How USAA's Maria Cantu pushes for 'excellence at 100'

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Maria Cantu, USAA
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Maria Cantu, VP of property claims for USAA, is not one to settle for the status quo. In fact, she’s always pushing to innovate in ways that increase empathy in customer service, say her colleagues.

The award comes as San Antonio, Texas-based USAA—the third largest personal lines homeowner insurer and fifth largest auto insurer in the country—will turn 100 next year. Cantu helped develop a brand slogan for the historic event, “Excellence at 100,” to combine with the goal of providing “the most empathetic claims experience on earth.”

According to Cantu, “property claims can be rather complex,” but her equation for success is simple: “speed and ease equals empathy.”

Promoted to her current position in 2018, Cantu is accountable for driving business results across all aspects of that division, and she has done so by designing and championing claims servicing technology and by employing analytics in support of product competitiveness.

“Maria is constantly look for ways to bring our world-renowned customer service and empathy into the digital experience,” says USAA’s chief claims officer Sean Burgess. He calls Cantu, “a problem solver that manages to strategic outcomes, demands the team keep the end-to-end member experience in mind, while developing strategic solutions and producing results.”

“USAA is known for member service, and that’s our mission,” Cantu says. “Part of creating an effortless empathetic path for customer service is leveraging technology. This comes together quite a bit during catastrophes.” When the coronavirus hit last March, USAA had already been focusing on using virtual methods to streamline simpler claims under Cantu’s leadership. The company was deploying an app to allow members to show what was transpiring on a site, without a claim adjuster having to visit the property. This allowed the automation of easier claims and freed up time to be spent on more complex claims.

During the pandemic, in lockdown, about 300 of the boots-on-the-ground claim adjusters—the lion's share of the team—had to reinvent the way they worked, overnight, Cantu says. “We trained them, got them home and got them started with interacting with members and settling claims virtually.” The rest of the 1600-person team also began to work remotely outside of the office, and Cantu’s innovation made that adjustment go smoothly, as well.

The California wildfires posed other difficulties, and USAA deployed areal imagery to settle 80 percent of those claims, Cantu says.

“We were pushing the envelope of our own limits as to what we thought we could settle virtually, all while achieving the highest levels of member satisfaction this year,” Cantu says. “This one is going to be one for the record books. We managed the volume better than we ever thought we would.”

USAA’s commitment is to serve members while keeping employees safe and supporting communities, Cantu says. USAA walks a fine line during these times to provide the personal one-on-one encounter that some members need during a catastrophe, versus keeping everyone safe. So far, the virtual approach has been received well by members and staff alike, she says.

It's likely that USAA will keep the virtual mindset even after the pandemic is over, Cantu believes. The company has a social media hashtag, “#nolookingback,” which sums it up. “We learned a lot things about our abilities and ourselves; we built stronger muscle and rallied as a team to hold each other accountable,” she says of this time during the pandemic. “Definitely from a member standpoint, we’ve proven we made service better.”

It's true that virtual claims adjusting is not something that can be achieved perfectly on the first try. “It will take some iterations,” she says. “We still have more to discover here. We still have to be there in person for our members. They go through some really tough times and need USAA to be there for them. That said: we can be more efficient for them, continuing to pursue virtual tools. Members like it and want more of it—and we want more of it.”

Cantu, who has been at USAA for twenty years, with a degree in Mathematics and Spanish from Trinity University, began in an actuary position, then worked her way up through sales, merchandising, results delivery and business planning before landing the lead role in claims. She feels her mathematical side is a strength she brings to claims processing leadership, and it brings her joy.

As a mother of two, she has always gravitated toward helping professional women who often struggle with the feeling of being spread too thin. That’s why she says she always has an empathetic ear available to them and is always eager to share best practices. She is also active in working with a mentoring program for Hispanic employees at USAA. Cantu says she is “prouder than ever that USAA keeps maturing in this space.”

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Women in Insurance Leadership 2020 USAA Claims Customer service