Whirlpool Puts a New Spin on Loyalty

Customer Service
Customer Service
An intense focus on employee engagement is at the heart of the appliance manufacturer's customer care strategy

Building a better white box isn't enough to retain customers today. Executives at Whirlpool Corporation recognize this, so the company's approach to cultivating loyalty is to provide solutions that fit consumers' unique needs. Whirlpool executives also realize that meeting customer needs starts by engaging the people who are closest to them: employees.

The appliance behemoth's mission, "Everyone, passionately creating loyal customers for life," is the foundation for how its employees connect with customers. The challenge is instilling and maintaining that passion.

Whirlpool developed a comprehensive strategy for meeting that challenge as a result of its 2006 merger with Maytag. Along with an extensive integration plan (see sidebar, page 23), the strategy includes guiding principles, continual communication, and employee empowerment, training, and recognition programs.

Guiding Principles Align Actions

It takes an engaged and motivated staff to deliver a loyalty-building customer experience. One way Whirlpool maintains employee engagement is by helping its staff to understand their role in delivering that experience. The Gold Ring Promise and the Customer Bill of Rights elucidate both the company's guiding principles and employees' responsibilities in following them.

The Gold Ring Promise is a pledge named for the gold "ring of promise" that wraps around the company logo. Its five oaths-e.g., "to continuously improve product quality in every way I can and encourage others to do the same"-share the common goal of doing all that is necessary to deliver top quality products and service.

The Customer Bill of Rights is a set of employee responsibilities listed as customer expectations. It was established by Lynn Holmgren, Whirlpool's national director of customer care, during Whirlpool's acquisition of Maytag, and serves in part as the operational foundation of the newly integrated contact center organization, called the Customer eXperience Center (cXc). The company also uses it to promote the value of the cXc to the rest of the organization.

As the company's main face to consumers, the cXc takes the bill especially seriously. Much like Ritz-Carlton and Travelocity, Whirlpool's customer service agents (aka, call consultants) carry laminated cards that highlight customers' rights; the cards serve as a constant reminder of the company's customer service principles. The Bill of Rights also pops up each morning on the call consultants' computer screens and a framed copy resides on their desks. In addition, it's posted throughout the cXc's four contact centers.

"Everyone is trained on the Bill of Rights," Holmgren says. "It's about three things: professionalism, taking ownership, and resolution." Most people can recite it from memory, she says.

Holmgren has developed an agent empowerment tool called an e-card to encourage agents to deliver on both the Bill and the Gold Ring Promise. The card is awarded to call consultants who show strong quality scores. By empowering agents with an e-card-and thus, the authorization to make supervisor-level decisions-there is less need for call escalation. As a result, e-cards have helped to increase first-call resolution.

Communication helps to instill the principles of the bill and promise throughout the organization. The company sends monthly communications called "The Leaders Voice," in the form of recorded messages from senior leadership, asking employees to dial a toll-free number where they will hear about business updates, metrics and performance trends, awards, and sales volumes. This form of communication helps to create engagement by connecting employees with the executive staff.

In the cXc employees can also interact with management during "fireside chats," meetings where agents can speak directly to their site managers. Holmgren says call consultants can visit team advisors during their breaks to discuss any issue, and claims this open-door approach positively affects morale.

Education Nurtures Employees

Whirlpool also invests in employee education to build engagement. The Best Ticket in Town program, for instance, creates a partnership with local universities to give employees the opportunity to earn a degree in business administration or complete a Customer Service Certificate Program. Since 2005 more than 400 students have completed courses at a 95 percent success rate, with students earning a 3.0 grade point average and above.

This is another area the cXc emphasizes. To encourage call consultants to participate in the Best Ticket program, for example, all centers in the cXc are equipped with Internet caf? where employees can study during breaks or take online courses. Holmgren says one former cXc employee even completed a master's degree and now holds a senior management position.

"Number one, it gives them pride in the work they do. Number two, it helps me from a financial perspective because it costs a lot of money to retain agents. This helps to tie them to a career ladder within the contact center organization," Holmgren says.

Employee training also includes sharing the cXc's mission of "No customer will be lost because of me" with the rest of the organization to encourage other employees to think about how they can impact the customer experience. Through immersion tours, called Customer Boot Camp, employees who work outside the call center can hear the voice of the customer directly by listening in on calls and can interact with call consultants. More than 400 employees visit the contact centers within the cXc annually and bring what they've learned back to their work environment. "A lot of times people in the corporate side have a view of the call center that isn't factual," Holmgren says. "This is a great educational opportunity."

Idea Sharing Spurs Innovation

The biggest opportunity employees have for sharing information is the company's idea-exchange program, originally developed with an outside consultancy in 2002. The program is supported by an internal knowledge-sharing site to foster idea sharing among employees, and an innovation database helps them find answers to questions.

When Whirlpool first launched the initiative, employees introduced a number of innovations, including an in-sink dishwasher from KitchenAid and products for the garage from the Gladiator line.

Innovation and the idea exchange program now are regular parts of the culture at Whirlpool, with all employees expected to participate. A team of innovation consultants teaches employees about innovation, an approach that Whirlpool attributes to increased earnings and productivity.

Employees are nominated by their bosses to participate in formal innovation training, and it is considered an honor to be selected. There is a certification process (one-week class), as well as several four-hour classes. There are also informal ways to participate, such as through an "innovation session," which generally lasts about four hours. Holmgren explains that she took a formal class in innovation in 2002 and then worked on four different projects, developed a portfolio, and was certified as an I-mentor in 2003 through a board review process.

Additionally, the company holds executives accountable not only for the development of new products and services, but also for the creation of processes and systems that foster innovation. For example, Holmgren says she facilitates an innovation class or workshop at least twice per year, but most innovation facilitators are required to participate at least once every month.

Measurement also plays a part in holding executives accountable. Holmgren says Whirlpool measures innovation at the "toll gates" within various processes in terms of the number of projects in the pipeline and dollars contributed to earnings based on new innovation. The results are reported all the way up the ranks and in the annual report.

The innovation intranet is an integral part of this. Consequently, it has evolved into a formalized program called Hit Me With Your Best Shot, where employees across the organization electronically provide input on improvements that they think Whirlpool should make to products, processes, or strategy. "If the idea is accepted, we implement it and then we reward the agent who submitted that idea," Holmgren says.

Tracie Doll, solutions senior manager at Whirlpool, says that one suggestion in particular that came from a call consultant shaved off an average 30 seconds per customer call. The agent had suggested that when customers call about service issues, the computer system should automatically populate the customer information into the service request screen, which would save handle time. "It used to be a lot of time to have to copy and paste that information several times," Doll says.

Another call consultant also recommended a successful process improvement: Instead of consultants repeating new service information to every caller, a voice recording from the IVR now lists the alerts instead. This saves about 30 seconds per call and provides consistency in messaging.

Since the program's inception in 2006 Whirlpool has received 800 suggestions from employees and implemented 20 percent of them. The program has saved the company $4 million and has improved customer satisfaction scores. According to Holmgren, it also has kept call consultants inspired because they see firsthand the changes that have started at the grassroots level.

The Carrot Principle Pays Off

Another way Whirlpool keeps employees inspired is through recognition programs. The "I'm On It" (designated for Whirlpool employees) and "I'm On It Too" (for contract employees) programs recognize employees for accomplishments such as outstanding teamwork, sales, or job performance, like meeting certain goals. Employees use an automated awards-submission process to nominate colleagues; employees who are selected by management to be recognized receive up to $250 in monetary rewards.

Additionally, the cXc has adopted a Customer Champion program for exceptional call handling and performance. This involves the use of a dedicated phone line for customers to record compliments regarding agents who have delivered outstanding service. The employee with the best compliment receives a monetary prize and is recognized as a Customer Champion throughout the organization in various communications. The company reviews the compliments a few times per year.

An award program called Count on Me recognizes veteran employees and their contributions at various career milestones. For new employees, a "Welcome Award" shows them that the company is glad they've chosen Whirlpool and that the organization is excited about their efforts in the future.

Empowerment is another form of recognition Whirlpool uses to engage employees, especially those in the cXc. To motivate top call consultants, as well as to reduce overhead and agent turnover, Whirlpool recently introduced a work-at-home program and now employs 350 at-home agents. To become an at-home agent, call consultants must first meet certain standards. "They have to earn the right to work at home," says Sandy Morrison, senior manager, customer relations, for the Cleveland cXc.

First, an agent must receive an e-card. "You have to prove that you're empowered and don't need leadership," she explains. Next, Whirlpool completes a home inspection to ensure security and privacy (no barking dogs or screaming children in the background). Then a team sets up the home office, complete with VoIP.

Working from home, however, can sometimes disengage employees from a company's culture. To ensure that agents stay connected with Whirlpool's culture and brands, as well as keep abreast of new products and processes, in-home agents are required to work in one of the cXcs every two months; they also participate in conference calls and sometimes facilitate them remotely. Organizational charts hang in the centers with photos of the at-home agents. On Halloween each year they even send in photos of themselves in costumes taking customer calls. "We work hard to make sure they're engaged," Holmgren says.

According to Holmgren, the program has resulted in an average of a 4 to 6 percent improvement in productivity. "Agents who work at home take one more call per hour," Morrison says, adding that at-home consultants also rate higher in customer satisfaction. Additionally, the cost versus benefit is substantial because Whirlpool can grow its staff and tap into other employee demographics like retirees or stay-at-home mothers. As a result, Whirlpool plans to increase the number of its in-home agents in 2009.

In The Driver's Seat

By keeping its employees involved and engaged, Whirlpool is able to continuously learn about customer expectations, as well as potential product innovations and service improvements. The company will continue to drive customer loyalty and be true to the Customer Bill of Rights, the Gold Ring Promise, and to its employees. "[Customers] are getting someone who's committed to the Customer Bill of Rights and driven by first-call resolution," Holmgren says. "We're empowering agents to be able to help customers as much as we possibly can.