Learning from a Customer Experience Leader

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Discover which customer experience strategies Forrester's Michael Gazala and Ally Bank's David Vasquez think will serve as the launchpad for innovation in 2016.
Customer Experience

For many brands, customer centricity remains an empty promise because, while leaders aim to put these individuals first, many fail to implement effective programs that support such goals. Instead, companies must enact best practices that focus on advancing the customer experience in their effort to establish successful initiatives today so they may better serve the consumer of tomorrow.

But what can these laggards learn from present program successes in order to improve future brand strategies?

Here, we speak with Michael Gazala, vice president, research director at Forrester Research; and David Vasquez, Integrated Channels and Experience executive at Ally Bank-a perennial leader according to Forrester's U.S. Customer Experience Index-to determine which elements exist at the core of every effective customer experience strategy, which methods currently take priority, and what's on the agenda for 2016.

1to1 Media: What elements must be at the foundation of your CX strategy to maximize success? Why?

Michael Gazala: Superior customer experience doesn't just happen. And just saying that you love your customers or that the customer is always right will never be enough. Instead, delivering consistently good or great CX requires discipline-think of it as the corporate equivalent of exercising and eating right. To excel at customer experience, organizations must routinely perform the practices required to design, implement, and manage customer experience in a disciplined way.

We've identified six disciplines that mature CX organizations excel at: Strategy, Customer Understanding, Design, Measurement, Governance, and Culture. You need to start with a strategy that provides a vision for a consistent experience. Then you need a consistent, shared understanding of who your customers are, and what they want and need. Next, mature companies have a formal design process they use to co-create experience designs with key stakeholders, and weed out bad ideas early. Measurement practices let organizations track customer experience quality as an ongoing gauge of success, using customer perceptions as the ultimate test of what's "good", while a CX governance system creates accountability by assigning specific experience management tasks to specific people, and setting the process for monitoring quality and improving it on a continuous basis. Finally, the culture discipline creates shared values and behaviors that focus employees on delivering a great customer experience, turning CX into a habit and laying the foundation for future advancements.

David Vasquez: When we launched Ally Bank in 2009, our brand promise was to provide a customer-centric, transparent experience for all our customers. At Ally, we refer to this as being obviously better, and the cornerstone of this philosophy is to ensure our customers feel that we are putting them first. Whether they are reaching out to us via our customer care center, a website, social media, or through a mobile app, we want our customers to have a consistent and unified experience that reflects our promise to being open and straightforward. To ensure we meet these expectations, we focus internally on quality, problem ownership, first contact resolution, and a painless customer experience.

In addition, we gather voice of the customer feedback by actively listening and acting upon what they like, dislike, and want, and evaluate this information to determine how we might improve our products, features, and services. Through this process we have learned that our customers' perspectives are the best research we could hope to gather and an invaluable resource in maintaining satisfaction scores that are consistently in excess of 90 percent. These measures enable Ally to evolve to meet the ever-changing expectations and demands of customers.

1to1: Which CX strategies have garnered the most attention within the past year? Why have these taken priority overall?

MG: The role of emotion in customer experience has been garnering a lot of attention, and rightly so. Our research shows that emotion-how an experience makes a customer feel-has a bigger influence on brand than effectiveness or ease, according to 17 of the 18 U.S. industries we studied. Leading CX brands study the emotional context of their customers and do what they can to make sure that customers don't walk away mad. While the brands polled in our CX Index report delivered an average of seven positive experiences for each negative one, our best-of-breed brands deliver 24 positive experiences for every negative one. Empathy building rituals help drive improvements to the emotional experience. That's why companies like USAA have employees read letters from deployed military personnel as a reminder that even small financial decisions feel overwhelming if you're already worried about family back home.

DV: We feel it is important that we demonstrate an understanding of the value of our customers' time by providing them with options to bank in whatever method they prefer. We offer simple, convenient access to their accounts with online banking and mobile apps and award-winning 24/7 customer care to allow our customers to bank whenever and wherever they want. In January of this year, we launched a redesigned online banking experience. Nearly one-half of Ally Bank's retail deposit customers use online banking, and the new platform provides a simpler, smarter way to manage their bank accounts, as well as new features most frequently requested by customers. In designing the new online platform, we reviewed best-in-class experiences both within and outside of the financial services sector and conducted extensive usability testing with existing and prospective customers. The result is a design that delivers an innovative and intuitive user experience and enhanced functionality consistent with changing consumer expectations.

Understanding that today's banking customers are more connected than ever and access their accounts across multiple devices, we focused on designing a user-friendly, personalized experience with a familiar look across all digital touchpoints. With fewer elements per page and larger fonts and buttons, the new design also provides improved touchscreen interaction for customers accessing online banking from their tablets. When customers need support beyond the tasks they can accomplish using online banking, we encourage them to reach a customer care associate to answer their questions or to resolve an issue.

Another initiative this year was our Ally CARE program, designed to provide an even better experience by increasing first contact resolution at Ally. The initiative focuses on four important principles of good customer service: Communication, Accountability, Resolution, and Empathy. Key elements of the program emphasize that all actions have an impact on the customer experience and stress the importance of being sincere, actively listening to customer concerns, and putting employees in "their shoes." Exploring opportunities for process improvements is also an integral part of the program.

This program focuses on how we can adopt a customer-centric attitude in all decision points, improve our ability to serve customers, reduce points of pain, remove barriers, and maximize the relationship with our customers. An important component of this program is to increase the empowerment of the contact center associates. The teams have identified service requests currently performed by operations that could be handled by the contact center, resulting in quicker resolution for the customer. While the customer care and operations teams have always worked together, this new alliance allows us to operate as one continuous service provider for our customers, and ensures that our customers are receiving the best service possible from Ally Bank.

1to1: How does this increased focus on CX improvements impact customer relationships? How does this focus influence customer loyalty and engagement?

MG: In and of itself, good or great customer experience isn't the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal should be something like revenue growth. When designing and delivering CX, companies should focus on how good CX can drive loyalty, which in turn drives revenue. Our research shows that customer experience explains anywhere from 47 percent of the variation in loyalty for investment firms on the low end to 76 percent of that variation for car rental companies.

So, how do you drive loyalty? To answer that question, we use our CX Index to measure how well brands deliver on 25 drivers of CX quality and loyalty, like how quickly they resolve customers' problems. These drivers help explain why a firm's CX Index score is what it is and shed light on specific areas for improvement. Some CX Index drivers, like resolution speed, are basic CX hygiene factors that apply in every industry. Others are industry-specific because they relate to things like a store, branch, or claims process that are only relevant in specific contexts. Drilling down, we find that making customers feel valued is one of the three universal drivers of CX and loyalty and is essential in all 18 of the industries we study in our CX Index. Our research shows that it's particularly important for financial services firms. When customers feel valued by a brand, they give it higher scores for customer advocacy, which is the perception that the brand does what's best for customers and not just what's best for its own bottom line.

DV: To provide the best possible experience, we work to make every customer feel as though they are recognized as an individual, that their business is important to us, and that they will get the same experience and answers regardless of the channel in which they choose to interact. A truly great experience is one that is rooted in helping customers achieve their financial objectives and is efficient and pleasant, ultimately driving customer loyalty and satisfaction.

We have found that our customer-centric philosophy is mutually beneficial: When Ally delivers a better customer experience by continuing to evolve our products and services to meet our customers' needs, we are not only able to retain more of their business, we are also able to deepen relationships with them as they are looking for additional products and services and attract new customers through positive word-of-mouth. How we value and service our customers, how we engage and communicate with them, and how we take ownership of their issues allows us to evolve and enhance their experience, and ultimately are factors in what makes an Ally experience best-in-class.

1to1: What's on the agenda for 2016? Which CX strategies will command the most attention next year?

MG: As companies begin to invest in new interfaces and adopt digital experiences, they will begin to recognize the limitations of their legacy systems. After years of integrating uncoordinated technologies across call centers, marketing teams, and product lines, they will realize that these tools, while effective as standalone solutions, don't offer the ability to unify the customer journey across touchpoints in today's omnichannel environment. However, an increase in CMO buy-in will afford customer experience professionals more visibility throughout the organization. CMOs will lead by discussing the brand, marketing, and CX strategies together, facilitating greater alignment among the three areas of the business. But CMOs will have to be careful not to overshadow the voices of those who champion the customer experience just to satisfy and achieve their own goals.

DV: Consistent with offering new features we believe will enhance the overall banking experience, we will continue to focus on ways to enable customers to further customize how they manage and access their Ally accounts in an intuitive, convenient, and easy-to-use manner. Customers are embracing the mobile channel as their go-to source of information about their accounts, as well as looking for tools to conduct transactions and perform other tasks, such as the ability to start an application.

One example of how this is evolving is the recent expansion of our Ally Mobile Banking app for the iPhone to include Ally Assist, a virtual assistant that responds to customer inquiries in a way that delivers a more intuitive and personalized banking experience. Using automated intelligence and customer data profiles, Ally Assist anticipates customers' needs and approaches them with relevant solutions. The system "learns" from individual interactions and transactional behavior to determine the likelihood of needed information. For example, it can suggest data users might be interested in, such as the date and amount of a recent deposit, or a duplicate charge posted to a checking account. We are proud to be one of the first banks to introduce this capability.

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