Walking a Mile in the Shoes of Your Customer

Immersing its employees in customer culture enables USAA to offer outstanding customer service and retain numerous customers


Walking a Mile in the Shoes of Your Customer
January, 2009
By Xandria Fleurke

Insurance companies are sometimes criticized for appearing to be more concerned with making a profit than with providing a surety against hazards for their customers. Customers often consider bureaucratic paperwork and loopholes to be a disservice. According to a Harris Poll over the course of three years, people in the United States consider health and life insurance companies among the least honest and trustworthy. (Harris Interactive Inc., 2006)

Despite evidence of a negative industry bias, Forrester Research found that 81% of United Services Automobile Association (USAA) customers believed the company works for them rather than for “the bottom line.” Much of the firm’s success with regard to customer service is grounded in USAA’s unique approach to understanding the life situation of its customers. USAA’s clients consist mainly of military service personnel and their families.

USAA employees, many of whom are former military personnel, undergo a unique and rigorous training process designed to help them understand the perspective of the customers they serve. The orientation is essentially a ‘boot camp’ for employees—a 10-week experience, simulating the challenges that military personnel experience every day. Trainees are given stern commands, heavy gear to wear, and military standard meals ready to eat (MREs) for lunch. (McGregor, 5 March 2007) The training is meant to instill a sense of solidarity and empathy with USAA’s customer base before an employee begins to respond to a customer.

USAA’s initiative to understand its customers does not stop with frontline employees—it is embedded into the culture of the firm, including the executives who lead the company. For example, former Navy Rear Admiral and current USAA Phoenix COO Bill Putnam listens to customers’ calls each week to remain connected to their needs and concerns.

USAA efforts to serve customers, support military personnel, and insure military families have medical care across the globe extend beyond the borders of the office. To increase public awareness of service men and women, USAA sponsors the nonprofit organization Strikeouts for Troops, which supplies US service members and their families with the “comforts of home” in military hospitals across the world. In alliance with the organization, USAA donated $400 for every major league baseball strikeout that took place on Patriot Day, September 11, 2007. (PRNewswire, 9 September 2007)

USAA’s practices have yielded customer service rankings—and employee and customer retention rates—far above its peers for the past decade. Since 1998, USAA has provided premier customer service compared across all industries in America. The firm was ranked number one by Business Week in the magazine’s 2007—2008 Customer Service Champs rankings and is consistently placed on the Ward’s 50 Top Performers. Through this excellent customer service, USAA has shown steady growth in membership, products, assets, and revenue. (USAA, 2008) According to the company’s 2008 Midyear Report, “The association’s net worth has grown $431 million to $14.8 billion. The assets that USAA owns and manages on behalf of its members have continued to grow to $126.7 billion.”

Learning and understanding a customer’s culture can successfully benefit business. USAA not only trains its employees in the culture of its customers, but USAA’s top management knows and embraces that culture as well. USAA’s employee training “boot camp” introduces employees to many of the challenges faced daily by its military customer base. In doing so, USAA’s customer service rankings continually remain high. Growth in membership, products, assets, and revenue continues to increase, adding up to billions of dollars in assets for the company. Imagine the possibilities if you walked a mile in your customers’ shoes.


Grieve, K., & Ortiz, E. (November 2003) “Customer Value Management Sins Can be Costly,” DM Review Magazine.

Harris Interactive Inc. The Harris Poll (R), 78 (24 October 2006)  http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=705 (Accessed October 29, 2007).

McGregor, J. E. “Customer Service Champs,” (7 March 2007 ) BusinessWeekhttp://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_10/b4024001.htm (Accessed October 1, 2007).

McGregor, J. “Employee Innovator: USAA,” (October 2005) http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/99/open_customer-usaa.html (Accessed October 1, 2007).

McGregor, J. (5 March 2007) “USAA: Soldiering on in Insurance,” BusinessWeek .

PRNewswire. (29 October 2007) “USAA Creates Special Offers for Members Affected by California Fires.”

PRNewswire. “USAA Joins Forces With Strikeouts for Troops(TM) By Reuniting Military Family at Oriole Park Military Appreciation Day (9 September 2007) http://www.prnewswire.com/ (Accessed October 2, 2007).

USAA. (2008) 2008 Midyear Report to Members, San Antonio, Texas: United Services Automobile Association.

Wiles, R. (23 September 2007) “USAA Chief Values Time with His Employees,” The Arizona Republic.

Keywords: culture of the firm, public awareness, corporate culture

Organizations: United Services Automobile Association (USAA), Strikeouts for Troops

People: Bill Putnam, Navy Rear Admiral and USAA Phoenix COO