Imperatives for Optimizing the Customer Experience

Arguably the best differentiator for companies in today’s competitive and, for many industries, an increasingly commoditized marketplace, is to deliver exceptional, memorable customer experiences. Done well, stellar service can build customer loyalty, boosting retention rates, market share and new business referrals, agreed CEOs gathered for a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by Chief Executive and Walker Information.

Both anecdotal and quantitative research underscore the point, noted Steven Walker, chairman and CEO of Walker Information. “In our work with companies, we continually see that those companies that are really successful with customer experiences have better financial results. And when we recently worked with Chief Executive to survey 400 CEOs, 40 percent of respondents listed the customer experience as their top strategy for differentiating their companies in the marketplace. What’s more, the next-ranked two methods—talent and product—are typically the main components of what you deliver in a customer service.”

At the same time, providing exceptional experiences isn’t always as easy as it sounds. “How to know what consumers really want is one challenge,” pointed out Alfredo Timermans del Olmo of Telefonica Internacional USA. “Because sometimes they lie. They tell you, ‘What I love is a great price,’ but then you change the price and they don’t respond the way you expected.”

OrthoNet CEO Roger Shedlin is addressing that issue by seeking ways to quantify the service equation. “It’s a little hard in the healthcare space, but we look for ways to track how we’re doing,” he reported. “Renewal rates are one metric, but we’re trying to dig down in the areas of provider abrasion and insured friction to identify and measure the pain points for our customers.”

At a time when a massive amount of information is increasingly available, companies able to collect and analyze data to predict, rather than respond to, customer needs will have an edge in the service game. “The question is, what is the next generation of innovation and features that we will bring to the customer?” said Patrick Dempsey, CEO of Barnes Group, whose company recently began serving end-consumers in addition to providing parts to industrial manufacturers. “To understand what the [end] customer really would like to see, we’re going very forcefully after that voice of the customer with surveys and through the use of third parties to collect data.”

As important as data can be, simply listening to customers and acting on what you hear can make all the difference, noted Paul Greig, CEO of FirstMerit, who recounted having a revelation after meeting with a customer early in his tenure. “I’m sitting in a meeting with the owner and the banker, and they’re talking back and forth about playing golf when the CFO comes in, sits down and, within the first eight seconds she says, ‘When am I going to get a response back on my loan? I’ve been asking you for a month, and I haven’t heard back,’” he recounted. The comment prompted the discovery that turnaround times on loan requests at the bank were far too long.

“Within literally 30 days, I put a new policy in place that there should be a 24-hour turnaround on those financing requests,” said Greig, who reports that by addressing issues like that one by one over time the bank brought its poor customer experience scores into the top 10 percent. “I went into a company that had very bad customer experience and the executive team had to substantially change systems, processes and really just behavior in the field to change that customer experience. Today, we’re viewed as one of the best in the industry.”

To deliver a consistently strong customer experience, companies must extend their efforts across every touchpoint, noted Farooq Kathwari, chairman of the home furnishings design company Ethan Allen. “In our business, you can do a fantastic job, create a terrific product and then, if you don’t do the delivery aspect well, everything is lost,” he said. “Customer service encompasses the entire integrated chain, every element of the business, from the concept of the design through engineering and manufacturing and also the delivery of the product.”

CEO engagement and involvement is critical to delivering on that promise, added Kathwari, who is proactive about encouraging a customer focus. “Every week, I have 30 of our management associates give me examples of how they have wowed the customer in different parts of the country. Something small, but it focuses everybody to think about how they can wow the customer.”

At Synovus Financial, Chairman Kessel Stelling employs a similar practice. “We start every one of our weekly executive management committee meetings by going around the table and asking, ‘What happened in your area that caused us customer impact this week?’” he explains. “We don’t wait till the end of the meeting if we have time; it’s first thing.” While the conversation unearths some uncomfortable truths—a slowdown in response time, for example—the overarching impact is a raising of consciousness about service across the organization broadly, he says.

Tom Rogers, former CEO of TiVo, finds personally monitoring customer service complaints helpful. “The thing that I’ve found most valuable in terms of staying on customer service experience issues is having your name as CEO on the website for customer complaints,” he told his peers. “People use it. If you’re not getting firsthand exposure and aren’t able to put problems forth at meetings and be totally conversant with the nitty-gritty of the issues, they just don’t get the focus and spotlight they deserve. They’re a pain in the ass when they come into your box, but really it’s the only way to stay on top of that stuff.”

“From top down, it’s very important [to] put the CEO’s name or address somewhere for the customers to access,” agreed Tianquan “Vincent” Mo of the Internet real estate company SouFun Holdings, who pointed out that web-based companies often struggle to excel at service.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the perception that a CEO is shirking his or her role in the customer experience can scuttle a company’s reputation, noted Peter Verrengia of FleishmanHillard. “Micky Arison was pilloried as the head of Carnival Corporation when they had two fires and they [capsized] a ship and killed 32 people,” Verrengia recounted. “He didn’t go personally because he had a chief operating officer who knew a lot more than he did and was a lot closer to the situation. But that did not turn out to satisfy anybody involved at the time.”

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In fact, thanks in part to companies like Amazon, Zappos and Uber, customers are demanding higher degrees of service on more levels than ever before. “The world’s expectations for customer service are increasing every couple of months now,” summed up Rogers, who pointed out that Amazon, alone, has upended service expectations.

“You’re dealing with people touching a company that has such extraordinarily ability to deliver on customer experience that the bar is being raised in ways for every other company exponentially, compared to the speed of which it was raised before. That combination of perception, creation and expectation increasing doesn’t make this a question of can you afford to do this. It’s just a must.”

" William Freedman : William Freedman, MBA, is a business & technology journalist and consultant in New York City. He is also CTO and content manager for the startup"