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It was Stevie Salinas' second day of new-hire orientation when retired Lt. Col. David Sheets appeared in the doorway. "Atten-hut!" he commanded, bringing the room of 50 new employees to their feet. Surprised, the 23-year-old single mom watched as Sheets handed out manila envelopes. Inside was a deployment letter identical to that received by the military. "Report to the personnel processing facility," the letter began, demanding recipients depart the next day.
Of course, Salinas, a fledgling member services representative, didn't actually have to ship off. Lt. Col. Sheets' appearance was part of an enhanced military awareness program begun last year by USAA, the San Antonio financial-services company whose auto and home insurance products are limited to military members and their families. Earlier the same day, the five-foot-tall Salinas had strapped on a military helmet, 65-lb. backpack, and flak vest. She'd eaten a "meal ready to eat," or MRE, the grub soldiers eat in the field. She even read real letters from troops in Iraq. Hers was from a soldier who later died in the war and was addressed to his mother. "We were in tears," says Salinas.
Many companies give lip service to listening to the "voice of the customer." At USAA, that voice is transformed into what it calls "surround sound"--a comprehensive approach to training its employees to empathize with its customers' unique needs. "We want to cover the light moments, the heart-wrenching moments, what it's like to be bored in the field," says Elizabeth D. Conklyn, USAA's executive vice-president for people services. "We try to develop empathy, not only for our members but also for the family side."
Such awareness efforts are helped by the fact that some 15% of USAA employees come from the military. Policy service manager Chin Cox, an Air Force reservist, calls her team of call center reps "troops" and uses military time. When her 17 agents had to work on a recent Saturday, she gave out MREs as a reminder that, while the cafeteria was open, soldiers in the field don't have options. "For one split second they're in the boots, so to speak, of our troops," says Cox. "The reason we have choices is because they're out there giving up theirs." By Jena McGregor