The only way your company will differentiate based on customer experience is if the culture of your organization aligns closely with the brand promise to customers. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh puts it in his blog post entitled “Your Culture Is Your Brand”: “Advertising can only get your brand so far . . . So what’s a company to do if you can’t just buy your way into building the brand you want? In a word: culture. At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff — like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers — will happen naturally on its own.”
When Forrester looks at building a customer-focused culture, we believe firms need some precursors in place, such as a clear strategy and vision, metrics that reflect customer perceptions, and governance mechanisms that set standards and hold people accountable for changes.
Once those are in place, rewards systems are one powerful lever to keep employees focused on what’s important. My colleague Belle Bocal and I identified nine ways that companies use reward systems to build a customer-centric culture.
Celebrate Target Behavior
Many companies make the mistake of trying to tie variable compensation (e.g., bonuses) to customer experience metrics too early. What many firms have learned is that the more informal recognition programs can be even more powerful at moving culture than the compensation metrics.
Many different types of firms have channel partners or others that control a significant part of the actual experience with customers. Automobile companies have dealers, insurance and real estate firms have independent agents, software companies have value-added resellers (VARs), restaurants and hotels have franchises, and heavy equipment manufacturers have resellers. Even the brokers or financial advisors within financial services organizations can act in many ways like these external partners.
While companies may not have direct control over these partners, firms are waking up to the fact that there are ways to influence these organizations to provide a better customer experience. To ensure that partners enhance the customer experience (CX):
Share VoC data with partners. Standard voice of the customer (VOC) programs make customer feedback data available to internal employees throughout the organization. Firms should use adapted versions of these dashboards to deliver relevant insights to partners. Deluxe, which sells services to small businesses and financial institutions, gathers customer research on the behalf of its smaller partners that cannot afford to pay for these insights on their own. Such insights gathered after the financial crisis helped many of its smaller financial services clients understand specific teller behavior that was hurting relationships more than helping.
“Customer experience is everyone’s business” is a mantra that I often hear from customer experience leaders. Of course, it’s true. The entire purpose of a company as an entity is to provide value to customers in exchange for a payment. Every activity that the company performs is part of the ecosystem that delivers the perceived value that a customer receives.
But connecting the dots to those behind the scenes from IT to logistics planners and compliance individuals challenges many customer experience leaders . . . as well as the leaders of those behind-the-scenes departments. I’m feeling this challenge poignantly right now as I prepare a keynote speech for Forrester’s joint Infrastructure & Operations and Security Forums coming up in a few weeks. Let me share a few pointers that I’ve gathered from customer experience leaders who helped guide my thinking:
Translate the language. As customer experience professionals, we have built a vocabulary to describe the tools and methodologies of our practice in the same way every other department has created its own language. Customer experience leaders have to translate these practices into the beliefs and behavioral norms of the departments if they are going to change the way things are done. Change agent, champion, or customer advocate programs at firms like John Deere, Philips Electronics, Intuit, and Fidelity are great mechanisms to provide these translators.
“Customer experience (CX) maturity” was the topic of Forrester’s recent chief customer officer (CCO) roundtable meeting. Based on a recent report by Megan Burns called “Customer Experience Maturity Defined,” the customer experience leaders present took Forrester’s self-test of key CX practices, discussed their own company’s strengths and weaknesses, and shared successes and challenges they faced at their companies in interactive discussions throughout the day.
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.
Governance and project investment. A significant portion of the discussion revolved around customer experience governance and getting funds for projects. There was clear agreement in the room on needing CX leaders at the top levels of management. For instance, the CCOs were saying:
“Customer experience loses at the corporate budgeting level. You need to be there or have an exec like the CFO fighting for you there.”
“Get on the decision-making body for investments and make sure you at least have veto power over projects.”
“When I’m making the business case for CX-related projects and pushing it up to the C-level, I always build ranges into the outcomes (e.g., reduce churn by 0.5% [worst case], 1% [middle case], and 2% [best case]; increase word of mouth by 2% [worst case], 5% [middle case], 10% [best case]). I get less argument about even the low number . . . people are overly optimistic.”
Michael Porter famously wrote that companies differentiate themselves by performing a unique set of activities from their competitors' or by performing the same activities differently.
Here are some numbers: 86% of companies say customer experience is a top strategic priority for 2011; 76% seek to differentiate based on customer experience; 46% have a companywide program for improving customer experience currently in place and another 30% are actively considering it; and 52% have a voice of the customer program in place with close to 30% more actively considering it.
With the majority of companies focused on improving customer experience, how can a company expect to differentiate on it? Because there remains a tremendous amount of lip service and intellectual dishonesty about what it takes. Let me give a few examples:
Friendly agents game the numbers. Although not able to answer the two questions that I had, a super-friendly phone agent at a major telecommunications firm ended the conversation by asking: “We aim to not only meet your expectations but to exceed them. Have I done that today?” From the tone of the agent’s voice and the question asked, it’s clear that someone at the company is thinking about customer experience. However, the gaming of the question indicates that the company’s culture has a long way to go to actually improve the experience beyond the superficialities.
Building a customer-centric culture is occupying the minds and activities of a lot of companies that I’m talking with lately. This is great, because culture is the difference between going through the motions of a script and internalizing a set of values that dictate actions beyond the script.
Let me give an example: I recently was on the phone with an incredibly chipper call center rep at a telecommunications company. He didn’t answer either of the two questions that I had, yet remained friendly throughout the call. As the call ended, he said: “We aim not just to meet your expectations, but exceed them. Have I done that for you today?” Not only was the question a setup that will skew results, but the asking of the question made it clear that the company hadn’t succeeded in infusing customer-centric DNA into at least this person. A more customer-centric response is what you typically get from Vanguard or Fidelity: “I’m sorry that I can’t answer your questions. Let me find someone who can. Would you like to hold or can I call you back?”
Don’t get me wrong: Company intentions are important. Before I get into the culture part, I always step back with clients and ask "what kind of culture?"Don Norman's story about Southwest Airlines, in which the company refused to give customers reserved seats, food, and baggage transfers is a great example. The company's primary value proposition to customers is low prices (along with on-time service that's fun). That sets the stage for the kind of culture the company sets out to create. It's not customer-centric at all costs. It's focused on what’s valuable to customers.
I’m delighted to return to Forrester and its Customer Experience team after eight years of running my own business and technology strategy consulting practice.
I’m returning to the same group in which I worked before with Harley Manning and his team. It was in that group that I helped develop and implement Forrester’s Web Site Usability methodology, wrote reports like “Must Search Stink?” and “Smart Personalization,” promoted the use of customer data intelligence and CRM systems to drive proactive interactions that I called “Tier Zero Customer Service,” and reported on the uses of early community-based tools for customer service (today it's "social CRM").
A frequent question that I've been asked in the scores of phone calls over the past several weeks since my return has been: What are you going to cover? The short term answer is primarily four topic areas: