A lot of leaders call their companies customer-centric. But if you say it to Sue Swenson, you better mean it. The president and CEO of Sage North America can spot the difference between a customer-focused culture and what she calls “the program du jour” or mere initiative.
“To be customer-focused needs to be at the core of everything you do, not a program that is one-off,” she says. “It would be interesting to go into a meeting within the company and see how many times the customer is discussed and, frankly, when is the last time you spoke to a customer.”
If you eavesdropped on a monthly meeting at Sage, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Sage Group plc that provides business management software and services to 3.1 million companies, you’d hear the customer popping up more frequently in conversation — especially if you sneaked in during the last year. Since coming on board in May 2008, Swenson has zeroed in on the customer experience.
Traveling around the country to hear about it from both customers and employees, she learned the Sage experience wasn’t consistent. She wasn’t surprised. After all, Sage acquired more than 20 companies since 1998, each with its own customer service methods.
Swenson wanted to tap the potential of her 4,100 employees to provide a recognizable experience that would keep customers coming back and spreading the word. That overhaul required more than a one-time alignment — it meant setting in motion a cycle of improvement by sparking the ongoing conversation about how employees are serving customers and how they can do it better.
The steps she took to align the company’s approach are the same ones she uses to keep improving the customer experience at Sage.
“It really does take us challenging each other,” Swenson says. “It takes people who keep questioning that and keep pushing and providing an environment where people feel comfortable raising the question. …
“It can’t be an overlay. You really have to crack open everything that you’re doing and be conscious about asking yourself: Is that really a customer-centric approach to that?”
Examine the customer experience
Swenson’s first step is watching how her company meets customer needs, which requires a double-edged sword for addressing both the customer experience and the experience of the employee serving the customer.
She’s found a way to examine both at once.
“We monitor live calls against a directional framework that we would like people to use with the customer in terms of listening and responding and trying to take care of that call on the first contact,” she says. “Listening to the contact is probably the most effective.”
In tandem with assessing how employees are serving customers, monitoring calls also tunes you in to the customer’s perspective.
“Monitoring is a good barometer,” Swenson says. “It’s pretty quick feedback because when you make a change [to your customer service,] you can pay particular attention to the change. You hear what the customer experience is.”
Swenson and other customer support leaders monitor a set number of calls each month to give employees equal opportunity for feedback. They usually sit with the employee and connect through a jack in the phone so they can listen to the live conversation.
“The advantage of doing it side by side is the ability to watch the work process, watch the systems, see how the employee is able to interact with the customer and whether or not there are barriers to that,” she says.
That close observation might make employees nervous at first. But the way you set up the exercise can ease the tension.
First, clearly explain that the purpose of your visit is to improve the company, not nitpick about mistakes. Communicate what you’re listening for.
“We did a lot of training with our employees about what we were doing and why we were doing it and how we would be assessing this,” Swenson says. “So there was a lot of discussion upfront about what was going to be done.”
Obviously, as Swenson aligned the company’s approach, she wanted to hear the same basics regardless of which office she was visiting — like employees making personal connections with customers rather than treating them like a number.
She also listens for employees to address specific issues she’s asked them to crack down on, such as ending the conversation with, “Is there anything else I can do to help you today?”
“We have a standard approach in terms of the kinds of things that we look for: how the customer is greeted, the kind of engagement they have with the customer, whether or not they’ve been able to solve the customer’s problem,” Swenson says.
While the first layer of the exercise is hearing how the employee handles the encounter, your main goal is to identify areas for systemwide improvement, whether it’s a fault in the process or a best practice to spread. Staying focused on that goal as you evaluate can make employees more comfortable with monitoring in the future.
“You build that credibility over time because they realize you really are there to help them do a better job and not to be negative or look for all the mistakes,” Swenson says. “It’s not about what they didn’t do, but it’s what did the system or the way we’ve constructed the process do that got in the way of serving the customer.”
You’ll learn a lot by simply observing, but you’ll multiply the benefit by actually talking about it, too. So as soon as possible, if not immediately after the call, sit down with the employee to debrief.
Swenson sat in on one call where the employee needed to transfer the customer to another department but the contact person wasn’t available. The representative tried to get the manager instead, but the manager’s name wasn’t even in the system.
“I just talked to the rep after the call and said, ‘What would you need to make that more effective? What could help you?’” Swenson says. “It is not just observation, but it’s asking the person who’s actually doing the work, ‘What’s getting in the way of you serving the customer?’
“Give them feedback and get their feedback on how they thought the call went, what did they like about it, what would they do differently,” she says. “So it’s more interactive versus directive. We want to have a conversation with our employees because self-discovery is more powerful than listening to somebody talk at you. It really becomes their discussion and not the supervisor’s discussion.”
Keep finding fixes
Swenson might sound happier than you’d expect dealing with dissatisfied customers.
“I consider customer complaints a gift,” she says. “The fact that they’ve taken the time to call and tell us what is making them unhappy only enables us to take that information and do something with it to provide a better experience for customers who follow.”
That’s the next step of improving your customer service model: You have to use feedback to make changes.
“You can’t just listen and hope that something gets fixed by itself,” Swenson says. “You really have to bring that back
and make some trade-off decisions about where you’re going to take the product or the education process in the next step.”
If you’re like Swenson, you’ll have a lot of feedback to sift through — traditional customer satisfaction surveys, trending comments from social media and online communities, observations of customers using your service in the field or in your focus groups, and, of course, the customer and employee issues you observe while monitoring calls.
It seems overwhelming, but Swenson operates on the Pareto principle, which states that about 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. So she’s focused on those overarching issues.
“When you go at it as a continuous improvement, you really try to look for the themes across the organization,” she says. “Not surprisingly, you’ll find the same issues commonly across the company.”
Obviously, if you’re looking for companywide issues rather than isolated instances, you need to have your big-picture lenses on. Widen your view by bringing in various perspectives.
“We have cross-departmental groups that come together and bring that data from their particular discipline and integrate it so we’re not solving the same issue in a bunch of different places,” Swenson says. “We look at it more holistically across the company.”
It’s easier to detect those common themes if you set aside the origins of the feedback, at least momentarily.
“When I first joined the company, I went across the country and did employee focus groups along with my head of human resources,” Swenson says. “We collated all the information that employees were telling us — regardless of where they worked, what product they were working on — and we looked for common themes.”
During those sessions, for example, Swenson kept hearing that customer-facing employees had trouble transferring customers to the right place in the company. So the first leg of her analysis was how often the issue surfaced.
“We look for frequency of the distribution of that issue,” she says. “So if it’s happening frequently across a number of things, it obviously would get a higher priority for resolution than those things that are maybe one-off.”
After prioritizing the issues you want to address, turn them over to the employees who deal with them daily. They’ll have the best insight to solutions.
“Try to engage them and involve them as much as possible in developing the new method so that they can help support it,” Swenson says. “Sometimes I see leaders trying to be too prescriptive about what they want to accomplish, and it may not fit within how work gets done in the organization. So involving them in the design and implementation of that is really key.”
For example, if you notice an employee using a really effective process while you monitor a call, ask if he or she will champion the idea. Swenson either has that employee sit down with co-workers to share best practices or lead a training session about it.
“Sometimes that can work better than having your supervisor do it because it’s a peer,” she says. “It may not be exactly right, but people pick up these tips from each other, whether it’s how to use the system more effectively, or, ‘This is what I do before I call a customer,’ or, ‘Let me tell you how I’m able to resolve these issues with this department or that department.’”
When employees lead solutions themselves, buy-in for the change is already secured. They wouldn’t present a plan that they’re uncomfortable with.
To keep them on track, keep reminding them what you’re trying to solve and why. Swenson tells her employees she envisions a practical plan for improving the customer experience that’s efficient for both customers and employees.
“If there is no context or set of goals that they understand, then they’re going to not be as clear about what they should be doing,” says Swenson, who also sets up checkpoints to make sure employees progress toward the goal as they brainstorm solutions.
Using her employees’ ideas, she developed an intranet system to help representatives connect customers with the right person in the right department. Once your solution is in motion, the key is closing the loop.
“What’s really important is that there is a complete follow-up with the employee,” says Swenson, who keeps hearing and sharing reinforcement from both employees and customers about the revamped process. “Making sure you close the loop with the employee is important to show them that you’re really serious about making these things happen.
“The thing that will kill participation and engagement is not doing what you say,” she says. “If you’re going to ask people to be involved and to say that you’re making change for this reason, it can’t be lip service.”
Swenson’s focus on improving the customer experience added 123,000 new customers during 2009 and brought Sage’s revenue to $889.4 million for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. She keeps the cycle rolling through her employees’ 40,000 daily calls because a real commitment to customers — the kind she can hear in conversations — is never-ending.
“It is all about continuous improvement,” she says. “It’s really a journey and not a destination. You’re never going to arrive because customers’ needs are always changing.”
How to reach: Sage North America, (866) 996-7243 or www.sagenorthamerica.com