Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Tim Ottman

Senior Director of Innovation

Aug. 03, 20183 min read

Topics: cream city labs.

Design Thinking: Changing the Way We Work by Listening to Our Clients

I've been at Northwestern Mutual for 18 years. But in the past year, I've learned more about our clients, employees and organization than I did in all my previous years combined – and I credit our approach to innovation.

About a year ago, we launched an innovation team within client services, which I lead. As we look to transform our organization to deliver delightful experiences for our clients, we know we need to think, act and work differently, and we need to look at problems through the eyes of our clients. Our clients and their needs are the inspiration for our innovation.

Within this new innovation team, one of the first challenges we tackled was a sensitive one. No one likes to hear that their out of pocket expenses are going up, but with the prolonged low interest rate environment, that is what some of our clients were experiencing. So, before we updated the “notification” letter and prepared our customer service teams for what would undoubtedly be an onslaught of questions, we took a step back and employed the techniques of design thinking to listen to our clients.

We proactively went out and talked to clients to better understand their perspective on the situation – and it was eye-opening. Some said it felt like a broken promise, others felt like we didn't know what we were doing or were hiding something. But the most powerful insight was this: people want to be heard. They want to have confidence in the company they are working with and know someone is there to help them.

So we put these people's pictures on the wall of a conference room and came in and asked, “How are we going to solve this problem for “Jill?” We'd come up with ideas and then go back out and ask for more input. We did empathy mapping and rapid prototyping. We had people from the contact centers with us, so if we wanted to test new language on the phone, they could just pick up the phone and call a client.

It's been transformational for us to really understand the situation through our clients' eyes. We created a challenge: “How do we take the experience of increased out of pocket expenses and make it a reinforcement of the value and promise of working with Northwestern Mutual?” Wow! That’s big. And we ended up designing a pretty significant improvement because of it. We rewrote the notification letter and set up a special contact center to handle incoming calls so our clients with questions wouldn't get bounced around and would get people specialized in handling this situation. And the dedicated contact-center employees focused on handling the calls with empathy, not just technical know-how.

It's exhilarating to look at problems like this through a different lens. But a word of warning: after taking a design-thinking approach to problem solving—and actually listening to your clients—you can’t help but go back to your day job without being an advocate for them in everything you do.