The Customer Confidential Podcast

Uncovering the Unexpected through Agile

Amy Cribbs describes how Agile revealed unexpected discoveries about Vanguard’s employees, its customers and even about herself.


Uncovering the Unexpected through Agile

Amy Cribbs was an experienced, confident leader with more than two decades under her belt at Vanguard when she took on the challenge of improving customer experience at the world’s largest mutual fund company. She expected the adoption of new, Agile ways of working to be difficult, but she felt ready. Even so, her experience proved to be full of surprises, even for a veteran such as Amy.

The new cross-functional teams helped Vanguard design better customer experiences and deliver them faster. That was expected, since Agile has proven effective at accelerating delivery of such improvements. But there was a lot more. In a previous episode of the Net Promoter System Podcast, Amy described how the discipline of seeking real customer feedback throughout development in the Agile approach had revealed unexpected insights about what really mattered to customers, which helped the teams design even better customer episodes.

As it turns out, the new insights extended well beyond customer needs. The biggest and most rewarding surprise, says Amy, came when she saw individual employees blossom. For example, the Agile process freed a respected IT engineer from his traditional individual contributor role upon discovering that he turned out also to be a natural leader. “As you empower people, you start seeing things you didn’t allow yourself to see—because we weren’t putting them in the position to show it to us.”

That wasn't the only revelation Agile delivered. In one moving example, Amy explains why the very reasonable assumption that older customers dealing with the death of a spouse would prefer to speak to an empathetic, caring live customer agent proved wrong—and why, for some of them, the digital channel was a much better way to serve their emotional needs in that moment.

Experiences such as those, she says, reinforce the need for humility when it comes to thinking she understands what customers want. Similarly, she says, she has learned the importance, in an Agile world, of being a servant leader: New ways of working often result in new ways of thinking, and leaders need to nurture, not control, that impulse.

While Agile has become a bit of a buzzword in the business world lately, we have found relatively few companies achieving real, extended success with Agile outside of the IT world. It’s happening more and more, and Vanguard provides a great example of a traditional organization navigating the difficult passage to Agile. Vanguard also illustrates another truth about Agile: It’s not for everyone in every part of the organization all the time.

You can listen to my conversation with Amy on iTunesStitcher or your podcast provider of choice, or through the audio player below.

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In the following excerpt, Amy describes why Agile ways of working require a mix of confidence and humility and how her own leadership style has changed as a result.

Amy Cribbs: Because you're empowering teams to solve a specific set of opportunities for the client, everybody has a chance to contribute, everyone has a voice. Whereas in traditional hierarchical structures, someone’s representing the work of a lot of people.

And by the way, it is really, really important that you still have governance models and hierarchical structures for the right things, so I'm not advocating the whole world has to go this way.

Rob Markey: Right. This is horses for courses. You need it in certain areas where it’s really useful.

Amy Cribbs: That’s right. And because the Agile model also puts leaders in a room with the product teams as they're talking about their product, those people have a chance to sort of show what they're made of and their ideas. The normal leadership model—the, sort of, Ken doll we create for leadership— [doesn’t have that same experience]. It's not that you don't value it. It's that you don't see it, and it's hard to know it's there unless you see it. This model brings so many more people to the surface for you to engage with and observe and really get a sense of how they think about the world.

So, I think that's one big thing. I also think the idea of servant leadership is critically important in this model. I have strong opinions. I have led for a long time. History is a good teacher, but it's also a good limiter on your creativity. I've had to learn to inquire about why people are thinking the way they are.

I have learned to be inquisitive in dealing with my teams as opposed to assuming I have good answers. I’m not always good at it, but I've changed. My mindset is different today than it was two or three years ago. It’s pretty amazing at this point in my career that I've learned such an important lesson that I really wish I would have had at age 25.

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Rob Markey: I can relate to what you're saying. I constantly am second-guessing myself on my reactions, and I'm sure that most leaders in these environments are. It's a big change from the hierarchical model that we all grew up with.

Amy Cribbs: At the heart of this, there is a level of humility that has to be employed—and also some confidence because experimentation takes a little bit of confidence and a little bit of moxie to put something out there that might not be perfect. You’ve got to be humble as it relates to what your employees know that we don't know.

I think you also have to be incredibly humble about what you know, or don't know or understand about the context of your client. Because data only takes you so far. We had a team that said our older clients would never do this in a digital path.

Rob Markey: Do what?

Amy Cribbs: Change ownership on a deceased spouse's IRA, for example. So very specific. And it was true that the demographics would say they are older.

Rob Markey: And this is an emotional thing. It's a deceased spouse.

Amy Cribbs: Right. [The assumption was] we have to talk them through this, right? We put up a live experiment for a digital pathway, and the first person through it was 89 years old.

Rob Markey: That's awesome.

Amy Cribbs: And we're seeing every day that that generation is willing to do it, and if they need help, they'll seek help either from us or from another family member.

And actually, as good as our phone reps are—I mean, our phone reps get off the charts scores in terms of satisfaction and empathy from clients in that space—but what [those clients] said is, “I have to tell 40 different vendors that my wife of 50 years died. I have to replay this story with the cable company, and the bank, and …”

Rob Markey: …And they're all nice, but I don't want to tell the story so many times.

Amy Cribbs: [And they said], “To be honest, what I loved about your digital experience was I got it done in five minutes—not even five minutes—and I could do it on my time when I was emotionally prepared. And I didn't have to replay this painful story of my life.” Right?

Rob Markey: That’s so interesting.

Amy Cribbs: Empathy isn't just about how we talk to people. It's about what how these processes live in the context of their lives

Rob Markey: I love that story, because it breaks a lot of assumptions that people have about these highly emotional events. There's this mythology that grows up around them--and it's all reasonable, you can understand where it comes from. But until you hear that perspective—“I have to do that 50 times”—you just assume that what we want is a human interaction. We want empathy.

Amy Cribbs: And to be truthful, there are people who do want that. But we've been pleasantly surprised to see how many people said, “No, I'm actually willing to self-provision this, and, by the way, it's actually more useful to me. It's more helpful in the context of what's going on in my life.”

Rob Markey: There's another thing that your story brings up, which is this issue about assumptions we make based on the age of a customer. There are all kinds of things that I hear all the time from my clients that just make the hair on the back of my neck stand up because they’re these broad sweeping generalizations that don't necessarily apply. Millennials are digital natives, for example.

Of course. It's a tautology. But it's wrong. Or, better said, it may not play out the way you think it will. It turns out a lot of millennials will pick up the phone when they find something frustrating online faster than a Gen X or a baby boomer.

Amy Cribbs: Right. Because what the phone and the omnipresence of digital has done for them is they value speed. So they won't delay that thing.

Rob Markey: They're not going to waste their time trying to figure out your system. They're going to just get it done.

Amy Cribbs: Another point on the millennials thing is that they have a broader value system than digital. When you only think it's about digital, that’s a mistake. I think that they actually are quite discerning when it comes to brand loyalty and where they want to do business, and it's not going to be enough to have a slick mobile app. You're going to actually need to have a product and brand that they want to do business with, that they feel [a] connection [with] and that represents their values. I see it in my daughters.

Rob Markey: You and I both have kids who are in that age range. You have to pierce the generalities that people make, and one of the ways to do it—as you're pointing out—is to do experiments and prototypes and get real, live reactions from human beings and dig and dig and dig to understand their source and their nature.


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