By Ed Pierce, Contributing Editor
New to LeasePlan, Chris Watkins, EVP of Operations, can’t help but share his passion for customer service. Chris comes to LeasePlan with proven expertise in operations leadership and enabling service delivery functions. He also brings a background in driving strategy and transformation efforts to convert corporate objectives into business outcomes. In a recent interview, he detailed his nearly 30 years in operations and service delivery leadership positions as well as design of service delivery models, technology enablement, planning and transformation. He explained how this wealth of experience will be applied to LeasePlan’s operations models and what fuels this enthusiasm for service.
Customer Service in the DNA
Customer service is encoded in Chris’ genetic makeup and reinforced by his subsequent training, where he certified as a Six Sigma Master Black Belt in his Hewlett Packard days. “So, I’ve kind of been wired to focus on process rigor, metrics, capability, and performance management… 30 years ago, I started as a coordinator on the phones in the response center at Hewlett Packard. I was the person that answered the customer calls for technical support, or when they had a broken piece of equipment. That regular customer interaction really instills something in you.” So, from having been on the front lines with customers regularly, Chris knows a little something about what does and doesn’t work.
“If you have ever delivered customer service, it becomes a part of your DNA and you really start to understand what customer experience truly is and how important it is,” says Chris, who sees his early career as a foundational experience for his current role. “As we consider new implementations, process design changes, self-service options, I will always think about how the customer might feel as they navigate through this experience.”
Designing service models that put the customer first
With this fundamental understanding of what creates great customer service, Chris has applied his knowledge to ever increasing roles — most recently at Assurant, a global provider of risk management products and services. “I was responsible for a high transaction operations processing group. We handled high volumes, about 115 million insurance related transactions per year. It was a very highly regulated environment – we were dealing with state departments of insurance, mortgage banking lenders and borrowers. We focused our efforts on building out mature processes that could handle variation in predictable fashion. We enabled delivery to customers and partners with automation, with AI, with RPA, and with self-service where it contributed positively to the customer experience. Although I’ve not spent a lot of my career in the automotive and fleet management space, there are a lot of similarities in my operations experience where dealing with large transaction volumes, process variation, high customer expectations and regulated environments that are very applicable to this environment.”
Brought to LeasePlan by CEO and President Matt Dyer in April, Chris’ guiding principle is “putting our customer first.” His vision is to create the best client and driver experience in the industry. “That is really the guidepost, that’s my north star and I want to make sure that’s what we’re always driving towards — and that’s what we will hold ourselves accountable to.” The outcome for these principles is in structuring the processes and leveraging automation for the best client and driver outcomes. Chris wants to “build out the most frictionless experience possible. That’s what I’m focused on.” For Chris and LeasePlan it’s all about the customer experience.
And the results prove that. Despite the pandemic, LeasePlan grew by over seven and a half percent in terms of fleet under management last year and weathered the pandemic without making furloughs. LeasePlan credits this success with their focus on superior customer service.
Simple Strategies – People, Process and Technology
How will LeasePlan achieve its objectives? “Fairly simply, I think we do it through people, process and technology,” Chris explains. “I think simple strategies can often be very effective. When we talk about people, process and technology, I think first and foremost, great people make great organizations.” Chris’ focus is on attracting, developing and retaining the best talent in the industry and then arming them with clear ambitions and direction. “We have to enable our teams with knowledge, tools and clear work instructions, and then we have to empower them to do what’s right for the customer. So, it all starts with great people.”
Being a Master Black Belt, Chris has a strong focus on process, “We need to make sure we’ve got great focus, rigor and discipline around our processes. We are working hard to bring some of that Six Sigma methodology and Lean thinking to our processes and our performance analysis. How do we ensure clients and drivers are always aware of status? How do we prevent process defects or escalations from happening? How do we do manage vendors more effectively? And also, around customer experience, how do we make sure we’re doing the journey mapping to really understand the customer touch points and make it easy to do business with us?”
The third part of Chris’ strategy is to leverage technology to integrate LeasePlan’s clients, partners and drivers. “Fleet management has a lot of moving parts. If you think about it… from the OEMs to the DMVs, to the service centers, to the remarketing options. We have the opportunity to tighten up that ecosystem to really support the entire vehicle lifecycle for our clients and drivers and make it more seamless.”
The Post-Pandemic World
When addressing moving forward in a post-pandemic world, Chris stated “We will hopefully soon be exiting these unprecedented times and we’re working hard to determine what that ‘new normal’ is, and so are our clients and their drivers. From a people perspective, we’re defining the new ways of working and how we engage, facilitate collaboration and enable the best services experience. We are building out the structures to offer more flexibility for our workforce while enabling them to work virtually, to work at the office, and to collaborate with peers, customers and partners in a safe manner.”
Artificial Intelligence opportunities
Chris revealed that LeasePlan is evaluating AI for several opportunities. “On the vehicle maintenance and repair side, as we get estimates from the service centers, we’re using AI to help scan those, to see if there’s anything that looks awry, or if there’s anything that looks too ‘off’ before we approve the repairs.” Additionally, we are evaluating how AI could help with registration renewal services. “In the license and title space, we’re working to incorporate real time performance and DMV turn times at the states and municipalities to proactively tune our processes so that we can keep our drivers on the road and in compliance.”
Business intelligence that empowers customers
Chris stressed the need to harness data and business intelligence to drive service delivery and process improvement, “BI is near and dear to my heart, being a black belt. At LeasePlan, we are working to ensure we have solid process output metrics in place for both quality and service levels,” Chris explains. “In addition to output metrics, we’re also instrumenting the individual process steps so we can know if something is at risk of non-compliance before it is complete, and we can take necessary action to prevent defects.” With an eye towards anything that could be out of compliance, Chris stresses “that type of measurement enables us to be proactive — for us to be able to course correct, and to build and manage more statistically sound and predictable service delivery to our customers.”
Along with better process data and metrics, comes accountability to delivery SLAs and KPIs. Chris explains, “From an SLA perspective internally, we have to hold ourselves accountable to overall performance – that includes all of the partners we engage to ultimately deliver the services to our customers. We are focusing on effectively engaging and managing our vendors to ensure adherence towards our service level and quality goals”
Operations is Operations
While Chris concedes being new to fleet, he points out that he sees his 30 years in operations service delivery as very applicable to the industry. “Many operations best practices are very portable across industries. It’s about understanding the customer needs and expectations, designing intuitive and predictable processes to deliver your services, and enabling those processes with great people and great technology.”
Moving into this role, he has a fresh enthusiasm to match his newest challenge, “In terms of the excitement for me, it’s a new industry, new customers, new teams and new partners. I am energized by having the opportunity to learn about the fleet management industry, the evolving needs of our clients and the trends that are playing out in the automotive and fleet space. I’m super excited about the opportunity to join such a great organization with such a powerful team of customer focused employees.”
Chris enthuses, “I know it’s going to be challenging, but I like a good challenge as well. I look forward to bringing my experience to LeasePlan and continuing to drive operational excellence as a standard for our clients and drivers”