Leading from the Front on CX: A Legend and a Challenge


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Talk, as they say, is cheap. You can’t pick up an annual report or listen to an analyst call without hearing how companies profess to be rededicating their efforts to improve the customer experience. Companies and organizations with reputations for absolutely lousy experiences boast about their CX efforts. Even the US government (!) wants in on the CX imperative.

But how often does leadership move beyond talking-the-talk to walking-the-talk? The “say-do” gap is cavernous. So here is a story about a legendary leader who personified CX before anyone knew what to call it and some recommendations for leadership going forward.

A CX Pioneer

Charles Cawley was the driving force behind MBNA, one of the nation’s first credit card only banks. (MBNA was acquired by Bank of America in 2006.) I met him only once, early in my career, back in the late 1980s (yeah, that’s how long I’ve been doing this stuff!), but that meeting remains vibrant in my mind today.

Simply put, he was obsessed with customer satisfaction. More importantly, he operationalized that obsession with concrete actions that created a corporate culture and set the pace for every employee. Sitting in his office in Christiana, DE, he detailed the bank’s CSat program.

First, they surveyed customers every night. This meant telephone surveys at the time, which translated into a significant expense.

Those surveys became part of the company scorecard. The previous night’s results were posted throughout the building where everyone, from execs to call center staff, was located.

Recognizing that there is no substitute for hearing directly from customers and that call center reps were the front-line in satisfying customers, he personally spent time every month in the call center on the phone with customers and directed his senior team to do the same!

Not only did he and his leadership team hear directly from customers, but they did it in a highly visible manner so employees could see he was living up to his commitment and leading from the front and by example.

The Challenge: A 10-Step Program

What role should leadership play today in their firm’s CX efforts?

1. Start by taking a page from the Charles Cawley playbook: be actively involved; appoint (or be) a CX champion from the C-suite; listen directly to “the voice” of both customers and employees about your firm’s customer experience and recommendations for improvement – don’t act as if CX is a spectator sport or “below” your office

2. Hard-wire CX into the company’s business strategy and operational tactics: apply the same focus to CX that you would if you were talking about a new product line, acquisition, or capital investment – don’t think of CX as just some feel-good activity

3. Professionalize the function: formalize responsibilities with pros, whether internal or external (or both); create a governance structure – don’t just add CX as an incremental task to already overburdened staff without the right credentials

4. Insist that empiricism carries the day, not politics and “gut:” set the expectation for rigorous, reliable measurement; add CX to scorecards throughout the organization; link measurements to business and operational outcomes — don’t default to anecdotal “evidence” or shy away from being data driven

5. Invest: the right people, processes, support, and technology cost money; think of CX as an investment with a return, not a cost center; give the CX pros the tech and tools they need – don’t treat spending on CX different from other strategic investments

6. Support training: hiring for skills is fine, but everyone needs training, both in terms of refining their skills and understanding what needs to be done to deliver a great customer experience – don’t think that “everyone” excludes leadership!

7. Break down the silos: stomp out territorialism and provincial thinking, and clear away the obstacles to linking EX (employee experience) data with CX with operational and business data and any other data sources that are relevant – don’t let traditional artificial boundaries hinder efforts

8. Communicate. Evangelize: use the leadership pulpit to spread the word and continuously emphasize the importance of CX and the company’s performance in the CX arena – don’t think the need to communicate ever is complete

9. Involve everyone: recognize that ideas are everywhere, and that success requires both a top-down and bottom-up endeavor; keep the front-line, in particular, engaged; actively solicit, recognize and reward input from employees – don’t fail to tap the wealth of experience and ideas spread throughout every layer of the organization

10. Push for change: to paraphrase Einstein, “doing the same thing over and over” will not yield different results; take action on what is learned; more important, empower people throughout the organization to act — don’t wait for change, lead the change

In short, be your company’s Charles Cawley.


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