In an increasingly competitive business world, many organizations state loud and proud that customer experience is a key strategic initiative that promises great things for their customers. Published statistical evidence, aligned with my personal experiences, suggests this isn’t happening with quite the stunning impact or regularity businesses would have us believe, and demonstrates a clear disconnect between their ambition and our reality. The clue is in the word initiative. This suggests that rather than being a true company-wide, senior management led, transformational change, it’s a short term cosmetic exercise involving only a few inspired individuals who often lack the full financial support, employee involvement and executive commitment to truly make a difference.
In a recent white paper entitled Customer Experience isn’t Working – Yet , I posited that the key to customer experience success lay in adopting four key principles as the foundation for a sustainable and measurably profitable customer experience strategy. These four principles are Culture, Commitment, Community and Communication. While instantly recognizable as important ideas in almost any human dimension, they also have a strong correlation to customer experience and that alignment is vital to bringing that strategy to life.
1. Look in the mirror – Put your own house in order
It’s difficult to begin a journey to a new destination, including corporate transformation, unless we have a clear understanding of where we are today, and what our corporate culture represents. While many companies use Voice of the Customer information (VOC), or Net Promoter Scores (NPS) to see how others see them, it goes way beyond that. Both VOC and NPS are, without doubt, important measures and key indicators of how a business is doing, as a thermometer is for our personal health. But, unless you take an outside in view and involve people from across the business in a deeper, more introspective and comprehensive view of the company, you won’t be truly able to see yourselves as others see you. This doesn’t necessarily involve huge numbers of people or massive expense, just a willingness to invest in a better future. My own experience has shown that a small employee team given accessibility, responsibility and accountability will relish the opportunity to make a difference, and a press gang approach won’t be necessary. So start advertising for volunteers now. For additional insight, I might suggest reading Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh’s book about how they did it at Zappos.
2. Visualize the destination – Plan the Journey
Anyone with young children or an impatient partner will have heard that immortal phrase “Are we there yet?” during a long journey. Customer experience is no different. Once the journey starts everyone will want to get there yesterday. But until the Star Trek transporter becomes a reality, patience will be required. However, very much like a holiday trip, it doesn’t mean that the journey itself can’t be made more enjoyable, educational and incrementally valuable to all participants.
Once the initial small team is together, you need to plan the journey with realistic, achievable milestones. It’s vital to have frequent stopovers at appropriate points on a customer experience map that draws frequently on the four principles for guidance and direction. Use these to evaluate your current performance through your customer’s eyes, and use your own operational realities, and internal road-blocks, to define where you are on the journey, how you’re doing, how far you have to go and what, if any, detours you may have to make. While making these detours is quite natural, and probably necessary, it’s critical that you have the right map in your hands for your stated destination. Because even the most detailed and comprehensive map of France probably won’t get you to Cornwall.
3. Tell them why you care – Values to live by
Companies that lead the way in customer experience and business success, such as John Lewis, Zappos, Four Seasons and Metro Bank, have all based their culture of excellence on a strong set of core values, or a code of behaviour that is neither an empty promise nor a hastily devised marketing slogan. This is not mandated solely from above, but is based on shared beliefs, values, and practices. This is one of the key outputs from increased employee involvement where all of the employees have a strong voice, and are directly responsible for developing the fundamentals on which their service culture is built.
Publishing these prominently on web-sites, in-store and through regular communications for all to see, mean that they are constantly tested, evaluated and validated by customers, and improved by staff, as evidenced by Zappos’ yearly Culture Book. This creates an uncompromising customer centric culture that is everyone’s responsibility and where there is a direct correlation between living up to these standards every time, with every customer, and employee/company growth. While a business may not need the 10 core values that Zappos have, or be as detailed as The John Lewis Partnership Constitution, these statements contain values and ideas that large and small businesses can use effectively as both a benchmark, and a signpost, on their customer experience strategy journey. Borrowing and/or adopting a few of these values and ideas would be a great start and likely to be favourably received throughout the organizations
4. Show them how you care – Walking the walk
Customers are becoming harder to fool. I suspect they always were, PT Barnum notwithstanding. Consequently they’ll see through fluffy, unsupported, “mission statements”, unfulfilled commitments and meaningless tag lines, developed in a flash of marketing brilliance.
Metro Bank, the UK’s newest High St. entry, has been busy “Creating a culture of Yes”, that includes no stupid bank rules, unlimited dog biscuits, free pens and free coin counting machines. This is a living embodiment of their commitment to a different banking experience and is on everyday display, regardless of which store you go to. Are these things hugely different from the other banks and likely to significantly enhance your experience? Well definitely yes, and positively. Because, they are highly visible, emotionally connecting and entertaining symbols of an organization that is delightfully different and totally committed to “a culture that matches the model.”
LL Bean, a leading North American on-line, catalogue and direct clothing retailer has been living up to their customer commitment since 1912, when the eponymous founder stated that “Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit; treat your customers like human beings and they’ll always come back for more.” Every day LL Bean shows that this mantra is still alive and well after 100 years. Their legendary service that features free North American shipping, with no minimum order, is backed up by a no hassle – no time limit -100% guarantee that is celebrated with frequent, complimentary and pleasantly surprised communications from their customers.
While many businesses may not be able to start as expansively, or as generously, as Metro Bank or LL Bean. If you can start with simple, sensible, achievable and recognizable symbols of your determination and commitment to true customer centricity, you will be on your way to creating your own customer experience good news stories.
5. Follow the Leader – Commitment still starts at the top
Although commitment isn’t the sole responsibility of the senior leadership, without gaining that in the early stages of strategy development it will be difficult to maintain the momentum and transformational change required. Isadore Sharp, CEO of Four Seasons recounted in his book Four Seasons –The Story of a Business Philosophy, that a lack of commitment from his senior managers, to his idea of increased employee responsibility, resulted in some difficult personnel decisions. This ultimately ended positively with the development of their credo that is still the standard that shapes and guides employee behaviour and customer service. While the credo was not mandated solely by him, without his relatively gentle but persuasive influence, the company may not have developed into the legendary customer service organization they are so well known for today.
Leaders like Isadore Sharpe and Tony Hsieh who, along with his employees at Zappos, have been equally instrumental in the creation of core values that stick, both recognize that this can’t be simply delegated, and that senior executive ownership, on an on-going and visibly participatory basis, is a vital element in mobilizing and demonstrating commitment.
6. Invite others on the journey – It’s a community effort
As we’ve seen earlier, in the initial stages of customer experience strategy development, it may be a small focused team, with involved, senior level support that leads the charge. However, widening the scope and influence and increasing the value of co-creation by involving customers, employees and other senior managers is another key stage in the strategy. One of the most common and deceptively simple ways that many organizations achieve this is to have employees shadow a colleague in a different role or department for a day. This, more than anything, will let your colleague walk in your shoes, see the world through different eyes and be more understanding of the challenges that you face, while potentially seeing ways of changing and improving processes that you might overlook. Forest – Trees!
7. Taking it to the streets – Sharing with those who matter
Community spirit and well-being also extend beyond the enterprise and have limitless possibilities, and endless benefits, for all parties when they are seen as truly altruistic. In the USA, ACE Hardware, a large chain of mostly local stores, consistently and convincingly outpaces their bigger DIY rivals such as Lowes and Home Depot in all measures of business success and community value. The ACE store owner is totally focused on clearly identifying and standing out within their customer community and, through the ACE Foundation, playing a key role in giving back to those less fortunate.
Companies such as Autoglass® in the UK are a great example of the power of community, and they have long been active and involved members of the local and wider community, where engaged and like-minded employees demonstrate their willingness to help others less fortunate than themselves. The company has regularly provided its contact centre facilities and volunteers for Children in Need and Comic Relief donation lines, as well as putting on employee sponsored events supporting a number of local charities.
Whether you can offer a whole contact centre, one person to answer a phone, or deliver meals and comfort to the vulnerable, companies that give back to the community, especially through the participation of employees, generally end up with a far stronger sense of purpose, beyond simply making a profit. So get involved, because no matter how small it might seem to your business or your people, it’ll mean the world to somebody.
8. Spread the word – Communicate early, often and honestly
In a world that seems permanently embroiled in strife and filled with horror stories, spreading good news may not be popular with the BBC, or the tabloids, but as humans we relish and appreciate every last morsel of life affirming communication. If we look at some of the more recent and public customer service issues that have hit the headlines, the ones that evaporate quickest are those that are accompanied by a reasoned and honest response from the company in question. Those companies that recover the situation in a compassionate and responsible way generally end up in positive territory or, at minimum, significantly limiting the damage.
As a case in point, Tesco was inundated with negative social media posts about the poor conditions of one of its stores near London. Rather than hide behind corporate doublespeak, then Tesco chairmen Sir Richard Broadbent, in a Sunday Times article a few days later, commented that when he arrived he found a company that had “lost touch with the outside world.” He added, “We don’t defend problems, we tackle them.” He finished by saying that. “The company that provides the best relationship with the customer will win — not through product, but through the best experience.” It appears that his message is getting through and some positive changes have taken place at the store in question.
While the Tesco recovery may still take some time, and they clearly have wider challenges, compare that with what happens when snow, or the wrong kind of sun, rain or leaves, cause disruption at UK Airports and with train operators. Most people understand that weather issues can cause delays and cancellations. But what drives most of us crazy is that these companies seem totally incapable of providing meaningful, accurate and timely information that can keep stranded passengers updated and aware of how long they’ll be delayed, alternate travel options and similar guidance. So no matter how painful it may seem in the short term, get the word out. Bad news early has remarkably forgiving and recuperative benefits over time.
9. The communication network – Is everyone plugged in?
Thomas Fuller said “Charity begins at home, but should not end there.” The same is very true of communication. Communicating with passengers, customers or guests is very much dependent on a company having an open and honest communication policy that builds trust and provides reinforcement for employees to act with integrity and compassion in those critical moments of truth that can define a great customer experience.
When you first start on your customer experience journey, this communication network may not be a finely developed, or as universal as you may wish, but creating a foundation and mechanism for dialogue both internally and externally is critical to the long term success of your strategy. Companies like Four Seasons, Zappos, John Lewis and Southwest Airlines all feature regular two-way feedback sessions, employee briefings and customer councils, that give all employees and managers a voice in any decisions or issues that positively affect the quality of customer care. When employees have been involved in defining and developing the culture and committing to its delivery, having them act in harmony with the values and principles they helped create and communicate, becomes second nature.
So don’t assume that everyone in the organization is tuned in to information about the customer experience strategy, either formally or informally. Establish a regular and flexible communication network that ensures regular updates and good news stories. George Bernard Shaw summed it up nicely: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
10. Bringing it all together – Where do you start?
By starting with the Four Principles, and weaving them into your customer experience strategy you’ll give yourself the best possible chances of success. But where do you begin with them? How do you know which ones to focus on and where you currently rank?
When I’m facilitating an the initial workshop with a company’s customer experience team, I use two simple exercises to help both them and me to get a strong sense of the current state of customer experience environment and the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. These are not particularly unique to customer experience, but probably been used successfully by many of you in other programs.
First, each team member is asked to rank each of the four principles from 0-10 in relation to their company. There are no specific guidelines attached to the rationale behind the ranking, but the numbers, and the resulting dialogue, pave the way for deeper introspection and a broader journey of discovery as the workshop develops.
Then we use the Stop – Start – More – Less technique, favoured by many business and personal coaches. This is applied to the same principles from a business, department and personal perspective and uncovers some extraordinarily valuable insights. Then the results from both exercises are linked in a grid and the resulting output identifies the most pressing needs, the most valued cultural possessions and where to start the overall process.
The power of these principles, both individually and in combination, is that they are founded on deep, basic truths that have broad and enduring applications. When integrated into our daily lives, and extended into our business interactions, they provide a context and a framework that can inspire and mobilize people to develop the understanding, skills and patience to make a real difference and to bring customer experience to life. And perhaps save your company from an untimely death.