Smashing Silos: Creating Seamless Customer Experiences

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Barn Raising

“Many hands make light work” is a favorite phrase a friend and fellow colleague of mine at Intuit frequently recited. You can see this concept on bold display when an Amish community comes together for a Barn Raising. Such a powerful example of an entire community focused on a common purpose and offering “mutual aid” is awe inspiring. Why don’t we see many examples of this in the corporate world? Given the dynamic and continually-accelerating pace of technology, customer needs, information, and social change, it is imperative to find new ways of collaborating and aligning our organizations around shared vision, purpose, innovation, and execution. Just like the Amish “Master Engineer” who coordinates a barn raising, so too does the emerging role of the “Customer Experience Owner” in loyalty-leading companies.

Customer Experience Ownership

Even the most awesome product and experience designs cannot deliver value to customers if execution suffers. If your company is of any size, you probably have experienced the Silo Syndrome. That nasty disease which infects organizations as they grow and divide into large functional, regional, and product divisions. Customers don’t care about silos, they simply want a seamless, low friction interaction that solves their pain/problem (and occasionally delights them). Customer Experience Ownership is the cure for Silo Syndrome.

Customer Experience Ownership, and Lack Thereof…

How would you answer the question “Who owns the customer experience in your organization?” “We all do?”, “Someone else does?”, “Nobody?”

Consider this: It’s nearing the end of the fiscal year. Division and function heads have been asked to pull together their plans for the coming year along with corresponding budget requests. A number of tech, compliance, and corporate mandates have already eroded much of the resources needed. Targets for customer growth, revenue, and cost reduction have been cascaded down. While often well-meaning, the normal rhythms of business planning frequently fail in accounting for true customer value creation. Even in companies that have discrete value creation targets for customers, shareholders and employees, rarely are planning efforts aligned to create horizontal views from a customer perspective.

Throughout the year, many customers experience difficulties receiving value from experiences. Take for example Vidya, a single mom working full time that needs more reliable transportation and wants to buy a new car. Because her current vehicle often breaks down, she has trouble getting her daughter to daycare and arriving at work on time. Her stress further mounts when she begins shopping for a car loan on her bank’s website. The complexity of the language, lack of clear answers to her questions, and hidden support phone number further add to her frustration. Even after purchasing her new car, she is anxious about when her first payment is due, where to send it, and how to sign up for automated bill pay. Two years into her car loan, she is facing financial pressures due to higher insurance rates and wants to lower her payment. Understanding her options is difficult and she ends up talking to several call center reps while attempting to get answers.

Vidya is not alone. Many B2C and B2B companies struggle to design and deliver seamless value creating end-to-end experiences. No doubt, Vidya’s bank does not have one individual that is accountable for ensuring the car loan experience is delightful. No one to architect a great design from awareness to shopping and all the way through to pay off or refinance. What is owned gets done and unfortunately in many firms, there is no clear ownership for designing and ensuring high-value, end-to-end customer experiences (the very thing that creates customer value, growth, and profits). Imagine the Amish Barn Raising without someone to plan, coordinate, and guide it to completion.

Experience Owners & Champions

Toyota and other forward-leaning companies have found that appointing a “Strong Product Manager” or “Experience Owner” (XO) can help slice through the silos and advocate horizontally for customer value. XOs don’t have large staffs or budgets but they do carry organizational clout and accountability for generating delighted customers. This often means building coalitions across all functions and establishing metrics to measure end-to-end customer experiences.

At a tech company, I helped establish XOs for all of our key products. Each XO was responsible to ensure that the entire experience across all touchpoints and functions was designed and delivered to ensure customer delight, growth, and profitability. While these XOs did not have direct reporting responsibility over the function heads, they did have influence and decision authority for budgeting as well as product, service, support, and marketing design. They also were instrumental in selecting Experience Champions (XC) who owned, and were accountable for their respective parts of the experience. Essentially the XCs had a dotted line reporting relationship to the XO for a specific product/service experience.

Selecting a Great Experience Owner

The Experience Owner role is one of the most important, yet challenging roles you will recruit for. It calls for someone that possesses a good balance of subject matter and human interaction mastery. Typically sourced from within your business, a respected and proven leader that has deep and cross-functional expertise in the experience to be led. Additionally, an XO needs a track record of building high-performing teams, cross-functional coalitions, and influencing significant change. Here’s a checklist to consider:

– Well respected for subject matter expertise
– Excellent influencer and communicator
– Strong vertical and horizontal leadership skills
– Ability to balance advocacy with inquiry
– Skilled in Lean Innovation, Design Thinking, and Process Excellence
– Has organizational clout to allocate resources and drive prioritization in achieving end-to-end goals

Selecting a Great Experience Champion

The Experience Champion role is more than just a traditional function head. It requires working in partnership with peers and leaders across the organization – often a new and different way of working for many. It requires putting the customer, employee, and shareholder objectives of the entire experience ahead of their own functional agenda. This type of servant leadership isn’t for everyone and will probably require making some tough decisions as you establish these roles. In my experience, you will most likely need to invite your existing function heads to embrace the new role, but be willing to offer them a chance to move out of their role should they not want to make the shift, or be unable to adapt. In addition to strong functional expertise, a well-established ability to partner for outstanding outcomes and inspire action is required. Here are some capabilities to look for in a great XC:

– Deep functional expertise
– Excellent mobilizer, communicator, and operator
– Strong partnership, collaboration, and team-building skills
– Ability to balance advocacy with inquiry
– Skilled in Process Excellence
– Good horizontal and vertical leadership skills

The Daily work of Experience Owners

As the responsible leader for an end-to-end customer experience, the XO should plan on spending time in five key areas: Empathy, Insights, Strategy, Design, and Execution

Empathy: Gaining deep customer and employee understanding on a personal level to deeply understand problems and unmet needs
Insights: Measuring, monitoring, and analyzing customer and associate insights to help understand how well the experience is solving problems, creating value, and achieving market and company goals.
Strategy: Based on empathy, insights, company direction and values, XOs lead the charge in gaining shared vision with XCs and other stakeholders to provide a clear, simple, and compelling vision for success of the experience. I often use a tool called The Victory Circle to help ideate and organize thinking for a powerful customer strategy and defining vital few customer value benefits.
Design: Leading efforts to use Lean Innovation, Design Thinking and Service Design approaches to ensure a customer-back, end-to-end experience that solves the customer problem well beyond that of other alternatives. This is an on-going endeavor and must be led as such.
Execution: Establishing operating mechanisms, rhythms, routines, recognition, and rewards to ensure that experience ownership is established for all touch-points, processes are designed, measured, and monitored, thorough data analyses are used, improvement/Kaizen loops are happening, and appropriate controls are established and tested regularly.

The Daily Work of Experience Champions

The daily work of Experience Champions fits into the same five categories as those of Experience Owners with one important difference: scope. XCs regularly lead their teams (front line to executive) in gaining deep customer and employee empathy, measure, monitor, and analyze insights, create strategy for their part of the experience, lead design efforts, and ensure excellent execution of the designs. They also establish partner service level agreements from those up- and down-stream of their part of the experience to ensure smooth and seamless hand-offs. SIPOC and FMEA tools, along with Empathy Interviews, Customer Safaris, and other design and process excellence tools are important to the work of an XC and the team.

Making the Transition

A great place to start the journey toward strong Customer Experience Ownership is with a comprehensive CX & Innovation Maturity Assessment. Insights gained from such an assessment will help you and your leadership team gauge your organization’s readiness and point toward the best way to start.

At a large tech company where I led the transformation, we chose one of our smaller product areas to start. Partially because we knew it would be quicker to get traction and partially because we already had a leader behaving in many of the new ways of working we hoped to create. As a CX leader across multiple products and experiences, I worked directly with this product leader to develop a transformation plan.

We started by formalizing what had been a loose cross-functional team structure. We sought out XCs from each of the key touchpoints across the experience and began meeting regularly. In these meetings we cast the vision for end-to-end experience ownership and agreed on team and partnership norms, decision making criteria, and an experience vision and goals based on empathy and insights gained directly from customers and team members.

The team created a strategy to achieve measurable customer, employee, and shareholder goals, agreed on budget and resourcing needs, and presented together to the division leadership team. Gaining agreement, the team established several operating mechanisms including weekly customer listening meetings and monthly strategy alignment summits to ensure they were delivering on the designs to achieve the customer strategy.

Leveraging the success of the first “install” of this new way of working, I moved on to larger product experiences making minor changes to the framework to accommodate differences in the experience and teams. We also instituted regular XO gatherings to share best practices and agree on improvements to the “operating system”.

While each organization and experience is unique, the guidance here has proven successful across companies and industries. I encourage you to find a small group of motivated leaders and get started on transforming an experience using Experience Owners and Champions. You will find that once you are up and running, many of the typical silo battles, arguments, and brick walls will begin to melt away as your experience teams become high performing.

Of course, please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can be of any help to accelerating your journey and providing insights on what has worked well (and not so well) for others.

Image Credit: Wes Hicks unsplash.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Love the barn-raising analogy. When people build something together, endowment effect also comes into play—we place more value on something we own vs. something we purchase. Because of that, we’re jointly more committed to the outcome.

  2. Thanks Ed! Totally agree. A team that shares deep understanding and empathy for customers and builds something to solve their problems absolutely is best equipped to ensure successful delivery of value. Often times our companies separate customer insight gathering, product development, and operations so nobody can share the burden and the joy of ownership together.

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