The Path to Excellence: Improving Customer Interactions and Business Relationships

12 min read
23 Nov

In this interview, Chris Watkins, VP of Client Success and Experience at OpenEdge, talks about building a client experience based on a simple and guided perspective. He believes ‘customer experience is the heart of the business, and should guide all business decisions.’

The concept of Client Success should not be dramatic or more complicated than it needs to be. From a contextual or guiding perspective, when you talk to your clients, think of all the outcomes you’re trying (or going) to deliver. Ask yourself - does it make the client successful? If the answer to that question is “no,” then you need to rethink what’s missing in your strategy

Background and career

Watkins started his market research career at a few smaller companies, eventually working for the largest customer satisfaction firm. He has implemented and developed an engagement model for some of the country’s largest enterprise businesses. 

“Back in the day, they called it “customer satisfaction,” Watkins recalled. “When it became part of the technological nomenclature, they changed the term to “client experience.” 

“What I like about this role,” Watkins says, “it allows you to take one step further than just creating happy clients. It creates successful clients.” It happens in part because this role requires a high level of participation amongst other teams, and you can see how each of these teams work at a broader level to deliver a differentiated experience for all clients.”  

Think of it; CS sits in the middle of these interconnected functions. So - you’re in the right position to participate, advocate, or take part in the design process and correlate the entire business strategy across these teams within the organization.

As Matt Myszkowski, VP of CS at SAP says, the best way to illustrate is similar to a bicycle wheel with many spokes. If you look at the middle section (the axis, which is the CS), you’ll see those spokes deeply rooted on the axis, yet each of these spokes is independently hinged and closely structured from one another. You can read my interview with Matt here.

Client experience is the heart of the business

The question is – where is this value interlocked? Watkins pointed out, “this value is embedded in the service rendered and maintained across the customer’s entire journey.” “In my perspective,” Watkins added, “if you don’t have the value component worked out or established first, it becomes tough to make the customer experience come to life. 

“The client experience needs to be more than just a good product or service. If I don’t see (as a client or customer) what that value can be in working with a company or brand, then it will be challenging for me to engage with the brand in a meaningful way – beyond normal transactional experiences.” 

Why? When the value isn’t clear and doesn’t continue to grow as a customer expected and believed it would, then the types of client experiences that tend to occur are nothing more than typical ‘service experiences.’ And when that defines your brand’s relationship with clients, you create a greater focus on price alone and quickly become very replaceable.

Meaningful brand experience is not just a handoff (or extension) of a fair customer service process. Instead, it is an overall approach with business outcomes focused on critical importance to clients – things that make their business more successful. 

That’s why a strong market research function becomes an impetus for organizational change because the organization or teams can’t breathe or live without visibility on what is exactly taking place or shaping within their domain and industry. The same principle applies to Client Experience.

How do we use the client experience to win the day?

Client experience drives real client success when these concepts are foundational to your business model:

  1. Establish the value points and understand expectations within any customer’s journey.
  2. The value must be significant to your clients and connected to the long-term plan (or goal) and its success.
  3. Use tools like a journey map to truly understand expectations and see the needs, opportunities, successes, and current failure points of each interaction with your brand.
  4. Build processes and approaches seamlessly for your client as they move from step to step in their journey. Enable the measurement of success.
  5. Create a client-focused culture where employees have the right mindset to deliver differentiated experiences and receive the training to deliver those experiences every day.
  6. When organizations can effectively combine these business concepts, almost every organization can deliver unique experiences and business outcomes that genuinely benefit their customers. Then keep the cycle going over and over again. See the image above.

As businesses have evolved, many have come to embrace the increasing popularity of Customer Success. But as Watkins points out, two approaches emerged as a result.

  1. The “Wanna-be” Concept – We have seen a vast expansion [of organizations] saying that they use (or have implemented) this Customer Success approach or discipline. Still, it will reveal that their approach is just the same old set of processes or functions with some new polish when you peel the onion. While they may call this new department Client Success or Customer Success, they are often client management teams that aren’t necessarily focused on delivering real client success.
  2. The “Real Deal” Concept - For companies who honestly figure out and understand this discipline, they drive a cultural and business shift that focuses on finding ways and means to deliver value-driven, differentiated experiences that drive success. And they work hard to uphold this client focus in the most meaningful ways. It becomes how you do business – not something you do at your company.

This role (or function) isn’t just about retention – but about success that drives renewal. It is an emerging discipline that changes the organization’s culture to be more deliberate in decision-making and customer-centricity. You can easily discern if the organization got it right when: 

(1) What they’re doing is not just lip service, but rather is a core of their culture (2) When success metrics are based on trust and shared value (3) Genuine interest is exhibited into creating cohesion and delivering excellence across the customer’s journey (4) It becomes contagious within the organization (5) When the feedback of clients and front-line teammates is taken and acknowledged (6) When there’s a change of delivery model from service to client experience (7) When there are true alignment and buy-in, from the CEO through every employee in the organization.

Watkins cautioned you couldn’t ‘put lipstick on a pig’ to make it look real if it weren’t in the first place – your clients and employees would quickly see through that disguise. An organization that commits to this approach will almost certainly stand stronger, experience improvement across all areas of the company, and will see their client’s success drive real business success because they have mastered this concept. It’s not always easy, but when done well, the benefits are well worth the effort.

Valuing and improving customer/client experience

Client success becomes amazing when you have the ability, skills, and opportunities to proactively drive value into the client relationship. Therefore, it takes an analytical approach towards retaining existing customers and a strong commitment to forging long-lasting relationships with new customers entering the company.

Watkins discusses that within his organization, there are two primary ways OpenEdge measures the quality of the customer experience being delivered. Metrics are based on these two broad areas of engagement, measured through separate surveys.

  1. General and overall engagement. It pertains to a random sampling of customers who may or may not have recently interacted with the company. This haphazard approach ensures we talk with many clients – those we interact with regularly and those who we may not have heard from directly in the past few years.

There are three critical topics measured with these clients:

  • The overall level of client satisfaction
  • NPS
  • An open-ended opportunity on how the company can help make the client more successful

While simple, this tool has helped OpenEdge measure the impact of a wide variety of business and product changes. They are happy to report a significant increase in how clients view the client experience being delivered. The open-ended feedback also allows the company to respond within 24-48 hours to 250+ clients each month who provide information that indicates an issue can be proactively identified and resolved BEFORE it becomes a significant issue.

This approach also allows the company to understand better their entire client base (not just a subset) and see how scores/sentiment change over time – a critical component for client success professionals.

 2. The second measurement tool focuses on Clients who have interacted in real-time with their Installation, Tech Support, our Client Care team in the current week. Although many of the same metrics measure this kind of engagement, the company captures the sentiments and CSATs of particular and critical interactions almost real-time (assessing these sentiments’ face value!). It also gives the organization a mechanism to respond to poor experiences quickly. 

Using this approach, Watkins notes that “as expected, we have seen post-interaction results with higher scores since customers’ disposition and the immediate impact of their interaction have a huge influence on their rating.” The company is looking for stability in scores at the onset to ensure a consistent experience is being delivered. It then has focused on score growth over time as their approaches and experiences have become better.

Watkins says, “We’re not too hung up on the big survey metrics right now.” He continues, “Our goal is to drive successful relationships based on value, trust, and success. If we do that consistently – we’ll have ever-improving survey scores. But we need the business successes to drive scores. Great scores alone are meaningless, especially if they don’t connect to long-term client relationships. For example, the problem with NPS is it doesn’t give you more precise details on why clients are pleased or not. Yes, you can see the number down, but you don’t know the reason. 

“We use NPS (for a driving understanding of our client engagement delivery); however, as a precaution, we also complement it with other survey programs and especially the open-ended questions. Through this, we’re able to get customer feedback to use it to drive improvement. 

“Additionally, we have a team that is built around following-up on these data points with the clients providing them. When the survey comes in, and the feedback is not good, we contact them directly and inquire about how we can help them.” 

“We take the feedback seriously. This follow-up and direct interaction make more sense to us than having the info on a spreadsheet waiting for someone to click or read verbatim from customers. These clients have invested time in sharing feedback that will help them be more successful. We owe it to them to use that information to help.” 

Always aim for a home run

“When we talk about client success [in our company], we take it very literally. Meaning, we want them to be very successful in the most meaningful ways possible.

“For us to do that, we have to make sure that we have a stable payments platform [that allows them to run their business effectively and get paid] while at the same time, building their trust and providing them the confidence that we are always there for them. When a client can see, we have helped drive the success of their business – through using our platform or our consultation - that’s a home run for me.”

Watkins points out that the ‘homerun’ refers to having your hallmark deliver consistent differentiated experiences that enable your client’s success. He continues, “If you do that every day by doing what you do best, even in straightforward situations, it sends a strong message to customers.

“There are times you’re going to miss the home run. But if you show up to each interaction with customers with the same mindset that you will deliver excellence, that becomes a great pathway to developing good partnerships.” Hence, “Client success is a mindset before it’s a department.”

Driving real and profitable relationships

Companies must learn to survive and adapt in a competitive world. In other words, ‘you need to understand the challenges limiting your customers, and what motivates and demotivates them.’

Watkins says that, for each client, there’s a ‘financial’ element that can’t be ignored as well. There is a risk and reward for both the organization and the client when finding ways to encourage customers to continue working with your company. Indeed, an organization can do lots of things that clients would love – but they don’t make any fiscal sense (like cutting everyone’s cost in half). Similarly, – a client has to decide if the money they pay to you is worth the outcome.

Therefore, “client success happens if and when the customers find more value than expected in the partnership, and they achieve personal success while using your platform (or product or service) – over and over again.”

Here are a few cues to check if the relationships you have with your customers are strong enough and could pass the acid test. Aside from the time and effort, healthy relationships look like these:

  1. Customers are adjusting their business processes and practices to better utilize your offering. When they willingly change their approach, it signals buy-in and adoption.
  2.  Customers are having an on-going dialogue with your company. When the customers become engaged and start making time to reply to your emails, agreeing to assist with marketing requests, and being willing to share feedback (good and bad) – you have developed an entirely different kind of positive relationship.
  3.  When you hear the conversation shift from ‘THEY do this for us’ to ‘WE are doing this together’ and ‘how should we plan to move TOGETHER?’ Your client has connected your company to their growth potential and success.

If you’re creating the right culture, everyone in your company contributes to clients’ success. Watkins states that when things are moving positively, “All the concepts we use in the literal client success team, we can push to the entire company or organization so that every team is connected to our clients’ success.”

The real or actual value of business relationships happens when you see improvements in the customer’s operating environment and realize positive business results. They make the clear connection that your team (or organization) is an important reason for those positive outcomes.

“I take pride in that,” Watkins says, as “I have seen that our team becomes the spear that helps drive that value into our organization and our clients’ world.”

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