The employees of Medical Mutual value their customers. In fact, they recently celebrated collectively spending more than $100 million on their customers’ goods and services throughout Ohio. The milestone was achieved in six years through the company’s unique program called Mutual Appreciation.
The idea started with Medical Mutual CEO Rick Chiricosta. “What we have that our competitors don’t have is 2,400 employees located right in Ohio,” he says. “We found a way to harness the buying power of this resource…in an extremely competitive environment. [Our customers] are the reason our employees have a job.”
Through the program, Medical Mutual employees and their customers connect on a personal level and, as the name suggests, both reap benefits.
“It is not uncommon for our employees to go up to the manager of a restaurant or a car dealer and introduce themselves as employees of Medical Mutual,” says Chiricosta.
One customer, Becky Grimm, manager of corporate accounts at Vitamix, agrees.
“The Mutual Appreciation program is a great way to connect with the employees at Medical Mutual,” she says. “It drives customer engagement to promote the Vitamix brand and encourages other Ohio businesses to buy local.”
After the first few years of the program, which started in 2011, Chiricosta realized it had the potential to grow bigger and better. That’s when he decided to hire one full-time staff person to lead the program. Enter Laura Dunn, manager of customer marketing, who took it over three years ago.
“This is when the program really took off,” says Chiricosta.
Today, Medical Mutual makes a substantial investment in the program, which Chiricosta says pays off for customers and employees. Technology, particularly the Mutual Appreciation mobile app, is one of the key ingredients to the program’s success.
“We make it simple and make customers easy to find,” says Dunn.
The app even has a GPS feature to direct employees to the nearest restaurant, grocery story or car dealer. Employees can choose from Medical Mutual’s database of 7,000 customers. Plus, the mobile app tracks employee usage.
“They always can support a customer,” she says. “They just log their purchases right on their phone by taking a photo of the receipt.”
A whopping 90 percent of the Medical Mutual employees voluntarily participate in the program, which works out to about 52,000 transactions per month and $1 million spent with customers per month on average. It went as high as $2.8 million in one month.
“Wherever I am, I can look up where our customers are,” says Chiricosta. “We have created a culture where people will drive a little bit extra to go to one of our customers. That’s why we have a job…to support our customers. It’s embedded in our culture.”
That customer loyalty extends to the insurer’s business-to-business relationships as well.
“It is tough — not impossible, but very rare — for vendors who are not customers to come in my office and ask for our business,” he says.
In December, Chiricosta and his team celebrated the $100 million milestone by hosting a “Price is Right” game show complete with Chiricosta stepping in as Bob Barker. With lumber purchased from a customer, they built a special set to showcase the prizes, which, of course, Medical Mutual also purchased from customers.
The Mutual Appreciation program is a tiered structure where employees earn cash rewards at various point levels. Special incentives are built in to maximize participation. For example, employees can earn extra points for shopping with a customer whom they have never before patronized. Even charitable contributions can earn points, as long as the money is given to one of the many nonprofit customers. Points are turned in during redemption periods twice a year, and cash rewards are distributed via direct deposit.
One of the more unusual promotions Dunn puts on are “cash mobs,” where Medical Mutual employees show up at a designated business and purchase as much as they can. (Dunn always provides notice so the customer can prepare.) She also features monthly “deals and discounts” in the company newsletter and promotes customers of the month. When one of Medical Mutual’s grocery customers experienced major flood damage last summer, Mutual Appreciation offered triple reward points to encourage support for that business.
Customers are welcome to come on-site to Medical Mutual during business hours for customer fairs, where they can offer coupons, give sample products and tell employees about their goods and services.
“We try to keep it fresh and exciting with different promotions,” says Dunn. “We are not aware of anyone else in Ohio who does this.”