Ven Bontha has a curious mind. An engineer, he is always looking to answer the question, "How can we make it easier for the customer to do business with us?" Bontha takes cues from outside his industry to answer this question in his role as vice president of customer experience at building materials supplier CEMEX USA.
CEMEX serves more than 25,000 B2B customers in a commodity industry of cement plants and rock quarries. Yet Bontha's approach to business emulates customer-centric initiatives at banks and other industries known for their customer focus. "In 2007 we began to look at how we could become a customer-driven organization," he says. "We wanted to make it easy for customers and learn what they need from us. The strategy is to retain them forever."
Instead of waiting for committees and approvals, Bontha created a "mercenary team" to research best practices from the banking industry and make similar changes at CEMEX. He spoke with numerous banking executives to gain a deep level of insight. "It was a big transformation," he says. "If we ask everyone's opinion we won't get anywhere."
What came out of the exercise was the Customer 360 program, for which CEMEX won a 2011 Gartner and 1to1 Media CRM Excellence Award. The team tailored established standardized metrics for customer service across the organization and the supply chain.
Customers now have a single point of contact to resolve inquiries and receive personalized services. They can also transact business around the clock through multiple channels, including phone, email, fax, or an online customer portal. And CEMEX records and manages all customer inquiries and complaints to gain insight on how to provide new proactive services.
Bontha says he pays it forward by working with other companies on customer-centric ideas. "I give my time to fellow companies on their journey," he says. "Someone helped me, so I like to help others." He has worked with firms including Asian Paints, Rockwell Automation, Air Products, and Sysco.
Over the past year Bontha says he became bolder, launching new sales initiatives to reach an untapped customer market: small business customers. Traditionally, big players in the industry leave SMBs like residential contractors to local suppliers, focusing instead on complex, multimillion-dollar companies. Bontha tried a new approach, cold calling people who had applied for building permits in various markets. "I believe geography doesn't matter," he says. "I can establish a relationship. We're getting to know the customer."
Even if the prospect is not ready to buy, Bontha works to nurture the relationship with periodic email or phone follow-ups with opt-in prospects. With two inside sales employees, CEMEX generated $1.6 million in new sales. He now has six people on the SMB team.
And in May 2011, the company launched an online portal, which generated 127 new customers in three months. "People are looking for us," he says. They can call a live toll-free number or fill out a Web form to receive more information about CEMEX's services. Bontha plans to enhance the portal with more robust search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, and self-service features. "It's more convenient for the customer," Bontha says of the portal, "and it allows the company to spend money to improve the relationship in other places."
With new self-service options available, CEMEX's cost to serve has dropped, allowing differentiated customer treatment strategies for different types of customers. "No one thinks about selling building materials this way," he says. "But that's the future with the small customer segment. And the traditional model still works for large customers."
Bontha has built a reputation within CEMEX as someone who is willing to take risks to evolve the company to be more customer centric. "I'm always questioning the status quo," he says. "I clearly understand that change isn't easy, but is there a better way to do things?"