Customer Experience: How to Balance Culture and Operations

Every organization talks about being customer focused. The hard part is translating the mindset into the realities of day-to-day decision making.

What does it really take to deliver a consistently superior customer experience across different touch points? We asked a panel of four experts for their perspective.

  • Jonathan Becher, chief marketing officer, SAP
  • Curtis Bingham, founder and executive director, Chief Customer Officer Council.
  • Kerry Bodine, customer experience expert and co-author of Outside In
  • Volker Hildebrand, group vice president, CRM solutions, SAP, and co-author of The Customer Experience Edge
call center

For companies that are trying to become more customer centric, is the greater challenge cultural or operational?

Curtis Bingham: It’s both. If you try to change culture without changing operations, the cultural initiative will fail because the culture starts bumping up against operational limitations. There is nothing worse than convincing all of your employees to play nice with customers and then having your billing department screw something up because some flag was set incorrectly.

But if you make operational changes that employees don’t want to [embrace] because they like things the way they are, then the culture will squelch the operational changes.

Jonathan Becher: Many people think customer experience is all related to operations. Sure, a customer experience is impacted by rational things like what hours your bank is open or how fast you deliver a package. But there’s research that suggests at least half of customer experience is the subconscious – how you feel about your interactions with a company.

Here’s a great example: A multinational insurance company called Aviva was having issues in its call center. After speaking with an agent, 75% of customers called back to clarify when they would be receiving their policy document. The company was getting thousands of extra phone calls.

A customer experience team analyzed the calls and pinpointed the problem to one word: should. The agents would tell customers that they “should” be receiving their documents in four to five days. Because of the uncertain nature of the postal service, the agents thought they were being customer centric by not setting false expectations. But the word should actually created uncertainty. Customers would hang up, reflect on the conversation, and then call back to clarify when the documents would arrive. So they changed the agents’ scripts to “will arrive” instead of “should arrive,” and callbacks dropped from 75% to 6% in a matter of weeks.

Is that cultural? Is that operational? It’s both.

A consistent omnichannel experience seems like an almost impossible task considering how most organizations are structured. Is it achievable?

Bingham: By not allowing people to participate in things outside of their job function, we’ve encouraged a narrow-minded adherence to “not my problem.” There’s a huge untapped resource among employees who wish they had some connection with customers, some way to help, but they can’t. Right now, so many companies have a huge infrastructure with boundaries that no one is supposed to cross.

But what if you could quickly put together a team of people from across the organization who know the state of a customer relationship, know the key issues, and know some of the things needed to fix the relationship? What if you allowed them to participate in the effort to fix the problem, and then, once the problem’s fixed, you allowed them to disband and return to their regular work? Most large companies don’t have the ability to create these shadow teams.

Kerry Bodine: Silos aren’t going away anytime soon. We may start to see some new organizational models emerge, but we won’t see a legacy bank or automaker completely scrap the way it’s been doing business for decades.

The idea, then, is that you need to create connections, along with visibility, across those silos so that people see how the work of one silo impacts the others and how they collectively impact customer experience.

How do you embed customer experience into your day-to-day operations? What’s the blueprint?

Volker Hildebrand: Most business processes are designed for internal efficiency, not for the customer experience. You need to have the right key performance indicators and metrics in place, along with the right compensation and incentive models. If you still pay your salespeople the same way, you’re not going to change their behavior. But if half their compensation is based on how much value they create for the customer, that’s a different story.

Bodine: Tools such as journey maps are critical because they show all customer interactions across time, across channels, and across touch points – all from the customer’s point of view. Ecosystem maps take the journey maps one step further by examining what’s happening internally to cause problems in the customer experience.

Organizations are starting to use these tools to get people to think about customer experience from the outside in. But you can also use them as planning tools to identify the parts of the experience, including the transition points between or within channels, that are most broken – and then you can prioritize the issues based on how important each one is to both the customer and the business.

Too many customer experience fixes are short-term Band-Aids. Ultimately you want to fix the more systemic issues.

There’s a huge untapped resource among employees who wish they had some connection with customers, some way to help, but they can’t.

Curtis Bingham, Founder and Executive Director, Chief Customer Officer Council

How do you balance the need for a better customer experience with the return on that investment?

Becher: Many organizations say they want to reduce average call times. That’s operationally efficient, but it’s not really customer centric. Being customer centric is taking the extra time to ask “Do you understand the information I just gave you? Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Instead of measuring how quickly you answer their question, maybe you want to optimize on how infrequently the customers call back. That’s an example of total customer experience based on lifetime value, not transactions.

Hildebrand: Ask yourself if you can afford to do nothing or lag behind your competition in terms of customer experience, or CX. Forrester has completed a compelling study comparing the market value of CX leaders to CX laggards. The result: the market value of CX laggards was cut in half within five years. Do you really want to risk becoming irrelevant?



The SAP Center for Business Insight is a program that supports the discovery and development of new research-based thinking to address the challenges of business and technology executives.

About the author:

Jonathan Becher is chief marketing officer for SAP AG.

Curtis Bingham is founder and executive director of the Chief Customer Officer Council.

Kerry Bodine is a customer experience expert and co-author of "Outside In".

Volker Hildebrand is a group vice president, CRM solutions for SAP AG , and co-author of "The Customer Experience Edge".

Rob O’Regan is founder and principal of 822 Media, an editorial and content marketing consultancy.


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