Business today is more competitive than ever. With a few clicks of the keyboard, every customer can research, price check and read reviews of your product or service. Many times, with one more click, they can have that same product delivered to their door from anywhere in the world. Want it tomorrow? No problem.
So how does a business succeed in this era of the empowered consumer? How can it differentiate itself? I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and the answer may lie in a practice called Customer Experience Management.
Failing on the promise
Let’s talk about customer experience. How many times has a customer service representative ended a conversation by reciting something along the lines of, “I hope you received excellent customer service today,” when the service was less than gratifying? How satisfied did you feel after hearing their script?
Most businesses pay lip service to the idea of superior customer service, but when it’s time to execute, they fail. Their departments are structured to run their own processes smoothly, not to ensure their customers think, or better yet, say, “Wow.”
CEM asserts that if we put our customer’s experience at the core of our business and subsequently construct functional departments around it, we will gain that competitive edge. Yet, truly understanding the customer’s experience while interacting with your business is easier said than done. So, how does one reinvent a company with the customer at the center?
Start at the touch points
Begin by becoming aware of your company’s touch points — all the places a customer comes into contact with your business. Keep in mind that these touch points vary widely. They include obvious departments such as telesales and customer support, but these touch points also include the clarity of the invoice/statement, your website, your ad in the newspaper, a partner or retailer and many more.
We did a quick count at my company and discovered 26 touch points! Too many for sure, since more touch points mean more opportunities for mistakes.
After you’ve identified the touch points, do some investigating. Be the mystery shopper, in person and on the phone. Listen to the language a salesperson uses to describe your product or service. Do it again. Notice the differences between what you hear depending on who is serving you. How did their actions differ from what you wish they had done?
Once you experience every touch point first hand, you might begin to feel your customers’ frustration, pain and sometimes, surprise. Then you can begin rebuilding toward a satisfying customer experience.
Use CEM as a tool
Right now at EVault, we’re working hard to reduce and improve each touch point using a CEM lens. For us, that means creating simple, valuable, authentic and pleasantly surprising exchanges.
We want each customer to feel that every interaction with EVault was worth their time, was clear that we genuinely wanted to help, and that we did something pleasingly unexpected.
How do you want your customers to feel when they interact with your business? You need to find out and then rebuild.
Terry Cunningham is president and general manager of EVault Inc., a Seagate company. He founded Crystal Services, which was purchased by Seagate in 1994 and integrated into the company’s software division, which then became Seagate Software. He has also served as president and COO of Veritas Software, and founded, built and led two other successful software companies.
A number of years ago, a friend of mine owned a small and successful neighborhood gym, long before the big chains got into the business. In the beginning, he was extremely excited. He poured his heart and soul into the operation. We used to talk about how much potential the business had, the cool clients, the trainers, the community activities — all of it.
Six years later, his tone changed. Words and phrases like “boring” and “same old, same old” were now part of his everyday lexicon. He lost some clients, whom he labeled as “complainers,” and decided he was better off without them. I’m sure you can predict the outcome: He sold the business for a fraction of what it had been worth during its heyday.
Soon after the sale, the new owners ramped up the business, grew their client base, expanded to other locations and took the business to the next level. My friend watched from the sidelines. “I could have done that,” he said. And he could have.
Just after selling the gym, during one of our late-night brainstorming sessions, my friend asked me what I thought the new owners would do to give the business a facelift. I asked him, “What do you think they will do?” He was the fitness expert, after all. What would he do if he were starting again? Shockingly, my friend immediately reeled off a list of exciting and brilliant ideas that he would execute.
The lesson I learned that night was what I now call the innovator’s plateau. Each of us begins an endeavor buzzing with energy and full of ideas. We get up and go to work each day excited about seeing our vision materialize. Yet after a certain number of years, things settle. We grow accustomed to the people we see every day and notice their idiosyncrasies. We develop routines that aren’t stimulating. We tread water. We’re bored. We’re beaten.
Avoiding the plateau
So how does one avoid the innovator’s plateau? Simple. Pay attention. Take your emotional temperature every year. Ask yourself hard questions. Have you peaked emotionally? Why are you bored? Is this really as good as it gets, or are you unwilling to take new risks, financially, energetically, emotionally?
Is someone out there doing a better job? If your board fired the current executives and brought in a new management team, what would they do to fix and build the business? What would your customers ask for if you dared to ask them?
One of the best books I’ve read is written by Andy Grove, the retired CEO of Intel. In 1996, Grove wrote, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” This axiom had a profound impact on me as I was growing my business, and it still does today. So if you find yourself getting bored, consider it an alarm bell. Wake up and innovate. See your business in a new way. And remember what your mother said: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring,” so go out and push the envelope. ?
Terry Cunningham is president and general manager of EVault Inc., a Seagate Company. He founded Crystal Services, which was purchased by Seagate in 1994 and integrated into the company’s software division, which then became Seagate Software. He has also served as president and COO of Veritas Software and founded, built and led two other successful software companies.
One of the questions I wished I focused on earlier in my business career is, “How do I ensure my company remains a great place to work?” The answer: You consciously craft its culture.
What is culture? Try to think about your company as a person, with a specific personality. Do you like it?
You may be thinking the personality (culture) of your company happens organically, or that it’s simply an extension of you. Most founders I’ve met start their companies with a strong vision and a passionate belief in what they’re doing.
When a company is small, it often adopts the personality of its leader because the leader is in direct contact with every employee daily. His or her personality is so dominant that it outweighs all others.
But before you know it, you’re on the road to success and it’s time to hire more people to grow your business — and this is when culture can get away from you.
New people bring new attitudes to work that may be different from yours. But in the spirit of working together, accommodations are made to try to keep people happy. Soon, the company isn’t what you imagined. People aren’t handling customers with the same care you would. Going to work every day isn’t fun. You find yourself thinking: How did we get here?
Assessing an individual’s fit is always a challenge. We all want to hire smart, hardworking, creative individuals. A touch of genius is nice too. Yet if you’ve ever hired anyone, you know that the hiring process is tricky. All kinds of personalities show up for interviews. One candidate arrives with an extensive skill set or impressive resume but a questionable work ethic or flat personality. One shows up with a great personality but less-impressive resume. Whom do you hire?
Use the ultimate test
A friend of mine, who had a successful career as a venture capitalist, once told me about an ultimate test he would apply when investing in a company, called the “Toledo Test.” Here is a variation: Imagine a massive snowstorm in Toledo, Ohio, and you and your hiring candidate are stranded. The airport is closed. You must spend the weekend sharing a hotel room with this person while the storm passes.
If the thought of being with this candidate in this situation strikes fear in your heart, do not hire the person. If the thought sounds fun, evoking images of the two of you solving the world hunger problem over a few drinks, then hire the person.
We can’t always accurately assess someone right off the bat, and that’s OK. Mistakes happen.
Admit your errors
The other key to building and maintaining great culture is admitting when you’ve made a mistake and fixing it. The greatest mistake I made in all my years of business was not firing people fast enough. A bad fit negatively affects the business and also the good hires — employees who are killing themselves for the cause, sacrificing family time and vacations while they watch others goof off.
Now some of you may feel this sounds a little harsh. However, I’ve learned that firing a person who is clearly a bad fit is not only good for the company, but it’s good for the individual. Don’t believe me? At a wine tasting in California, I ran into a woman whom I had fired years earlier. Now she owns the beautiful winery and is so much happier.
So the answer to crafting a successful culture is hire better, fire faster. Spend more time finding the right people so you make fewer mistakes hiring. And when you discover you’ve made a bad hire, remove the person as quickly as possible, before they affect the “personality” of your company.
Terry Cunningham is president and general manager of EVault Inc., A Seagate Co. He founded Crystal Services, which was purchased by Seagate in 1994 and integrated into the company’s software division, which then became Seagate Software. His accomplishments include serving as president and COO of Veritas Software and founding, building and leading two other successful software companies.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to retire from daily work and take some time off. It was a chance to spend time with family and friends, pursue overdue projects and contemplate my past business success and failure.
My company had been prosperous, and while I sat with my feet up on my desk appreciating how good the outcome had been, I also started wondering about what I could have done better. It occurred to me that had I known then what I know now, there were a few key questions that I wished someone had asked me, if not at the start, then at least early on.
The first question — and probably the biggest one — was: What did I ultimately want from the business I founded? Was it to grow it quickly and sell it to the highest bidder in a short period of time, say five years, or to create a “lifestyle” company that would conservatively allow me to withdraw a sizable salary each year, for many years to come?
Looking back, I realize my answer always depended on the numbers. If, for example, my choice was between a business that produced a salary of $1 million for 10 years, or a business that produced a salary of $200,000 for five years with an exit value of $8.9 million at the end of the fifth year, which scenario would I prefer? Doing that math, perhaps it would have been easier for me to make a clear and informed choice.
But what if the numbers didn’t provide an easy answer?
For you quantitative people, you’ll notice both scenarios above yield roughly the same Net Present Value, thereby eliminating money as a deciding factor. So if money isn’t the deciding factor, what is left to consider?
This brings me to my next question: Is it more important to have a profitable business, even if the day-to-day operations are boring? Or would I rather earn less money and work at something “cool” that I was excited to tell my friends about? If you are facing this choice today, think carefully. Can you really handle 10 years of feeling unchallenged? Will the money be enough to get you out of bed in the morning and into your office? On the other hand, if you sold your business after five years, what would you do next? My father-in-law worked his entire life in anticipation of retirement, only to discover retirement drove him crazy.
Lastly, take an honest look at yourself. How much of your ego is wrapped up in the outcome? My father dreamed of building a family legacy — that was the most important thing for him. Yet for some of my friends, fixing a business and selling it left them feeling fulfilled. There is no right answer, other than to ask yourself, when it’s all over, will you feel prouder of “built to last” or “built to flip”?
I wasn’t lucky enough to think about these issues when I should have, and when I discuss them with business owners today, they often respond with, “What difference does it make?” The reason these questions are important to consider now, is that the answers to these questions will help you make better long-term decisions every day. You’ll allocate resources differently for a company that you intend to keep for life than you will for a company that you hope to flip quickly.
For example, if you are planning to sell your business to a larger company, the buyer tends to look for great products that can fit into their product line. For this reason, it makes more sense to invest in your product or service as opposed to sales and marketing. On the other hand, if you are planning to keep the business for a long time, you will need to invest in building a strong and resilient sales and marketing organization.
The best advice I can offer you is: Answer these questions and then build your business accordingly.
Terry Cunningham is president and general manager of EVault Inc., A Seagate Company. He founded Crystal Services, which was purchased by Seagate in 1994 and integrated into the company's software division, which then became Seagate Software. His accomplishments include serving as president and COO of Veritas Software, and founding, building, and leading two other successful software companies.