Christopher Brooks speaks to Volvo's CX development lead, Nicola Langley about how the global car manufacturer is able to retain its brand image of good, reliable Swedish design, whilst evolving to meet new customer expectations.
Welcome Nicola. Thanks for taking the time to reveal how customer experience is influencing the future of Volvo.
CB. Nicola, before we speak about the progress you are making at Volvo with CX, I’m keen to understand where your interest began, and your path taken where you are now?
NL: I was at Virgin Media when I first had a CX role. Before that I was in telecoms operational roles either indirectly or directly involved with the customer. When I started at Virgin Media I headed up a B2B team responsible for delivering the customer solution.
This involved keeping customers up to date on their deliveries and liaising with the third parties involved. I was dealing with one customer issue and then moving on to the next. I moved across to the consumer side because I wanted to take a step back from the front line and have the opportunity to fix the underlying issue for all customers.
Following Virgin Media I moved to the Vodafone Group looking at CX from a country level. We created the customer blueprint for product launches so there was consistency. It was then on to Onecom where I set up their CX function.
CB: So how long have you been in your role at Volvo, and what are your key responsibilities?
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NL: I decided I needed a fresh challenge and wanted to try automotive. There are similarities with telecoms, but it is more the brand that influences the customer experience in this sector.
For me, Volvo is quite similar to Virgin Media. Their customers, because of the brand, expect you to be a bit different. We have a brand that can be quirky, so we can be a little bit different. Which is helpful if you don’t have the budgets of the larger companies in your sector.
In terms of my role, I wear a few hats at Volvo. The customer relations function reports into me – they look after both customers and retailers. There is also the customer insight team looking at customer feedback, mystery shopping and customer retailer standards. I also have a relatively new area, which is CX training. The fourth part is where I started with Volvo, and that’s building our customer champions community across our retail network.
CB: Automotive retail is a challenging environment to deliver excellence in customer experience, what would you say the major considerations are?
NL: There are a few. The first is around people’s perceptions of the industry. I have perceptions as well, to be honest. We know customers are often thinking, ‘do I need to go in to the retailer?’, ‘will I trust the person I’m dealing with?’, ‘will I have to haggle?’, ‘will they try and sell to me?’ and that’s before they’ve gone through the door. But that’s not what we are like at Volvo, so we have to reassure customers beforehand and throughout their visit.
Secondly, all our people are different. So when we are recruiting in retail, we are looking for the customer service ethics rather than industry knowledge. We provide excellent product and industry training, so we can look for the right service mindsets and behaviours instead.
And finally you have technology. Our customers are capable of finding the car they want online and building their specification without the retailer. So when customers have been through that experience and come in to see us they expect their efforts to be acknowledged, which leads to a very different type of conversation.
CB: Volvo is renowned for quality and reliability. How do you maintain the consistency created from product design and manufacturing at the retail level where there are very different individuals with their own styles?
NL: These values play to the Swedish values, of which we are all very proud. So we embrace them in the retail environment. We are going through a programme involving retail experience design, to give the showroom a Swedish feel. We have a lounge area with a Swedish style. We encourage the retailers to have ‘Fika’, which is Swedish for a coffee break, often with cake.
When customers are looking around at the cars it’s like the retailers are welcoming them in to their homes rather than a place of business. We measure feedback on our customer thoughts and against our retailer standards, and we score well on this. It’s important because it’s how we make sure those qualities of the Volvo brand are kept alive.
We also send retailers to Sweden to see the factory working, to understand Volvo as a brand. They get to see what we are working on next at the brand experience centre as well. When I arrived here at Volvo, what surprised me is the number of people who have been with the brand, both head office and retail, for 20-plus years.
People align themselves to the culture of the brand. That important consistency of quality is easier to achieve when your people believe in the brand.
CB: Are the expectations from all Volvo customers the same? And does the customer experience you provide need to vary by client type?
NL: The experience does vary to reach different groups. Our latest vehicle launch is to attract a younger audience. And we are seeing that younger demographic in our showrooms and on the website now. This segment will focus more on the technology of the car. The reliability, safety and quality aspects are a given. We call these ‘conquest’ customers and there are now more of them as they are liking what they see in terms of where the brand is going.
But at the same time, we have a very loyal customer base who are enjoying the journey we are going on. When they come in to the retailer, they want to have a different experience. These customers have been with us a long time, too. With the availability of content online, these audiences are also well informed now. They are not looking to come in and talk about the car because they’ve already researched it in their own time, so we need to make sure when they do come in we are the experts still but can hold the conversation they want to have, whichever direction it goes.
We also have product specialist in the retail environment to purely deal with the details and technical questions because they are extremely complicated now.
CB: Touchpoint management is said to be the third most common reason for CX programme to fail. How do you ensure at Volvo that the right touchpoints are managed the right way?
NL: We have an extensive international programme called ‘Customer Experience Monitor’, which provides a significant amount of data with customers who have interacted with us that we are getting it right at key touchpoints.
We don’t just look at the scores. We analyse the verbatims to pick up trends, too. This way we make sure we don’t just get the answers to the questions we want to know, but we are also getting a lot of data we haven’t asked about. We interpret the data at a local level because we know what matters to customers in Germany, for instance, may not be the same as the UK.
We also run focus groups to make sure what we identify as most important to customers actually is. For example, we’ve got a ‘Care by Volvo’ offering. This allows customers to access a car without actually purchasing it. That came about because we know particular customers want that hassle-free experience. So we’ve made the offering really easy to deliver on that.
Q. How far are you on your CX journey? Have you just switched the ignition on or is the destination in sight?
NL: I would say we are not there yet. But the appetite is here within the business, which is exciting for me. Organisations can talk a lot about the importance of customer experience, but then when you have difficult conversations about changing things, the interest drops. But we haven’t got that challenge at Volvo. It’s full steam ahead.
CB: We’ve often found there is that tension between existing habits, driven by short-term sales-based targets, and the new model of customer experience prioritising longer but more sustainable returns. But do you still need to keep measures such as cars sold up there as a lead indicator?
NL: When internal communications go out, you are quite right, we talk about the number of vehicle sales, but our Customer Experience Monitor performance is always there as well. So it definitely has the profile in the business, and has been here for some time.
We have a CX Score card which looks at eight areas within retail. We explained to retail if you are performing well on these you are on track to deliver a great customer experience. And that’s available to everyone and works really well to help everyone understand it’s not just one thing, but there are lots of different areas we need to do well in before the customers notice and feel it.
Q. As a respected consumer brand, do you find it easy to get quality feedback from customers?
NL: We were talking about this the other day. When I joined, I was surprised by the feedback volume we get. To give you an idea, from surveys we get 64% from new car sales, 45% on used cars and 33% after a service, which I think is incredible. It’s also really detailed, so we get a lot of great context. It’s pretty consistent as well.
Now we want to target those who don’t buy to understand why.
CB: We’ve been looking at where next for CX and believe it could be ‘spiritual fulfilment’. Customers will ask, ‘does this experience and this brand make me feel like a better person?’
NL: We use this Swedish expression, ‘Omtanke’, which means ‘caring’ and ‘consideration’, but also importantly ‘to think again’ – essentially it means we care about what’s important to our customers. We are looking to explore this idea further.
CB: The advancement in connected car technology seems to be changing by the month. How do you keep up with product lines which take years of R&D?
NL: We have a fantastic training and development centre in Daventry. The UK product and training team are aligned with the central team in Sweden. For any launch we undertake there is a retail training activity when we can explain why features are included and how the car was developed.
For example, the designer actually launched the new XC40. It’s quite different to previous models, so people could understand why we made changes to things such as speaker positions, which meant the door storage areas are large enough to accommodate customer’s laptops.
For me this creates that engagement with the UK team, the retailers and the Swedish office – it brings us together.
CB: Customers often state the quality of interactions with staff are key, is there a role for digital for you?
NL: Sure. We do use digital a lot across the experience. You can build your car design on the website. We also have a lot of digital capability in the cars. This connects with the Volvo On Call App, which you use to interact with your car. Customers can use this to save time. One of our Omtanke ambitions is to give customers a week back through this type of technology.
We also offer video footage of their car being serviced. We send this to customers to give them back control. Sharing what the technician is doing helps to present us as transparent. So if we flag something is needed to be looked at during the service, the customer has all the information. So trust is there.
CB. How are you measuring customer success?
NL: We have our satisfaction score we track. We also undertake mystery shopping in retailers or by phone to look at behaviours over process, which is really important – these are Volvo best behaviours we are looking for.
We also have our retailer standards, which covers more retail hygiene areas but it’s important because we want our customers to have a better experience when they visit a retailer.
From a training and development point of view, the majority of the roles in our retailers are what we describe as certified, so that means individuals such as a service adviser has to undertaken certain training throughout the year to retain their certification. That makes sure everyone’s knowledge and skill set is where we need it to be. Even if you’ve been with us for 15 years, we are looking for our people to still grow and develop.
Last year we undertook a large event for 3,000 people to connect with the brand. I followed this up with a CX Masterclass for 200 people. I also have a CX trainer in the team and her focus is on developing a programme to further engage everyone in.
CB. Which companies do you look to for inspiration? Who are your vanguards in customer experience?
NL: On a personal level I like Ocado. For me it’s a really simple thing they do which is deliver your food. But they make it feel very personal. They send a text to say, ‘John will be arriving in the Onion van today’, confirm the time and let you know of substitutes beforehand. I know it’s automated but because it’s related to me it makes it feel that touch more personal. It’s those things I look out for to stop it feeling too transactional.
Also, I stayed at a Premier Inn Hub last year. From an experience point of view it was just right for that brand; simple and easy. It felt authentic to that brand. Which in that situation was what I wanted. When brands try too hard with experience it feels forced and not aligned to who they really are.
We are trying to stay authentic and keep true to our Swedish roots.
About Christopher Brooks
I am a customer strategist with agency, client and consultancy experience working with companies across Europe mainly in financial services but as varied as utilities to hospitality. Lexden, the company I lead, has been dedicated to the 'customer first, profits follow' vision I have always subscribed to. We aim to drive more from the marketing budget.
In everything I do I look to the outcome as the goal rather than the challenge to overcome or fix. With this in mind we help brands attract and retain happier customers. Ability to distill insight to a single customer level and optimise across the entire organisation.
Skills include: Customer Value Proposition design and delivery | Customer Experience Programmes design and delivery | Customer Insight and Optimisation | Customer profiling and segmentation | Marketing Effectiveness Planning | Marketing agency pitch and planning firepower | Drive Customer Acquisition and Retention strategies | Marketing function establishment and restructures | Interim Customer Value Propositions, Experience and Marketing Director | Translating under utilised customer insight into commercially viable marketing assets | Customer experience mentoring | Brand and Communication Campaign planning | Applied across full marketing mix including digital channels
Also the creator of @VexVox and @Fondfox - a new breed of customer activism - providing companies with competitive intelligence regarding customer experience issues to exploit.