Sony's head of customer engagement, Derek Allison, tells MyCustomer.com why customer data isn't everything.
It’s easy to pay lip service to customer-centricity – countless businesses talk ad nauseum about how they put customers at the core of their companies. But for those who want to walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk, how do you really bring customer-centricity to life?
This is something that Sony has been tackling in recent years, and in particular Derek Allison, the man who was appointed the company’s first head of customer-centricity at Sony in 2009 – a role created in response to the changing business landscape.
“These days if people get a great experience, they share it,” he explains. “The world has become more connected, firstly at home and now on the mobile platform. You have to make sure that your message is going to be seen and felt by your customer in the real world when they engage with your brand and your products and services, and if it is then you will get repeat business and people will share their good experiences. But we also saw that if you don’t put things in place that meet customers’ needs, then that too will affect you commercially.”
Reflecting this, the primary focus of Sony’s customer-centricity group is to understand the customer needs and to work with the rest of the business to ensure that those needs are met. In the case of a corporate giant like Sony, of course, this is no mean feat.
Allison explains: “We have a very diverse business, as you can probably appreciate. And within each business that is a challenge because you end up with a list of things to focus on that may have 70 points, for instance. But the challenge is to keep things simple, and focus on things that are the top priorities and nail those. That may only be three things, but if you do them properly, then that will make a difference.”
The electronics giant is one of a growing number of large organisations that are charging an individual with fostering customer-centricity within the organisation. Forrester documented the rise of the chief customer officer a couple of years ago – a role also referred to as a variety of other titles including chief experience officer and VP of customer experience. The implementation of these cross-departmental executive-level roles is viewed as an antidote to traditional business models that have been more concerned with products and pricing models than with the customer experience.
But while these roles sit across multiple departments, Allison’s role is specifically placed within marketing. This, Allison believes, has big advantages.
“In some cases the CCOs are outside of the traditional sales and marketing structure within an organisation. This can be an issue if the culture of the organisation is not customer-centric because it’s not totally joined up with the business. Perception can also be different, especially if the role is in an area that is seen as a cost to the business. Being in the marketing organisation, we are seen as part of the business that is important to produce the positive commercial effects of the organisation, and that's what I mean about understanding and working with the business - we do little things where we work with different parts of the business to really enable us as an organisation to deliver the things that we have learnt from our customers and improve the experience. That’s for me where it works very well with Sony.”
Similarly, Allison believes that a lack of integration is also blighting one of the key tenets of customer-centricity – insight. Gartner has suggested that Voice of the Customer programs are one of the most significant strategic investments for organisations over the next five years, with the VoC market set for annual growth rate of over 30%. In an increasing number of cases, this is leading to the establishment of a dedicated insight team. But Allison voices his concern at some of these structures and strategies.
“One of the challenges that organisations face is that they often leave understanding the customer to an insight division or something like that, which doesn’t actually have a close connection with the commercial part of the business,” he says. “Insight functions might analyse information and product reports, but if the entire organisation is focused on understanding the customer and there is more of a commercial focus then it helps you put emphasis on what is important. It’s a catalyst for engaging your organisation because if people can see that it has a benefit then they believe it and they become more engaged – and then the changes that you need to put in place are much easier to take forward.”
He continues: “Insight functions analyse information and produce reports. If you want to understand your customer needs, it’s very easy to take the simple option of just looking at reports. Reports, surveys and the like carry some value, but it’s only by talking with people that you get a real understanding.
“If you run a survey, capture a lot of data and then text mine it to find out what you need to fix, I don’t think it provides you with the right solutions, simply because what your customer said in the survey could be a symptom of the disease when you have to find out what the disease it itself. You can’t get that just from looking at data. You have to talk to people so that they give you a clue in terms of which direction to go in and talk to people to really understand more about their experience.”
For this reason, Sony’s approach is much more hands-on, says Allison - “We actually engage with customers. We have specific processes so we can really understand what matters to customers and then focus on the key things that will meet their needs.”
These processes involve direct interaction between employees and customers to improve the workforce’s understanding of what makes great service.
Allison elaborates: “We started by having a schedule where we would have conversations and assist engagement with end users. What’s great now is that parts of the business have been working on this journey of developing their own schedules, and we are assisting with that – or not, as the case may be, as they are doing it themselves. Providing a process and a structure is very important. If people do it they find they get value from it, then it gathers momentum. “
Engagement over data
What Allison emphasises about Sony’s approach, is that the process of information-gathering should be an exercise in engagement in itself. Interviewing a customer should not only achieve insight, but also be a relationship-building opportunity with the consumer. Furthermore, it should also serve to engage the employee who has interviewed the customer too. For this reason, he believes that when it comes to customer-centricity, engagement should take precedent over data.
“The engagement of the people within the organisation is what makes the biggest difference,” he explains. “The typical approach is to look for data in the hope that it will provide you with the solution of what you need to do. And organisations such as Forrester talk about how you need a strategy in place for this. This strategy is defined by understanding what your customer needs in the first place, and you can understand their needs by talking to them. You have to get your hands dirty and talk to the people that buy your products and services, because they’re the ones that pay the salary of the entire organisation. You can’t get that connection by just looking at a report. And the difference is that everybody in the organisation then understands how important it is – from people at the grass roots level right up to the CEO. It enables people to make a difference and you really see a positive difference.”
To quantify the impact, and gauge whether there are positive trends in terms of customer experience, Sony uses Net Promoter Score (NPS). And while NPS has its fair share of detractors, Allison insists it provides sufficient steer.
“When I first started in this role then I hunted around for evidence of a commercial link between NPS and sales or profits and there were all sorts of wild formula out there with all sorts of assumptions in them. But we've been doing this for quite a while and we're at a place now where we understand the commercial value of NPS.
“I think you can get too much into over-analysis and too much into trying to have all sorts of different metrics. The important thing is to have something that does the job in terms of measuring the customer experience, don't try and over-analyse what's in there and over time, whatever metric you have for customer satisfaction, you will develop an understanding of how that relates to commercial performance. It’s not something that anybody else can tell you.”
And for brands that want to follow a similar model to Sony’s customer-centricity group, Allison has these final words of advice.
“Don’t sit it outside the normal commercial structure of the business - put it into the commercial environment. That’s probably the most important thing,” he concludes. “But the actual structure doesn’t create all the solutions – it just shows the functional day-to-day responsibilities, and those kinds of things. What really enables it to work is how you work as an organisation, and whether you have buy-in from your people at every level in the business.”