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Walking a Mile in Their Customers' Boots

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BusinessWeek names 25 companies every year to its list of service champions. It starts with a list based largely on brands in J.D. Power & Associates database, and BusinessWeek polls 3,000-plus readers to names most associated with treating customers well. This includes techniques, strategies and tools used to care for the customer. Most names listed share one thing in common: empathy for their customers.

In the 2010 Customer Service Champs, BusinessWeek took an in-depth look at the company USAA. They are a private company that offers auto and home insurance to a customer base of military members and their families. With $68.3 billion in assets, USAA has unrivaled staying power atop Bloomberg BusinessWeek's annual Customer Service Champs ranking. Since the first list in 2007, no other company has come close to achieving USAA's feat: a No. 1 or No. 2 spot for four years running.

Beloved and prosperous companies deliver service with care and empathy.

Customer empathy means understanding a customer's needs and having the ability to interact with that customer in a personalized way. It’s the ability to imagine what it might be like to experience the life of a customer. It’s the ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes and walk a mile. And it’s an essential skill that should be at the heart of everyone’s service plan in the company, especially the frontline.

The companies that have made “the list” and companies that are thriving in this economy are there for good reason. Even in a sluggish economy, these companies continue to care for the customer, continue to empathize, and, for that reason, grow their business. As I discuss in my BusinessWeek article, Customer Service: Marketer vs. Merchant, “They have made deliberate decisions about how they would run their business, and they live out those decisions every day. The most important of those decisions is the one that determines that taking great care of their customers is the highest priority.”

At USAA, new hires eat like soldiers.

While new hires are not required to be from the military, they must understand the military.  So, new USAA employees wear the military helmet and feel the weight of the backpack and flak vest strapped to their backs. USAA serves new employees MREs (meals ready to eat) during orientation, so they can better identify with military life. They get to know the people behind the uniform by reading letters from soldiers and their families.

USAA was the first bank to allow iPhone deposits and among the first to let customers initiate an insurance claim using their phones from the scene of an accident. In 2008, they rolled out a service allowing customers to get text messages about their account balances. Later this year, they are planning mobile peer-to-peer payments, allowing customers to e-mail or text-message money to friends or family for immediate deposit. Also coming this year is a mobile car-buying service that lets customers snap an iPhone picture of a vehicle's VIN number and instantly get back insurance quotes, loan terms and pre-negotiated loan rates. "They do all this really creative stuff that applies to guys and gals who are in Afghanistan," says Karen Pauli, a research director at consulting firm TowerGroup. "There is nobody on this earth who understands their customer better than USAA."

While nimble technology may be part of the formula for meeting its customer’s needs, USAA knows that an empathetic and caring workforce that understands the unique lives of their customer base is fundamental to their ongoing success. That means walking in their customers shoes.

In almost everything it does, USAA puts itself in the spit-shined shoes or combat boots of its highly mobile customers. Elizabeth D. Conklyn, EVP of People Services, says, “We want to cover the light moments, the heart-wrenching moments, what it’s like to be bored in the field." (Excerpt taken from Jeanne Bliss’s I Love You More than My Dog: Five Decisions for Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad.”)

By walking in the shoes of its customers, USAA breaks down the barrier that often exists between companies and customers.  As a result, USAA customers love and reward them with growth and validation. “No fewer than 87% of respondents to J.D. Power's syndicated surveys say they will definitely buy from the company again, far higher than the average, which is just 36%. Its client retention rate? A near-perfect 97.8%.”

Decide to be real.

Companies that customers love work hard to make personal connections. They strive to ensure their “real” personality shines through in each interaction with the customer.

In the beloved and prosperous companies:

  • Leaders blend who they are as people with how they lead.

  • Business decisions combine purpose and passion.

  • Leaders give employees behaviors to model and permission to be “real.”

  • Relationships are between people who share the same values.

These attitudes and actions embody what is behind beloved and prosperous companies. The action of empathy, walking a mile in the shoes of your customers, allows you to connect, establish rapport and create a trusting relationship. Once the customer realizes that you are on their side, they are more willing to work with you to fix the problem, or will allow you the time to resolve the issue.  And they will stay with you and tell their friends about you.  They will grow your business.

Go Try This

Have you trained your staff to understand the unique perspective of the customers they will be working with? Do they understand the value you place on getting to know the customer’s lives and special circumstances?

On a big sheet of paper, trace the bottom of your shoe and label it, “My Customers’ Shoe: Five Things We Should Know about Our Customers.

In teams of 2 to 4, write down the things you understand about your customers. What keeps them up at night?  What is a day in a life for them?  What do you know about their needs that help you serve them?

This activity will help your team identify the unique characteristics of the people they serve. It may also be an eye-opener if the teams are not able to identify 5 things about the customers. Taking the time to review the lists and develop training to allow employees to gain a deeper understanding of the customer perspective will ultimately grow the value of your business and grow the bottom line.

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Jeanne Bliss began her career at Lands’ End where she reported to founder Gary Comer and the company’s executive committee, ensuring that in the formative years of the organization, the company stayed focused on its core principles of customer and employee focus. She was the first leader of the Lands’ End Customer Experience. In addition to Lands’ End, she has served Allstate, Microsoft, Coldwell Banker Corporation and Mazda Corporations as its executive leading customer focus and customer experience. Jeanne has helped achieve 95% retention rates across 50,000 person organizations, harnessing businesses to work across their silos to deliver a united and deliberate experience customers (and employees) want to repeat. Jeanne now runs CustomerBliss (, an international consulting business where she coaches executive leadership teams and customer leadership executives on how to put customer profitability at the center of their business, by getting past lip service; to operationally relevant, operationally executable plans and processes. Her clients include Johnson & Johnson, TD Ameritrade, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospitals, Bombardier Aircraft and many others. Her two best-selling books are Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action and I Love You More than My Dog: Five Decisions that Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad. Her blog is She is Co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association.

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  • by Chief Alchemist Fri Oct 1, 2010 via blog

    Amen! You hit all the highlights: empathy, authenticity and culture.

  • by Elaine Fogel Fri Oct 1, 2010 via blog

    As always, Jeanne, you are the mistress of customer service excellence! Great advice about walking in customers' shoes. In your example, the target segment is fairly homogeneous. What's your advice to companies with a variety of market segments?

  • by Jeanne Bliss Fri Oct 1, 2010 via blog

    Hi Elaine,
    This is a great question. And even more important to companies whose customers aren't so close to them.

    We have been creating a specific series of activities for folks recently we're calling simply "Be a Customer." What we do is break the purchase, service and relationship experiences down into the series of tasks we expect our customers to go through with us -- then assign them to employees to go through them.

    For example; register on your site, try to fill out a claim form, call to ask for service then wait until the person arrives, etc. We sometimes then put up boards around the company for folks to write in what they experienced, or talk about that information in daily huddles.

    The point is to take people out from behind their task lists and to start talking about customer experiences and to understand what they are going through. You need to live (or understand) your customers' lives to serve their lives!'

  • by David mount Mon Oct 4, 2010 via blog

    Well written and well said. If customer servcie is not focused on building partnerships the business will struggle to grow. The key to the future is reaching a relational connection and growing the unique qualities of each person we deal with. products don't make a business people do. You and me, buy from they and them... Thanks for the great article I love the stats. Good Job!

  • by Jeanne Bliss Tue Oct 5, 2010 via blog

    David, Thanks for your feedback. It is a consistent common denominator of the "beloved" companies that they are deliberate about understanding their customers' lives and making sure that employees regularly experience things as their customers do. Too few companies make this part of their DNA. Such a simple thing to commit to, don't you think?


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