Nothing like experience

'Making it simple.' 'We can help.' Taglines such as these - which pack a clear-and-hefty promise to the consumer - are becoming more common, as commoditization renders products interchangeable, and marketers strive to differentiate their brands based on service.

‘Making it simple.’ ‘We can help.’ Taglines such as these – which pack a clear-and-hefty promise to the consumer – are becoming more common, as commoditization renders products interchangeable, and marketers strive to differentiate their brands based on service.

Problem is, while they may have the best intentions, the actual customer experience too often falls short. Why? Because in many cases, operations, IT and other divisions of the average Canadian corporation aren’t aligned with marketing. Some players, however, like Bell Canada,, VIA Rail, and Air Miles, are getting more serious about delivering against their claims.

Denis Riney is executive director of the simplification practice at Siegel & Gale, a New York-based consultancy, which counts Allstate Insurance, Lexus and Jiffy Lube as clients. With 20-plus years of experience helping marketers in financial services, healthcare and hospitality, as well as other industries, simplify business processes and improve customer satisfaction and retention, he has witnessed a surging interest in customer experience among marketers lately. In fact, Riney points to a ‘new revolution’ as firms start to shift dollars away from mass advertising and into enhancing their consumer touchpoints. ‘Right now, it’s a trickle, but predictions suggest in the next five to seven years, a river of funds will get redirected away from awareness building, into retention and loyalty building strategies around holding the customer for life.’

To accomplish that, many firms are now ‘re-engineering steps in the customer journey – determining what drives loyalty, as well as swing factors in ticking consumers off or locking them in and [figuring out] how to build measurements for those touchpoints.’

It begins, says Alan Kay, president of The Glasgow Group, Toronto, with placing the customer at the centre of the organization – in other words, by considering each and every encounter with the brand. He adds: ‘This means the role of the marketing department has changed and the question becomes: ‘What is marketing?’ and ‘Who’s involved?”

Bell Canada’s working out the answers. It has a mandate to focus on the consumer perspective from an end-to-end basis, says Ellen Malcolmson, who was promoted to the newly created post of SVP of customer experience just last month.

Formerly VP operations, Toronto-based Malcolmson has been with Bell for 23 years, and has spent time in many departments, including engineering, support and call centres, as well as field operations. In her current gig, she oversees all customer care representatives and has an ‘intimate’ relationship with marketing. Each day she communicates with the telco’s marketers, as well as the folks who run the call centre, and the various product areas.

‘Our goal is for Bell to be easy to do business with every single day,’ she says. ‘We felt that in order to achieve that, we needed to evolve our thinking about how to interact with customers. [We realized] we needed to think about it from their perspective into the company.’

To that end, Bell has been toiling on what it calls ‘simplicity certification’: a program that ensures the firm will now review a product or service before it goes to market, including how it will function through the various processes and, more importantly, how each step will feel from the customer’s point of view. This way, the brand can better deliver on its ‘Making it simple’ tagline.

It’s still early days, but Malcolmson points to a couple of things Bell has already implemented to simplify the lives of its customers. One is the August introduction of the ‘One Bill,’ which includes all Bell products on one statement. Another is the telco’s new Digital Voice product, which was tested with employees to determine how consumers would best utilize the service. Because of that scrutiny, it was decided Digital Voice would be managed solely online, similar to digital banking. Malcolmson says: ‘That’s a great example of thinking about it from the consumer end – because this consumer is Internet savvy and is more receptive to self-serve.’

Similarly,, which is HQ’d near Dallas, rejigged internally to deliver on its tagline ‘You’ll never roam alone.’ To get there, VP of customer relationships Laura Johnston says that the online travel firm launched its ‘Travelocity Service Guarantee’ this year, after 12 months of development. It is essentially a promise to stand behind customers and support them always, even when they’re on the road.

‘We want to be more proactive about fixing problems,’ says Johnston. ‘This meant changing call centre incentives and the processes they work in and putting new technologies in place.’ For example, Travelocity has developed automated connections with its hotels, so that when customers call in with a complaint, the rep has an open line to the supplier.

Obviously, transforming an organization inside-out is a big job. But marketing departments can begin learning more about how folks interact with their brand at every touchpoint quite easily. They only need to leverage the knowledge acquired by various departments internally, says Kay, who has helped IBM’s B2B Global Banking Industry get to know its customers better. [See sidebar, opposite.] ‘People in the organization have a more immediate sense of where the customer is, than marketing departments who rely on traditional research. So firms are likely already talking directly to customers; they just have to build in strategies around that.’

At Toronto-based The Loyalty Group, which owns Air Miles, there is more collaboration between marketers and the customer care centre, according to Caroline Papadatos, VP marketing for the Air Miles Reward Program.

Helping matters is the fact that one of the loyalty firm’s two call centres is actually situated at head office, which was a conscious decision to encourage communication at the program’s inception in 1992. Several years ago, the group opened a satellite office in Mississauga, Ont. While it may have been cheaper, Papadatos says an outsource centre was never considered. ‘Our conversations with collectors can get quite involved,’ she says. ‘We felt we could better manage them ourselves.’

And, to Kay’s point, the entire marketing department double-jacks on the phone monthly. That means they listen in to customer care calls, so they can bear witness to the collector’s situation first-hand. Even Bryan Pearson, president of the Air Miles Reward Program, speaks directly to customer care specialists, during regular lunchtime roundtables.

All this enables the company to recognize and respond to customer requests more easily. Based on feedback from collectors, Air Miles has addressed any issues pertaining to readability on the Web site, added new sponsors when they make sense, such as it did with Dell, and adjusted various processes. A couple of months ago, for example, Loyalty Group responded to demand and introduced a service whereby collectors could buy incremental miles at 30 cents apiece.

The firm is measuring its progress in customer service in a number of ways, including awareness of sponsor partners, understanding of how the program works, and changes in collector behaviour. For instance, Papadatos says the top brass will be looking for signs that collectors are redeeming more frequently. And finally, the firm will be monitoring levels of engagement in the program overall.

At Montreal-based VIA Rail, which labels itself a ‘customer service’ – as opposed to a rail – company, marketers have also started meeting with customer relations staffers on a regular basis, instead of relying solely on statistical reports to analyze consumer response.

‘With a face-to-face meeting, we can go deeper,’ says Louise Beauchamp, director of marketing for eastern corridor sales & business development. As an example of how it works, Beauchamp recounts that customers had complaints about pricing. Statistically, the assumption would have been that they felt prices were too high, but the face-to-face meetings uncovered the real issue: the pricing structure was too complex. So VIA, which is currently running a campaign touting itself as ‘The Human Way to Travel,’ modified it accordingly.

VIA has also instituted cross-functional teams that bring together senior-level representatives from departments as diverse as finance, procurement and customer service. ‘The customer has always been a key component for VIA, so that is not new,’ says Beauchamp. ‘But the importance we are now giving it in management has increased in the last few years.’ Every quarter the company conducts a Customer Evaluation Monitor on its trains to check its progress.

While that’s all good, when it comes to creating a holistically sound customer experience, companies are in for a long haul. Just ask Travelocity’s Laura Johnston: ‘It’s taken a year of planning and a[huge] investment to be able to get the infrastructure in place to stand behind our guarantee. To do it correctly, you can’t do it overnight.’

New measures for new goals

How many times has this happened: You dial up a company and you get an automated voice recording. Then after what seems like an awfully long exposure to dentist office music, you hear a voice. Once you tell said voice why you’re calling, it’s back to the same lame tunes.

And suddenly it seems like you’d almost rather be at your dentist than on this neverending, likely unfulfilling quest.

Fortunately, companies that serve the public are starting to get it. Along with processes put in place to reduce call transfers, they are also rethinking how to evaluate the performance of their call centre staff.

In the last couple of years at Air Miles, VP marketing Caroline Papadatos says the firm has worked to achieve ‘One Call’ by giving front-line representatives the tools to make more decisions. Now if someone calls to merge two accounts or to track missing miles or a shipment, employees can deal with those situations right away.

Along with that, she says, the loyalty firm has rejigged how it evaluates customer care staff. Over the last three years, Air Miles has moved from using hard measures to softer ones. ‘We consider tone of voice, whether they are accessible and approachable, and whether they are ‘the help along the way,’ which is our brand character,’ says Papadatos. ‘We look at whether they help collectors [use their points] more effectively by showing them more places to collect and by helping them set goals for redemption.’

Similarly, Bell Canada now measures its call centre staff on its ability to achieve a ‘first call resolution.’ And over at, employees are evaluated no longer on how long a call lasts, but on how quickly they fix a problem.

Get close to customers

Want to really know what customers want? Just talk to them. But not in a traditional focus group kind of way.

Companies like IBM and Air Miles have discovered that spending a lot of face time with their customers can uncover deep insights. IBM’s Global Banking Industry, for example, has developed a roundtable format, bringing together many of its bank clients for a tête-a-tête.

At an international banking event last November, the tech firm had IBM’ers and customers discussing issues, while 100 audience members looked on. Then all broke into smaller groups, each led by an IBM senior staffer. Lynn Dabols, marketing manager for GBI, says: ‘It provides us with a mechanism for hearing what our customers are experiencing in a more genuine way. It sparks more opportunities where we could help a customer.’

For instance, at one of the roundtables, organized with help from Toronto-based consultancy The Glasgow Group, IBM learned that account opening is intensive and repetitive, and is now helping banks simplify that process.

Air Miles, meanwhile, conducted Storytelling Research to guide its brand relaunch. The three-hour sessions included 18 to 20 attendees (about 100 Canadians participated in all) who were asked to think about what it’s like to feel rewarded and then share their personal stories in writing.

What was learned? According to Caroline Papadatos, VP marketing, that collectors want suggestions on how to accumulate points more quickly, as well as help setting goals for redemption and a little bit of celebration – ‘congrats, have a wonderful time’ – when they reach them. And of course the Loyalty Group is complying. ‘The insight it gave us was more important than [that gleaned] from other focus group research we did.’