products and services, or bring in either a product to augment a service that we have or a new product altogether in a new category. So we do that through social media. We do that through surveys in other areas. We have focus groups on online panels.
But we’ve mostly started actively holding "voice of the member" initiatives—similar to voice of the customer—for us is we do ethnographic interviews and we meet with consumers, and we ask them, what do they need? Put AAA aside. What do they need? What do they need today to simplify their lives? They’ve told us many things that they need to simplify their lives and we try to find ways where AAA can help them in that journey or a partner with people who can help them in that journey.
And there are dozens of models of innovation, whether it be through partnering with someone, through developing ourselves, through identifying for our consumer who they can directly go to. And we do that as well through our product savings offering, where many people obviously show their AAA card and they save at hotels and retailers, Pearle Vision 30% and many other, so we don’t only think of innovation as something we need to internally develop and provide directly to the consumer, but we feel innovation can play a key role in bringing to the consumer the solution that they need, whether it is internally, partnering, or co-partnering with someone in solving that. And we are paying a lot more attention to our voice of the customer feeds, so we are working on that and hopefully we’ll be able to stay ahead of the game and continue to offer the member services.

Part 3 Transcript

Do you also focus on the UX of your internal systems?
Veitia: We focus so much on the external usability of our consumer that we overlook and bypass the internal usability, which drives the experience of the consumer. So is your call center and your retail experiencing horrible challenges with technology, or perhaps they have goals that are short-term driven for the internal metric or report card that that operation, whether call center or retail, has to offer which compromises the usability and member experience. And those can be well-intended, and unfortunately have horrible—sometimes—consequences on member experience. We could at times, to comply with a preferred way of doing something from audit, cause tremendous inconvenience to customers. Ask them to travel 20 miles or 15 miles to sign a document that would be ideal but not required by law or perhaps even recommended as best practice, but would be a good idea. So we have to look internally at what we’re doing for our service group, for our call centers, and for our retail units, as well as what we’re doing in the legacy systems for the digital group, before we work too hard on the end. Because I would tend to say a great majority of what happens with our consumer is driven by what happens to our associates.
What internal systems or processes have you worked on with the aim of improving external CX?
Veitia: We looked at operational connections between some of our units in the areas that normally deal with your membership products and services in general. It was not necessarily able to connect to some function of the organization. For example, if we had a member call to cancel one of the members in their membership, and if it was unfortunately due to death, our call-takers would have to take, on average, 10 to 12 different steps to certify that the person who was being removed from the membership was actually deceased. And at a given time, we were asking the caller to send us a copy of the death certificate. Operationally, I am not sure that it is so important to get a copy of a death certificate or not. It was very well-intended at the given time for very good reasons, but we’ve now taken simpler paths to do that. And thanks to technology, we can simply find obituaries in the local paper, which are done digitally now through connections. So we can certify that, most likely, if there was an obituary on the person, there was actually a reason to cancel the person and refund.
But those experiences and those honing in operationally first give you a great insight to what’s happening outside to the member, who we put through hoops to get to some processes, when in reality, it isn’t always necessary. There will be some cases where it is necessary and we just simply understand that that’s the industry and it’s regulatory and it’s required that way and we need to. But wherever we can, we will simplify. So I recommend to anyone who is looking at usability and experience throughout all the mediums to look internally at your advocates. Because those employees who are in the call centers and the retail office have a committed passion to servicing your customers beyond the barriers that we put for them in front. And they will the first ones to tell you what needs to be removed to enhance the experience. And you will get multiple dividends from that just simple exercise.
How do you identify opportunities to invest in internal systems?
Veitia: When we develop the systems, we take a very careful look at what it will do. And the greatest impact that most of our streamlining of systems that deal with front-line associates who are serving our customer has is on the training and on the introduction of new products or processes. Because if your systems are not intuitive and are not clear to the operator (the call center associate) it will take you three times longer to teach them how to do something than to teach them about the product itself. And we have been able to metric that to the organization the number of weeks that it takes to learn a system versus the number of days that it takes sometimes to learn a product. Our vision is to have the opposite, to have the majority of the time be about learning the product and the needs that it may answer to a customer so it can better be connected with a customer, rather than understanding how you can transfer this information over to the other screen because the systems don’t connect.
We have a well-known initiative called Member First, and there is a wonderful book that I read many years ago—probably 15 years ago—called The Customers Come Second, which sort of turns this upside-down, but it talks about the concept that you take care of your associates—their systems, their compensations, their recognitions, their incentives, and so forth—that your customer experience will enhance itself. You can’t help it. It’s an inevitable consequence of, if you take care of your associates, you will have wonderful customer experience. The idea of compensation and incentives across the front-line units has been very critically looked at, both in aligning the business goals for the organization, but also recognizing that the customer experience is a critical part of it.
And I can tell you that we are probably fine-tuning those, but that there is very clear evidence that our employees will do whatever it is for the customers, even if it isn’t the most optimal incentive for them. And that is truly, amazingly rewarding. We have wonderful tenure of associates that have been with us for many years who may recommend B Product instead of Product A to a customer because it fits their need most appropriately, even though Product A had a higher incentive. But what we’ve looked at—and that doesn’t happen every day—but what we looked at is placing the correct value and incentive in going that extra mile for the consumer. And we’re trying to develop some metrics around that, which could be over and above any business unit goal, but could be about taking that extra step, taking that extra reaching your hand out to create that relationship, with not just the organization but with the personal service that you’re getting.

Part 4 Transcript

Are your design resources in house, or do you work with outside design vendors?
Veitia: Yes to both. There is a design group in marketing. There is a design group in online e-business. And there are some partnerships we have with outside vendors to do some of the design work. I think they all follow a very close brand look-and-feel and some parameters that we share throughout, and they accomplish what they need to for that purpose. As you can imagine, designing a travel publication or a travel direct mail has a very different expertise than it is to design your insurance policy documents. So we find a need to sometimes reach our arm out to a vendor or partner and work with them for a unique, specific type of experience in reading and understanding and learning about a benefit from industry to industry.
Are your design resources spread out across different business units?
Veitia: Yes. There are designers that work and develop both the navigation, the usability, and the visual design that happens online are digital designers. They are not print. They do collaborate and feed from an overall, overarching strategy on look-and-feel from the brand because it is key for us to keep that consistent throughout every mode and every medium. But they do know how to reposition that for the digital world, which is a critical aspect of what we do. It can’t just look like the brochure you picked up. It needs to carry the flavor, carry the theme, but convert itself to a digital experience.
Do you work with outside vendors on your UX initiatives?
Veitia: Yes. We do have a series of partners that we work with. HFI, which I mentioned, has been a critical partner for us in the digital space. Spark is also a very well, just recently-formed, usability group and we are very, very committed to working together and doing things together short-term and long-term. They helped us specifically on a couple of projects dealing with the youth segment, which is a little bit unique in and of itself. And then we also work with EffectiveUI, who has started to do some work with us, both in the digital as well as the internal usability.
We use vendors and partners in many areas because the level of expertise and focus and concentration is so specific and so deep that for us it’s a much more cost-effective process to bring in somebody at the moment that we need that deep dive into that knowledge, HFI being a specific example, EffectiveUI as well. The work that we’ve started to do now with Rebecca [Flavin, CEO of EffectiveUI] on aligning the interactions of the call center with our CRM tool will go a long way. Could we have hired 3 to 4 people to do it? Perhaps. Rebecca knows, and so does EffectiveUI, the organization well.
They’ve worked in different areas. But they can bring in expert knowledge in every single step and phase of the project. So if we have some issues in integrating system interface with encryption, we can get that within two days. I don’t need to go out and find somebody and train them and bring them in and have a learning cycle. So it is well-used, in my opinion, that we do reach out to partners that have expertise, like EffectiveUI and others, who help us speed through light years ahead. If we had to develop that internal skill set and knowledge, it would be definitely challenging for us.
Is your use of vendors part of your long-term plan, or is it a temporary bridge?
Veitia: We will continue to use the outside vendors for the foreseeable future until we get to a process that we can identify short- and long-term skill sets that are needed around a common need. So if I do need somebody who does amazing work with encryption platforms and others, and I have seven projects that are online for the next 2 to 5 years, then we probably would hire somebody or a group or even a unit to do that. But when there are unique big projects that have a huge immediate ROI on their implementation, for us it becomes very simple to say every year we don’t do this, it’ll cost us x. By bringing in an outside consultant, it may cost us y+2, but by not doing it, it’s ten times more. So let’s get it together and get this going. So it’s always a decision point of determining what’s best.