The 1to1 Customer Champions annually spotlights executives whose time and energy is spent understanding customer needs and expectations, communicating them to employees at all levels, and helping to align how their organizations meet customer requirements with the overall business strategy.
- Nick Gledich, Orange County Public Schools
- Dan Thorpe, Wachovia
- Kirby Drysen, Cisco
- Bill Burris, Lexus
- Jonathan Tisch, Loews Hotels
- Mark Ballard, Ann Taylor
Nick Gledich has two sets of customers, but neither actually buys things. As chief operating officer of the Orange County Florida School System, which includes Orlando, Gledich serves both staff and students.
Lest you think he doesn't face the same challenges as his corporate counterparts, consider this: An additional 7,500 students a year join an already pressured system that educates 175,000. As with any organization, meeting fast growth means expertly serving staff so they can best serve customers-in this case, students.
Gledich does this by bringing business sense and strong leadership to the K-12 school system, already the twelfth largest in the nation. When he started in 2004 his goal was to focus on education, but to do that he first had to deal with an inherited enterprise resource planning (ERP) nightmare that was frustrating employees.
The 24,000 employees in the system were struggling with an antiquated and awkwardly implemented ERP system from SAP. Gledich took responsibility for making the system work. He started Project Passport-an undertaking of massive scale-to upgrade the daily work of the original system's 1,700 users. Gledich personally mounted a sweeping campaign to reignite the use of the system and build confidence throughout the school system. Not only did Gledich volunteer himself to take dual roles as CIO and COO, he managed to help employees overcome the psychological obstacles they'd been feeling as a result of the initial implementation in 1999. He sought out individuals who had become sour on using the ERP system, and asked their input about how to make sure that its efficiencies would result in a better education for all the students.
Students may not have noticed Gledich's work, but it resulted in more productive employees who could then focus more on education than on business processes. It was much more than fixing a "failed" technology implementation. He wanted Project Passport to represent a cultural mind-set.
Metrics show some of the effects of his leadership. Time to produce budget reports, for example, was drastically reduced, from 36 hours to 12 minutes in one case. Gledich saw an opportunity to use these improvements to show how to treat employees. "Two things: first, don't hammer [employees] and don't try to hide," he says. "Dig a few layers deeper than the simple view that 'big projects always meet resistance.' I talked to the loudest complainerstold people they were 'empowered' to think and were expected to warnme of potential problems.
"Second, I guidedthe team toward a problem-solving mentality.I have learned that every part of the project eventually has issues to face. Instead of letting the issues breed more cynicism, use them asopportunities to practice effective problem solving. Decide how you want [employees] to resolve issues and only escalate the things they really cannot resolve together.For each escalated issue I insist they bring background, options, analysis, and a recommendation.Establish the expectation that once an issue is escalated to the executive team, it will get resolved...[but] the resulting decision may not be what you want, so it is in everyone's interest to resolve issues at the lowest level."
At first glance, it seems that Dan Thorpe gets paid to think of customers as nothing but numbers. After all, Wachovia measures customers primarily by the amount of assets they invest in the bank. And Thorpe's job is all about that measurement.
As the leader of Wachovia's CART Group, Thorpe provides huge value to the company by raising the effectiveness of targeted marketing campaigns, product lifecycle analysis, customer segmentation, and marketing optimization. But don't doubt his connection to real, live customers. It is no less calculated or defined than his quest for the right data.
"We want to use numbers to effectively reach customers with the right offer and then the next best offer," he says. "This has led to changes on several fronts for Wachovia because we know how much our key customer segments change. We know the differences in our customer groups. We know how economic changes affect what different customers need from the bank. When we move into a new market we understand that there's a whole new group of customers to work with. The numbers help us to be a better bank and better serve customers."
Thorpe has taken his job beyond the numbers. He has spreadsheets of modeling mixes, customer lifetime value, and loyalty equations and makes them work for customers, not just for Wachovia. And that has made Wachovia very good at acquiring new customers. The consistent flow of data, for example, recently told him that, contrary to his previous findings, radio was not the preferred marketing channel for the Miami market, where Wachovia is making a new customer push. With that new information the marketing team quickly made changes to reach that market's customers with relevant offers through the Internet.
It's Thorpe's job to get customers the financial products that will strengthen their loyalty. So developing customer loyalty is the next agenda item for Thorpe and the CART Group. He's asking customers: Are you satisfied as a customer? Would you recommend the bank to a friend? And, how long do you currently plan to stay with the bank? The responses will guide finding the right products and offers to best meet customers' needs.
"We need to craft different product offerings depending on our loyalty research," he says. "It's a little different than defining customer equity."
The job title says it all for Kirby Drysen. Two years ago, when Drysen had the standard issue title of marketing director in Cisco's business intelligence unit, a colleague interrupted a meeting and told him: "This is not what you do. We need a better title for you." So director of customer listening made it to the org chart, and since that time Drysen has been the official "recording device" for Cisco's Voice of the Customer program.
The program involves hundreds of formal and informal survey mechanisms. But what separates Drysen from the thousands of other executives who collect and analyze customer data for a living is the way he disseminates the information throughout Cisco and the way he follows up on the right customer at the right time.
"We used to do a customer survey, analyze the heck out of it, present it at a sales meeting, and be done," he says. "But now we update data for every member of the sales and marketing team on a daily basis. From an employee standpoint they can see certain freshness to data about customer satisfaction, loyalty, revenue, and other data points. We've driven customer data right through to the point of decision for our biggest accounts."
Drysen's handling of a recent complaint is a perfect example of how he works. An engineer at "a large multinational auto manufacturer" phoned his Cisco sales rep with what Drysen called "a good head of steam" about a Cisco product that plays a critical role in his job. Working with the product team at the auto company, Drysen listened and made the requisite mea culpas with the engineer and his superiors. The problem was fixed. Then Drysen conveyed the engineer's complaint to the highest levels at Cisco as well as the auto company in question. This approach helped to improve the larger issue of communication between the two companies.
"This engineer who started the process called me in complete shock," Drysen said. "That was a loyal customer when we were done. He was very happy with Cisco-happier than he would have been if this problem never happened."
Drysen, taking a page from the Cisco playbook, defines loyalty as "a customer's natural willingness to repurchase." That willingness among Cisco customers has led to a comfortable market share in the enterprise networking space. But Drysen knows that the next level for Cisco is to define the emotional components that connect Cisco's customers to the company, not just the contractual bonds.
"What keeps me up at night is complacency," he says. "We have a comfortable market position and it's easy to relax and just rely on people and processes. I don't ever want to do that. We need
to make sure we're always doing the right thing by the customer."
Not many executives can say they have data on every transaction from every customer in the history of their company. Bill Burris can. With every purchase in the 17-year history of Toyota's luxury car division in a database, he has helped lead Lexus to elite brand status by obsessively learning about its customers.
Burris works his gold mine of data riches incessantly and in the process has helped Lexus to become a customer-centric marketing machine. "We can do big things with that data, such as predictive modeling, and some of the little things as well," Burris says. "For example, if I know a customer has come to us for service within 120 days of purchasing the car, that's a good indicator that it will be a valuable customer over the lifecycle. If the customer goes more than that, it starts to become a concern. It's those little predictors that enable us to have a better engagement with customers."
Engagement may be a watered-down term for some in the marketing world. But for Burris it defines his job. To build that engagement successfully he focuses heavily on that wealth of data and gets Lexus face to face with customers in relevant ways. He has segmented the Lexus customer base into dozens of value and needs groups. So "engaging" the customer will differ depending on what kind of customer it is. A golf fan would not get invited to Lexus' U.S. Open tennis event, for example.
Burris gets Lexus out to meet customers where they are. "We have to go where they go," he says. "Whether it's wine tastings, golf, tennis, doesn't matter. As we move farther up market, me sending a brochure to a customer about our new model just isn't going to change anything."
What will change things for current customers, as well as prospective ones, is experiential marketing. Although most of his marketing is done via events and the Internet, Burris will admit to being "everywhere" (including network TV) when Lexus launches a new model. A Taste of Lexus is the company's signature live event for doing so. The event was held in 10 markets in 2006 and gave Lexus owners a chance to drive new models on a racetrack, usually set up at a local football stadium parking lot. Hors d'ourvres and networking opportunities are provided, of course.
Burris' decisions are driven by qualitative as well as quantitative data. A dealer advisory council weighs in on every marketing campaign. He visits dealerships across the country constantly to chat with prospective customers and observe the sales staff's interaction with customers, rarely with advanced notice. He also spends time combing blogs and interacting with a group of about 100 Lexus "customer advocates" who tell him what's wrong and right about the company's marketing.
"The culture here is ingrained from the very beginning of Toyota," he says. "You always respect and respond to customers. You show respect for the people you work with and strive for continuous improvement. We're never the best; we're only better. I believe that if we don't keep moving in that direction, someone else is catching up."
Johnathan Tisch knows what it's like to walk in his employees' shoes.
The third-generation hotelier and chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels started a Now Who's the Boss Day in 2004 after he participated in TLC's reality-based TV series Now Who's Boss, in which CEOs performed lower-level jobs in their own organizations.
In the Loews version, once a year the management at all 18 properties work in front-line positions. Tisch says it's a remarkable learning experience to connect with the people who provide service at the hotels every day. Working in these positions gives him a deep understanding of how the business operates in the eyes of the customer.
Tisch has worked as a front-desk clerk, a housekeeper, pool attendant, and in laundry and has made positive changes to those positions after he's stepped into the employee' shoes. When he was a room service waiter, for example, the weather was humid and the uniform didn't breathe. After that experience, Tisch changed the uniforms to a more natural fiber. Making the staff more comfortable translates into employees who are happier to deliver Loews' unique customer experience. "We want to offer great service and value in an unpretentious way," he says.
Tisch, who grew up in the hospitality business watching and learning from his father, Loews founder Preston Robert Tisch, is no stranger to hospitality. He shares his years of insight in Chocolates on the Pillow Aren't Enough: Reinventing the Customer Experience, which was released in March, because he says customer loyalty is disintegrating. In the book he discusses the importance of the customer relations lessons he's learned in the hospitality industry and how to bring them to life. "We lead complicated and overstimulated lives, and as consumers we tend to be very knowledgeable and a bit spoiled," he says. "If we engage with service providers and companies selling us a product and we're not happy with the experience, it's easy to try a competitor's [product] with little effort."
He says the solution is for companies to form partnerships with their customers by gathering feedback and by offering programs that meet key customers' needs. For example, Loews offers specific amenities that cater to children and pets. "The customers are the ultimate decision maker. If they're not happy, they won't come back to the hotels," he says. He tries to ensure their return by training the staff to actively engage with customers, making sure they are happy through surveys, and, equally important, actively seeking out ways to make employees happy.
One way Tisch does this is through his decentralized approach to management. He gives people in the field the tools to do their job and the leeway to perform in what he calls a "responsible and profitable manner." In a nutshell, he empowers them to make decisions on their own. "We don't micromanage," he says. "We're limited in how many people work in the home office. We want ideas to come from the properties."
He says the result is innovations for the customer. Some customers have even written letters to Tisch letting him know that the company has "changed their lives." He says, "Those [experiences] are extremely rewarding and gratifying in that you can have an impact in such a dramatic way by doing things correctly and having individuals understand what service is all about."
No matter what a customer's situation, retailer Ann Taylor wants to provide products and service to meet her clothing needs. It's a tall order, and Vice President of Multichannel Client Contact Mark Ballard faces the challenge by providing a seamless and consistent multichannel experience. "We really believe that first and foremost, we are in business because of our customer," Ballard says. "Our mission, very simply, is to help her be at her best. We want to be there at every stage in her lifecycle. So that's a customer who's entering the workforce or getting married, one who is mature in her career or changing a stage in her life. Whatever the case may be, we want to be there for her."
The $2.4 billion specialty women's retailer has been in business for 54 years primarily as a brick-and-mortar operation. Ballard was brought in seven years ago to extend the reach with e-commerce sites anntaylor.com and anntaylorloft.com, as well as its call center, 1-800-DIAL-ANN.
"We provide our customers with a one-view, one-voice perspective, which is one of the hallmark strengths of Ann Taylor," he says. "Whatever we do and however we interact with our customer dictates whether she will accelerate or decelerate her ready-to-buy emotion. I believe that everything that touches the customer does matter."
His title is indicative of the level of strategic commitment the company has to the customer. Ballard says the position requires passion, or even more. "You have to have passion to really make a difference. We're very passionate about the customer, sometimes to a point where we go overboard," he says, adding jokingly, "we're obsessive and compulsive about it." He says he often listens to calls into the contact center and visits stores to get both direct and indirect insight about the customer experience.
Ballard's passion has led him to identify gaps in the customer experience, then work to fix them. For example, in 2003 his team launched its Stylefinder program, which is designed to give associates access to inventory to help the customer at the store or on the phone. If an item is not at a particular store, associates can find out where it is within any of the retailer's 900 stores, then order and ship that item directly to the customer's home or office.
"When you begin to calculate it, you see that the opportunity is millions of dollars," Ballard says of the financial impact of the new program. "Equally important is the fact that it's an opportunity to delight the client through the most fundamental, front-line experience."
His passion is also shared by associates and other front-line employees. Keeping them motivated is a simple question of expertise, he explains. "You want to provide front-line employees with tools that make them expert in the eyes of the customer and [allow them to] solve a problem," Ballard says. "When you feel like an expert, you do your job with so much more passion and excellence. Customers really see that and respond to that. It also helps employees see the bigger picture."
Ballard knows that he can never stop thinking of new ways to improve the customer experience. But he doesn't mind. "It's such a motivator to know that at the end of the day you are adding value," he says. "You are making a difference and you are able to create unique experiences for the customer that make her really want to come back."