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Guest Blogger: Paul Hagen | April 9, 2012

Looking at the Partner Role in Improving Customer Experience

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Many different types of firms have channel partners or others that control a significant part of the actual experience with customers. Automobile companies have dealers, insurance and real estate firms have independent agents, software companies have value-added resellers (VARs), restaurants and hotels have franchises, and heavy equipment manufacturers have resellers. Even the brokers or financial advisors within financial services organizations can act in many ways like these external partners.

While companies may not have direct control over these partners, firms are waking up to the fact that there are ways to influence these organizations to provide a better customer experience (CX). To ensure that partners enhance the customer experience:

Share VoC data with partners. Standard voice of the customer (VOC) programs make customer feedback data available to internal employees throughout the organization. Firms should use adapted versions of these dashboards to deliver relevant insights to partners. Deluxe, which sells services to small businesses and financial institutions, gathers customer research on the behalf of its smaller partners, which cannot afford to pay for these insights on their own. Such insights gathered after the financial crisis helped many of its smaller financial services clients understand specific teller behavior that was hurting relationships more than helping.

Map your CX ecosystem to understand the partner role. Healthy CX ecosystems--defined as the complex set of relationships among a company's employees, partners, and customers that determines the quality of all customer interactions--are in balance, with each player's actions benefitting the other parties in the system. However, partner organizations will have their own set of business objectives and revenue targets or might focus on contractual targets--like billable hours or uptime--without understanding how those metrics affect their partners' customers. English utility provider Southern Water identified dozens of customer touchpoints owned by subcontractors when mapping customer-facing and behind-the-scenes activities. By doing this, it was able to take better control over the experience and, more important, scale its installation process to meet new demands.

Articulate customer experience expectations and provide training up front. Just as the hiring of employees that innately share a customer-focused ethic is a powerful force in creating culture, firms can apply the same standards to their partners. One W Hotel required its outsourced restaurant to meet the same brand standards as the hotel, including hiring staff that shared the "fun, fresh, and flirty" personality. One software company rewrote the contracts with its outsourced call centers to include customer feedback expectations. It also equipped them with up-front training, provided posters with customer values and quotes, and created an experience room that allowed service reps a space to take a break and relax.

Incentivize partners to deliver the desired CX. Just as firms can provide rewards and incentives to internal employees for delivering targeted CX, B2B companies can do the same with partners. Depending on the relationships, B2B companies can offer carrots or sticks. One firm used its correlation between higher NPS and revenue to entice independent agents into CX training programs. Cisco Systems factors customer satisfaction scores into the metrics that it uses to advance partners in its tier structure. Another company simply directs more business to those that achieve higher customer experience metrics.

Build a voice of the partner (VoP) program. VoC programs have long been a key building block for CX efforts. Most firms, as they mature, recognize the link between the employee experience and CX, so adapt these programs, follow-up processes, and technology platforms to include the voice of the employee (VoE). As firms get deeper into improving their CX ecosystems, they should apply a similar model to improve their understanding and address shortcomings in parts of the experience controlled by partners.

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About the Author: Paul Hagen is a principal analyst at Forrester Research serving Customer Experience professionals. He blogs at http://blogs.forrester.com/paul_hagen

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