Before the days of social media and online reviews, companies could easily brush negative customer experiences under the rug and influence brand perception through marketing campaigns. That’s no longer the world we live in, and businesses are being held accountable when they cannot deliver on their promises.
Companies are scrambling to figure out how they can keep up, now that the customer is firmly in the driver’s seat. For established organizations, this means fundamental changes to the way they do business. The scale of change can be overwhelming or even downright scary. It’s not surprising that many organizations are struggling with customer-centric evolution, but are some simply preventing their own change?
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Roger Norton, the CEO of Playlogix, about his work in fintech innovation. During our conversation, he introduced me to the concept of a business’s “immune system” as the intangible force that resists change. When an organization detects a risk, change or something unknown, internal forces spring into action to maintain stability. Immune systems are vital for life, but an overactive immune system can cause more harm than good. Roger referenced this idea within the context of how large banks often struggle to become innovative, but the same principle can be applied to CX change.
Prior to the Age of the Customer, corporate strategy goals did not emphasize customer experience, and if so, it was only a subtext. Customers didn’t have the power that they have now, and it just wasn’t a high priority. As a result, organizations primarily looked inward and evolved to meet their own needs. Employees and teams were rewarded for mitigating risk, streamlining processes and scrutinizing costs. Against this backdrop, it isn’t difficult to imagine that most organizational “immune systems” were geared to be hostile towards customer-centricity. As CX has come to the forefront, there have been many examples of the overactive immune system thwarting CX change.
United Airlines is a classic example of this principle in action. In 2015 the organization brought in new CEO Oscar Munoz to improve the airline’s performance, and customer experience was a key part of his mandate. Two years on the business experiences it’s most dramatic PR disaster, with the infamous “re-accommodation” of Dr David Dao. Faced with a challenging situation, the airline’s employees relied on antiquated overbooking compensation policies that were (somehow) still in place and behaved in a way that made it clear customer-centric culture change had not been realized. The incident highlighted how little had actually changed since Munoz took the helm, and it is not difficult to imagine why a massive legacy airline like United had resisted change.
Even innovative digital disruptors must contend with the immune system. In 2014 Google acquired the music streaming start-up, Songza, which developed a loyal user base through its innovative music concierge and DJ-curated playlists. As Songza was integrated into Google Play, the parent organization’s own streaming service, users saw Songza’s signature features gradually disappear. As of 2017, there are only faint traces of Songza in Google’s music streaming services. One can speculate that within the mighty Google, a small startup team would have been under great pressure to assimilate.
So, what can a customer experience leader do?
First, evaluate the organization’s propensity to repel change and mitigate risk. Reflect on how team members respond to new ideas. Are these met with a chorus of “interesting, but….”? Do leaders immediately scrutinize suggestions and praise similar responses? Does finance or legal have the final say on everything? These are just a handful of red flags, and identifying them may provide foresight into future issues.
If an organization is openly hostile to change or prioritizes risk mitigation above all else, acknowledge the impact and plan accordingly. If CX leaders are realistic about the immune system as a hurdle and implement appropriate measures, it will improve their chances for success. Some ideas for this are to build contingency plans for red-tape delays, integrate extra leadership steps alignment, and jump on the change management soapbox from day one. When the immune system is too strong, a CX leader will have to be the voice of reason and reality with the organization’s decision-makers.
If this sounds daunting, CX professionals should take solace in knowing that they are not alone. As the CX professional community gains momentum in South Africa, it means there are more opportunities to share ideas and learn from others in the field. CX Innovation & Tech Fest and the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) provide forums where we can support and learn from each other.
This article was originally published on the Customer Experience and Innovation Techfest event blog: September 2017