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Guest Blogger

by Gerry Brown

Organizational Engagement Brings Customer Experience to Life

There is a magical location in the Canadian Rockies north of Calgary known as the Continental Divide or the Great Divide. It’s where rivers drain and then separate to flow to opposite sides of the continent. The outflow literally ends up oceans apart, in the Atlantic, Arctic or Pacific. Each of those destinations has their own geographic, cultural, and reputational highlights, and because of that are extraordinarily different and deliver their own unique experiences.

Businesses differences that divide but don’t conquer.

Many businesses today have their own Great Divide, especially when it comes to customer engagement and customer experience strategy.  These aren’t just great divisions, but yawning chasms of diverse thought, conflicting ideas, and departmental agenda, stretching across the business. This is often characterized by what the corporate priorities should be, and where the customer fits into that debate. Is process more important than outcomes? Is the customer really at the heart of all they do, or just a slick marketing slogan? Do they follow their technology head or customer experience heart? While these issues can flow through any department in a company, differences of opinion and direction between IT and the customer service team business often produce the biggest headlines, and headaches. And this is typically the battleground where these skirmishes play out. But are these really two solitudes, and always strange bedfellows, or can they be united in purpose and aligned in strategy to generate positive outcomes?

In today’s multi-dimensional and digitally driven world, a customer’s attitude toward a business, beyond products and services, has many defining influences. These can be a combination of previous interactions, moments of truth and desperation and other experiences of varying quality, but will not be entirely based on a single, technology, employee or process influenced event. That said, if the event is particularly memorable for the wrong reasons: long hold time, confusing self-service menu, incorrect customer data, poorly functioning website, or app, rude, unhelpful or knowledge challenged staff, then the technology and other associated and contributing elements will stand out and be the focus of criticism and negative customer feedback. This is very often the case when an organization uses touchpoint Net Promoter Scores (tNPS) to assess each discrete interaction and where the customer has a short memory that only reflects how they felt at a particular moment or with the attitude of a particular individual.

During the past 18 months as the world has sought to survive the Covid-19 pandemic these shortcomings have been under an even brighter spotlight and many companies became deer in the headlights. The Institute of Customer Service (ICS) has just published their latest survey of customer service in the UK and one of the key messages to be uncovered by the research was that Customers are fed up with being told they are getting poor service “because of Covid.” “Saying ‘because of Covid’ is not a good phrase,” said Jo Causon, the institute’s chief executive. “Organisations must not hide behind this blanket statement.” But, unfortunately, although this was the mother of all wake-up calls, many businesses slept through the alarm, and left their customers frustrated, angry and disappointed after unsuccessful attempts to contact them, and/or long waits in contact centre queues or slow, poorly designed websites.

Organizational Engagement is more than a marriage of convenience.

However, these issues aren’t just the fault of misfiring contact centres, dumb policy and procedures or tired and creaking technology, although a deep dive will probably uncover all of them. They are effectively a failure of the collective, in other words the whole company, and in particular, the “leadership” to truly engage and collaborate to overcome these issues.

There is a lot of positive noise about the importance of customer and employee engagement, and with good reason. These are key planks in building a successful customer experience stage and putting on a great performance. But there is another piece of the foundation that is becoming increasingly more valuable in supporting the overall strategy: That is Organizational Engagement. To successfully engage employees, provide customers with an outstanding experience and create a high-performance culture, businesses need to be fully aligned and develop organizational engagement that is more than just lip service or a hastily contrived tactical shotgun marriage between departments. Companies that fail to do this typically have negative customer outcomes, increased attrition, endless internal finger pointing and disappointing financial results.

The concept can span myriad activities and touch all parts of the business. One of the most valuable procedural elements is the ability to address many of the challenges that organizations have with lines of business operating with a common purpose to achieve the transformation required to be a truly customer centric company. A key component in this process is to start with a new company-wide, collaboration agreement, or social contract. This features operational agility, departmental flexibility and a new level of mutual understanding that can’t be formulated at a single meeting or articulated in a glib corporate slogan.

These agreements must contain clearly defined rules of engagement that transcend silos and turf wars, and truly get to the heart of business issues measured in customer terms but that all stakeholders can understand and act on. How do departments, like IT, balance operational metrics that have been their guiding light and often their saving grace, with the new customer experience measures and outcome-based results that are now grabbing corporate headlines?  How about marketing and their holy grail of attracting new customers? What role do they have in retention? And how can finance help retrieve a customer who’s about to kiss you goodbye?

Cut out the turf wars – Start to grow the business organically.

I can already hear the noise from the stands where perhaps many of you are saying, “Of course organisations have to engage, what’s new about that?” But my experience over many years has shown me that a familiar theme with many businesses that I’ve worked with, is that it’s tough to get things done because of the silos that exist.  And it’s been clear over the past 18 months that the companies that have survived and thrived have had organisational engagement at the top of their to do list.

Strong relationships with customers, employees, business partners, shareholders and with society must be reflected in business strategy. Organisations must create an operating environment that supports its achievement as well as having employees that are engaged in a culture that enables them to deliver it. And yet, recent research from Forbes showed that while 65% of organisations have an agreed strategy, only 14% of employees fully understand it and, unsurprisingly, as a result less than 10% of organisations successfully execute their strategy. In other words, failing to ambulate their rhetoric, perhaps better known as not walking the talk.

Most business will claim to have their organizational act together. “We have regular meetings, don’t we?” “We all subscribe to the customer is at the heart of all we do charter.” But in a quiet corner of the saloon bar, perhaps with the temporary courage that a number of small whiskeys can supply, I’m sure that you’ll get a different answer.

Building the bridges – Supporting the strategy

To help you cross your own Great Divide there are some key structural and operational foundations that are necessary to build the bridges that will support organizational engagement:

  1. First you must discover what and where the challenges lie to delivering a great customer experience, and the role and importance of a cross-functional approach to meeting them.(“Not my job man” is not an acceptable response!)
  2. Then it’s vital to develop a greater understanding of where you want to go in terms of a realistic customer experience ambition. What’s the destination and who are your internal and external travelling companions?
  3. Next is the key planning phase to identify priorities, understand potential roadblocks, gain company-wide support and truly build a climate of organizational engagement that forms the basis for the social contract.
  4. Finally, the development of the long-term customer experience blueprint that enables you to foster innovation and creativity, while maintaining operational excellence and enhancing customer engagement.

For any business this means a documented, unambiguous, company-wide definition of what customer experience means and more specifically, agreement and direction on a true, achievable, and measurable corporate vision that goes beyond a slick marketing slogan. This will also identify any gaps in people’s understanding of, and the ability to execute, the vision, mission, objectives, and strategic direction. It should include a road map that provides a framework for defining and benchmarking your differentiating, profitable customer experience and a timeline for implementation over a specific period of time. Where you are in terms of interactions with customers based on external/internal feedback? What are the behaviours, skills, processes and supporting technology needed to support the vision? How can a clearly defined customer experience strategy increase product holdings and/or overall profitability? It might seem like the right thing to do, but what does it take to execute? And how will we know if we get it right?

Finding your direction – Getting on the right path

This isn’t a simple or quick process, which is probably why many companies file this in the “it’s too difficult” drawer. But one highly effective action that forward thinking companies find less difficult is getting the right people in the room for a no holds barred, honest, frank and truly introspective assessment of the organization. This can be a great launch pad for authentic engagement but doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree on every topic, as a free flowing and robust debate where differences of opinion can be celebrated and lead to Damascene moments and even Archimedic discoveries, are far more fruitful, liberating, and entertaining. Seeking consensus will probably end up making you more friends, but potentially leaving you in the same state of inaction or inertia. Chatham House or Vegas rules are abandoned for the duration, as you really don’t want it to stay there. However, verbatim transcripts may need some careful editing before being released into the wild. Despite my apparent cynicism about company meetings, this is definitely one I feel strongly that you should sign up to. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in a number of these as a facilitator and have seen some very positive outcomes that I’m happy to share.

Potential Outcomes from an Organizational Alignment Workshop

  • Colleagues will have a stronger, measurable understanding of the brand, your strategic
    vision, the value that you bring and what it means to customers
  • Company-wide agreement (but not necessarily consensus), support and development of a strong organizational appetite for, and adoption of, change and the way to enable it
  • Creation and management of a prioritized list of top customer experience improvements that involves a senior executive accountable for implementation and measurement.
  • Identification of barriers to success inherent in people, process, and technology components
  • Establishment of a balanced and realistic list of high-impact actions and quick wins
  • Increased visibility of, and participation in, the customer experience strategy by all colleagues that will increase advocacy, keep the program alive and embedded in your company culture
  • Alignment of business goals with customer-focused culture that can form the basis for a
    customer experience blueprint
  • Development of measures that can provide clear evidence of customer experience impact as a criterion for all business and investment decisions

As I noted frequently, success in this initiative doesn’t mean consensus, although clearly there has to be some coming together.  A cohesion of sprit and a non-destructive collision of ideas can lead to continual and measurable progress. The operative word in all of this, as in any human endeavour to bring people together, is engagement. It means making a connection with those with whom you have more in common that you may think and where the outcome is mutually beneficial. This is when and where real conversations can take place, practical ideas exchanged and where rather than being oceans apart, you’re all sailing, or possibly bailing, together on a voyage of customer experience discovery that will potentially lead to a positive sea change in your business and the actions of the people that navigate its direction.

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