Customer Experience Is Now a Strategic Priority

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Customer experience is becoming more than just a discussion in the boardroom. Innovative firms are launching customer experience departments to create guidelines and drive real change.

In many companies today customer experience is more than just a buzzword. Customer experience management has matured to the point where a growing number of firms are creating customer experience organizations to help refocus, reshape, and retool customer experiences across their enterprises.

By building a customer experience organization and incorporating it into their overall customer strategies, companies like Charter Communications, are in a proactive position to build a better business that more closely aligns with customers' needs.

Bruce Temkin, managing partner of The Temkin Group and cofounder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CPXA), says he's noticing a huge boost in interest in and focus on the customer experience. "The leaders of companies are recognizing the importance of how they treat their customers," Temkin says. In other words, customer experience improvements lead to improvements business performance. "The other thing going on is there's been a rise in awareness of the customer experience and what it means."

As a result, customer experience is reaching mass maturation, according to Jason Mittelstaedt, CMO of RightNow Technologies and a CXPA board member. He also has seen an increase in the number of executives with "customer experience" in their titles. "It shows that [customer experience] is not just a discussion anymore; it's a real discipline and it's an expertise and a practice that people are fundamentally building into their businesses," Mittelstaedt says.

Building a customer experience organization requires focusing on the areas of the customer experience that will have the most impact not only on such areas as customer satisfaction, but also on business results.

According to Temkin, a newly formed customer experience organization should initially focus on two areas: Ensure that the company looks at itself through the eyes of the customer, and then change the culture so employees are onboard, engaged, and committed to delivering optimal customer experiences. "You need people who can facilitate and drive change across the organization," he says. Temkin adds that, whether running an official customer experience organization or operating within another group, customer experience leaders must avoid taking full ownership of their transformations. Instead they must encourage the rest of the organization to own the customer experience to spur meaningful change.

Miguel Ramos, president of C3 Performance Optimization, adds that educating frontline employees, focusing on quality, and analyzing customer feedback are critical functions of a successful customer experience organization. "We see people really changing their focus from a pure performance indicator standpoint to the customer experience or the voice of the customer," Ramos says.

Customer experience starts at the top

While a collective change in focus is important, a customer experience transformation must start at the executive level, cautions Mittelstaedt. A growing number of companies are finding that transformation is most likely to succeed when led by a team focused on guiding the organization on that track.

One company doing just that is Charter Communications. The cable, Internet, and telephone provider typically ranks near the bottom of Temkin Group's Customer Experience Ratings, but John Birrer, senior vice president of customer experience, plans to change customer perception and elevate satisfaction levels.

CEO Mike Lovett hired Birrer in January to lead the company's newly formed customer experience organization and to energize the company's 18,000 employees to focus on delivering an improved customer experience (a transformation initiative started by Lovett a year ago).

Birrer leads a team of 10, including a vice president who oversees the customer experience enterprisewide, another who leads the communications team to develop strategies for messaging, two leaders who work in the field to drive change among technicians, a team that conducts analysis to scope out revenue opportunities, and another team that leads strategic planning.

For Birrer, establishing organizational structure and designating enthusiastic employees to oversee the transformation are the most critical factors of any successful customer experience team. In the past there was no clear ownership of the customer experience at Charter. That's not the case today. Birrer's team is driving the company's conversations about putting the customer front and center at Charter. "My goal is to use a small and mighty team to get all 18,000 employees on board with that mission," he says.

Birrer doesn't think of himself or his team as owners of the customer experience, but rather as the catalyst for change. He calls his team members "fire starters," whose mission is to alter the DNA of the company.

Earlier this year the team focused on engaging frontline employees and technicians through role-play around the three areas that need the most improvement: customer onboarding, technical issue resolution, and expense performance. As a result, Birrer's fire starters have created the necessary momentum and involvement to fan the flames on customer experience.

Then in June they held a three-day educational pep rally for 200 directors and managers from across the business at Charter's St. Louis headquarters to focus the leaders on driving continuous change in the three pilot areas. They shared results of the role-play, as well as customer feedback. Birrer says the rally worked to create advocates for change. This companywide involvement and ownership of the customer experience has produced such profitable results as reduction in customer churn, less truck rolls, and fewer complaint calls. "We've done a really good job of getting the fire started. Now we have to nurture it and feed the logs on the fire," he says.

Birrer plans to stoke the fire in 2012 by focusing on tactical changes, such as training agents on how to engage with customers over the phone and designing a consistent cross-channel delivery of the customer experience. Because Birrer's team has created an environment where employees are committed to success, he believes that the company will indeed succeed in improving its customer experience. He says, "We've created a whole ecosystem that works and that, frankly, delivers a better outcome than the sum of the parts."