Four years ago, Consumers Energy embarked on a journey to transform its service to customers. We didn’t have a detailed map to guide us, or even a clearly defined destination in mind, but we were driven by a commitment to deliver an extraordinary experience to every customer, every time. It’s a commitment that has led us to measurable, successful results.
The following 10 items are at the core of our transformational progress. Whatever your journey may be, we hope you will find an idea or two here that will prove useful in reaching your destination.
1. EMBRACE A VISION, NOT A SOLUTION
Enterprise projects don’t move at the same speed that new technology solutions emerge, nor at the pace that customer expectations can change. Recognizing that our journey would be a learning experience (and that our assumptions would be changing along our multiyear, digital transformation), we made a deliberate choice to deviate from our standard approach to the project charter, which establishes accountability for our major technology initiatives. Our charter made the team responsible for delivering on a concept rather than committing to a predefined scope or solutions. This provided clear direction for leaders and an adaptable foundation for project teams.
2. FIND THE RIGHT PEOPLE AND PARTNERS
As elementary as it may seem, people make all the difference. With any large project, our key skill areas needed to be covered by leaders who passionately embrace a common vision. To help bring our customer service transformation to life, we inserted an internal change agent or two who would thrive in uncharted territory — and who would double their efforts when told something couldn’t be done. Our project teams were rounded out with internal staff to deliver the right bench strength, as well as outside expertise — third party consultants and vendors — to help guide us through rougher waters (and we found that there are plenty of rough waters). In building your team, don’t underestimate how well a few LinkedIn posts with an intriguing story can help attract specialized talent.
3. COMBINE TWO BEST PRACTICES INTO ONE FIRST STEP
2013 was our “Year of Planning.” We benchmarked, tested customer satisfaction metrics, studied the discipline and fundamentals of customer experience, socialized concepts across the company, and established some quick wins to get buy-in at all levels of the organization. We combined our quick wins with another lesson we picked up from Forrester Research: Removing pain points in your customer experience is the fastest way to gain customer satisfaction.
Some of our quick wins included:
• Greeting cards: Call center agents were given the ability to select and craft a greeting card message to be mailed to customers. This program engaged agents and provided them with an unexpected, thoughtful follow-up they could use with customers. This might include customers who were experiencing milestones in their lives, such as grieving a loss or celebrating an anniversary.
• Linguistics training: We made sure every call agent appreciated the power of the spoken word to help them choose the right language for everyday conversations. This training resonated with agents and customers alike.
• Online applications: We rebuilt an online moving application that was notoriously inefficient. The project was deliberately selected as a challenging, yet manageable, precursor for a much larger goal, giving us an opportunity to test our project processes, working relationships, design capabilities and the ability to deliver measurable value.
• Remove avoidable calls: We tackled legacy billing and payment policies and business rules that were lightning rods for customer complaints. This was a highly visible change that let our customers and employees know we were serious about transformation and that nothing was sacred .
Our billing and payment portfolio provided many quick-win opportunities that delivered customer value, and built transformational momentum by demonstrating the full commitment of our leadership team to put customers first.
4. USE BREAKTHROUGH THINKING TO SET GOALS
Breakthrough thinking, the art of envisioning and planning to a new standard of performance, can help deliver transformational results. While we didn’t always meet our breakthrough goal, we made greater strides than we would have had we set lower, incremental goals. In one recent experience with a brand-new service offering, we promoted an aggressive goal to achieve 660,000 enrollments in 12 months, with only a few ideas on how to get there. With assistance from across the organization, we ended up exceeding the goal in three months, and reset the target to 900,000. We finished the year at 810,000.
5. CONNECT WITH CUSTOMERS
There is no substitute for direct customer feedback, whether it’s systemic or ad hoc. It’s surprisingly easy to navigate through complex issues or competing priorities when you have access to your customers’ voices. Despite not yet having a Voice of the Customer (VoC) system, we leveraged the tools we did have to the greatest extent possible:
• Call center analytics – we had a quality system to capture comprehensive VoC data through customer telephone interviews. It helped us improve and simplify processes, and provided us with insights into key operational performance areas.
• Customer panels provided feedback on everything from customer experiences to messages.
• Observations from lab participants on preproduction concepts and interactive wireframes guided front-end enhancements to our digital platforms.
• J.D. Power and industry-specific insights and research organizations provided best practice ideas and performance benchmarks.
• Benchmarks outside the sector kept strategic decisions fresh. Online CXi surveys and website page feedback provided guidance and insights into what was working and what was not.
• We adopted a tool that enabled online users to screenshot what they were commenting about. This expedited our ability to understand what they were seeing and helped us to identify topics ranging from usability issues to product/service improvements to unfriendly business rules. Over 600 comments are reviewed every month .
6. PARTNER ACROSS CHANNELS AND LEVERAGE FRONT-LINE TALENT
Make sure you understand your stakeholders and have strong partners within each channel and across every front-line employee group. Stakeholder analysis, shared success metrics, collaborative workshops, joint communications plans and listening posts (to identify issues early) are key tactics in building productive collaboration.
7. EXPLORE NEW DEVELOPMENT PRACTICES
Introducing agile development and design methodology principles into an organization can (and likely will) reveal challenges — especially if your teams are not used to them. The important thing we learned was to not wait to get started. We picked an area of relatively low risk and employed rapid development principles that focused on multiple sprints, managing backlogs and small-scope deliverables. This experimentation provided some small wins, but most importantly, it built experience and provided a model for others to embrace and follow. Small steps can lead to radical change in less time than one might expect.
8. ALL-IN EXECUTIVE SUPPORT
Having executive support might seem like a no-brainer. If you have it, don’t take it for granted; if you don’t, then figure out how to get it. Nothing will influence the scale of what you can do more than getting leadership’s buy-in. We are lucky to have strong sponsorship from executives. We realized just how lucky we were when we started asking customer experience counterparts across industry sectors how much time they spent building advocacy, verses delivering customer experience projects: Most answered that at least 75 percent of their time was spent trying to assemble project sponsorship.
9. MAKE THE BEST USE OF YOUR SPACE
Space matters. It influences interactions, creativity and productivity. It was important to us from day one to create a “project hub” that would bring together everyone who would be influencing our project successes, from designers and developers to testers. It took some persistence and investment to turn an underutilized room into a progressive, collaborative space, but it was well worth it.
10. LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS AND YOUR INSTINCTS
Last, it was important for us to be humble. Learnings came from colleagues and consultants, front-line employees, and peers from inside and outside our department. Naturally, our customers played a very informative role. We listened to them objectively and assimilated their insights. We trusted our experience and our gut. If there was too much caution, too many outstanding questions, unknowns, complexities or risks, we paused to consider what we instinctively felt before deciding to accept a more iterative approach or push harder for transformational action. There’s usually a good reason you’re feeling uncomfortable, even if it’s not yet evident.
We know our customer service transformation has plenty of rewarding gains and challenges as it continues to unfold. And, while these actions alone won’t guarantee success at every turn, they are the learning points that have stood out to us. We hope you can learn from them in your journey as well.