Pet owners were looking for more from VPI and Scott Liles knew just how to make it happen

Scott Liles did not feel like he and his team at Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. had made a strong connection with customers. VPI was the leader in pet health care insurance and had few peers, creating very little competition in the industry.

But the disconnect between his company and its customers bothered Liles, who took over as VPI’s president two years ago. The 500-employee company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nationwide Insurance.

“We didn’t spend much time getting to know who they were, what their needs were or what really drove their decision-making,” Liles says. “We didn’t have a consumer orientation in our company. We didn’t collect data, didn’t try to anticipate or get ahead of consumer needs. In a lot of instances, we got mixed up on who we were serving.”

There was confusion as to whether the company should focus on serving the people who own pets, the pets or the veterinarians who take care of those pets. And while the company had functioned for some time without much competition, things were beginning to change as new companies were emerging in the pet health insurance field.

“We were going to continue to lose share, probably increasingly,” Liles says. “We needed to make some changes.”

As Liles looked at what was happening, he discovered that the company’s core product, insurance plans to cover pet accidents and illnesses, was not where the big growth opportunity was at.

“There were other things consumers clearly wanted,” Liles says. “They wanted products that would help them with preventative care, not just accidents and illnesses. They wanted something to help them with emergency credit, big emergencies so they could have access to credit and limit their out-of-pocket cost.”

Unlike human health care, Liles says there is not a network of providers in veterinary medicine who pet owners can turn to for specialized needs and services.

“The way the industry tends to work is a consumer takes their dog to the veterinarian, gets a bill, pays it to the vet, submits it to us and we pay them back,” Liles says. “One of the things consumers are trying to avoid, just like with human health care, is to limit the out-of-pocket. Credit facilities are a way to do that.”

Liles saw what needed to be done, but it would require a dramatic shift in the way VPI operates. Instead of being a pet health care insurance company, Liles wanted to transform it into a pet health care financing company.

“That’s a very important distinction because what it means is we had to strategically make a lot of changes within the company in order to do that,” Liles says.

Break out of your shell

Liles wanted to provide customers with more options in how they would manage the costs of caring for their pets. It meant his company would need to work harder at identifying needs and then filling them.

“We tended to think about efficiency and effectiveness of our own internal processes more than we thought about are we giving the customer what they want,” Liles says. “That’s not where we started. When we made decisions internally, they were made in favor of our own internal process and efficiency as opposed to being made in favor of the customer. Many decisions were made without considering the customer at all.”

VPI had also been reluctant to take products off its shelves that were of little value to customers.

“It’s a habit companies tend to fall into, especially when they are successful and are in an industry where competition has been weak,” Liles says. “Then we experienced a real surge in competition and you can’t run a company with an internal focus when you have surging and innovative competition. You have to get out there and ensure that what you’re focused on is delivering the most value to your customers.”

The key to transforming VPI and becoming more consumer driven was empowering employees to be more creative in how they help customers.

“When you have a focus on the customer, you are looking outside of your walls and you are asking what do we need to do to deliver the most value possible and the most benefit to our customer set,” Liles says. “Not what do I need to do to make my process the most efficient. It has to do with identifying problems, inserting the customer, taking accountability to solve that problem and being willing to take risks in what your solutions are. We’re going to drop some balls and crack some eggs. That’s OK, as long as we keep the customer in mind.”

Learn from your mistakes

It’s one thing to tell employees they can make mistakes. It’s another thing when those mistakes occur and end up costing your business money or upsetting your customers.

“No public beheadings,” Liles says. “The unforgivable sin is not learning and the second is not taking accountability. This didn’t work and it didn’t work for reasons A, B and C. It’s not because I’m stupid or because I didn’t work hard enough. It just didn’t work and I’m taking accountability. But in order to let people be free to do that, no public beheadings.”

Of course, you can’t just stand up in front of your people and tell them to go out and take more risks.

“You literally have to change the way people behave, change the way thousands of people are making hundreds of decisions every day,” Liles says. “That takes a lot of time and in this case, what we did is we very methodically and gradually laid out the case for change. We weren’t growing as fast as the market. We’re a mission-driven organization and we want to do what’s right for pets and pet owners. By helping them to better manage their pets’ health care, it fits well within our vision and also helps us to tackle some of the business problems we were having.”

The effort to bring about lasting change begins with the way you as the leader act in front of your people. If they see you accept risks and not punish people who take risks that don’t work out, they’ll be more willing to give it a shot themselves.

“It’s in every meeting and every time you show up, you have to reinforce that it’s what you want, or people won’t believe it,” Liles says. “This is not a one-day speech and you’re done. It’s showing up every day and reinforcing the message.”

Become a storyteller

As VPI began its transformation, Liles himself found that he needed to veer a bit from what initially felt like the right approach for him to take with his team.

“I tend to be pretty data driven and when we started this, I was throwing up charts and saying, ‘Here is the situation,’” Liles says. “I wasn’t telling enough stories behind the data to help folks know how this data represented what the customer was feeling and what was going on in the market. And most importantly, how what we were seeing impacted what they do every day. Those were the stories I needed to start weaving in. I had to challenge my own data-driven tendencies to say that I need to add in more anecdotes and more texture and more stories behind what we’re doing to affect the change.”

The whole point of making this change was to be more connected and more in touch with what customers wanted. So Liles could not ask his employees to be more engaged without being more open himself.

“We had to think about our role in the industry very differently,” Liles says. “We were by far the biggest player in the industry with the longest history, but we didn’t act like it. By doing that, we weren’t leveraging assets that we had. We weren’t using our data in a way that gave us maximum consumer insight. We want to share our insights and be part of the solution to make the whole industry better.”

When you make big changes, there will inevitably be some people who don’t buy into what you’re selling. And while the majority of his team was enthusiastic about the opportunity at hand, others were not.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want that accountability,” Liles says. “They didn’t want to think differently than they did before. We had to manage through that as well.”
Depending on the level of frustration, it can be manageable or a potential risk to the change you’re trying to enact. You have to be confident before you launch your transformation to avoid that undesirable situation.

“There has to be a strong, compelling business reason to make the change,” Liles says. “Don’t make these levels of change just to make them. There are businesses that do that. They think just change itself will break inertia, but you need a compelling reason for why you are doing that to create focus on what you are trying to achieve.”

This wasn’t a problem at VPI, where Liles got confirmation things were going well from an employee he encountered in the hallway.

“He reinforced our strategy and said he was really excited about the new products we were bringing on-board,” Liles says. “This person is probably five layers below me, so that was great, in addition to the fact that he felt comfortable stopping to talk to me in the hall.”

Takeaways:

  • Think about your connection to your customers.
  • Let people take a few chances.
  • Use different voices to share your message.

The Liles File

NAME: Scott Liles
TITLE: president
COMPANY: Veterinary Pet Insurance Co.

Born: Austin, Texas

Education: Bachelor’s degree, politics and economics, Texas A&M University; master’s degree in economics, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa; a master’s degree in business administration, London School of Business.

What did your experience learning on three different continents teach you? I gained a true empathy and perspective of global opportunity. I lived in South Africa after I got my degree and when I moved to Cape Town, it was 1990 and Nelson Mandela had just gotten out of prison. So the country changed enormously over those years.
I lived in South Africa, Vietnam, South America and Europe. It gives you a real intellectual flexibility and curiosity. You are open to a lot of different options because there are many ways of doing things. Your intellectual flexibility increases, as does your empathy. You have to take time to truly understand what people are thinking and where they are coming from.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My wife, Maureen, has played a very influential role. We met overseas, we were working together in South Africa. So she was a risk taker and she has been very influential in me being open to new possibilities and taking chances and doing the things I do. My boss at Nationwide, Terri Hill, is very supportive of the types of changes we have made and is very encouraging of taking risks and taking chances. That’s not always what you get from a big mutual insurance company. So that’s very refreshing.