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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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!”
July 2001 News
for a Change Homepage