I had the pleasure of interviewing Lea Souther, Chief Operating Officer for The Academy at Bank of America. The Academy is the recipient of the 2021 International Service Excellence Award – Employee Engagement category. During the interview we discussed what Lea sees as the most important factors when it comes to why The Academy continues to excel in service excellence and employee engagement. She credits their people-centered culture, a high level of employee satisfaction, workplace pride, experienced mentors, and innovative training programs as key elements in their success. Enjoy reading a minimally-edited transcript of our conversation. You can also click here to listen to our interview on SoundCloud.
Christine Churchill Burke, CEO of Customer Service Institute of America: Joining us today is Lea Souther with The Academy at Bank of America. First, congratulations on winning your 2021 International Service Excellence Award for Employee Engagement! So, tell me a little bit about what The Academy does.
Lea Souther, COO for The Academy at Bank of America: The Academy is an entity that focuses on the onboarding, training and career development of all employees at Bank of America. We strive to have a significant impact on the end-to-end employee life cycle within the company. We really strive to make that be a very consistent experience from the very beginning — when they enter our doors — and get them really grounded in who we are as a company, what our culture is like, and understand the team that they have joined and are working with. To understand the role they’re going to be doing. We make sure that they’re ready to perform that role. So, we have protected training time. We make sure that we deem the employee ready, and then we deliver them to the business that they’re going to be serving. In this way, they get the most out of their training experience and stay with us for a really long time.
Christine: We love that! Can you share what makes The Academy’s approach to service excellence different or unique and in this case, award-winning?
Lea: Truthfully, what makes The Academy unique is our approach. It is the intentional focus that we have on our employees. When we focus on them first, there’s a direct correlation to how well they take care of our clients. And that translates into the client experience. And so, you know, if you take care of them, then it’s going to mirror to the clients.
We have a 96% employee satisfaction rate in The Academy today, which is industry-leading. We measure our success through very traditional means, but even some non-traditional means. We measure our success as well through understanding how effective our programs are. So, we will actually survey our program participants to understand how effective the program was at getting them ready to do the role they’ve been hired to do.
That tells us if the program is working and – candidly – if the person who is facilitating the program is doing their job as well. We have a close-the-loop process that really allows us to circle back and ensure that if there’s a performance improvement that needs to happen – we do that. If it’s program improvement, we make the adjustments. We allow our employees who are going through the programs to really give us the details around how we can make it better.
Before we had this process, we were only hypothetically thinking about how great our programs were, but the minute you give somebody a confidential – yet very streamlined – ability to say how satisfied they are and how likely they are to recommend their training, it really does make a significant difference in terms of what we deliver.
Christine: Absolutely. In that, the ability to continue to hone, improve and make it better for the next group to come through. So, what stands out to you most about the company culture at Bank of America and within The Academy, as it relates both to your team and your customers?
Lea: So, it goes back to putting the employee at the center of everything we do to really fulfill what our CEO’s mission is for us: to grow responsibly.
When we are able to do that, it’s a very simple, consistent business model. We’ve had it for as long as I can remember! We really empower our associates to take care of each other and, and in turn, take care of the client. The support and the advocacy that we have internally…to grow, develop and continuously improve is tremendous in terms of giving people a lot of grace. If you don’t have the permission to fail, then you’re constantly walking around hoping that you don’t! And we really do give folks the opportunity to say, “Hey, look, no one’s going to die from this!”. This is an opportunity for us to get it right for each other, which in turn projects onto our external clients. All that we ask is that as you’re going along…if there is an element where things don’t feel right…to be very vocal, identify it, escalate it, debate it, and make it stay within our risk framework. Then we have no other outcome other than to grow responsibly.
Christine: I think that your point is very valid in the way that they’re able to really project that on to the external customer, because they can feel comfortable and gain that confidence in their role… versus feeling constricted.
Christine: What are the secret ingredients at The Academy at Bank of America that allows your team members to deliver exceptional customer experiences? So, in this case — and I know you just alluded to this — as far as your team, your trainers, the courses, delivering them goes, how do they feel about the job that they’re doing and how that translates across the business internally? How do you serve each other, but also ultimately serve the external customers of Bank of America?
Lea: The “secret sauce” for us is really a model that we say, “We’re operators, teaching operators”. So, we have all the people that are supporting The Academy who have come from the business in one way or another. We really don’t hire externally to the company for the roles here, unless they’re very niche skills that require something that we don’t have here to tap into.
Trainers Who are Experienced, Subject Matter Experts
Lea: So, they are subject matter experts. They are tried, tested and proven. They know the business and they’re respected. And in many cases, they did a really good job that got them the opportunity to get into The Academy. When we think about it from that perspective, then a lot of the barriers are already removed in terms of, well, “Is this going to be a good trainer? Is this going to be a good experience? Do they really know what they’re talking about?” There’s no doubt about it. It’s the minute someone experiences one of our training programs. Because sometimes they’re not in person, sometimes they’re virtual. (And we’ll talk a little bit more about that later.) At the end of the day, when you can say, “Hey, look, these people know what they’re doing, and they’ve walked a mile in my shoes. And they were really good at it.” Then they listen and, and they absorb a little differently.
Lea: The other thing that I’d say is in our secret sauce is that we really have an eye towards immersive learning. When you cut across 212,000 associates – as that’s the number we have at Bank of America – you have the responsibility to make sure that they are ready to do their jobs.
The challenge that you have is variability…and variability can be really broad and wide. You have a number of people facilitating classes or performing instructional design in some manner. And so how do you create an immersive experience? Some of this has been what I was mentioning before, where we get survey results from our teammates. Our teammates told us when first coming out of the Academy gate that it has great programs, but they needed more time to practice. And, yet they don’t have a practice environment. They said: “My practice environment is my client. So how can I practice more before I get in front of a client?” So, we needed some kind of “simulator”, we needed to be able to replicate what that face-to-face conversation was going to look and sound like – with the ability to navigate multiple systems. (Because we toggle through a lot of different systems to fulfill the request on the other end.)
So, we went to work for them! We began to build things that would replicate the environment that they’re going to be in. Today we have something that’s called “Academy Client Engagement Simulators”, that literally replicates the platform or the system that they are working with and allows them to navigate the system. The click-throughs, the boxes that open to launch to new systems or new interstitials they have to go to. It mimics that. So that they get a little bit more comfortable with navigation, then they don’t have to focus so much on navigating. That way, the quality of conversation and engagement when with an actual client is far better. So that was one piece of feedback that we got that prompted us to create a simulated environment.
Lea: The other thing that we’ve been working on is empathetic conversations. How do you listen to what a client is saying and respond appropriately? Because we have an awful lot of folks in The Academy. They’re wildly talented, all different ages, all different life experiences, all different backgrounds, but they haven’t experienced everything our clients have experienced. So, we need a little bit of “experience education” along the way, or at least enough information to help them understand how they should respond and react to the client. For example, if I, as a 25-year-old Relationship Manager, am sitting across the table from a pre-retiree who needs advice on retirement and planning and things of that nature…I haven’t been through it myself. We’ve got to make sure that I am prepared to have that conversation. So, in many cases, either our platform or our training will teach them a strategic approach or our actual conversation simulator platform, which is called “I Coach”. It will help them understand, respond, and react to what the client says.
Virtual Reality Training Programs
Lea: The final one for us is we just launched the Virtual Reality program. Virtual Reality gives us the opportunity to let people put the goggles on and immerse themselves completely in the experience. And it eliminates the variability. I mentioned before that the variability of 200 different Learning Instructors or 200 different Academy Managers delivering the material is immense. This doesn’t mean any of them are wrong. It’s just a different approach in how it might be interpreted when you can at least control half of that element and put them in an immersive experience. That’s a very consistent measurement to tell us how they performed during the simulation. Then we get the right outcome – at least what we can control from it. And so Virtual Reality has been a big hit for us. We’ve launched it in our financial centers. We’re moving to our contact centers next. And we really feel like this could be a game-changer for us in terms of how we bring consistent, immersive, cutting-edge learning and education. It will really support the workforce of the future!
Christine: One thing that I do love in the years that we’ve gone through this process with you is that you not only continue to improve, but you’re also measuring how the implementation of those improvements are working. And the feedback – like you were saying earlier – from your actual team members and from our conversations previously, when you had just launched Virtual Reality – my understanding is everybody just loved it.
Lea: Yes, they did! I mean, it is the coolest thing in the world! You would’ve never thought that a Hank could do this! Sit in front of a computer and click through your screens and your one-dimensional PowerPoint (then go through an assessment and pray you passed) versus Virtual Reality, where we have actors doing the activity and avatars where we need them, to supplement the different activities. It’s just really cool. It’s just a lot of fun!
Christine: It is! What a great way to teach – with something that’s more of a live experience …and where it’s something you should be noticing versus something they’re telling you to notice. It’s completely different. I love that! So can you share, Lea, any final thoughts about why The Academy has won – I mean you’ve won International Service Excellence Awards multiple years now. Any final thoughts about why you think you are always bubbling to the top in this area of Employee Engagement and Service Excellence- aside from what you’ve already shared?
People, Process and Pride
Lea: I would sum it up into three things: People, Process and Pride. I’ve talked about people in every single one of the questions that you’ve asked me. They are the magic.
They position us to be the best through program design, how they execute the programs design and how they deliver it. It really is a noble responsibility that we have. 66 million client lives have been impacted in a positive way because of the client engagement that we have. It’s a noble experience, to be honest with you, and the responsibility for this process is huge. You can’t live in a highly regulated business like we do and not have significant processes. It’s about making sure that we amplify regulations that we’re required to follow..because we need to protect our clients.
We also are very tight in terms of consistency when it comes to our processes. While we have diversity of thought and experience – things of that nature – we make sure to put the right process around anything that we do. So that no matter where you float within the company – whether you’re in a small business department or you move to the financial centers in terms of our retail and preferred scale, or you go and work in global commercial banking or business banking. At the end of the day, it’s the same process, or spirit of process, that is expected throughout our organization.
In addition, everybody in our organization has come from another part of the organization. They take pride in what they know, and they want to share it with others. I can say personally: I’ve been here 30 years. And along those 30 years, I feel like I’ve never been better prepared to do what I’m doing than today. That’s because I have spent the last 28 and a half years in the businesses, in different places, learning to service clients and grow and lead teams. But now I get to turn even more inward with what we get to do across The Academy, for everyone. So, for me, it’s People, Process and Pride.
Christine: I love all of that because you’re putting people at the center point of this industry, and Bank of America, which has over 212,000 employees! And in this way you’re also making sure that there is a consistent experience for the customer. But the fact that Bank of America has been able to put the people at the center of that – and keep them there – speaks volumes as to why you’ve been so successful as an organization, and why you have won so many awards over the years.
Lea: Thank you. Thank you. It’s a great place to be! It’s awesome.
Christine: Well, it’s fantastic! Lea, thank you so much for your time. And congratulations again on your 2021 win, as well as all your previous awards. And thank you for sharing with us about Bank of America’s Academy today.
Lea: My pleasure. Thank you for having me!
I hope you found this conversation inspiring. Key takeaways from The Academy that could help you achieve a high level of employee engagement for your business or team include:
- Establishing a thorough employee onboarding and orientation program
- Making company culture and values clear to new hires
- Ensuring employees are thoroughly trained for their roles
- Maintaining a high level of employee satisfaction and workplace pride through an employee mentorship program
- Listening to employee feedback and making any needed improvements
- Providing training programs that not only prepare employees for their role but also their interaction with customers
- Creating consistent, predictable processes throughout the organization