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  • Writer's pictureNeal Dlin

The Last 3 Years and the Service Approach that Trust Built

Originally published on Linked In here on March 28, 2018.

I think you’re lucky if even once in your career, the perfect mix of people and timing collide to allow actual magic to happen. That is how I would describe the past three years for me at Sonnet Insurance. Magical. 

I still remember getting that call 3 years ago from a recruiter who asked me what it would take to leave my consulting practice and take a full-time role. You have to understand that I was pretty in love with what I was doing. On top of being a Customer Experience (CX) nerd, I am a vision creator, a builder, a fixer, a change leader, etc. When things are running well, like the Littlest Hobo, I must keep moving on (that’s an obscure Canadian television show reference about a German Shepphard in case you are wondering. See here).  I truly wasn’t interested in exploring a permanent role anywhere.  Despite my attempts to offer assistance to find someone through my network, he persisted.  

“What would it take?”

“What would it take?” he asked. I unreservedly answered “I would need to have full autonomy over the operation. I would need to be able to build something from scratch and break some of the long held beliefs about customer service operations that simply don’t cut it. I would want to hand pick the team, build the process, design the technology flows and experiment openly. I would need to work with like-minded people who intuitively understand the value that a differentiated customer experience brings, I don’t want to stand on soap boxes or work on year-long business cases…if the c-suite and the board aren’t CX “believers”, it’s not the environment for me. I would need to be doing meaningful work, ideally disrupting an industry and putting the customer and employees first, knowing that it pays off for the company in the end; a company who gets the long game. I have no time or energy for politics or maneuvering, I need to work for and with a team who are all sincerely working towards the same goal, where candor and authenticity rule the day and ego are left at the door. It needs to be understood that service is often a small downstream symptom of a CX issue that is often rooted somewhere else in the customer journey and as such, I would need to be a formal stakeholder and approver in the overall journey.  Information would need to flow in both directions, meaning Voice of the Customer learnings from the service department will need to inform ongoing product design and that any changes that touch customers need to have service involved from inception both to help shape the change as well as to prepare the contact centre front line to support the change. Service is not just a necessity, it is a key part of your strategy. Lastly, working with brilliant people, helps me bring my best game and elevates it to new levels so I need to feel confident that company is committed to hiring the best.” So, you know, I didn’t need much.


By this point, I assumed he had already hung up given my lofty requirements. Instead he said, “I think you will want to come in and meet with them.” I knew I was in trouble. This was far from the first recruiter call or job offer in the years I was consulting, but it’s the first time I had to wrap my head around the idea that I may possibly put my consulting practice on hold. 

After meeting with the leadership team and seeing what they were up to, there was no turning back.  Being honest with them and myself about where and when I am strongest, I committed to a three-year timeframe, which I felt was enough time to build and sustain a great operation. 

Fast forward to my first few days. I walked into a downtown Toronto loft space that was buzzing with energy, even if it was huge and half empty at the time. I was possibly employee number ten or eleven, joining what could only be called the A-Team.  Each area, Marketing, Operations, Analytics, Underwriting, Product, Legal, Claims, IT, were stacked with brilliance. Each person authentically committed, not just to the project but to keeping our customers central in our decision making.  I could already tell something special was happening here. 


The company that would eventually be branded Sonnet, didn’t even have a name yet, just a project name. I moved from agile pod to agile pod, from scrum to scrum, joining in on the design and discourse surrounding each step in the customer journey. Listening to my peers passionately articulate their ideas that, while being quite varied from one and other, were all driven out of the same desire for the most intuitive, customer driven experience. Even before the brand was crystalized, we all rallied around the notion that we wanted to change how Canadians felt about insurance and there was a palpable sense of optimism that we could. It’s no surprise, in retrospect, that our brand would take on the notion of optimism itself. 

Getting to influence, truly influence, each detail of the customer journey was exhilarating. Doing it with so many like-minded and extremely talented peers was, frankly, a dream. As a consultant, I was extremely fortunate to do such meaningful work with my clients; shaping, building, changing, and evolving the customer and employee journey. However, at Sonnet, to be able to do it all from scratch, with other experts who shared the same beliefs, with so few compromises to the experience (of course a few were unavoidable due either technical constraints or regulatory requirements that could not be avoided) was a once in a lifetime experience that I will treasure throughout my career.  

Let’s face it, no one wakes up in the morning, looks over their tasks and to-do’s for the day and thinks “YES!!! I get to call customer service today!!!”

Soon it was time for me to build out the customer service department, to create a vision for what it could be, build the plan, hire the team and make it all happen.  Coming off of all of these design meetings focused on changing how Canadians feel about insurance, one thing was clear: we can’t change how they feel about insurance if we can’t change how they feel about talking to customer service. Let’s face it, no one wakes up in the morning, looks over their tasks and to-do’s for the day and thinks “YES!!! I get to call customer service today!!!”. In fact, at the time I was proposing the service strategy to the board, there were two very key data points that guided much of our approach. 

In 2016, a study found that 75% of companies were focused on ways to improve their customer experience. Another 2015 study found that CEO’s had been increasing spending and resources against CX, year over year, for the past five years. Yet actual customer research done in 2015, from Dimensions Data, found that customer service levels had dropped for the fourth consecutive year. These data points might seem to be in conflict with each other. How can service experience be going down at the exact same time companies are spending more time and money on it?

There are three key drivers behind this conflict. 

1.    Customer expectations are radically changing due to new and progressive disruptors and many companies are not equipped to catchup fast enough (Uber lets you track your driver as they turn the corner, Wayfair uses augmented reality to show you how a piece of furniture looks in your home, Amazon delivers a product seemingly before you even hit the order button, etc.).

2.    Customer needs are much more complex. Self-service and intuitive designs have greatly reduced the more basic things people need support with. This not only puts more demands on the support function but often means the customer is in a more emotionally invested stage in their journey, leaving little allowances for problems with support.

3.    Most contact center’s practices have not fundamentally changed even though their original design was for a different type of customer with a different type of issue.   

We knew we had to break with many of the perceived best practices if we were going to buck this alarming trend.  First, that meant I had to hire amazing people and give them the freedom to challenge everything, to experiment and fail and to be bold.  Next, rather than building a contact centre on what might seem like the fundamentals, we started with the outcome we most wanted. We simplified this into two metrics that mattered the most, Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) and Employee Engagement (EE). We wanted customers to feel heard, respected and taken care of and we wanted employees to feel empowered, involved and trusted. Just like we had with our customers, we designed an employee journey and detailed out what that experience would look like at each stage. 

We put 6 key stakes in the ground and we have kept each other honest on never wavering on them. These are:

1 - Hire the best. Never settle when hiring amazing people. Be unrelenting in your pursuit of naturally empathetic, caring, kind problem solvers who take ownership of issues personally. 

2 - Trust and respect. You have hired amazing people, eliminate the command and control policies that hamper their individuality and inadvertently cultivate a culture of mistrust. Your job is to serve your team as your customer, remove barriers and let them surprise you. 

3 - Never punish the many for the crimes of a few. It is always only a small percentage of customers or employees who may abuse trust and try and take advantage of you. Don’t react by creating new policies that make the majority of customer and employees lives harder.  It’s also easy to start to assume the worst in people when you have experienced a few of these customers. Always start with the benefit of the doubt and truly put yourself in your customer (employees) shoes.

4 - Reward courage. Celebrate well intentioned failure. When someone is trying to do the right thing, and is punished, that will be the last time they try. Reward the bravery in the attempt. 

5 - Give customers control. Calling a contact centre, going through IVR menus, waiting on hold, not knowing what is happening, these all create anxiety and frustration. Wherever you can, share what’s happening, give control. At Sonnet we allow customers to choose their hold music when waiting to get to one of our Customer Service Heroes (CSH). If a CSH needs to put you on hold for any reason, they actually use live mute which means that if you need to talk to them while on hold (to provide more information or if you have to end the call for some reason), they can still hear you.   


6 - Involve and invest in your people. Give them opportunities to try new things and get them involved in as many areas of the business as possible. An involved team will take ownership in ways you won’t even be able to predict. 

Now three years have passed. It’s time for me to move back to my passion for consulting. I am leaving with gratitude in my heart for the experience and the people I have had the privilege of working with. Sonnet is a remarkable accomplishment made true by big dreams, optimism, brilliant people and passion. Being a part of launching Sonnet is something I will always treasure.

I am especially grateful for the Customer Service team.   They took the vision I created and ran with it to places I could not have imagined. To say I am proud of what this team has built would be an understatement.  and I have incredible confidence the team will continue on the path we started together.   We have built more than a contact centre. We have built a family of Heroes who all care about each other, the customer and the company. 

As The West Wing President Bartlet/Martin Sheen used to say "what's next"? I am excited to be going back to consulting and being able to help others elevate their customer and employee experiences. Stay tuned for the the launch of Chorus Tree - Customer & Employee Experience Consulting.

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