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Why Capital One Believes in Overmanagement

Executive Summary

We’ve all been there, on the other side of the phone, with an employee who’s supposed to help us, but sounds like they’d rather be doing anything else. Using companies like Capital One as an example, Blake Morgan explains how a company’s culture shapes the customer experience.

  • The health of a company’s culture is defined by the way it treats, values, and empowers its own employees.
  • Set your employees up for success by giving them a sense of purpose and empowering them to help your customers.
  • If you want to create a customer-focused company, you must be intentional about the experience you create for your employees. A healthy company culture will undoubtedly result in happy and loyal customers.  

Capital One manages $373 billion in assets, has almost 50,000 employees, and generates $30 billion in revenue a year. It has a culture with strong ethics, integrity, and a culture of kindness from its beginning thirty-one years ago. The company has continued to embrace change, and gone through transformations in order to become a leading digital bank. What sets Capital One apart and allows this company to grow so quickly?

HOW CAPITAL ONE SETS THE BAR FOR COMPANY CULTURE

Magic happens at Capital One, the type of magic you cannot pay for by a PR firm. Stories come out of the Capital One contact center you cannot make up. A Capital One customer named Christina was dumped by her fiancé. She then had her credit card declined when she moved out and had to buy new furniture. She called the Capital One contact center in tears. An agent named Tonya could hear how upset Christina was and knew this was not simply a transaction—this customer needed her faith restored in the world. Tonya gave Christina 4,500 miles to go on vacation and had a bouquet of flowers sent to Christina’s ex-fiancé’s house for her so he would be jealous. This story went viral—resulting in millions of people hearing about Capital One and its culture. This is the type of press a company only gets when employees are empowered to do something above and beyond for a customer.

Today, thanks to the internet, companies have a new level of transparency: Eventually we hear about whatever happens inside your company. In another story, Mr. Morris, a veteran and Capital One customer, lost a close friend from his days in the Vietnam War. He needed an old picture of a group of friends from their Army days to use at the funeral. He was devastated when he realized he had lost the original photo, and the only remaining version of the photo was printed on his Capital One credit card. Desperate to get the picture, Mr. Morris called the Capital One contact center and described his situation. The contact center employee didn’t know if they could do anything, but after making a few calls and a few exceptions, several departments worked together to get Mr. Morris the photo. They were able to pull the picture from the credit card and even had it framed so Mr. Morris could use it at the funeral.

BE INTENTIONAL ABOUT THE CULTURE YOU CREATE

Everyone reading this book is a customer, and has had the experience of being served by an employee who clearly does not want to be there. We have also been a customer in a situation where we needed more help than the company was willing to provide. The invisible mood-killer for this type of interaction is the company’s culture, where employees are not empowered to act on behalf of the customer. While the company might say they care about their employees, their actions speak otherwise. This poor employee experience and toxic culture can destroy the customer experience.

What I have noticed in customer-focused companies is the founder is usually still the CEO, able to make long-term decisions that are good for the business. That is the case with Capital One, which still has founder Richard Fairbank at the helm. Fairbank is famous for only taking a $1 salary for the last twenty years and for blocking his schedule to spend two and a half hours with his family every night.

For the last four years, Capital One has made the “Best Companies to Work For” list. I wanted to find out who was responsible for this powerful culture—a company that clearly embraces the connection between employee experience and customer experience. Through word of mouth I connected with Doug Woodard, an SVP of Customer Operations responsible for 15,000 employees. He told me in a recent phone interview he believes in cultural transparency—when employees are unhappy, customers can feel it. And building a work experience for the people who work directly with your customers matters even more. Woodard believes when it comes to company culture, “companies don’t spend enough time thinking about it.” He doesn’t understand why other companies would not be intentional about their design of a culture. He told me, “We obsess over what it’s like to work here.”

The Capital One executive team is in agreement that their people are their greatest asset, and they know the culture/employee experience pieces are directly correlated with customer experience. Woodard said, “Between purpose and function, it’s easy in our line of work to get wrapped up in function. What’s our function? We answer the phone for a credit card company.” Woodard believes that “answering phones” is not inspiring. He said, “If you can give people that sense at work—that’s when you unleash real potential.” He understands it’s easy in operations to obsess over service levels and average handle time and staffing. He says he does track many of the metrics that are customary in a call center, but he is more focused on purpose than anything else. Woodard believes in treating his people well and giving them a sense of purpose when they get out of bed in the morning. The call center is usually seen as a cost center, so riddled with rigid rules and structure that agents sound like robots.

Many companies force their call center reps to say the customer’s name three times, which can lead to agents awkwardly repeating a customer’s name at the very end of the call because they forget to do so earlier. Woodard’s leadership style and worldview make sense when you look at the viral customer experience stories coming out of Capital One. For example, I can imagine when Tonya started her job, she did not know it would entail becoming a guest on The Ellen Show.

OVERMANAGE WHAT MATTERS MOST

Culture is often relegated to human resources, but this is a missed opportunity because human resources are not in the weeds with their teams every day as managers are. In fact, human resources are feared—they are gatekeepers, the group that keeps the company from being sued. Human resources is not the division you go to when you literally need resources as a human being.

Woodard takes a page from Disney, which believes you should overmanage the things that matter most. Woodard’s team has been successful by putting mechanisms in place such as intentional metrics that support the culture they intended to create. These mechanisms build a culture that reinforces their brand and their value proposition. He believes the hard part is drilling down to the actual behaviors you want to drive. For example, Woodard is considering the behavior of his one thousand managers, who each manage a team of fifteen. He believes in being intentional not only about what you measure, but what you don’t measure. For example, in customer service at Capital One, there are no sales conversion rates tracked. As a customer, there is nothing worse than when you have a problem and the employee tries to make more money off you. He understands most customers sign up for credit cards online, and this frees employees up to simply focus on the service part of the work. Contact center metrics like average handle time are tracked, but management only steps in when there are outliers in the call times. The agents have a range; Woodard said, “There are calls that are just a few minutes, but the calls that moved me to tears were longer than half an hour.”

KEEP THE CARE IN CULTURE

Money is emotional for people. A person who loses a wallet or has a credit card stolen—that is an opportunity to be there for the customer at the point of need. It’s an interaction that the customer won’t forget. Employees who do not feel like prisoners of a performance measurement system are going to improve customer experience, and solve the problem faster and more efficiently.

We are human beings and we don’t stop being human when we get to work. We are afraid of robots taking our jobs; however, we already treat our employees like robots, and they talk to our customers like robots. Capital One does the opposite of that, and is thriving.

There are three main lessons I believe that we can learn from Capital One’s Culture:

  1. Overinvest and overmanage culture.
  2. Be intentional about the culture you design, and start with purpose.
  3. Care as much about what you measure as what you don’t measure.

Creating a culture that is both employee-focused and customer-focused is not easy. If we want to differentiate our business from the rest, we have to face the reality that the way we manage our internal operations, the way we create experiences for our employees, greatly impacts customer experience.

Adapted with permission from The Customer of the Future by Blake Morgan, copyright Blake Morgan.

Bring It Home

It was 2015, and I was preparing to move to Tennessee after a significant loss that turned my world upside down. To make matters worse, just weeks before the move, I found out from a local repair shop that my trusty Macbook would need nearly $1,000 in repairs. Thanks to all of the moving expenses, there was nothing left to fix the one thing I needed the most for my freelance career. Desperate for a solution, I reached out to everyone from Apple to repair centers from Texas to California looking for a lower price.

After a terrible experience with shipping my Macbook across the country, I walked back into the local repair shop who’d given me my first quote. Recognizing me, the young man behind the register proceeded to pull up my account. “Ummm…Mam, did you speak with someone at Apple?” “Yes, I think I did, but it was weeks ago.” He went on to tell me that Apple had put a code on my account that would make the nearly $1,000 repair free. Losing every semblance of composure, I broke down in tears. Though I eventually wrote the Apple employee, Stephanie, to thank her for what she did, there is no way to fully convey the impact her customer-focused actions had on that season of my life.

Have you had an incredible customer experience like this, where you got to see a company’s culture reflected in the way they put you as the customer first? We can’t get enough of stories like this, and would love to hear yours! Comment below to share.

Blake Morgan

Blake Morgan is a customer experience futurist who has contributed to Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, and Hemispheres Magazine and is host of the award-winning Modern Customer podcast and a weekly customer experience video series on YouTube. She regularly keynotes at conferences and events with 500+ attendees on the topic of customer experience innovation.

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