Customer-centric companies are top performers: They’re more profitable, they demand higher prices, and they drive loyalty. And who holds the key to strengthening the relationship with customers? Employees.
Many organizations now recognize that in order to deliver an excellent customer experience, employees must understand their customers deeply. One of the best ways to achieve this empathy is to have employees walk that proverbial mile in the customer’s shoes.
Intuit, Adobe, and Plantronics have all developed unique ways to take advantage of this wisdom. From sending employees to observe customers where they work, to engaging employees as customer zero for a new product, these companies have found that employee involvement in the customer experience brings broad benefits.
Intuit employees follow customers home—“but not in a creepy way,” they point out. The company’s “Follow-Me-Home” program reinforces a culture of customer obsession, according to Lionel Mohri, the company’s vice president of design, innovation practices.
“We want to understand our customers in their natural environment,” he said. “It’s different than conducting an interview or focus group. We meet customers where they are to observe how they’re hacking their way into running their businesses or living their lives.”
Employees go into the field in teams of two or three; each person has an assigned role—leading the customer conversation, note-taking, or taking videos and photos. Afterward, they bring customers’ voices back to Intuit in a formalized process that turns the observations into insights on how to resolve specific customer issues.
“We’re not trying to change customer behavior,” Mohri explained. “Rather, we want to amplify existing behaviors through solutions that fit into our customers’ lives.”
Learning from Follow-Me-Home visits played a crucial role in Intuit’s development of QuickBooks Self-Employed—a product targeted at the rapidly growing segment of freelancers, Uber drivers, and others joining the gig economy.
Intuit employees discovered that many of these customers have a tough time separating their personal and business lives, especially when it comes to expenses and taxes. For example, many keep track of expenses in the classic shoebox system: one box for personal receipts, one for business. By building on that existing behavior, Intuit created a simple solution: From the customer’s mobile device, she swipes left to tag a business expense or right for a personal expense.
In addition to gaining valuable product insights, the Follow-Me-Home teams have become better collaborators and developed more empathy for the customer, which has had a knock-on effect beyond customer experience.
“The more our employees empathize with our customers, the easier it makes everything—collaboration, decision making, and innovation,” Mohri said.
CMO.com parent company Adobe brought employee and customer experience together in late 2015, under executive vice president Donna Morris, so creating great experiences for employees goes hand in hand with creating those same experiences for customers.
One of the ways Adobe employees help improve the customer experience is through “Experience-athons” in which a product team observes while fellow employees undergo a short “mission,” or series of tasks. Participants also provide feedback afterward.
It’s a win-win: Employees make a positive difference in customer experience, and they report feeling more valuable to Adobe. At the same time, product teams gain real-world feedback.
“The Experience-athons help us focus on simplifying customers’ work, rather than complicating it with needless new features or difficult workflows,” said Jonathan Warner, director of customer experience, digital media, at Adobe. “Responsiveness to customers makes for a better product and a stronger relationship that drives loyalty.”
More than 250 employees participated in a recent Experience-athon for Adobe Dimension, Adobe’s compositing design tool, giving the product managers additional data to help identify the most important improvements for the next release.
“The process offered us another data point to triangulate with our formal research—either bolstering our current findings or bringing new issues to our attention,” said Rebecca Gordon, senior experience researcher.
Demand for these events across the company is clear: In the program’s first 10 months alone, teams conducted 68 Experience-athons across 16 products and services. More recently, teams for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Adobe Typekit are among those that have used the process. In all cases, employee feedback has positively influenced the products and features.
Plantronics: Habitat Soundscaping
If you’re the inhabitant of a workplace that is enhanced with Habitat Soundscaping by Plantronics, you can thank its employees for the experience. The service uses natural sounds, complementary visuals, and an intelligent acoustic management system to minimize distractions and maximize calm in open-office settings.
“Our employees served as customer zero in its development,” said Beau Wilder, vice president, innovation waves and new products, at Plantronics.
When the company transitioned from cubicles and private offices to an open-office design, employees found themselves distracted by nearby conversations. Unable to find what it needed in the market to resolve the issue, Plantronics designed Habitat Soundscaping from the ground up, with employee input.
“We’ve been doing sound for 50-plus years, so we decided to home-grow our own solution,” Wilder told CMO.com.
Employee feedback helped Plantronics finesse the use of water, for example.
“We knew, from other studies, that the sound of water naturally disguises ambient conversations, and it’s nice to be around,” Wilder said. “But we eventually learned that without including a visual of the water, it created its own level of distraction.”
Employees have influenced every aspect of Habitat Soundscaping—from the visuals to the dynamic acoustic management. About 150 employees provided early input. Later, groups of 10 volunteers at a time rotated through a living laboratory, where they rated and provided feedback on different visual and audio experiences. Their input led to Habitat Soundscaping adding elements such as bird song and rustling wind.
Like Intuit and Adobe, Plantronics has found that employee involvement in improving the customer experience delivers broad benefits.
“Understanding Habitat Soundscaping in such a deep way enables employees to speak to customers with a different level of expertise,” Wilder said. “This kind of engagement also engenders pride and passion in the company.”
When employees step into a customer’s shoes to test-drive or provide feedback, they’re helping to improve that single product or service, of course. But as we’ve seen, it goes much further—strengthening customer relationships and even improving company-wide collaboration and innovation. It’s no wonder that companies that put a strong emphasis on the customer experience, with the help of employees, are also some of our top performers.