While walking through Aflac’s Paul S. Amos campus in Columbus, Virgil Miller pauses to glance inside the cafeteria. He points out the non-Aflac wifi service in the building and the game room that was built in the back of the eatery.
He calls the amenities the result of listening to the needs of employees who serve the supplemental health and life insurer’s customers. The approach is the hallmark of a career the Georgia native has forged over nearly three decades, including service with the U.S. Marine Corps and stops at Wal-Mart, Geico and, starting in 2004, at Aflac headquartered on Wynnton Road in Columbus.
“I love it. This is what I do,” says Miller, 47, Aflac’s senior vice president over internal operations. “People say could you be doing something else? No, this is what I do. I’m not going to say I thought I would be in insurance. That’s too specific. But I thought I would be an entrepreneur, somewhere in the business realm.”
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Miller recently at the Paul S. Amos campus, a satellite office complex in Corporate Ridge Business Park, to talk about his job, how he deals with pressure and what it takes to deliver great service to both staffers and those who purchase and use the firm’s policies.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, with an expanded version at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
Your customer service center recently received a J.D. Power certification for quality. Does that put pressure on you to do that again?
We have not always tried annually. But it does put pressure on you because you’ve set a benchmark. We’re going to put marketing and brand recognition around it, so therefore we would like to keep the certification. But we will sit down and make a determination on when will be the next time we want to apply.
A lot of what we’re trying to do, when I think about our customer service areas, is we want people to know Aflac takes pride in delivering a good experience to its customers. A lot of that comes back to credibility. When you hear someone is certified, that’s credibility ... Next year I’m also looking at areas like our billing to see how we can standardize our process and also get certification like ISO.
The customer service center is a mere slice of your responsibilities?
It’s part of my duties. There are about 3,000 employees I’m responsible for. People in the contact centers are focused on how they handle calls by voice. People in the claims area are more focused on claims coming in by paper. You filled out a claim form and mailed it in, or a doctor sent in a claim on your behalf, or you send it in electronically by going to our policyholder site and uploading the information to us.
I also have people that take bills and receive the money, people called accounting specialists. If you wanted to make a payment to us right now, someone has got to take that payment and make sure we gave you credit on your particular policy for receiving that payment, and then send you back a notification saying we have it.
And we sell life insurance. If you want to change your beneficiary or change your address on products, I have people that do that. Most people mail those changes in.
I also have professional-level people who foster relationships between the brokers — people who sell Aflac insurance — and the account owners. I have people that manage relationships with vendors, such as technology vendors. I have people that handle direct sales, who take calls and sell over a phone through a third-party vendor.
It’s a pretty big scope is what I’m getting at. It’s a pretty big organization.
Did you ever think you would be at this level, in this type of position?
I’ve never had any other desire than to be a businessman. It really goes back to my childhood. One of my favorite uncles I looked up to, I never saw him wear a pair of jeans. It was slacks, blue jacket, white shirt, and he used to call himself a businessman. That was my definition of a businessman.
He carried a briefcase and I remember asking him for the briefcase. I was 7 or 8 years old and he gave me the briefcase and I carried it everywhere, to school, to visit relatives. I wore thick glasses back then also. But my cousin used to laugh at me and call me the professor. I liked to think I was pretty smart at that time. But that was my only aspiration.
My uncle told me there were certain things I needed to do. He made sure I joined the church early on in life, and put me on the finance board at church. I collected money at age 13. Doing things like that, I never had any other aspiration.
Why did you join the Marines?
I joined the military particularly for the GI Bill. I joined the Marines, though, for the prestige. In my mind, Marines represent commitment, duty and honor. Those are the things that they stand for. So I lined myself up with the Marines. It was a great experience for me and helped pay my way through school. And I really think it helped define who I am today.
How long did you serve?
A combination of reserves and active duty — eight years. Most of those years were as a reservist. But on active duty, I served during Operation Desert Storm (in Kuwait and Iraq) and did one tour there at that time.
Do you use that military experience today?
What I’ve tried to do is correlate some of that in corporate America. There’s an adage sometimes that people think former military people in corporate America are too strict. I look at it totally opposite. Military people know how to have fun. You get the job done, but you have fun. It’s the same thing here. I tell people let’s get the job done, and let’s have a good time.
The second part of my answer is I remember getting a phone call on a Sunday night saying we were going to be mobilized. Operation Desert Shield was now Operation Desert Storm. I was told to report in Tuesday morning. It was in Atlanta at Dobbins Air Force Base at a Marine air wing there. I was in college at the time.
When I got there, Marines were coming from everywhere. They all had on their camouflage uniforms. But I just remember seeing nothing but smiles and ‘hoorah’ and ‘let’s go get ’em.’ I still get chills talking about it. You could see that the Marines have a sense of pride in that I am now getting ready to do what I’ve been trained to do. I’ve been trained to defend and serve, and that’s what I’m going to do.
I see it no different here. Of course, lives were on the line there. But I’m here (at Aflac) to protect and serve the same way. It’s my duty to live up to the promise. So I try to teach all of my leaders that I don’t take this lightly. As a leader, first of all, you’re responsible for your people. And, of course, we’re responsible to our customers. That means that they bought a product and in a time of need we must be there and make sure it works for them.
As an operations exec, are you approached much by outside vendors to buy new technology, etc.?
I made a gentleman’s friendly bet of a Coke last month with someone. I said I will bet you a Coke that between you talking to me now and when you leave I will have gotten probably 10 solicitations from outside vendors in my email, people who want to meet with me. (laughs) I will win that bet. With Aflac, a Fortune 200 brand, people want to be aligned with the duck.
Think about what I do for Aflac. We have a lot of specialized areas in this company. We have marketing. We have people that do financials. But if you think about operations, it covers such a gamut there’s not many things we don’t touch. So a lot of people start with operations: How’s your customer experience? Can I help you guys get more efficient? Can I look at your processes with you? Can I bring in new tools that you guys haven’t used before? What kind of technology are you using? We kind of touch everything.
So you’re quite busy with that aspect of the job?
The key is you have to respond. You don’t want to damage the brand by having an Aflac officer that doesn’t respond. I get so many of them, though, cold calls, and so many resumes. So I have to be protective of the brand. If you know I exist and I just ignore you, that’s not good.
You face a tug-of-war for your time it appears?
Because of what I do for Aflac, my name is listed out on the website. For our (sales and claims) producers, they also know I’m the final stop to get something done. If (Aflac Chairman and CEO) Dan Amos or (Aflac U.S. President) Teresa White gets a complaint, I have people standing by. What they do full time is respond immediately. So if it comes from me, they know they’re going to take that one (complaint) immediately and, starting within the same hour, reach out to whoever sent it. Then they have all of these protocols they follow like giving the customer an expectation of resolution and following up every 24 hours.
We have a slogan I created about two years ago called ‘I got it.’ It just means: Don’t worry about it, I have it from here.
Do you ever get a bit frustrated and overwhelmed or do you simply tackle each issue as it comes?
I tackle each one as it comes. You know, I kind of have this philosophy of breaking things down into smaller chunks. You will get overwhelmed, you will get stressed, you’ll get frustrated if you try to take on too much at one time. I try to take a step back and say, what can I accomplish today.
If I can’t solve it, there’s someone who can, and I’m not afraid to reach out for help. I’m sure there’s some exception and some new stuff coming up, but you’re just facing what other men have met. That’s one of my slogans here as well. That means that someone else has to have faced what you are, and let’s go research how they tackled it.
I also believe in ongoing education and continuing to sharpen and hone your skill set. So when I get a challenge, I will sit down with my leaders and say: OK, how are we going to solve this as a team? None of us is as great as the sum of us. I put them in a room and we try to get the solution. If we can’t get it, that’s OK. Then it’s who can we tap on the shoulder to bring in some extra expertise? And let’s get it done.
You started as manager of policy services at Aflac in 2004, a lower-level job?
That’s correct. I had 80 employees. I remember talking to Teresa White and she said this is the only role I can offer you right now, but if you come in and you prove yourself then we’ll see what happens. Aflac has a standing rule where you’re supposed to be in your job for one year before you get promoted. They waived that rule for me and I got promoted in six months to senior manager. So I took over a larger operation. At that time I had what they call the billing area. I handled policyholders who buy directly instead of going through their employer. And then 11 months later, I was promoted to an officer, second vice president role.
Did you rise faster in the company than you thought you would?
I’m a very humble person. But I had a lot of success in companies that I worked for before. The first year that I was with Aflac, we used to have something called the ‘Key Man Award.’ I was recognized with that after being here less than a year. So I felt like I was in a pretty good place.
Going back to my history and time at Geico, I was there approximately 12 years. I’m somewhat known there because I had never been in a role for more than a year. I had either been promoted or gained additional responsibilities. So I had always kind of moved often.
I think that’s what helped me when I came over here. One of the things when I came to Aflac is I brought a lot of the training with me, and I call it the formula. It centers around: Why try to reinvent the wheel? Since I had taken over so many different areas before, I do it the same way. I come in and I start with the people. I understand what the needs of the people are and build a relationship with them.
If people trust you and people know that you care about them, and if they know that you have their best interests at heart, then they’ll work harder for you. I always say this: It’s the difference in doing something because you have to and doing something because you want to. If you can get somebody to do it because they want to, you can get more out of them.
Did you learn much from your Wal-Mart experience?
I’m going to correlate the Wal-Mart story to my mother. My mother used to always tell me as a kid, treat everyone the same. Treat everyone just like you want to be treated, son, I don’t care where you go, who they are, or how different they are. Give them the same respect and dignity. That’s how I’ve approached everything.
Not the Wal-Mart of today. I go in there today and say, poor Sam Walton. The Wal-Mart of yesteryear, to me, exemplified taking care of its customers. If you went into Wal-Mart in the old days, there were the people up front. If you ever noticed the cashiers get in trouble up front, a line with, say, more than three people, you would call people out of the back to come help out. I do not want my customers waiting. You cannot wait. That is a bad customer experience. If you keep doing it, they’re not going to come back.
That was the philosophy. I can’t say I notice that today. The point of that is think through the lens of your customers.
It’s also about getting employees to care?
Absolutely. The way we do that here is you have to recognize people for what they do. We are a huge proponent of giving people recognition. And that’s not always monetary. Recognition can be just taking time to write a simple thank-you note. The key to the recognition, though, is to be specific about the behavior. If you do that, science has proven that (employees) will repeat it. If you reward the behavior you’re looking for and tell somebody what it was and say thank you, you’ll see that behavior repeated over time.
We’ve covered a lot of ground. Anything else you would like to add?
You asked me an earlier question about my level of achievement. I never looked at the level at which I would be. I’ve always said my goal is to be good at what I do regardless of the level. If you ask me to work in the mailroom, I’m going to be the best mailroom employee you have, or I’m going to be mentioned as one of the best. Sometimes other people are just as good as you are. That always brings about other opportunities.
I tell people I mentor, if you do that, you won’t have a ceiling. But don’t focus always on moving up. I don’t look at the next level. I’m going to say Aflac gave me the charge and I’m going to do the best that I can do.
I also think you should take your strengths and leverage them. For me, I thought if I took a financial acumen and used a charismatic personality, then the sky’s the limit.
It’s about getting a foundation (education and career wise). After that, I am who I am. I go out and try to do the best by people. I’m also a faithful person. I believe in the Lord. I pray on things. And I believe He gives me strength.
Name: Virgil Miller
Hometown: Gray, Ga.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1986 graduate of Jones County High School; earned bachelor’s degree in accounting from Georgia College & State University in 1992; earned Six Sigma/PMP certification from Villanova in 2004; earned master’s of business administration degree from Wesleyan University in 2005; now pursuing doctorate from Creighton University
Previous jobs: Marine Corps veteran (active duty and reserves); telephone sales representative at Cox Cable; manager trainee and department manager at Wal-Mart; held various positions (operations and management) at Geico; and has held various positions at Aflac since starting there in 2004 — manager with policy services, senior manager with billing and direct operations, second vice president with policy administration, second vice president with call center operations, vice president with client services, vice president with customer assurance organization, vice president with innovation delivery office, and currently senior vice president over internal operations
Family: Stephanie, his wife of 21 years, and two daughters, Monique and Ravyn, who are students at Georgia Southern University and Veterans Memorial Middle School
Leisure time: Enjoys watching movies, listening to music, playing golf and traveling with his family
Of note: He is a former board member with the American Red Cross and United Way of Central Georgia; and he once worked as a radio DJ at 97.7 KISS