The strategy no-one speaks about to improve Customer Experience. It’s about the people!

The strategy no-one speaks about to improve Customer Experience. It’s about the people!

By: Guillaume Delroeux  –  Published: 01/08/2019  –  Time to read: 5 min – Subscribe

When was the last time you had a great customer experience? 

As a customer, I am often surprised by the subpar customer service I encounter. 

The great ones stand out, are memorable and leave me feeling like I can’t wait to go back ( who cares how much money I just spent?!)

When I go to a store or call my service provider most of the time though, I feel ignored, left hanging or harassed to buy something I don’t need. That’s when I’m not dealing with someone who makes me feel like I’ve disturbed them or seems to not be sure what they are doing….

I’d often asked myself: “How is this possible? Don’t they train their employees? Is it really so hard to smile and be pleasant with customers?” 

Great customer experiences seem so simple from the outside. Is being welcoming, demonstrating empathy, providing advice that difficult?… when you think that 50 years ago we sent a man to the moon how complicated could providing good service be?

What I discovered is that creating amazing customer moments with this semblance of simplicity displayed by the best actually requires really complex changes. 

A few years ago, when I had the opportunity to lead the Customer Experience Transformation for a large retail channel within a Financial Institution, I found that specific strategies can make a huge difference in the journey to improve customer experience. 

That was expected. 

What surprised me though, is the type and the range of talents that are required to successfully lead this type of change. As an example, I found that transforming customer experience requires strategic thinking, analytical skills, project management skills more than customer service experience, design thinking and marketing skills.  

You’ll find below the insights from my own journey. I hope you’ll find some inspiration and a few helpful tricks to help you make a difference with your customers and your employees.

How I ended up leading customer experience transformations!

 
Career paths are never linear. You think you have a plan and then you have an opportunity to do something completely different that steers you in a totally new direction.  

This is what happened to me a few years ago.

At the time, I was leading strategic initiatives and I was leaning towards moving to the Project Management Office. I had had my Project Management Certification (PMP)  for more than 10 years, and I had a great record in leading large initiatives. I thought it was a logical way for me to expand my breadth of experience and move up. 

Then one-day things took a turn. An opportunity opened up and I was given the option to lead the customer experience team for the largest distribution channel of the company. Having never worked in a customer-facing role, I had always thought this type of role was out of my reach. Needless to say, I was pretty excited by the opportunity and it didn’t take me long to accept it.

It is only the next day that reality set in and I really started to look at the challenge I had taken on. 

Customer metrics were not trending in the right direction. 

Even worse, it wasn’t a short term thing. Customers preferences had been shifting for a few years and the business was struggling to stay relevant. Expectations were rising and with customers comparing their experience in a traditional branch to what they were experiencing with Apple, Amazon and Netflix.

It didn’t look good.

So how do you stay relevant in a world where customer expectations are constantly evolving? Even better, how do you offer exceptional customer service that is so distinctive it sets you apart across all industries?

These are the questions facing all kinds of companies across all different industries these days.

You’ll find below the insights from my own journey. I hope you’ll find some inspiration and a few helpful tricks to help you make a difference with your customers and your employees.

Identifying the problem

 

When I started my new role, many of the people around me were keen on providing advice and solutions for me to apply, all with great intentions:  

“You should train the employees better”, said a former branch manager. “Make sure you have the right leaders and the right employees, that is all that matters” advised another. “Make it fun and celebrate the right behaviors, you’ll see it works!”, told one Regional Vice President. “Create standards and make sure people follow them”, recommended another.

I have heard every advice possible… and their opposite.  

Reading books didn’t help a lot. There are so many solutions that look so simple, that I didn’t know where to start.

I have a dual background in both engineering and social sciences and I found this was a fascinating problem to solve. As an engineer, I did some (ok a lot :))  research and came to the normal answer any engineer would have: 

 

“it is not as simple as you think!”

My team and I spent lots of time looking at it from different angles until finally, we laid it all out.

The Starbucks example

 

Let’s look at Starbucks for example:

If we count that across 1500 stores across Canada they serve an average of 1 coffee every 2 minutes, 10 hours per day, 365 days a year…they serve about 165 million customers a year.

Is it really realistic to expect that all 165 million customer interactions be exceptional, authentic and personal?

And if it is…how do you make it happen?

What a customer feels is made up of so many different factors: how they are feeling that day, what their previous experience was like, the attitude of the employee that serves them and sometimes even just the time of the day they visit.

It turns out it was the right way of looking at the situation.

One challenge in Customer Experience is to understand the problem you are trying to solve. At this point, I had come to have a good grasp of the problem. 

I still hadn’t found any solutions though. 

So how do you create a consistent experience?

How do the best of the best – Starbucks, Disney, Ritz Carlton, Hilton and Apple – deliver great customer experience on such a consistent basis? 

This is really the key challenge for anyone who works in customer experience. 

This was the first mission we had to solve and then put in place.

Create a way for hundreds or even thousands of people to adopt the behaviors that build stellar, authentic relationships. With each customer. Each day. In each store.

What we would come to learn is that it is possible.

If you are responsible for changing and transforming your companies customer experience there are several strategies that have a proven track record. Not only will they help you transform your customer experience, but they will also improve employee engagement. 

These strategies focus on what is most important: the culture and the processes that are the most elemental of customer service. Ritz Carlton has even coined a term for their leadership development training based on it called “ the system behind the smiles”

Let me share 3 of these strategies that I’ve personally seen successfully transform a company.

Strategy 1: Rally the troops around an integrated strategy

The best companies never hesitate to share their successful strategies with anyone who wants to listen. 

Why do they do that? 

I believe the reason is that they know that even if you know what needs to be done, you are still far from the end. They understand that once the strategy is designed, the hardest part is actually to come: implementing it successfully.  (Check out Brightlines website for more info on this great topic)

Silos, one of the most frequent issues organizations face, is one of the biggest obstacles to great Customer Experience.

The marketing team can develop a fabulous campaign that tells clients that the companies number one priority is their service… but if the client has to wait 30 minutes – in line or on-hold – to speak to someone then they won’t be very satisfied.

This is only one example why without an integrated strategy, it becomes difficult to create an aligned and consistent experience for the customers. 

Developing an integrated strategy means that you must successfully align several major parts of the organization who often have competing priorities and objectives: marketing, sales, operations, product, human resources, finance, IT…

I think you can see where this is going.

A full diagnostic of the company is required: starting from the employees and using the customers’ input will give a full view and allow you to have a vision of what will be needed to make your project a success. 

When all those departments based on the feedback from the employees and customers sat down to develop a plan, they aligned around a common objective and statement. They were supported by the top management levels and built a plan that incorporated a review of the following elements:

  • The vision and customer promise
  • Products and services
  • Leadership development
  • Training, hiring, and career plans
  • Communications to clients and employees 
  • Performance management
  • Salary and benefits

Once all these teams and programs were aligned they created the conditions to establish a successful customer-centric transformation.

Strategy 2: Survey customers using their channel of choice

 

In 2019, I don’t think there are very many companies left that do not survey their customers’ satisfaction levels. 

It is however very surprising to learn how inaccurate and mismanaged this data is.

One of the reasons I find this to be the case is because a lot of surveys are conducted by telephone. In today’s day and age, people screen their calls and don’t necessarily pick up if they don’t recognize the number. 

They read most of their emails though. 

Email surveys have several advantages:

  • People respond more than phone surveys
  • The answers are often more detailed
  • It’s more practical and customers can answer when it’s convenient for them. They also appreciate not being interrupted by a phone call at a bad time!

When you are new to Customer Experience transformations, this seems like an easy fix. The reality is putting this into place is a standalone project that, depending on your current systems and processes, could be very simple…or not.

Here are a few things to consider to help you out:

  • Simplify and revise the survey over and over. It shouldn’t take more than 3 minutes and not have over 10 questions.
  • Define clear rules to identify the customers you survey 
  • Consider regulations 
  • Let everyone who deals with customers know about the new survey
  • Put an emphasis on qualitative instead of quantitative results
  • Create a solid change management plan

Strategy 3: Standardize the experience while engaging employees

 

In order to create a consistent customer experience, you need to establish standards that all employees will apply.

This seems straightforward enough. 

It’s what Apple, Disney, Starbucks, Ritz Carlton and in fact what most customer-centric companies do.

So what’s the issue?

Following a set script and strict rules is probably one of the things that people serving customers hate the most. Can you imagine trying to make a difference for your client but being so worried that you forgot to say exactly what you should?

When employees are unmotivated, well it typically reflects in the quality of the service they provide; “happy employees, happy customers” also works the other way around: “Unhappy employees, unhappy customers.”!

But without a standard, how can you possibly create a consistent experience from one employee to the next, from one store to the next?

How do we succeed in having both employee engagement and consistent customer experience?

In 2013, Gallup published a book called “Human Sigma” and they solve this for us. 

They propose that the standards need to be based on what the client feels… their experience… not on what the employee actually does. The same emotion can be created in so many different ways depending on the situation, the customer and the employee.

It sounds simple but it’s really the core of the change. 

Too often, people apply what they have learned with Lean-Six Sigma to people processes and define behavioral standards: welcome, smile, thank the customer based on best practices. After small early successes, progress stops and the result even go back to where they were previously, if not lower.

Creating emotional standards completely revolutionizes the approach. From how leaders are developed to the teams that are involved with customers. 

Here are a few steps based on this principle that should help get you on the right path.

  • Define what the “ideal experience” is, what is the emotion you want to produce
  • Share it with your teams in an engaging way
  • Have the leaders live it and put it in action 
  • Encourage each employee to create it in their own way
  • Give clear examples of the right and wrong ways of going about it
  • Use customer feedback to reinforce the lessons and develop engagement 

By standardizing the experience instead of the behaviors, it allows you to create a consistent customer experience and a culture of empowerment and engagement. 

This is the kind of environment employees thrive in!

Critical skills to transform the customer experience

 

You can probably tell by now that this transformation ended up going well. 

The business made huge progress following the changes my team implemented. The year following these changes, the company achieved its best result in Customer Experience in over 5 years…and they even regained JD Power Award. A huge accomplishment. 

For me personally, it was one of the greatest moments in my career. In the three years since I took that leap, I have learned so much, stretching myself beyond what I thought I could do and going outside of my comfort zone.

What this experience brought me as well is understanding how the power of bringing the right people and skills and creating the right environment for them to thrive can have an impact. Having the right strategies is one thing, but having the right people to execute them is a totally different ball game.

As I was building my team, I discovered some of the critical skills that were required in order to support our success beyond the traditional customer service skills. I started to look for different profiles more than only the Customer Experience specialists you usually find in this type of project and assembled a team with a good mix of skills, backgrounds and styles.

Every one of them brought something specific I was looking for: strategic thinking, analytic capabilities, business management, complex problem solving, project and change management, continuous improvement, event planning and communications. Every one of these skills played a role in our success. 

They all had common ground though: a passion for the customer and the employee experience, driven by purpose, team players and innovators. 

I am still amazed by how simple customer experience may seem from the outside. 

Improving customer experience though is a hugely complex change initiative. There is no silver bullet. It requires a good mix of strategies that are well integrated and a strong and diverse team with a good mix of skills and , strong work ethic in order to truly achieve success. 

The success of all great projects usually comes down to the people. It is no different for customer experience transformations.

About the author: Guillaume is an executive leader helping companies and leaders delivering exceptional Customer and Employee Experiences, consistently. He leads the Montreal Customer Experience community on Meet-up (join here). He is also engaged in helping frontline leaders develop their confidence to make businesses thrive (click here to join the Leaders supporting leaders community).