Every organization wants to increase profitability. The ones that do it best do it with a focus on the customer. Whether they're known for innovation or culture or business acumen, underneath it all successful organizations closely tie these elements to meeting customer needs in a way that builds highly valuable and loyal enthusiasts. The ones that do it best also share something special: customer-centric leadership.
The 1to1 Customer Champions annually spotlights these leaders; 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.
These customer advocates share such approaches as truly empowering employees to act in the customers' best interest, driving change based on customer insight, and rallying their entire enterprise-not just front-line staff-around the customer. They also share a passion for and, dare we say, an obsession with, delivering a unique and powerful customer experience, as well as a perseverance to keep moving forward and never let complacency set in.
1to1 Customer Champions have unique approaches that define their success strategies. Whether it's thinking like the customer or taking ownership of customer problems through to resolution and process changes or thinking differently to find gold in data that others would have missed, in the end it's all about
putting customers first to create a win-win for company and customer.
Yes, customer centricity is profitable business. Want proof?
Read on for the stories of our 2007 1to1 Customer Champions.
- Geoff Brock, Canadian Tire Financial Services
- Bill Crutchfield, Crutchfield
- Jason Ward, JetBlue
- Joey Schultz, AT&T
- Nick Gledich, Orange County Public Schools
- Dan Thorpe, Wachovia
- Kirby Drysen, Cisco
- Bill Burris, Lexus
- Jonathan Tisch, Loews Hotels
- Mark Ballard, Ann Taylor
- Jane Judd, Zappos
- Art Hall, Netbank
- Moya Greene, Canada Post
- Laree Daniel, Assurant Health
- Stephan Chase, Marriott
Geoff Brock doesn't claim to be David Letterman, but he does have a special top-10 list. Each month his team at Canadian Tire Financial Services creates a top-10 list of what customers are saying, and presents it to company executives. They prioritize the list, and the most pressing issues get the investment necessary to be resolved quickly.
Brock, vice president of customer service and operations for the Canadian retail superbrand's financial services division, explains that if customers tell him something today, he wants to act on it tomorrow. "It's important for customers to be heard," he says.
Brock says he's proud to work for a company with customer focus baked into the employee culture. The overall corporate vision is built on three customer principles. First, to the customer there's only one Canadian Tire. Every employee at every touchpoint is responsible for the relationship, he explains. And for the $9 billion company with more than 50,000 employees and 1,000 stores, there are many possibilities to build or destroy customer value.
Second, the only measure of satisfaction is the customer's measure. The company relies heavily on metrics that drill down to the individual level. For Brock and his team it's a lot more than quality assurance. The company uses Voice of the Customer surveys in the contact center, as well as input from an internal advisory group with representatives from every department. Brock also fosters an environment where the call center agent owns the relationship. "We empower our employees and give them authorization to impact the customer relationship," he says. "We don't give them mechanical scripts."
To that end, he has put in place the "Building on Strengths" coaching model, which organizes the right types of employees into situations where they are most likely to manage the customer positively. Some are better at sales-related calls, while others are more empathetic and can handle customer complaints, he says. "At work, you are responsible for your own career," he says. "You own being an advocate for yourself," which directly impacts how each employee handles customers.
The third principle is that all employees must treat customers fairly, but not necessarily equally. Each customer is different, and should be treated differently to meet individual needs. All of the principles tie back into the idea that the customer is at the center of everything Canadian Tire does.
So how does Brock champion those principles within the organization? He sits back. "My management style is to hire great people, give them well-defined jobs, and let them get their job done. I give the people who work for me a large amount of control." He says he's very much a planner and likes making lists.
Which brings us back to the customer top-10 list. What's on it? Brock recalls one time when several customers asked to enable preauthorized payments on their credit cards. The reason: a small yet vocal group of "snowbirds" who travel south each winter made repeated calls to the call center about it. It wasn't the business case with the most potential for profit, but Brock says, "It was an important customer business case, so we fixed it."
-- Elizabeth Glagowski
After founding the electronics catalog company in 1974, Bill Crutchfield has grown it from a car stereo aficionado print product to its current multichannel status, topping $200 million in sales a year. Along the way he has operated from a customer-centric viewpoint that has bordered on obsession. Crutchfield was among the pioneers of using live chat for customer care and even offers a service that keeps tech support on the phone for the entire time it takes a customer to install a product.
"Yes, my model customer is me," Crutchfield says. "I have always treated our customers exactly as I would want to be treated. Being a consumer electronics enthusiast and avid do-it-yourselfer, I personally experience what our customers experience and am able to invent services that benefit them. Our marketing department classifies our most valuable customer groups. However, I tend to be more egalitarian. I consider all customers equally as valuable."
From the company's beginnings until 1983, Crutchfield Corp. was small enough that Bill Crutchfield could personally communicate his values to every employee. In 1983 he realized that the company had grown so large that he needed to employ a different mechanism. It was in that year that he wrote the company's Basic Beliefs:
- Maintain a passion for continuous improvement through commitments to excellence, productive change, and innovation.
- Respect each of our coworkers and provide a work environment that promotes dignity, team harmony, and personal satisfaction.
- Respect our business partners and maintain mutually rewarding relationships with vendors who demonstrate high professional standards.
"I then inculcated these beliefs into our organizational culture. Every employee is hired, promoted, and, in rare cases, terminated based on these Basic Beliefs," he says. "This process of creating and managing a culture centered on our core values or Basic Beliefs is the cornerstone of Crutchfield's success. We exceed our customers' expectations by providing a truly exceptional level of integrity, courtesy, service, and helpful information."
Crutchfield's lofty goals are based on a willingness to fail and learn from that failure. His first two catalogs lost money. He asked some customers and non-customer catalog subscribers for their feedback. They told him they didn't know much about car stereos and were intimidated by the thought of installing one themselves. The insights from those simple surveys turned his business around; he adapted his product selection, cost structure, customer service, and pricing based on that customer feedback. Today Crutchfield Corp. attempts to survey every customer after every purchase, as well as conducts a variety of ad hoc surveys and carefully monitors online feedback mechanisms such as BizRate and Awareness Tracking Omnibus Surveys.
"I rely heavily on sharing customer stories to inculcate a strong customer-centric culture," he says. "And we deploy more internal resources to developing new benefits and tools as opposed to cost reduction projects. Our employees see that we are primarily focused on improving the customer experienceand [employee-generated] ideas become focused to that vision."
Director of customer service is the perfect title for Jason Ward, whose extraordinary dedication to customers recently earned him the promotion to this position-one that will greatly impact the JetBlue customer experience.
For the past seven years, darling of the skies JetBlue touted its unique customer service as it strived to "bring humanity back to air travel by exceeding customer expectations." But when an ice storm pummeled much of the Northeast on February 14, grounding more than 1,000 flights and leaving many passengers stuck on the tarmac for hours, perceptions changed.
Immediately, CEO and founder David Neeleman began to work to restore customer trust. Behind the scenes, employees like Ward helped to rebuild its prestorm reputation.
Ward was tasked with maintaining the integrity of the newly launched Customer Bill of Rights, which he spent hours crafting with a dozen other employees. He also developed a response strategy to the thousands of customer complaints received at that time. "My main concern was working triage to make sure we're getting back to customers," he says. "We also wanted to get back to the people requesting refunds."
With 25 crew members responding to the 8,000 emails JetBlue received after the storm, Ward personally sifts through them each day and decides which ones to respond to based on their urgency and whether the writer is a current customer. He also developed talking points that his crew can use when crafting email replies.
In addition to talking to customers, he's been involved in designing contingency plans in preparation for future storms. The biggest one he's spearheading involves launching a new functionality online that will better aid people who are trying to service themselves during irregular situations. The system will allow the customers to waive their own change fees rather than call the overburdened contact center. "It's not a question of who's right or who's wrong; it's how you react to customers' problems. Good companies fix their problems; great companies fix their customers' problems."
Ward adopted that customer-first attitude while at Southwest airlines, where he spent eight years and where CEO Herbert Kelleher taught him that delivering quality customer service is no secret. "It's common sense," Kelleher would tell employees. "Treat people how they want to be treated." Ward says he took that advice to heart and it has served as an inspiration to him as he has worked around the clock to help JetBlue mend fences with customers.
Ward's work ethic has paid off. In mid-March, JetBlue transferred the impassioned Ward to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he will serve as director of customer service and is tasked with straightening the kinks in the system at the place where most of the February flights were grounded on the tarmac. Like he's done with all of his challenges, Ward will face the new job head on. "We accept the fact that we screwed up. Now we have a chance to show the world when a company screws up, how to make sure that doesn't happen again," he says. "We feel there's an opportunity in that."
In acquiring BellSouth, AT&T also acquired the company's vice president of marketing for retail markets, Joey Schultz. Schultz, the former head of BellSouth's marketing and loyalty initiatives, is now transitioning to vice president of consumer marketing at AT&T. He is proof that customer service starts and ends with direct customer interaction.
"Above and beyond any research we do, the fundamental thing throughout my career is being frontline-centric to get the best view I can of our customers," Schultz says.
He achieves that goal by spending one or two days a month in the company's call centers working with agents and seeing how they interact with customers. He wants to know what the most common issues are, what competitors have that BellSouth-and now AT&T-doesn't, and what the frontline employees think the company should do to better serve customers.
"There are two tiers to providing great service," Schultz says. "You have to ask the customers directly what they need, and you have to spend time with the service representatives and give them an active role in decisions that are made."
Like many companies, the telecom provider has more than enough customer data. Schultz uses that data to find the right fit between increasing customer satisfaction and decreasing churn. One way he tried to solve that problem is through the BellSouth Select loyalty program.
BellSouth Select is a small-business points-based rewards program. Customers can redeem earned points for merchandise, equipment, or product upgrades. Schultz found that he could derive the same amount of loyalty from a customer redeeming points one time as he could by securing a 36-month term agreement. That gave Schultz another opportunity to focus on customer preference. He tasked his team with enrolling customers who were against signing a contract into the program and then guiding them on how to redeem earned points. He even had service representatives call customers to remind them when there was an opportunity to earn rewards.
"That kind of thing seems counterintuitive for people who run loyalty programs who are trying to save money and hope for significant breakage," he says. "But at the end of the day if the customer doesn't engage in the program and redeem, you didn't derive the value of it in the first place."
Working in the telecommunications industry, Schultz believes strongly in bundling services and packaging products to strengthen customer relationships. He says the biggest factor for AT&T that predicts loyalty is whether the customer is using the right set of products. He uses his understanding of customers' needs to match them with the services, and directs his team to do the same. That allows them to deepen the connection with each customer instead of just maximizing the bundle.
"You have to provide great service," he says. "Not good, not OK, but service that makes a customer really think twice about switching when presented an offer from a competitor. Company perception and brand recognition are important, but I've found it's most important to get it right the first time, be professional, and deliver what you say you will." In other words, put the customer first and the rest will fall into place.