ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - July 2001


Issue Highlight — Turnabout Is Fair Play
- Take a look back at one of Peter Block's best columns as he helps bridge the gap between employee and manager and offers his invaluable "Employee Manifesto."

 In This Issue...
Getting Back To Basics
Change Of Space
Banking On Quality
Is Your Quality Process "Running On Empty?"
Recommended By A Friend

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

Banking On Quality
AmeriServ Financial Gains a Competitive Advantage by Measuring Customer Service

As you check your mailbox after a long day of work, you see some bills, some junk mail, your weekly issue of Time magazine and your bank statement. After leafing through the envelopes, you decide to open up your bank statement to see what funds you’ll deplete next. Wait a second, a $10 surcharge for what?

   To err is human, we all know that. Mistakes and oversights are common in the business world. However, they have to be complemented with a quick and efficient cure—service with a smile. Many organizations see quality customer service as icing on the cake, not a vital piece of the puzzle. What they don’t understand is customer satisfaction earned from outstanding service can give them the niche they need to succeed.

   AmeriServ Financial, formerly USBank, realized that important impact, and their recovery team brought it home.

The quality movement in America was formed and moved along largely by the manufacturing sector. Their results were easily quantifiable, and therefore, clearly visible. You can physically count how many nuts and bolts one uses when building a widget and how many defects are found on the finished product. The amazing work of those manufacturers is not discounted, but simply put, it has never been clear-cut for the service side of business.

   Many service companies choose to ignore the problems that accompany customer service. How can they tell if problems have been solved? Quality customer service cannot be measured in customer smiles or frowns—the results aren’t easy to see. Is it possible to quantify customer service? AmeriServ Financial, formerly USBank, encountered this problem and decided to face it head-on. The results are self-explanatory—there is a qualitative side to quality.

A People Problem
When Orlando B. Hanselman became president of AmeriServ Financial in 1995, he brought with him the processes of total quality management and team implementation. A young and charismatic man, he laid out a vision for the organization to follow. For this, he appointed a special group of people into top management roles in order to drive the initiative throughout the company. From the start, the leadership and support of management were there. “Included in our mission statement and all of our materials is the fact that customers are number one with us,” says Debi Balog, training manager for the organization and team leader for the recovery team. Once the employees took the reins, the opportunity for success was very evident.

   AmeriServ Financial decided to create a benchmark for their internal and external customer service by mailing two satisfaction surveys, one to the customers and one to the employees. The results of those two surveys sent up red flags for the company.
“Our employees told us we needed to improve communication and cooperation between departments and our customers told us we were slow and needed improvement in handling complaints,” says Balog.

   Many were afraid this lack of communication and cooperation would surface as the end result to our customer. “We had to hit that first,” says Balog, “because our customers are most important.” Their customers’ importance results from their unique business practices. AmeriServ Financial does not sell on price, which might be considered strange for a bank. “We sell our customer service, not our rates,” states Balog. This style worked well for them, but without a change in attitude, the customers had reason to shop elsewhere.

  “Through the power of teamwork, we knew we could bridge the gap between where we were and where our customers wanted us to be,” states Alice Wallace, customer service representative and team member. The goal of the recovery team was to decrease customer complaint resolution time.

   “When we have a project that impacts different departments and our customers, we pull a cross-functional team together,” says Balog. Her responsibility was to round up the best group of people able to solve the customer satisfaction problems. From a list of volunteers, she chose those able to provide the most pertinent information and do the necessary research. Due to their cross-functionality, members of the team did not know each other ahead of time, but learned to work together quickly. The fact that they cared so much about the outcome gave them something in common to build on.

   “A lot of the work was done on their own time,” says Balog. “We allowed company time, but I would say almost 50 percent was done on their own because of how many other responsibilities everyone had. This could be considered a second job.”

   That commitment led the team in search of a very difficult goal—quantifying successful customer service. “The team first looked at the processes we already had in place for handling customer complaints,” states Karen Vigna, new accounts representative and team member. “We asked the question, ‘Do we have standards for handling customer complaints?’ We didn’t know if there was a one- or two-day standard, or none at all.”

   The team research found they had to set standards and guidelines for complaint recovery and then create a training program for employees. “What we found was that we had customer service standards in place, however we had no formalized process of handling complaints for our employees to follow,” explains Jeanne Chamer, administrative assistant to the chairman, president and CEO, and team member. “During our process, one thing just led to another and we discovered problems with current processes and found solutions that would link our corporate goals and our customer service efforts.” The team knew what their goal was and knew they would have to fix and enhance the systems and processes involved.

   In the end, the team cut the average recovery time of a customer complaint from 4.4 days to 0.8 days. What once took almost an entire business week to accomplish is now a daily process.
Unfortunately, orienting people to the new process was not easy.
   Although it’s integrated into their culture that customer service is given top priority, team members ran into difficulty with the tight timeframes they asked employees to turn complaints around on.
“When we said, ‘One action, one call, one business day,’” says Balog, “everyone said, ‘Are you crazy?’” It took them some time to become comfortable. Their comfort came with the help of fellow employees. When given the responsibility of one-day turnaround, they knew they couldn’t do it on their own. However, could they trust the people they were passing their work off to? The team opened their eyes.

   “Due to our cross-functionality, we gained insight into what hurdles other employees faced in their daily jobs,” says Terri Hilbrecht,marketing specialist and team member. “As we dug deeper into the causes of the complaints, we realized the processes were failing, not the people.”

   “A lot of accountability and responsibility goes into this new process and the employees understood that,” agrees Balog.
Figuring those realities out and sharing them with the group really helped the team. Now all of the quality tools are in place and the group has gelled around them. “Our team tied all of the tools together and uncovered the best practices and identifiable trends,” states Hilbrecht. “It has been a large factor toward achieving what we have and has helped in our quality journey.”

Making Change
All of the members of the AmeriServ Financial family understand the importance of what the teams accomplish. This team found that to be especially true. “The dedication and commitment of our coworkers helped us so much toward achieving our customer service goals,” says Balog. “They were just as serious as our team about helping us decrease costumer complaint recovery time.” When asked to distribute surveys, take part in pilot programs or help train, volunteers came out of the woodwork.

   Their assistance does not go unappreciated. As a matter of fact, it is celebrated. The company newsletter, “MakingChange,” shares stories of both team and individual triumph. It recognizes outstanding work. “What this does is reinforce,” says Balog. “If we’ve implemented a new team or a new standard, or we see some of our employees using a standard and being very successful, then we’ll highlight and recognize that.” The newsletter has been in existence since Hanselman’s arrival in 1995. It is an all-volunteer team as well. Through spawning interest in employees, the publication gives people an outlet to find a helping hand.

   That hand has been very important in the months following the team’s findings. “Through the process, we learned how important measuring and monitoring are and realized that we need improvement in the results area,” says Chamer. The employees have also found the importance of results and are now helping the team move forward in the continuous group process. Many people focus on quality, but only focus on fixing problems and finishing on time. This team placed emphasis on measuring and monitoring the processes and systems. In order for it to go smoothly, they had to incorporate their actions. “We needed to have priorities,” says Balog. “We knew we couldn’t have everybody going out and measuring and monitoring without then integrating the results and how they link.” That disastrous outcome was avoided by their sense of structure. The employees were kept in the loop through all of the team’s work and findings. It was now the employees who would have to connect back. “You need to get that structure,” says Balog.

The Quantifiable Truth
Although the team has yet to see their final results, they know they have accomplished their goals. They took the qualitative and made it quantitative. They took the obscure and sometimes misunderstood topic of customer satisfaction and turned it into something measurable. And it seems as though AmeriServ Financial isn’t going to stop there. In fact, they’ve hired a full-time quality specialist who is monitoring customer complaints and recovery time. In addition, some of the recovery team members are currently serving as mentors for other teams. “Our culture puts our customers first, whether you are in the back office or the front line of the organization,” concludes Balog. “It only makes sense to measure our customer service, so that’s exactly what we did!”

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