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Tune into business news these days and it's hard not to see the effect that the voice of the customer is having on day-to-day business decisions. Bank of America and other large banks' recent decision to ditch their much-maligned plans for a $5 monthly debit fee is a recent example showcasing how powerful customer influence and how important customer experience management (CEM) have become, thanks in part to social media venues like Twitter and Facebook.
While it's hard to find a company that isn't paying some sort of homage to the concept of improving customer experience, the reality is many are struggling to carry out their objectives, hampered by longstanding cultural customs that favor controlling, not responding to, customer interaction and messaging.
It's not exactly that companies aren't listening to customers; it's more that they're having a hard time translating what is said. Seeped in longstanding traditions, it's difficult for companies to move past their conventional inward-focused cultures, making it next to impossible to interpret the perceptions and priorities that rank top-of-mind with their customer bases.
"Companies have a hard time seeing what they look like in the eyes of their customers," explains Bruce Temkin, a managing partner at Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm, and the co-founder and chairman of the Customer Experience Professionals Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with customer experience professionals. "Companies are not deciding they don't want to be good at customer experience—it's just that over time, they've built out the processes, procedures and perspectives that get in the way of being customer-centric."
Larger firms, especially those that are publicly traded, commonly fall into the trap of prioritizing shareholder needs over customer needs—a tactic that leads to decision making tuned to optimize quarterly results, not customer satisfaction.
"Most companies tend to be company-centric for obvious reasons … and their commitment is providing value to shareholders," adds Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group LLC, an enterprise applications consulting firm focused on CRM strategies. "But what shareholders are looking for in terms of return on investment is not necessarily what customers are looking for from a company. Companies have to make adjustments to understand things about their customers, but it's really hard."
It may be hard, but it's not impossible, according to Greenberg and other CEM experts. To understand the customer point of view, companies have to invest in technology tools to inject that accurate outside-in view from customers. At the same time, they need to build out a culture designed to help employees not only understand the mission, but be well equipped to pull it off. Establishing formal processes and procedures that guide customer-facing employees through interactions is part of the retooling. So is implementing internal metrics so everyone has a clear understanding of the expectations and goals of the customer-facing program.
Goals for the customer experience champion
- Develop a clear plan of what the goals of the program are and communicate the plan to all customer-facing employees.
- Create formal processes for common activities, such as returns and complaints. Identify in which situations agents should escalate a customer interaction to a supervisor.
- Identify customer experience leaders in the customer-facing groups to help evangelize the plan.
- Use metrics to analyze customer interactions so executives and employees can easily understand the impact of the customer experience program.
- When the customer experience program is established and running well, consider introducing incentives to further engage employees.
Temkin Group identifies four core competencies that are critical to ensuring success with customer experience. There must be purposeful leadership with a clear and consistent mission; a compelling brand value that delivers on its promises at every customer touch point; active employee engagement, meaning stakeholders are committed to the mission; and customer connectiveness, a strategy, Temkin says, rooted in feeding the ongoing flow of insights back into the collective consciousness so employees can take action. "Unless a firm masters all four competencies, you can redesign the experience to be better for the customer, but it will go sour sooner than you expect."
Championing the effort
Adopting a corporate customer experience champion should be a strategic part of the plan. This can be organic, with people in individual business units taking on the customer experience champion role or it can be an official position in a central organization that spearheads CEM while serving as a change agent for the cultural transformation. Lynn Hunsaker, president of ClearAction, a CEM consulting firm, advocates the latter. "Making this a C-level job and having a central organization overseeing enterprisewide deployment is better," she explains. "If you put CEM inside of marketing, it becomes a marketing thing, and if you put it inside of service, it becomes a service thing. Then the rest of the company will excuse themselves."
Educating employees on why customer experience is important to the firm's future should be part of the champion's role. In addition, experts say there should be individuals within various departments that help evangelize the effort, using tangible results to drive home the potential benefits of getting on board with CEM. "Sometimes it's just a matter of a narrative of a customer who went from being a detractor to an advocate because of some social action that was taken—it doesn't have to be hard metrics," The 56 Group's Greenberg explains.
As active as champions must be, their efforts have to be buttressed with formal processes and training that educate employees on their roles as well as what is expected in terms of customer interactions. For example, it’s important to create procedures for dealing with returned merchandise, forgiving late charges or escalating a call to a supervisor so that all employees know how to diffuse some common negative customer interactions.
Rather than enforcing rote scripts or rigid policies, however, experts advise giving employees the flexibility to modify their approaches to best meet the situation while ensuring overall consistency. Again, proper training is essential for helping employees strike this balance.
"There's a difference between a script and a guide," says Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC, a contact center and analytics industry analyst and consulting firm. "You need to have guidelines and you need to train people to follow the guidelines, but they need to be able assimilate and apply them on a consistent basis."
Best Buy has put a lot of effort into empowering its customer agents to resolve issues, according to Jeff Radecki, the firm's customer experience manager for the exclusive brands group. As opposed to a series of set procedures that are part of a training guide, agents are trained through coaching and role playing on how to evaluate customers by looking at their histories and on how and when to use tools to mitigate tense situations—for example, issuing credits or gift cards or even returns if the situations warrants it, Radecki explains.
"One of the core metrics we look at is resolution rates and if [agents] don't feel empowered to take steps to resolve issues, it's not going to work," he says. "Agents are empowered to take the situation and react accordingly, depending on the customer they are dealing with."
Nevertheless, Radecki agrees it's a balancing act. "There's the customer, the employee and the shareholder, and the ultimate decisions have to be balanced between all three," he says. "If you're constantly giving money away, you're not keeping the shareholder in mind."
Employee engagement and CEM
A set of specific yet simple metrics around customer experience also keeps Best Buy employees on the right track. Customer service reps are measured on three core metrics: customer satisfaction, likelihood to recommend and resolution. Reps can log into a portal at any time and see their scores, Radecki says.
"We try to simplify for the front-line agent what it means to have a good customer experience," he explains. "There are so many different approaches out there, it can be overwhelming."
Providing reps with visibility into their performance has been an important factor in encouraging internal competition and getting buy-in. "We're delivering transparency so an agent knows exactly what is coming," Radecki says. "If they're doing really bad on CSAT (customer satisfaction) scores, they know a quality rep is going to come and talk to them."
Incentives are another tool for fostering employee engagement, whether they are prizes, bonuses or even recognition. The first step is to come up with key performance indicators (KPIs) that are specific to customer experience and factor those results into employees' overall performance reviews. To be effective, the KPIs need to reflect what the firm wants to achieve around customer service as well as be something the individual employee can control.
Esteban Kolsky, founder of ThinkJar, a research and consulting firm specializing in CEM, cautions that incentive programs work best when the CEM program is already under way and people have a clear sense of what's expected. "You can't say this is the direction we're going in and tie bonuses to that," he says. "It has to be already under way so people can see it's not a punishment but a reward."
The old carrot-and-stick approach is also essential for getting employees to embrace a customer-centric culture. After all, if they're not feeling the love from corporate, it's impossible to expect them to be goodwill ambassadors of top-notch customer service.
"You can do everything you can for the customer, but if you treat your employees horribly, it doesn't matter what you tell them to do—they won't be happy, and it won't come across to customers," notes DMG's Fluss.
In the end, it could come down to some employees just not being a fit for a customer-centric culture. "Sometimes the people you have aren't the people you need," Kolsky says. "You may get to the point where you need to make personnel changes or reassign people to different functions because their attitude is just not what you need."
This was first published in March 2012