3 effective strategies to consider improving the customer experience and adapting to growing expectations: the manager’s advice!

When was the last time you had an exceptional customer experience?

As a customer, I am often surprised by the poor customer service I have encountered. The exceptional services stand out, are memorable, and make me want to go back. But most of the time, when I go to a store or call my service provider, I feel ignored, left stranded, or harassed to buy something I don’t need. Then again, that is when I’m not dealing with someone who makes me feel like I’ve disturbed them or who doesn’t seem to know what they are doing.

I have often asked myself: How is this possible? Don’t they train their employees?” Is it so hard to smile and be nice to customers?”

What I discovered is that to create exceptional moments for customers with a semblance of simplicity displayed by the best, it takes very complex changes. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to lead the customer experience transformation for a large retail channel at a financial institution, I have discovered that specific strategies can make a huge difference in the customer experience improvement journey.

What surprised me was the type and range of talent needed to carry out this type of change. For instance, I’ve discovered that customer experience transformation calls for more strategic thinking, analytical abilities, and project management skills more than it does for customer service experience, design thinking, and marketing abilities. Below are the lessons I learned from my journey. I hope you’ll find inspiration and some helpful tips to help you make a difference with your customers and employees.

How did I end up leading customer experience transformations?

Career paths are never linear. You think you have a plan and then you are given the opportunity to do something completely different that points you in a whole new direction. That’s what happened to me a few years ago. At the time, I was leading strategic initiatives and was considering moving to the project management department. I obtained my Project Management (PMP) certification over ten years ago and had extensive experience leading major initiatives. I thought it was a logical way for me to expand my experience and grow.

Then, one day, things took a turn. An opportunity presented itself and I had the opportunity to lead the customer experience team for the company’s largest distribution channel. Having never worked in a customer-facing role, I had always thought this type of role was beyond my reach. Needless to say, I was quite excited about this opportunity, and it didn’t take me long to accept it. It was only the next day that reality took hold, and I began to look at the challenge I had taken up. The metrics of the customers were not moving in the right direction.
Even worse, it was not a short-term problem. Customer preferences had been changing for a few years, and the company was struggling to stay relevant. Expectations went up, and customers compared their experience with other more traditional companies, to what they were experiencing with Apple, Amazon, and Netflix.

So how do you stay relevant in a world where customer expectations are constantly evolving? Even better, how can you offer exceptional customer service that is so distinctive that it will allow you to stand out across all industries?

These are the questions that all businesses in every industry are facing today.

Identifying the problem

When I began my new role, many people around me were quick to give me advice and solutions to apply, all with good intentions:
“You should train employees better,” a former branch manager told me. “Make sure you have the right leaders and the right employees, that’s all that matters,” advised another. “Make things fun and celebrate good behaviors, you’ll see it works!” said a regional vice president. “Create standards and make sure people follow them,” another recommended.

I’ve heard all the advice…and they’re opposites. Reading books didn’t help me much. There are so many solutions that seemed so simple, that I didn’t know where to start. I have a dual background in engineering and social sciences, and I found it a fascinating problem to solve. As an engineer, I did say (ok a lot:)) research and I came to the normal conclusion that any engineer would have: “It’s not as simple as you think.

If you look at Starbucks, for example, if you look at the 1,500 stores in Canada, serve an average of one coffee every two minutes, 10 hours a day, 365 days a year— they serve about 165 million customers a year. Is it realistic to expect that the 165 million customer interactions will be exceptional, authentic, and personal? And if so… how do we make that happen?

A customer’s feelings depend on many different factors: their state of mind of the day, their previous experience, the attitude of the employee who serves them, and sometimes even the time of their visit. It turns out that was the right way to look at it.

One of the challenges of customer experience is understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. By this point, I had come to have a good understanding of the problem. But I still hadn’t found a solution.

So how do you create a consistent experience? How do the best of them – Starbucks, Disney, Ritz Carlton, Hilton, and Apple – manage to deliver exceptional customer experiences so consistently? This is the biggest challenge for anyone working in the customer experience field.

Creating a way for hundreds, if not thousands of people, to adopt behaviors that build stellar and authentic relationships. With every customer, every day, in every store.

What we’ve learned is that it’s possible. If you’re tasked with changing and transforming your company’s customer experience, there are several proven strategies. Not only will they help you transform the customer experience, but they will also improve employee engagement.

These strategies focus on what is most important: the culture and processes that are the most basic of customer service. The Ritz Carlton even coined a term for its leadership development training based on this concept: « the system behind the smiles».

How to improve the customer experience in a context where customer expectations are constantly changing and increasing?

Here are 3 strategies I’ve personally seen transform a business successfully.

Strategy 1. Adopt an integrated strategy

Customer Experience Transformation projects are part of the statistics we often hear about in transformation projects: a large majority fail. The best organizations know this very well, they do not hesitate to share their strategy. They know very well that once the strategy is defined, the hardest part remains to be done: to implement it (see the Brightline website for more information on this exciting topic). Developing an integrated strategy that brings together the different parts of the organization – marketing, sales, operations, product, human resources, finance, and IT – creates the conditions for a successful implementation.

Without an integrated strategy, it is difficult to create a consistent customer experience. Marketing communications can affirm the priority of service, but customers will not be more satisfied if they have to wait 30 minutes to talk to customer service or if employees are paid only on the commission of their sales.

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

Carrying out a complete diagnosis, based on the voice of customers and employees, has enabled my experience to create this integrated strategy. The different teams rallied around a common observation that no one could question. They helped define a strategic action plan supported by senior management. And this plan integrates several of the key elements of the customer experience into a coherent set :

⦁ The vision and the promise made to customers
⦁ The products and services
⦁ Leadership Development
⦁ Training, recruitment, and career plans
⦁ Communication with customers and employees
⦁ Performance Management
⦁ Salaries and Benefits

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

Strategy 2. Survey customers using the channel of their choice

In 2019, I don’t think many organizations don’t survey their clients on their level of satisfaction. However, it is still rather surprising to see how these data are sometimes underused and poorly processed.

One of the reasons I find that to be the case is that a lot of investigations are conducted over the phone. Nowadays, people filter their calls and don’t necessarily pick up if they don’t recognize the number. On the other hand, they read most of their emails. Email surveys have several advantages :

⦁ People respond more to email than telephone surveys
⦁ The answers are often more detailed
⦁ It’s more convenient and customers can respond when it’s convenient for them. They also learn not to be interrupted by a phone call at a bad time!

When you’re new to customer experience transformation, it seems like an easy solution. The implementation of this solution is a standalone project which, based on your current systems and processes, can be very simple… or not.

Here are some elements to consider that can help you :

⦁ Simplify and revise the survey again and again. It should not take more than 3 minutes and should not consist of more than 10 questions.
⦁ Define clear rules to identify the customers you are interviewing.
⦁ Think about the regulations
⦁ Inform everyone in contact with customers of the new survey.
⦁ Focus on qualitative rather than quantitative results
⦁ Create a solid change management plan

Strategy 3: Standardize the experience while involving employees

To create a consistent customer experience, you need to set standards that all employees will apply.

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

So what’s the problem?

Following a set scenario 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 forget to say exactly what you should say?

When employees are not motivated, this is usually reflected in the quality of service they provide; “happy employees, happy customers” also works the other way: “unhappy employees, unhappy customers”!
But without a standard, how can you create a consistent experience from employee to employee, store to store?

Standardize the experience and engage employees

To create a consistent customer experience, it is necessary to define standards that all employees must apply.

So how do we balance employee engagement with creating a consistent customer experience??

In 2013, Gallup published a book entitled “Human Sigma” which offers an answer to this dilemma: standardization must be about what the customer feels – their experience – not what employees do. The same emotion can be created in many ways, depending on the circumstances, the customer, and the person serving them. This idea is simple but fundamental, it is the heart of change.

Too often, people apply what they have learned with Lean Six Sigma to human processes and define behavioral norms: welcome, smile, and thank the customer based on best practices. After small initial successes, progress stops and results return to where they were before, if not lower.
The creation of emotional norms completely revolutionizes the approach. From how leaders are trained in teams that are involved with customers. It changes everything in the way we support leaders and teams to improve the customer experience. Here are several tactics based on this principle that helped achieve good results:

⦁ Clarify the desired emotion and the “ideal target experience”
⦁ Communicate it engagingly with your teams
⦁ Engage leaders to live and implement it
⦁ Encourage everyone to find their way of doing things
⦁ Give clear examples of the right and wrong ways to do things
⦁ Use customer feedback to strengthen the needs and develop engagement.

By standardizing the experience rather than the behaviors, you can create a consistent customer experience and a culture of accountability and engagement. This is the kind of environment in which employees thrive!

Essential skills to transform the customer experience

The company has made tremendous progress with the changes implemented by my team. The year following these changes, the company achieved its best customer experience in over 5 years… and they even won the JD Power Award. It was a huge accomplishment.
Personally, it was one of the greatest moments of my career. In the three years since I made that jump, I’ve learned a lot, going beyond what I thought I could do and getting out of my comfort zone.

It also helped me understand the impact of bringing the right people and skills together and creating an environment for them to thrive. Having the right strategies is one thing but having the right people to implement them is another.

When I formed my team, I discovered some of the essential skills required to support our success, beyond traditional customer service skills. I started looking for profiles other than the typical CX specialists in this type of project and I formed a team with a good mix of skills, experiences, and styles.

Each of them brought something specific that I was looking for: strategic thinking, analytical skills, business management, complex problem solving, project and change management, continuous improvement, event planning, and communication. Each of these skills has played a role in our success. But they all had one thing in common: a passion for the customer and the employee experience, driven by purpose, team players, and innovators.

I’m always amazed at how simple the customer experience can seem from the outside. Improving the customer experience is an extremely complex change initiative. There is no silver bullet. Success requires a good combination of well-integrated strategies and a strong, diverse team with a good mix of skills and a strong work ethic.

By Guillaume Delroeux

Guillaume is President and Leader in Customer Experience Practice at Promethée Consultants and helps organizations with Customer Relationship Centres make the most of their technologies to maximize their impact and create legendary customer experiences.