Building Culture and Customer and Employee Experience at The YMCA

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In this episode, I chat with Bob Thomas, the first chief experience officer at The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, about establishing a scalable CX initiative at a nationwide non-profit. Many of you may be familiar with The YMCA (the Y), either from your own experiences at the center or because of the iconic song that many of us have danced to at parties. This legendary organization is a leading nonprofit for youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

Bob and I discuss his role and the work that he had to do as a CX leader stepping into a position without a CX team in place. He shares that the Y did a good job communicating he would be in a strong mission-focused role, which was something that was very important to him. We talk about some of the strategic approaches that he and his team took to improve the organization’s culture, and employee and customer experience.

Understand the Environment You’re Trying to Improve

Bob explains that when he first took on the role, he knew that he needed to understand how employees show up for customers, day in and day out. He went to numerous Y branches and spent half a day in uniform, checking people in at the front desk, walking around the pool deck with the lifeguard, and getting a feel for the employee experience on the ground. He wanted to know what interactions with customers were like and what were potential operational challenges. 

On the backend, Bob spent time figuring out how to improve marketing and digital aspects of the work, noting that the CRM system was inefficient and created communication difficulties. He and his team invested in a new CRM. The new CRM helped stabilize the foundation of their digital experience, which was extremely important to the check-in and buying experience.

Bob shares that after fixing the CRM, they started making major investments in digital. He wanted to ensure the digital experience would help frame and organize what’s being delivered to the customer on the ground. With help from a CX expert, Bob and his team created customer journey maps that allowed them to make significant changes.

These changes included improving the welcome e-mail with important information to remind members of what they need when they show up, free classes they can take, available services, and more. All of the things to help maximize the experience.



Build Bridges to Connect With Your Team

Bob credits his Chief Operating Officer for helping with the success of the Y’s transformation. The COO had a vision and belief in what the COO’s role was and saw that some of Bob’s actions as CXO crossed over into boundaries that didn’t belong. In order to differentiate and clarify the work, they spent time together figuring out what responsibilities was best for each position.

In addition to building bridges with other leaders, Bob wanted to change the internal culture at the Y to further improve the employee experience. He explains how he set his sights on establishing an internal culture at the Y that would reflect what they wanted their customer experience to be like. Since fun is something the customers expect when they walk into a Y facility, there should be more fun infused within the culture of the organization. Bob was concerned that leaders were taking themselves too seriously, and wanted to loosen things up in the office a bit.

In an effort to infuse more fun into their meetings and hallway conversations, Bob shares that he started incorporating team builder games to foster engagement. For instance, he shares one game in which he asked his colleagues to take a picture of the inside of their refrigerator and send it to him. He would display the images asking his colleagues to guess who’s refrigerator was whose. It’s these games and interactions that help colleagues share more laughs and eases a bit of tension that may come with some of the work. 

What Do You Know Now That You Wish You Knew Then?

Bob says:

Be patient. It’s okay to slow down and go a hundred feet sideways to get six inches forward because if you don’t have the right alignment with the people that you need, no pushing forward is going to be enough to get you there. So patience is probably the biggest part, and the people side of change management is so critical. If you haven’t taken a change management course, it should be fundamentally a huge part of your curriculum coming into a role like this.

About Bob Thomas

At the YMCA, Bob is responsible for engaging community members to help them meet their personal goals, while ensuring a great Y experience through marketing, membership, and healthy living programs.



Prior to joining the Y, Bob held marketing, sales and sales operations leadership positions at Boston Scientific. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and English from the University of St. Thomas.

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