Our guest today is George Horvat, the COO of Agero, an industry leader in the digitalization of driver assistance services on a massive scale. George is responsible for end-to-end operations of their closely intertwined network and contact center functions.
George brings over 25 years of Fortune 500 experience as a results-driven executive in manufacturing, quality, and maintenance. His strong focus on collaboration, change, and innovation has produced exceptional accomplishments in strategic planning, lean optimization, M&As, P&L, price/cost management, and sales and marketing. His leadership skills are helping to drive Agero’s continuing journey toward operational excellence, delivering more consistent, high quality end-to-end experiences for their consumers while building stronger relationships with their service providers.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- How the agents deal with frustrated customers and react to every scenario
- How has Agero adapted as an organization due to COVID
- How Agero is innovating the driver assist service industry
- What metrics or leadership traits George looks for
- How George deals with company politics
- What was the inflection point to get Agero to scale
Connect with George Horvat: LinkedIn
Agero – http://www.agero.com
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Our guest is George Horvat, the COO of Agero, an industry leader in the digitization of driver assistance services on a massive scale. George is responsible for end-to-end operations of their closely-intertwined network and contact center functions. George brings over 25 years of Fortune 500 experience as a results-driven executive in manufacturing, quality and maintenance.
His strong focus on collaboration, change and innovation has produced exponential accomplishments and strategic planning, lean optimization, M&As, P&L, price cost management and sales and marketing. His leadership skills are helping to drive Agero’s continuing journey toward operational excellence, delivering more consistent high-quality end-to-end experiences for the consumers while building strong relationships with their service providers. George, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Cameron. It’s an honor and a privilege to be on it.
I’m looking forward to it. Walk us through what you guys do in the driver assistance space. Give us more groundwork around that.
In Agero, I would sit there and say that we are a leader in the white-label assistance for driver assistance services, which means roadside assistance, accident management, connected vehicle services and consumer support affairs, delivered through typically insurance policies or auto warranties and other programs. Something that people may not know about it Agero is we support over 115 million vehicles across the US, covering 100% of the ZIP codes here in our country through a curated service provider network.
We support 2/3 of the new passenger vehicle sold out on the road, as well as 2/3 of the top auto insurers that are out there. I’ll throw a number out there. In 2019, we covered over 11 million roadside events and over 1 million accident events. That’s pretty substantial when the total market is probably right around 65 million roadside events a year.
Do you partner with the OEMs at the point of sale when you’re buying a vehicle that they’re signing up for your services or are you partnering with insurance companies? Walk us through that model.
Our client services team works with our clients in partnerships where we can support various experiences for our clients. Some clients want a full roadside package, others have warranties that they’ve sold and others are just looking for services that they feel are required as part of the offering for their consumers. It is customized to every one of those OEM or insurance companies, depending on what they’re looking for in their brand and their consumer. We reflect that brand to those consumers when they call.
Are you operating as the call center and the intermediary between them or are you actively running the service side of it for them as well?
We were doing both on the roadside and in accidents. A couple of years ago, as I joined Agero, in reality, we were a 100% call center company that was slowly moving toward a digital footprint. At the same point, we’re providing those services through partnered contracts, our service provider contractors who are out there every day on the road being those heroes and servicing those different OEMs and insurance companies.
Would your competitor be AAA or do you work with them at all?
I would sit there and say AAA is not a competitor. They’re an insurance company. We are not an insurance company and there’s a big difference. We are an independent white-label provider that provides those services to insurance companies. In some cases, we could say some adjacencies could put us into a model where we are an insurance company but realistically, I’m not sure insurance companies are allowed to make a profit.
Do you work with the autobody industry at all? Do you refer clients to them or is that going through the insurance companies?
We do go through our insurance companies on their accident-based program so over a million events service for an accident on an annual basis but we are working in partnership with a curated dealer network and repair network to where we would take those based on whether it’s an insurance company or an OEM maker on where they would like those vehicles serviced.
I was one of the Cofounders of a group in the US which is called Gerber Auto Collision and in Canada, it was called Boyd Autobody. We did a lot of work with the insurance industry. I’m curious that all of a sudden, I’m going, “You guys have got your hands on every accident before they even know. Can we talk?” I left there many years ago.
I was going to say we’ve got a great partner. I’m sure if you’re up in the Canadian market, SYKES does a large portion of our work in Canada as well. You might be familiar with them.
Tell me about the business. How did you decide to join them? What were you doing before this?
Before this, I had been working for two eCommerce companies. I had done some work for Wayfair. I had stood up a portion of their large parcel home delivery network across North America. Before that, I was with Vistaprint business cards. Not necessarily roadside or related to the automotive sector. I had reached out to a colleague that I had worked with back in Vistaprint to do some benchmarking and call centers.
I had heard Agero had a relatively large call center footprint and wanted to do some benchmarking. I had some dinner with him. He’s our CDO or Chief Digital Officer, Bernie Gracy. I was talking to him about how we were at the time, standing up call centers in Wayfair, wanting to benchmark on different KPIs and general best practices and do some crossline actioning.
He mentioned that they happen to be looking for a COO at Agero and he recommended that I talk to Dave Ferrick, the CEO of Agero. I was not even out in the market looking. I was like, “I want to get into your call centers.” Long story short, to get into the call centers, I had to go through Dave, our CEO. Dave and I went and had breakfast in Summerville.
That conversation was about two and a half hours of him explaining to me what Agero does and that hero culture of how at Agero when one of those consumers that get stuck on the side of the road breaks down, their day gets ruined. That’s the mentality that our agents and the call center have. When that phone rings and they pick it up, they’re somebody’s hero.
If I’m driving down the road and my car breaks down with a flat, I call and my day’s gone bad. The person I’m reaching out to is a hero to me because they’re going to help me get my day back on and how that industry is undergoing such a transformation to where we used to be 100% just call center concentric but we’re shifting into a more digital footprint.
Those two hours went by amazingly fast. He poked and prodded at me as to how I operate, what’s my basic philosophy on managing people and in general, wanted to understand some of my management philosophy. That melded out well and long story short, I was able to join a fabulous organization here at Agero.
How many employees have you got? Just so that we understand some of the scopes of what you’re dealing with, it’s got to be massive.
Employees directly, in operations, we’re around the 3,200 to 3,500 mark, depending on seasonality. Overall, with partners who are our independent contractors, service providers and third parties, we’re well over 7,000 to 10,000.
On the call center side or the hero side, I love this whole hero analogy because I’ve spent about eight hours on the phone with Verizon, Apple and an insurance company. My girlfriend was traveling in Columbia and had her phone snatched out of her hand by a guy on a motorbike driving by. I’ll tell you, the customer service agents I’ve been working with do not feel like my heroes. It’s super frustrating. How do your agents deal with a frustrated customer who hasn’t made the transition to feel comforted yet? They’re still pissed off, stressed or frustrated or it’s raining while their car’s broken down?
I would sit there and say that the first thing that we teach our associates is how to react to every call. It’s much like that Forrest Gump movie. He sits there in Forrest Gump and opens up that box and it’s a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get when you pick up that phone call. Sometimes you get that sweet call and other times you get that one that is hard to do. You have to be able to respond with empathy and be attentive. Listen to how you’re going to put that service or conformance. Put yourself in that person’s position and how you want to be treated.
In essence, that is what we want our agents to do for those consumers stuck on the side of the road. Whether you are with an insurance company or an OEM, we’re reflecting that organization brand, that white label but we also want those people to know that, in some cases, you’re in a very dangerous situation on the side of the road. We’ve got to call emergency services. In other cases, how do we make sure that we minimize the wait time? There are so many different factors that we have them trying to key in and trigger based on what they are hearing. Try to listen twice as much as they talk so that we can get that empathy and hero piece across to those people. There’s that connection that they know they’re being taken care of and listened to.
You’re also dealing with a group. At 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, we had about 140 people in our call center so much smaller operation but still big enough that I was around it. It’s a tough role to get people who are super passionate about the customer and the company because, in a lot of cases, they’re doing minimum-wage jobs. How do you make that connection for them? Do you pay them more than a minimum wage and treat them as better than that?
I would sit there and say yes and yes. We do pay more than minimum wage. I would like to believe that we are competitive in the markets that we are in and have shown by benchmarking we are. In your example with the phone that was stolen with Verizon, we’re not trying to sell somebody a service. They’ve already got the service. We’re trying to help them.
Most people like that feeling of being able to be that hero. When George has got a flat tire and is on the side of the road and is scared because there’s a bunch of traffic and people whizzing by them and somebody’s on that phone and very calmly talking to them, reassuring them that helps on the way, there’s a self-satisfaction that goes with it.
You’re talking to the CEO about your management philosophies or your management style related to people. Can you walk us through some of that?
A lot of that comes back from my time, even prior to VistaPrint. It started with about 13 or 14 years with a Toyota-based company. It ties to people, processes and technology. As the Head of Operations, you’ve got to listen closely to what people are talking about and continuously learn and adapt. When I first started the role, as I explained to Dave, he goes, “Tell me what your first 100 days were like.” That was one of the questions he asked at that breakfast meeting.
I said, “My first 100 days would be I want to listen to your calls, go to your call centers, hear what it’s like for a customer or a consumer on the side of the road to call in and how are they being received? What are they hearing? Where are the opportunities?” Based on that groundswell coming from my Toyota background, they know where the loopholes are in the systems, processes and technology.
Listening to agents and talking to them, you’re able to pick up a huge wealth of knowledge. What you do is start feeding that. You feed that into either the ops group with the operations, your product and innovation group or your engineering and digital group. You’re then able to start to iterate. You’re continuously adapting.
One of the fundamental principles in my education through Toyota was you’re always looking for a target vision. You want to understand what you want in the long-term but you don’t get there in one giant step. It’s not a light switch. You have to take many small steps. Sometimes you’re going to fail. You’re going to try something and it doesn’t work. That’s the first attempt at learning.
You have to be resilient, go back and understand why did you fail? Ask yourself why a few more times to get to that root cause and then experiment again and be willing to experiment again and take calculated risks to be able to do that. That explanation to Dave resonated because we are a company very much founded on manager-doers and using data as a thermostat to then set up different types of experiments and then continuously iterate around.
Whether that’s through our engineering group and our digital channel or our network and with our service providers and testing out different software or whether that’s through our strategy group and we want to differentiate into specialty networks and different types of differentiated services. It gives us an opportunity to test, try, iterate around and be able to find a fundamental solution that helps the consumer on the side of the road, gives a better experience to our customers and ultimately makes us a more competitive and differentiated service for an organization.
How have you had to adapt as an organization because of where we are with COVID? That got to have been complicated.
I would sit there and say that COVID has been quite the pandemic. It’s one way to look at it. It had its negative impacts but it also had its opportunities. Some severe storms came through the US and we realized because of our geographic locations, we had some service implications. People couldn’t come to work because of storms. We had started in a small crawl-walk-run approach of, “Let’s disperse 20 laptops a year prior to COVID hitting and 2 agents at home. Let’s see how we can get this to work.” We worked with our IT group to lay the groundwork for the needs for security, content and access. We grew that to maybe 200 people in the course of the year prior to COVID.
It was disaster recovery in case of a storm and then all of a sudden, in mid-March 2020, the pandemic hit. Our IT team and operations team, along with human resources were able to take our entire agent pool. In a matter of a week, we flipped them all from in-contact centers to at-home and functioning. In 5 business days and 7 calendar days, everybody transitioned and our service levels didn’t see a hiccup during that period.
Have you challenged your team since to do similar things just as fast? It’s like, “Why was this taking us a year to do 200 and then it takes us a week to do 2,000?”
I would sit there and say that anybody when faced with a pandemic and the sheer risk of their people getting sick and the sheer focus of the wellness of our associates is what drove us with that level of intensity and speed. Sometimes, we continue to ask ourselves questions like, “How did we do it before Zoom? How did we do it before Office 360? How did we do it before when we said we couldn’t go virtual and everybody had to travel?”
As we’ve done that, this whole pandemic has opened up a lot of new opportunities for us as far as hard trends and soft trends, what we could look to do, what our company-wide remote workforce launch looks like post-COVID, as we start to anticipate with vaccinations and the rest and how we can look to advance. We talk about work-from-home. Talk about digital as well. Our digital services increase because people are out. People aren’t in their offices. They’re using their mobile phones and asking for service as well.
Things that were taking slow crawl steps are running faster. You see it in eCommerce or shopping at Instacart. People are buying groceries online. They’re doing the same thing with the roadside when they get into an accident. It’s about us being able to anticipate, stay ahead of that, recognize those trends for our clients and get out in front with radical change so that we can be there for them.
I remembered back in the GOT-JUNK days in 2002, we decided to try to move 30% of our business to booking online instead of having to talk to a customer. That was done but I’m curious. Are you looking at similar moves in your business to eradicate the customer service human and automate and digitize the business?
Over the past couple of years, Agero’s been at a forefront of a combination of passionate people and data-driven technology, strengthening that relationship with our clients and their customers through digital toolings, such as IVRs and different types of automation. We’ve seen through mobile apps and IVR that the customer experience is better customer experience than just a traditional phone call.
Working through that, we’ve been able to highlight that particular gap to our clients and go, “If we can push penetration in our mobile usage with you on your app, you get a better customer experience for your brand,” which we all want. We want to be that helpful partner for them. To let you know, any type of digital transformation is very much a journey. It takes time. You have to work through the different platform development. We were lucky we were able to very strategically go out and put an acquisition in our place with Swoop back in 2019, which had an amazing platform that we are using and exposing to our clients.
Swoop is the platform on that we run our business. We are in the middle of our digital transformation and it’s our software that is running through our platform.
Do you think that you’ll be able to replace 30% to 50% of the people with automation and technology over time, even through normal attrition? I’m not saying you’re going to go out there and fire everybody but is that the number you’re looking at or is it more than that?
Yes, it is those numbers and larger that we believe that we can leverage automation and digitization through those different channels to be able to look to offset some of that labor. It’s not about cutting out the labor. I think about labor, automation and our overall demand much like a bell curve. If you take a bell curve, I want the automation right down the center of the path. Take that right down that first slice, everything that’s in the fairway, if we put it in golf terms, right down the middle, everything should be automated that we can.
I want to use the next slice with our partners or our third-party partners to be able to leverage some of that usage. The pieces that are out on the edges, the outliers on both sides of that curve, I want to leverage Agero’s heroes. For those that are the most complex calls, those that have the most amount of complexity complaints and those that are brand damaging, I want to be that hero to make sure that we can keep those well in control and be able to continue to add value to our clients in the most effective way.
If anybody can ever figure out the automation where you know the customer’s sitting there pecking away at the keyboard and you can get them on a phone call quickly, you win because some of this automation can be super stressful. It’s like, “I wish there was a human there at times,” and then other times, the automation works. It’s a delicate balance.
As I think about it, the mission is to push the limits of that roadside experience as far as we can without sacrificing the customer experience. That’s the exciting part of what we’re doing at Agero. We’re on the leading edge of that. Working with some of the partners that we have in both the OEM and insurance side of things becomes transformational across the dynamics of the business as we start to do that.
How many other countries are you operating in?
We have most of North America covered. We are investigating partners over in Europe as well and have a footprint getting started up over there and then down in Central America as well.
Europe will be interesting when all of a sudden you got the multi-language call centers with agents that speak seven languages. It’s amazing. Do you intend to take the call center back to a location-based business at some point or do you think you’re going to be able to stay remote? Any thoughts about that?
What we’re learning about our work-from-home footprint is just that. We’re learning way faster in 2020 with COVID having everybody in-home than we did in 2019 when we only had 200 at home. We’re probably going to land somewhere with a split. We will bring either our new Agero heroes in for a period, get their level up and then look to do a wean out of where they can go work from home based on performance. I don’t think we will fully return to sites the way we were pre-COVID, whatsoever. I would say probably 40% to 50%, I’ll still stay at home, just based on the fact that they’re performing as well or better.
For many, it’s giving them a bit of satisfaction. They don’t have to get up in the morning or dress up. It’s the business mullet where they can have a business on top and party down below.
It comes to outcomes. We have to be able to stick to those outcomes. As long as they can deliver the customer experience that we’re looking for, that is what is key. If they sit there in their pajamas with a cup of coffee and can do that, I’m all for it.
Tell me about how you identify the top performers and which ones. I would imagine, because of the scope, you must have a lot of promotion from within for a few levels. How do you identify which people to promote or do you?
We are a data-driven organization. Every team member has an associate member. That associate member tells us exactly all their standard metrics of AHT to CSI to NPS, the total number of calls per day and all of the key metrics that you would want. Based on that, it becomes a very simple ranking of how they perform, how that team performs, how that supervisor performs, how that management group performs that manages those 7 to 10 supervisors and so on. That career growth goes on where we are internally hiring 60% to 75% in career growth progression.
What do you look for? What are the behavioral traits you find? Is it the performance metrics? Are there leadership traits you look for in people?
It depends on the level. Each level comes with a different set of criteria that you have to build on. When I think about a supervisor, that’s got to be somebody that understands our mission, what we’re trying to do for our customer experience, what are some of the different outliers that they have to manage and then how well they can handle and manage people that are either new or in stress or struggling with the mission piece. People are the key.
Your first question to me is, how do I get them to engage? How do I make sure that they buy in? That labor force, that frontline agent, the hook that I believe we have is that you may work in a stressful environment but you are going to feel better because you’re going to leave work knowing you helped somebody.
You go back to it so often with this Agero’s heroes that it’s an amazing mindset that you’re giving those agents. That is so different from a customer service agent or anything else handling a problem. When you’re showing up as somebody’s hero, that’s huge. I’m thinking about the interpersonal stuff. You are a company with 3,500 call centers and then your frontline, 8,000 total. How do you deal with the company politics that tend to startup in companies when you get to the 300-person level? You are there already. How do you orbit around that stuff? How do you break through that?
It starts with our founders. They empower all of us, including our CEO and us on down to act like owners. We take personal pride in the difference we can make for our customers, our clients and those consumers that are out on the side of the road, whatever it takes to make that biggest impact. You talk about politics and the rest of that.
What’s been cool about this company is we work for this large corporation but it started as small as any other business, in Sid’s back room of his home. As most small business owners do, they do whatever it takes to keep things running. Coming in, I was very cognizant of the culture and what was going on but whatever it takes from anyone to keep the business running to do the right thing for our client, it’s happy to step outside of their role and pitch in for the greater good of our customers, our suppliers, our team, our service providers and have that clear purpose of what we’re trying to do and take that ownership. It’s amazing to see.
What was it that he did at the very beginning? What was the service that he was providing early stage? What do you think were the keys to the success to get it to scale may be from 30 to 100 people or 100 to 300 people? What do you think got it to start that inflection point? What was the original service and for whom?
The original service, I believe, went for Toyota back in 1972. Toyota was entering the market here in the United States. Sid Wolk, our Founder, saw an opportunity where he could use a model to provide roadside service for those new Toyotas coming out. That was the pioneering idea that started the company. It became a game changer because the business model itself relied on the fact that people were going to call when they needed help. He went from 30 to 300, still tells a story, watches the office every day and tells us how he remembered the first day we hit 100 calls a day to 30,000 calls a day.
It’s incredible to hear the story of, “We had 100 calls a day. There was a table full of phones and they were hardline phones. People were picking them up and talking.” He sets some audacious goals like, “How do I grow that? How do I give everyone that peace of mind when they’re out on the road?” He’s kept a very fundamental approach of, “The best is yet to come.” In 2021, we will approach the 50th anniversary of this company. If you ask him, he’ll sit there and say, “The best is still yet to come.” Thinking about where he’s taking it from to this level is amazing.
Toyota, back in those days, was almost like a lawn mower company or a motorbike company. People weren’t that comfortable with the cars in the first place but then they delivered beyond expectations. Do you think that he and the company learned from Toyota back in the early days? If so, do you carry any of those systems still with you?
We do. He still talks about having high expectations and empowering people to do what’s right for the customers and making sure that we make it right for the customers. Don’t see our service providers as suppliers but as partners. We’re all one big team trying to make it through and ultimately want to do what’s right for everyone. Having worked in a Toyota background, a lot of those resonated right down to the Toyota core principles of what they try to think about with people.
How about yourself, your skills and your career? This is the biggest thing you’ve ever run and every day gets bigger. Where are you working on your skills still?
Part of my biggest challenge continues to be how do I be proactive and see around corners enough. I sit there and joke of nobody could see the pandemic coming but now that you’ve seen that hard trend or soft trend, what are you anticipating? What’s your next opportunity? Where do we need to be able to leverage and go forward?
Another part of it is being patient. I’m not a very patient person. You can ask my team. They’ll sit there and say, “George holds the bar pretty high.” I push my team for not only speed but execution and being able to deliver. Being patient to understand where people are at on the journey. Whether that’s an agent that’s frustrated with calls or a supervisor, a manager or some of our leadership team being patient and focused to execute our CEO’s vision and strategy on where we want to be.
That gives me the biggest passion of all because I get to sow the ground, plant the seeds, water it and watch it grow because it’s that place where the rubber hits the road for operations in Agero’s to be able to take those concepts and ideas on what we want to do and make them real and impactful for those consumers on the side of the road and our clients.
How about your mindset around getting everything done as an organization? I was talking to a CEO that I was coaching and he’s like, “I’m going to work this weekend to catch up.” I’m like, “You’ll never catch up. As soon as you catch up, you’re going to have more projects and goals.” You had to get there at some point. How did you rationalize that it’ll never be done? You put in a good solid day’s work and then give yourself some time off.
In operations, D stands for Deliver so you never are done. I’m only as good as my last dispatch, my last service and my last call from a consumer. We are a 24/7 operation. There are times to unplug and they’re more than capable people. The two pieces that we do well are one, maniacal follow-up and prioritization. We are a prioritization organization around trade-offs for people, processes and technology. Leveraging which one of those, we’re going to look to solve a problem for and always waiting on, is this a strategic priority? Is there a consumer or a client expectation or an outcome? Is this a customer experience trade-off or enhancement that we need to make? Is this a cost-focus base?
Being able to prioritize those to go forward. The second is it’s better to have something done than trying to do something perfectly and knowing when done is done enough and not trying and assuming that you need to go and drive for perfection. Those are key pieces for our organization and it’s a continual process that we go through.
Years ago, I started hearing the term minimum viable product and I said, “F that. It’s minimum viable everything.” Momentum is going to create momentum, not perfection. If we were to go back to the 21-year-old or 22-year-old George and you were going to give yourself some advice, what advice would you give yourself back then that you know to be true now?
Be willing to say no and be financially disciplined. Sometimes you have to say no to certain things. There was a 21-year-old George that always tried to make everybody happy. Sometimes, no means next opportunity, not anything else. Those would be the two messages that I would send 21-year-old George.
They’re big insights. I had to learn to say that one too. It’s a tough one. George, thank you so much for sharing with us on the show. George Horvat, the COO for Agero. I appreciate your time.
I appreciate your time. Thank you again, Cameron. Have a great day.
Hopefully, I never need to talk to your agents on the phone but if I do, I know I’ll be taken care of. I appreciate it.
I’d love to hear your feedback.
Take care. Thank you.
About George Horvat
As our Chief Operations Officer, George is responsible for end-to-end operations of our closely intertwined Network and Contact Center functions. George brings over 25 years of Fortune 500 experience as a results-driven executive in manufacturing, quality, and maintenance. His strong focus on collaboration, change, and innovation has produced exceptional accomplishments in strategic planning, lean optimization, M&As, P&L, price/cost management, and sales and marketing. His leadership skills are helping drive Agero’s continuing journey toward operational excellence, delivering more consistent, high quality end-to-end experiences for our consumers while building stronger relationships with our service providers.