The Net Promoter System Podcast

Maintaining a Resilient and Customer-Focused Culture

Former USAA executive Tony Wells shares how the company’s values help create a strong culture focused on delivering value to members.


Maintaining a Resilient and Customer-Focused Culture

This is part one of a two-part conversation with Tony Wells, who recently embarked on a new role with Verizon. Listen to part two here.

Formed in 1922 by 25 Army officers who couldn’t get insured anywhere, USAA has grown to have one of the highest Net Promoter scores among financial services companies in the US.

It’s tempting to attribute the organization’s success simply to its special expertise in serving military personnel and their families. But Tony Wells, USAA’s former chief brand officer, says it comes down to an innate, company-wide understanding of and empathy for the unique challenges members face—which is at the center of everything employees do.

Of his experience at USAA, Tony says, “There is a certain aspect to understanding military life that provides us with great benefits from a brand perspective, in terms of halo, word of mouth, [and] the idea that a customer or member knows that they are appreciated and we understand their way of life.”

Tony himself is familiar with the military lifestyle. After graduating from the US Naval Academy, he became a Marine Corps officer and worked his way up to the public affairs level. He has also been a USAA member for 35 years. That sort of loyalty is not uncommon among USAA’s customers.

“We have to—every day—earn the business of our members. We don’t take that for granted,” Tony said when he spoke to me earlier this year. “In today’s world, value speaks, experience speaks, brands resonate. We have to get up every day and win the trust and confidence of our members.”

In this episode, the first in a two-part conversation, Tony shares how USAA lives its mission every day, how the company quickly adapted to support employees and customers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how it continues to prepare for disruption.

You can listen to part one of my conversation with Tony on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher or your podcast provider of choice, or through the audio player below.

In the following excerpt, Tony Wells explains how USAA maintains a strong company culture, authentically and consistently.

Rob Markey: How do you find that USAA is different from other companies that you are familiar with, that you’ve worked with, in living the values, as opposed to just speaking them?

Tony Wells: My belief is that every company has to have a culture that’s right for them. For us, this idea of knowing what it means to serve—that’s one of our brand taglines—is really a reflection that we are seeking to know and understand what our members go through, to have empathy. Which I think is so important in the delivery of customer service or servicing our members. 

And so, if you join USAA and you may have a financial view of the world and have worked at previous companies that were all around the margins and the profit, and you come to USAA and you keep that same approach—or if you are someone that’s motivated by some other corporate philosophy—I think you will not likely be successful at USAA. You won’t have the joy. You won’t have the success. You won’t be embraced. Because, for us, the mission is first and foremost. And as folks come in, and assimilate in, it is readily apparent to them. 

Rob Markey: In what ways? Give me an example.

Tony Wells: In terms of how we make business decisions, how we conduct ourselves, the types of questions we ask, and the types of trade-offs and resource allocations that any company has to make. 

There are always decisions around where are you going to allocate resources and what’s going to be the focus, what are going to be the key performance indicators, what are you rewarding and compensating folks on? And I would say, without a doubt, if you’re with USAA, it’s very, very important—and it is communicated, and it’s rewarded, and it’s incented—to be [focused on] things and activities and outcomes and results that benefit members. 

We just recently had a board meeting. There’s just so much focus and discussion all the way up to our board around, “How are we serving members?” The types of questions they ask, the type of data that they’re requesting and looking at.

So, right or wrong, [at] some companies that I’ve been at … NPS, for example, it’s shown at the monthly business review, but it’s literally two or three minutes, and then you move on. And I think for us, there’s a fair amount of time and attention paid to how we show up, how we support members. 

And do we get it wrong occasionally? Yes. But what I can say consistently every day is that everybody at our company gets up with a focus on delivering the mission, and it is evident and apparent as we just talk and go about our day.


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