By Janice Sutton, Editor in Chief
Editor’s Note: Terry Winslow was installed as president of CEI, which provides fleet collision management and safety services, just in time to be faced with the deepest health and economic crises to grip the U.S. and the world in many decades. In this edited recent interview, the long-term veteran of the automotive industry and former president of store operations and customer experience for the Icahn Automotive Group, talks about how he and his new company have adapted and managed to keep customer service levels high.
It must have been a shock to come to an entirely new job at the same time that the pandemic was taking off. Tell us about what that was like.
While I had a thorough game plan for my first hundred days at CEI, I had no way of knowing what every business would face within the first few days on the job. I joined CEI March 13th when COVID-19 was showing signs that it would impact all of us. By my third day, we learned that non-essential businesses should shut down or work from home on the next, my fourth, day.
I learned more in the first few days more than most leaders learn in the first few weeks or months. Specifically, I saw the high quality and dedication of CEI leaders, managers and employees while under tremendously intense circumstances.
What steps did you and the CEI leadership team take to ensure business continuity in the face of having the CEI workforce work remotely, especially a call center operation?
Our goals were straightforward: First, to make the transition to remote operations transparent to our customers by maintaining our high service levels. Second, to make the transition as seamless as possible for our 300+ employees through a high level of management and systems support.
Our phased approach involved having employees with laptops already to begin working from home immediately while we transitioned our desk-bound employees to work at home. But we knew from our existing storm emergency procedure that taking first notice of loss with a small laptop was only a short-term solution. So, we then equipped laptop users with additional peripherals and phones.
Along the way, operations managers and supervisors were troubleshooting issues and, along with IT, ensuring our servers remained stable and our clients‘ data secure. In a matter of 96 hours, we moved over 90 percent of our employees to work at home.
As a new president bringing high expectations, I was impressed to be part of such an incredible effort. Service levels never dipped, and every employee was safely set up to work from home. The success is a testament to CEI’s people and culture.
While CEI was eventually confirmed by the state to be an essential business, we were well-positioned as the pandemic worsened and leaving our homes was discouraged. Since we began this journey, speed of answering calls has actually improved, our call abandon rates are down, our QC savings per work order are trending up, and, most impressively, our biggest improvement is coming from our subrogation team, as their collection numbers are up nicely up over prior month performance.
Are there continuing changes underway to CEI’s processes, systems and resources as the pandemic evolves?
We are actively monitoring our repair shop network for closures. So far, less than three percent of our network shops have shut down. If a closure arises, our team takes the necessary action to ensure the best possible resolution, especially because most of the drivers still on the road during this crisis are providing essential services and must remain productive.
We are also continuing to revisit our processes and consultation advice as COVID-19 evolves, to provide the best information to our customers and their drivers. For example, we’re working with shops to address decontamination of vehicles and other opportunities to enhance coronavirus-related safety, including all body shop-issued protocols. We then share them with drivers to be sure they have a comfort level.
We’re also updating customers and drivers alike about COVID-19-related safety procedures concerning vehicle decontamination, accident scene procedures, driving on empty roads, and more through our customer care center representatives, our website, our driver training, and social media.
And third, we’re managing vendors and taking advantage of our Rapid Claims photo-estimating capability to ensure contact-free pickup and delivery in order to protect drivers. We will ensure that drivers have a safe experience while using our services while expediting necessary repairs as quickly as possible.
As social distancing restrictions are lifted, we anticipate a large backlog of repairs will arise, and we’re advising customers to work with us to complete needed repairs before that deluge.
What has the pandemic done to change customer needs related to safety and collision management?
Our customers are looking for up-to-date information related to COVID-19. They need news updates about conditions that impact risk, about driver safety and collision management, and government actions like state-by-state shelter-in-place directives.
They also need and want up-to-the minute information about a host of other subjects, like new rules for interstate transportation, any agency closings, vehicle sanitizing, the use of driver Personal Protective Equipment, any changes in accident scene protocols, no-contact claims fueling safety, procedures for vehicle pickups and deliveries, and supply chain issues, such as repair shop and DMV closures.
In planning for the new world companies and drivers face, we’re advising customers to consider more online driver training to replace the hazards of classroom or behind-the-wheel training, continuous MVR monitoring to close the driver incident information gap as more and more drivers head back on the roads after weeks at home, and vehicle repair and subrogation issues due to inattention during the pandemic.
What lessons has CEI learned from this crisis management effort?
This crisis has proven that remote employee productivity and quality service remain high for some areas of our business. This opens up new organizational possibilities that we must consider and allows us to expand our disaster recovery procedures with hard data. Many public health experts predict future pandemics, and as a result of this experience we believe we’ll be better prepared for them.
We have confirmation that some technologies and programs we have been developing will be even more vital in a post-COVID-19 world; for example, our Rapid Claims process that we introduced just last year to reduce repair cycle times and keep drivers more productive. COVID-19 helped to highlight the additional benefit of touchless claims, providing additional protection to drivers.
Another insight we’ve gained is the value of online training. Behind-the-wheel and classroom driving are counter-intuitive in the new era of social distancing. We recently moved to more sophisticated 3D and virtual interactive modules that ensure greater driver engagement and understanding of behavioral and skills. The importance of driver training for people who have not driven for weeks or months and then get back on the road will be amplified. Studies have shown that driving skills erode over time, so our new interactive hazard awareness training will serve drivers well as they return to the road.
The definition of driver safety has expanded too, as a result of this pandemic. We have launched our module on driver safety related to COVID-19, and the concepts we discuss will serve our customers well if COVID-19 returns next fall, during flu season, and even as a day-to-day solution to avoid contagious illnesses.
Finally, our experience during this crisis management effort confirmed that:
The well-being of our team members, their families, our customers, their drivers, and our partners must always remain a top priority at CEI;
The organizational and foundational strength of CEI – built upon the long-term support and loyalty of our customers – is what allowed us to adapt to the pandemic without service level disruption. It also confirmed that we can continue to deliver exceptional service through expanded remote operations;
The power of incredible teamwork is what that allowed us to adapt to the COVID-19 situation in a matter of days;
And that our ongoing commitment to technology and process automation, supported by our parent company, Element Fleet, allowed us to keep our systems up and running and can be counted upon to contribute to our resiliency in the days ahead.