Key process, management & organizational interactions

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 38
Digital Citation

FEATUREThe business of customer experience

Secil Watson

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Of the many executives I've come to know who oversee corporate-experience research and design personnel and activities, Secil Watson of Wells Fargo is one of the most insightful and inspirational. Members of her staff agree, praising "her leadership and vision—she has the brain of a businesswoman, heart of a designer, and soul of a researcher [1]." In this article, Secil answers questions that many struggle with: What role should "customer experience" personnel and leadership play in a large business? Who should "own" customer experience, and where should it be positioned in a company? How should customer experience impact the work of managers and executives? What does it take to move customer experience into a position of strategic influence?—Richard Anderson, Co-EiC

Wells Fargo & Company is a diversified financial-services company providing banking, insurance, investments, mortgage and consumer finance through almost 6,000 stores, the Internet, and other distribution channels across North America and internationally. It has $549 billion in assets and 158,800 team members across its 80-plus businesses.

In May 1995, Wells Fargo was the first financial institution to introduce access to banking accounts on the Internet, leading a revolution in the way consumers organize and manage their money.

back to top  Motivations are Important

I joined Wells Fargo five years ago in the online strategy team, with a background in management consulting, marketing, servicing, and e-learning. My first assignment was to evaluate consulting companies that could help us leverage the Internet as a sales channel for the bank. I sat through many presentations that focused on traditional tools of marketing: lots of segmentation work, with personalization as a must-have capability, and a dominant outbound mentality that centered around knowing what to offer the customer. At the same time, our home page needed to be updated. Marketing banners took up much of the page (and you can imagine the space left for content in a 2002 screen resolution), and while our Web traffic consisted predominantly of consumers, we rotated banners advertising commercial banking products together with small business and consumer products. Customer service links took several click-throughs, and the ability to sign in to view accounts—which represented 80 percent all site traffic at the time—was stashed away in the corner, visible only as a small button. The option to enroll in online banking was overshadowed by allowing customers to "personalize" the site, which meant, among other things, being able to receive stock quotes, weather news, and horoscopes.

To me, there was a great opportunity to increase online sales by increasing the visibility of our product content. After conducting ethnographic studies and individual breakout sessions, we compared our data with quantitative search-log data. We identified that people were expecting to accomplish core tasks from the home page—signing in to view their accounts, or enrolling in online banking—and were using search and banner ads in place of navigation options. Yet neither path was getting the customers to their desired content. As a result, the home-page drop-off rate was very high.

Ironically, all business units were experiencing the same drop-off rates and were individually concluding that in order for the customer to reach their content, the business unit needed home page real estate. While there was constant shuffling of the positioning of the content on the home page, it wasn't prioritized by key customer tasks and the business cases to be made in facilitating these tasks.

As a result of our analysis, we rejected the marketing consulting companies, and instead created an internal program called "Making our site a buying site." We chose the word "buying" as opposed to "selling" because it acknowledged that the customer was in the driver's seat. An online customer has complete control over the experience; the best thing we can do to improve the experience is to make customer tasks easier and quicker to accomplish.

In the following five years, we succeeded in building a highly integrated customer insight and experience design team, developed a robust user-centered design methodology, and established a Web governance structure that is founded in an extensive set of experience standards and guidelines that we maintain over the course of our regular work. We succeeded in sparking change in the culture of our organization, and we made customer experience "strategic."

What still drives me, though, are the basic tenets of the initial program developed five years ago: providing customers a positive experience each time they interact with us, and making their tasks easier and quicker as we add new functionality.

back to top  What Did it Take to Affect Change?

The first project that utilized our User-Centered Design (UCD) methodology, which had not yet been formalized, was the home page redesign project. It was groundbreaking at the time, and very successful. I could explain to executives how listening to customers and analyzing their tasks had actually paid off. Presenting tangible results before presenting a new way of doing things was critical. We increased the prominence of all links that were essential to customers, and we gave them the ability to sign on to view their accounts from the home page.

As a result, traffic to view accounts and enroll in online banking, as well as to view rates and product details, went up dramatically. Also, the resulting page was much less cluttered and loaded faster, saving time. Customers were going deeper into the site, and starting more applications. Our initial success gave us the ability to redesign most of the content, navigation, and page layouts on the site within the first year. We were also able to replicate our success a few years later, in 2006, with another refresh of the home page design using the same UCD principles and tools. Forrester Research senior analyst Brad Strothkamp wrote about the 2006 redesign: "Wells Fargo's new home page represents the culmination of years of learning about how consumers use its Web site, resulting in a home page that is both aesthetically pleasing and meets the needs of increasingly discerning users [2]."

We formalized our customer experience methodology. The customer experience group took the time to document our UCD process, and we went through many iterations of this process over time. We also made it modular—easy to communicate to different audiences, yet robust enough to encompass a whole set of tools, including comprehensive yet consumable models of customer tasks, personas, scenarios, scorecards, and performance metrics as well as standards and guidelines.

For example, the two core elements of our UCD tools were a) reusable user profiles representing our typical customers and b) the user task model, modeling and quantifying what managing-finances tasks our customers performed. These tools became the interface of our deep knowledge of customer's goals and tasks. While all of our user profiles had some online-banking affiliation, we modeled customer tasks universally, beyond what customers did with a bank or what they did online, but encompassing what they did with their finances socially and in other banking channels.

In creating both of these tools, we relied heavily on analyzing insights from ethnographic studies we had conducted in our customers' homes. This deep look into our customers' lives gave us the ability to answer not just what they did, but also how and why as it pertained to finances. We also identified what aspects of our customers were crucial to us as we designed experiences for them: their life stage, tenure with the bank, tenure with online banking, and their product holdings. We mined our customer data to quantify and qualify which representative groups to include in our profiles.

One common mistake that we avoided with our profiles was the desire to represent every customer segment. Instead, we focused on a handful that gave us the most insight. What connected these two key tools and made them actionable on an experience project level were the "scenario starters," which took a snapshot of one of our user profiles given a certain event in their lives, key life and financial goals as they arose from the event, challenges for taking action, and motivations to want to take action. The ability to keep the profiles and their scenarios constant throughout the design process, with questions such as "would Jane do that?" was critical in grounding our efforts in customer experience as opposed to our own expert perspectives [1].

We championed customer experience broadly. We knew that product managers, engineers, and servicing staff were equally important partners in the success of each of our customer-experience efforts. Instead of owning and controlling the goal of creating positive customer experience, we shared our vision and our methods across the group. This was a grassroots effort that took a long time. We didn't do formal training across the group, nor did we mandate a new process. Instead, we created converts in every project we touched using our UCD methods. Having a flexible set of well-designed, easy-to-use UCD tools such as those mentioned above made the experience teams more credible and put us in the position of guiding the process of concept definition and design for our business partners.

Even simple steps made a large difference: We created PowerPoint templates for our profiles and scenario starters, and put the quantitative information supporting our user task models into Excel. This allowed our business partners to engage with the tools without having to rely on the design team. Over time, project by project, we dramatically changed the culture and language of our group. Now product managers demand that we include the customer in every step of our product development process.

We believed in collaboration. None of the disciplines that have a hand in shaping our customers' experience could arrive at the right solution in their silos, since they each had a limited vantage point. The customer-experience group was no exception. As a highly regulated industry, we had to think of compliance and legal as strategic partners. As an online channel, we had to think of technology as a differentiator. As a service industry, we had to think about the servicing consequences of our online products and experience. And of course, as a public company, we needed to make a profit in our endeavors.

The diagram below displays how each party needed to collaborate with the other in order to arrive at the optimal solution that fits all objectives, including the objective of doing it right by the customer. (In a different industry, where the impact to the environment is a significant part of the outcome, environment can also be constraint/enabler.) As we collaborated with our partners across the organization, we acknowledged that customer-experience competency is not the center of our organization, but it is an equal partner with all the other groups that take part in creating the customer experience.

We saw our role as that of facilitator. Undeniably, in our development process, the product managers lead and the project managers get things done. The value proposition of our customer-experience team is to provide timely, relevant insights and expertise for good decision-making around creating experiences.

Acting on our value proposition requires the customer-experience team to play the role of the facilitator. We do so by: 1) asking the right questions, 2) going to the right partners for the right answers, and 3) creating a forum that supports cross-group collaboration (facilitating giving and receiving of help and insights). We believe that the right solution is within reach for each of the initiatives we undertake. But it does take focus and determination to identify it and not yield to the pressures of launch dates. Here, too, the UCD tools play a role in how we facilitate brainstorming sessions, and how we constantly integrate the results of qualitative studies with quantitative analysis to support well-informed decision making.

We facilitate user-centered design working sessions with our business partners, which allows us to humanize the activities of experience design, project prioritization, and business case definition by keeping real people and their stories at the center of the problems we were solving. The UCD process and tools enable the business people, designers, researchers and strategists to make meaning together cocreatively, a necessity in an environment where no one functional area can hold all, or even most, of the knowledge necessary for creating customer value. The willingness to invite full participation is a key factor that continues to push Wells Fargo to become increasingly customer-centric.

We made customer experience a strategic discipline. I started as a strategist, then managed our customer-experience design team, then integrated the customer insight functions into the customer-experience team, and finally came full circle to managing the strategy function. However, my most recent management position included a major change: The customer-experience function is now an essential and integrated part of our strategy group. In my current team, we don't have a separate group of strategists. Instead, we have different disciplines represented that each contribute to our strategy: UI design, information architecture, content strategy, customer communications, servicing experience, product management, strategic planning, market research, user research, syndicated research, metrics analysis, statistical modeling, process consulting, business architecture, innovation, and business development. My group works with product and marketing groups to develop the best solutions for our customers.

We evolved our focus to maximize customer value. My team's collective goal is to create positive customer experiences, which should lead to long-term customer value. As we have evolved our thinking and management of the online channel in the past five years, we have emerged from thinking that we are a service channel to thinking that we are also a buying channel, to now believing that we are here to maximize long-term customer value. This is now the focus of our channel, and how we prioritize and judge our success. Our challenges today are more around enhancing our methods to quantify the gains from good customer experience, and less around proving that customer experience is an equal partner at the table.

back to top  What do I Hope For the Future?

Our success doesn't speak to the power of the customer-experience group, but to the power of harnessing the insight from our customers and utilizing it at every step of the process. I believe all customer-experience teams that are able to develop and share the voice of the customer have this inherent power, and I see that some organizations are beginning to recognize it. Five years ago, when I told people I managed customer experience, they thought I ran a call center, as "experience" was synonymous with servicing. (Right now, we have servicing and banker experience as part of our integrated team). When I told people I designed the website, they thought I was a graphic artist.

Now organizations are beginning to understand and accept the customer-experience discipline as a critical business discipline that spans all processes, from sales and marketing to HR. It's exciting that the topic is now part of business school curricula and that it gets wide media and analyst coverage. Still, there are many aspects of my life as a consumer that I regret, and I can't wait until the day that companies that I interact with shape up their offerings. I see my job and the discipline as just having started, and I see many more years of evangelizing this new way of creating business value that includes the customer as a partner in the process of making money for the shareholders.

Customers should continue to demand better experiences, and they should vote with their wallets. It is really hard for established companies and industry leaders to change their practices and business models to focus steadfastly on better customer experiences. They have so much invested in their current infrastructure that dramatic changes are very complex and time consuming in nature. But unless they change, this will create opportunities for new entrants that will develop their business models and infrastructure from scratch around a strategy that focuses on customer experience as an essential way to attain long-term customer value, as opposed to strategies that focus on marketing prowess, sales effectiveness, market share, distribution network, high switching costs, or cost efficiency.

If customers vote with their wallets, these new entrants will gain market share from traditional competitors and provide disruption. Hopefully, the financial impact of such disruptions will be significant, as this will dramatically speed up the cultural change that is already in progress at many large companies. Some large companies have already realized this and are extending their management to focus on examining and improving customer experience. I am lucky enough to be at a large company that has proactively identified this trend early on and is taking strides toward implementing customer-focused strategies.

Executives and product managers should approach doing business differently. I mentioned above that collaboration requires a multidisciplinary team to find the optimal solution that meets all constraints. But I failed to mention one critical point: Money is sweet, and money now is better than money later. If the planning cycle first takes into consideration the potential financial return of a product concept, and then evaluates the resulting customer impact along with other variables such as technical viability, even though the resulting product may be very profitable in the short run, it will create a poor customer experience for many. So, I strongly recommend that product managers first find a concept that creates a good customer experience, that is technically viable and serviceable, and only after that should they look for scenarios that yield an attractive net present value. Not all means justify the end of making a profit.

Customer-experience managers should manage an economy of insights. Customer-experience managers should act as facilitators for cultural and process changes that make organizations yield positive customer experiences more often. To do so, they should measure their success not by the intrinsic value of the customer insights and experiences they generate, but by the value of the insights that get used, adopted, or implemented across their organizations. They should be good facilitators and know that their power does not come from their tenure or expertise, but that it comes from harnessing and sharing the voice of the customer.

To be used widely, customer insights should be integrated, fresh, relevant, accessible, digestible, and actionable. A good insight economy, facilitated by customer-experience managers, can drive an organization toward a culture that starts asking the right questions more often. This will make managers in all disciplines better able to connect to the right groups to get the answers to their questions. To enable this, I recommend a heavier dose of integration between Web analytics, customer analytics, market research, design research, and the art and science of customer-experience design.

Without upfront and well-guided integration points, the complex and comprehensive insights of analytical groups can easily get lost on a design team trying to make a deadline. One tactic would be to seed each of these teams with at least one person who is more knowledgeable in the skills, tasks and challenges of the other groups, so that bridges can be formed. Another tactic would be to have regular cross-group forums where teams come together around one specific business issue each time with their insights in tow. A third tactic would be to recreate and expand the UCD tools and process to include input and output from all these teams. And a final, yet easily forgotten, tactic would be to do what we preach for good experiences: periodically survey and interview business partners to learn how they are using the customer-experience tools and insights, what they value, and what they still need.

back to top  References

1. Beers, R.and Whitney, P. (2006). "From Ethnographic Insight to User-centered Design Tools." EPIC 2006 Conference Proceedings, pp. 144-154. ISBN 1-931403-30-4. American Anthropological Association.

2. Strothkamp, B. (May 23, 2007) Case Study: Metrics Drive Wells Fargo's Home Page. A Best Practice Home Page Driven By Data—Not Opinions.,7211,42448,00.html

back to top  Author

Secil Watson
SVP, Channel Strategy

About the Author

Secil Tabli Watson manages the Internet channel strategy team at Wells Fargo Bank. Customer experience is her passion. Her experience includes consulting to Fortune 1000 companies in marketing, customer service, product development, and e-learning. She is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and Cornell University.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. home page, 2001.

UF2Figure. home page, 2002.

UF3Figure. home page after the redesign, 2003.

UF4Figure. home page today, after the 2006 refresh (more content and imagery, leveraging much larger screen aspect ratios and faster connection speeds now used by customers).

UF5Figure. Our model for optimizing customer experiences.

UF6Figure. Managing Finances Mental Model (intentionally masked).

UF7Figure. User Task Model (intentionally masked).

UF8Figure. User Profile.

UF9Figure. Scenario Starter.

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