Tom Feeney guides Safelite to see from the customer’s perspective

 

Tom Feeney was not under any pressure to transform Safelite Group in 2013.

The company operates Safelite AutoGlass, the largest provider of vehicle glass repair, replacement and calibration services in the U.S., and Safelite Solutions, a claims management partner to insurance and fleet companies.

In 2009, Safelite started focusing on its associates first. Having inspired, engaged employees helped the company quadruple its sales, going from $500 million to nearly $2 billion today.

This transformation to a people-first strategy, however, wasn’t enough, and it was simplistic to expect that happy employees always translate to happy customers.

Around 2013, Feeney, the company’s president and CEO, asked another strategic question: Was the company operationally focused, product focused or customer focused? After a series of employee surveys, Feeney and his team concluded that Safelite was operations focused. The company prioritized internal efficiencies and productivities.

Despite metrics that seemed to indicate customers were already happy with Safelite, Feeney felt there was more work to be done.

“We’re now telling our leadership and our organization that we have another transformation in us, and even though we have net promoter scores of 83, 84, we do not believe that we’re a customer-driven organization. We believe we’re operation focused and, therefore, internally focused,” Feeney says.

“In order to achieve the full potential of the business, we had to embark upon another transformation with all of the challenges associated with transformative work in the company,” he says. “Only this time, we were twice as big as we were when we started the last time — twice as many associates to convince, twice as many leaders to educate and communicate to and make sure that they stayed with us.”

The work of transformation

Feeney needed everyone to understand why he was advocating for another transformation when Safelite was already so successful.

The company added a customer effort score to its net promoter survey. It confirmed what Feeney suspected, Safelite wasn’t easy to do business with. By looking at the business through the eyes of a customer — to see that the company often did its own thing and force-fed it to customers — helped company leaders rally around the need for change.

Transformative work takes courage, he says. You cannot be afraid to organize for the future, even if it affects the people who helped you get to where you are today.

“It’s hard work. I can honestly tell you I think about it every day. It’s very enjoyable work, but the joy comes in periods of time. You can’t look for joy every day. The joy comes six months, 12 months out, when you’re reflective and looking back at how the organization has changed,” Feeney says.

CEOs have to know their business and employees better than anyone, while having a vision for where they want to go. Once they articulate that vision to get buy-in and explain the employees’ role in that vision, they can begin to lay plans to achieve it.

“The most important point is sticking to it,” he says. “So often I’ve seen leaders state their vision and then the next year state another vision and then the year after that state another vision.”

Organizations, large or small, don’t like flavors of the month, Feeney says. Employees want to know what the company will look like in five years.

Feeney also made one person the strategy’s architect to add accountability.

Inside your vision, he says you need milestones and measurements to help you check in along the journey.

Digital first

Safelite’s first transformation was easier. This time around, Feeney determined the organizational structure needed to change. He moved customer service, marketing and technology under one person. The idea was to get them to start talking to one another, but keep the departments separate.

“We believed that was the secret sauce in this whole customer-driven transformation, that the brand and the technologist would work together to redefine the needs of the customer,” he says.

Listening to its customers — including the customer effort score, which increased around 10 percentage points over the past five years — helped underscore the need to focus on digital.

Smartphones had begun to proliferate the market, so the company became solely mobile responsive. Feeney took inspiration from a Steve Jobs quote: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

After listening to customer feedback, Safelite changed its online business. Customers went from 21 clicks to get a quote to four. The company evolved from updating its website every six weeks to three or four times a month.

Feeney and his team also reorganized the technology group into an agile business model. Ideas came in and out quickly. They were tested and implemented in a series of sprints.

“With the benefit of hindsight today, I would say that that organizational decision, the design decision, was the right one for us. It allowed digital to work much faster,” he says.

The digital team within the technology group grew from five people to close to 30. Feeney says they meet with them monthly, and they want to know about more than just their results, they want to hear about their failures.

Be nimble

If you see speed as an asset, you can’t add levels of approval. This is a truth Feeney continues to reinforce.

“The more people you get involved, the more questions get asked. The more questions you get asked, then things slow down. So, we want to encourage experimentation, and with that, we want to eliminate bureaucracy, and the outcome of that is that you make a few mistakes. Some of them can be costly,” Feeney says.

For example, Safelite experimented with video advertising for about a month. It cost $1.5 million and there was no return on that investment. Feeney says the lesson learned wasn’t that it was wrong to experiment, it was the experiment’s size.

“But the biggest point for me is we complimented the team on their courage to make the decision and the speed in which they recognized that there was a mistake and brought it to us and shut it down. Nobody got in trouble for it,” he says.

Words matter, but actions matter even more when you’re trying to create culture. If your employees are questioned, they’ll hesitate next time.

“You have to allow for errors to occur. You have to have the team, the leadership understand that they’re working in a safe environment,” Feeney says.

In the same spirit, Safelite opened an innovation lab at Rev1 Venture, which houses startups.

“As we began the transformation to be a customer-driven organization in order to listen more effectively and then to create solutions for customers, you have to have a much higher curiosity factor. Some call it innovation; I prefer just to call it curiosity,” Feeney says.

Starting in 2013, the Safelite team toured innovation centers, identifying a few to study. Feeney says they learned that labs have different focuses — core business, adjacencies or transformational work — so you have to determine that upfront.

Safelite Works purposely isn’t attached to the corporate offices. Being away from processes and approvals enables the lab to operate fluidly, Feeney says.

“It allowed us to do more experimentation in a safe environment — to start to bring in startup organizations that we think can help us into an innovation lab, but kept them out of the corporate environment,” he says.

Greater expectations

Whether at the corporate office or innovation lab, the overall growth at Safelite continues. It took five years to go from $500 million to $1 billion, Feeney says. It will take five years to go from $1 billion to $2 billion, but it should take less than five years to get to $3 billion.

“I make anniversary calls to associates on the 20th, 25th, 30th, 35th, 40th anniversaries and I would say that 95 percent of the associates, the longer-tenured associates that I speak to, comment that we’re a different company today,” Feeney says. “It’s never a comment about the size of the organization, the number of customers you’re serving, the revenue that we do, it’s about the feel of the organization.”

And maintaining connections with your team and your business is always important, whether you have 5,000 employees or 14,000, which is the approximate number at Safelite today.

“I think that’s one of the myths of business — that the bigger you are, you wall yourself off from the associate group,” Feeney says. “I have taken great pains and great steps to not let that happen. So, no, it’s just as easy to connect with me today as it was 10 years ago. I answer my phone calls. I answer my own emails.”

His assistant knows he’ll take interruptions from associates, customers or family. Those are where Feeney’s priorities lie; that’s where he’s willing to interrupt his day.

Of course, Feeney has evolved, too, because the goal line keeps moving. You never know when another transformation may be needed.

“Do I devote more of my time today ensuring that the strategies are being executed properly? Sure. Do I spend more of my time today on people issues and people opportunities and customer opportunities? Sure. That’s because the more you grow, the expectations are higher, and I’m a person that I set the bar very, very high,” he says.

Feeney also works a lot. He’s available 24/7 — and sometimes employees and customers take him up on that.

“I hold myself to the same standards that I hold all of our leaders to, and that is to continually improve, take the feedback that others give you and work to be a better leader in the future,” he says.

 

Takeaways:

  • Articulate your vision for the company’s future and stick to it.
  • Keep the lines of communication open to employees and customers.
  • Culture comes from your words, actions and priorities.

 

The File:

Name: Tom Feeney
Title: President and CEO
Company: Safelite Group

Born: New York City
Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, La Salle College (now La Salle University).

When you were growing up, what job did you want to do? I always liked math, so mathematics was the driver and therefore, accounting. I always liked business, so that route of accounting seemed to work. I wanted to be a CPA and ultimately a CFO of a company. That’s the path I thought I would be on.

As so many young leaders find out, that path gets interrupted by opportunity. One of the things I learned early was to go through the door of opportunity with my eyes open and my ears open without worrying about what was in the future. It would take care of itself by doing a good job.

If you had to sum up your business philosophy in a few words, what would you say it is? Culture is more important to a business’s success or failure, and putting your people first helps you achieve more than not.

Where would someone most likely find you on the weekend? With my wife, doing things around the house, and with my grandchildren.

What are you currently reading? I’m reading a John Grisham book, “The Whistler.”