There is no denying it: Victor Nichols leads a complicated business unit housed within an even more complicated company.
Nichols is the CEO of Experian North America, the largest arm of Dublin, Ireland-based information services group Experian. In his role, Nichols oversees an operation that generated $2.2 billion in fiscal 2011 revenue, with 6,000 employees across four business lines: decision analytics, marketing services, interactive and, its best-known line of business, credit services — for which Experian has gained notoriety as one of the three main consumer credit reporting bureaus in the U.S.
However, for all the complexities that exist in the broad spectrum of Experian’s services, Nichols says they are, at heart, a customer service company. At the most basic level, Experian serves the people who work for client companies. It’s a fact that Nichols tries to keep front-of-mind for everyone within the organization.
“Experian’s challenge is helping customers achieve quality growth,” Nichols says. “There are certainly a lot of pressures on businesses, whether they be regulator, economic or consumer market driven, but our clients still have to achieve quality growth despite those market conditions. For our team, it’s really about stepping back from that and figuring out how we can address the unique requirements of each of our clients, matching our many products and services to help them advance in the way they need most, in order to help them achieve that quality growth.”
To step back, Nichols and the staff at Experian actually need to get closer — they need to maintain close relationships with clients, develop a deep knowledge of the challenges they face and how Experian’s array of products and services can help them address those challenges.
It’s a mentality that Nichols says is a fundamental part of Experian worldwide, and something he and his leadership team have worked hard to promote throughout the North American unit. Ultimately, Nichols says, great client and customer service has to be part of your culture, or the philosophy will never take root.
Keep your ear to the ground
Like many large companies, Experian has a sales force that relies heavily on travelling to various markets and interacting with customers in person. It is a critical component to Experian’s business model, not only from a sales standpoint but from a customer relationship standpoint.
When you have a sales force that has its shoes on the ground in the various markets you serve, they will develop and strengthen relationships simply by driving around and making their presence known by clients and customers. Those interactions become a valuable window into the daily business life of your customers, offering a glimpse of their needs, their challenges and how you can best serve them.
The key, Nichols says, is to take those salespeople who meet with your customers every day and give them a voice within your organization. The relationship they’re cultivating will be of no use to you and your management team if you don’t give your sales staff a means of reaching you with their observations and suggestions.
“When you have a strong sales team that is out there every day, a lot of what you learn is going to come from those team members,” Nichols says. “You need to realize that, more often than not, they’re going to be the voice of the customer to you. That’s why it’s important that team members have a strong voice within the organization, that they have input regarding the innovation and the enhancements that you are going to make within the organization.”
Apart from the sales force and the other members of the Experian team that interact with customers in person, Nichols also places an emphasis on finding and maximizing other touch points between the company and customers.
“You have call center people, you have product people getting input,” he says. “We also conduct customer conferences throughout the year, both large and small in size, to bring customers together with our team to discuss what is going on with them. In addition, we have various panel discussions and webinars that take place with our customers. The things that you would consider solid business practices by any business today are the things we do. It’s really about developing a culture of engagement between your business and the customer. In our case, we have a strong vision aligned with those values, centered on customer care. If you can get that established, all of the other practices start to take hold.”
Advance the culture
A commonplace saying that has developed in the business world is, “A company’s culture isn’t what the leadership says it is, it’s what the employees believe it is.” If you want a customer-centric culture, you need employees who embrace and promote the idea, and are willing to put in the work to develop strong bonds with customers.
At Experian, prospective employees are measured for their cultural fit throughout the interview process. The acceptance of a job offer is quickly followed by rounds of on-the-job training in the work environment.
Nichols says finding the right employees who can serve as building blocks for a customer-focused culture is the result of a combination of factors. You need solid recruiting practices led by a human resources team that has a well-defined concept of the core values and mission of the organization. You need a thorough interview process, and you need a training program that promotes your values to new hires early and often.
“Finding the right people for your situation is a combination of many things,” Nichols says. “You are certainly recruiting for people who have those instincts that align with your values. But you can train for it as well. You can teach people to ask the open-ended questions and go through the processes that you need to go through to uncover a customer’s core needs.”
Training at Experian happens largely in the field. Though classroom learning has a place in a training program, Nichols says the best education is less on concepts and more about practice. With that in mind, he wants to get new hires at the customer-interface level to the interface point as soon as possible, gaining firsthand knowledge of what it means to stay in touch with a customer’s wants and needs.
“You can’t do this type of training in a formal, behind-the-desk, PowerPoint presentation kind of process,” Nichols says. “The training comes from real-life orientation, a structured program in which people can go around, meet their coworkers, get a sense of the larger organization that they are now a part of, and get them on the job as fast as possible with a supportive environment around them. It’s a type of ingrained interaction as opposed to a formal classroom setting.”
Nichols frequently leverages relationships within the company to help promote the culture. If employees are engaged and taught by their coworkers, they’ll develop a heightened desire to interact with others, and those habits will spill over into their customer interaction.
“At Experian, we benefit from a tightly-knit team,” Nichols says. “We encourage our people to come together, talk and educate each other. We encourage diversity of thought, and I think we’re brave enough to continue encouraging it. It’s necessary, because it brings together different individuals who have different perspectives, and that enables us to reach richer, better-informed decisions.”
To help foster internal interaction throughout the Experian organization, Nichols and his leadership team have put a number of programs in place to offer opportunities for interaction among employees.
“We have centers for creative leadership, helping to advance select individuals who are demonstrating an aptitude to progress in the organization,” Nichols says. “In addition, we’ve established enterprise business networks that are held for a great number of team members at all levels in every region. And along with that, we’ve formed a strong mentoring program. Each of those individuals has a seasoned mentor in their line of business. Through that program, they get far greater insight into the strategy and execution of the company.”
In an organization of thousands with a massive footprint, you might think Nichols and his direct reports are so far detached from the customer interface point, that what they demonstrate might have a relatively small influence on the how the company conducts its customer interaction at ground level.
In reality, Nichols and his team are cognizant of how much what they say and do impacts the culture of the organization, and the level to which it is adopted by those who do talk to customers on a daily basis.
In short, if you want engagement and customer service to be maintained as priorities, it needs to start at the top of the ladder.
“It repeatedly comes back to that high level of engagement from the top, having a management team that has strong skills, that knows the business,” Nichols says. “In our case, we have many leaders who have lived on both sides. They have been customers and consumers who have used many of the products and services we offer, and they are out there in the marketplace dealing with the team members who report to them.
“It all continues to be complemented by the formal processes as well. We have a periodic employee team-member survey, and we are very rigorous with how we approach that. We seek high levels of participation, soliciting opinions from team members on what they think is working best within the organization and what they think we could be doing better. We then develop action plans around that, and stay committed to those.”
Though the surveys provide a more direct way for upper management to stay in touch with the employees who work at or near the customer interface level, a much greater volume of information bubbles up through the organization from subordinates interacting with their managers. Nichols and his team keep those channels open and encourage their use, so that everyone in the chain of command hears the latest news and ideas, and stays focused on the latest trends involving customers.
“We have an organization that is constantly generating ideas, and they will bring them forth to the organizational teams, bounce it off of them, and they go through various processes to see what the business case would be for a given idea, and how it would manifest itself to be beneficial for the team or the clients. It’s really about selecting the highest-priority ideas and that are going to give you the greatest return and help your clients the most.”
Nichols and his team often don’t reject an idea outright. In many cases, an idea from the customer interface point can be used in some form or at some time. It might simply need altering to fit your current plans, or to be shelved for a later time when it makes more sense.
“It’s less about not moving forward, and more about moving forward with a new idea in phases,” Nichols says. “I would say that is almost always the case. Rarely does an idea go forward as initially conceived. You go through a structured development cycle and test it. We usually roll the product out in various markets where we think it will have the greatest ability. That’s the key, to make an idea successful, but at a pace that makes sense, both for the company and the clients you are serving.”
How to reach: Experian North America, (714) 830-7000 or www.experian.com
The Nichols file
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, University of California, San Diego; MBA, University of California, Berkeley
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve been lucky to learn a lot of different lessons from the leadership team here. What I’ve learned is that it’s good to care and it’s good to promote that diversity of thought, and you have to execute on your commitment. If you make a commitment, whether it’s for a customer or the community, or for our financial performance, you have to execute on that.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
You have to demonstrate the same qualities that you’re expecting from the rest of the team, and that’s where that engagement and interaction becomes so important.
What is your definition of success?
Taking care of the customer by meeting their needs, helping them achieve that quality growth. Also, it’s about empowering them to make informed decisions, helping our clients to manage their customers, helping them to make smarter financial decisions and live better lives.
In addition, taking care of the team members, making sure their work equation is such that it enables them to be successful, while still having fun in the process.