Customer experience should be a vital part of every company. However, the larger the company, the harder it is to maintain a high level of customer experience throughout the entire customer journey.
In the 18th episode of Minimum Viable Podcast Michal Blažej discusses CX management in large organizations with Eva Šípková, the Head of CX at Alza. Eva and her colleagues are paving the way for the importance of customer experience, striving to embed the customer-first approach into every department.
Minimum Viable Podcast is brought to you by the CX design studio Lighting Beetle*. It's usually recorded in the Slovak language, however, you can read an English transcription of this episode below. For more content in English, including case studies and handouts, visit our Journal.
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At the conference where we met, you mentioned that you joined Alza two years ago. I'm curious how customer experience looked like in Alza back then and what was happening there?
The topic of customer experience has always been present at Alza. In fact, Alza has been extremely customer-focused from the very beginning, and that never changed. However, as the company expanded and the sales were growing rapidly, perhaps the need to focus on the customer might not have seemed that acute.
Customer experience is not something new. It's just that maybe before I joined and before we started to consolidate it as a unified topic under one team, it wasn't that specified and emphasized.
So, it was fragmented, but was there any effort to centralize the entire CX before your arrival?
Yes, there were several initiatives. For amusement, I like to use the acronym RAPUZA, which in Czech language stands for Customer Retention Council. It's an initiative that was created many years ago when some people realized that we might not always take the best care of every single customer.
So a group of people who felt that nobody in Alza specifically cared about the customer started clustering into various groups. But since there wasn't one main leader or a dedicated full-time focus on this issue, it was more like: let's fix what we see needs fixing.
Mostly, how I perceive it, is that one department is the protagonist of CX but they don't have the complete mandate so they can't address it in a structured way, department by department. In your case, it was the board. Someone who brings everyone together?
It was a peculiar grouping of individuals who paradoxically weren't directly connected to the customer. It was driven, for example, by the IT director, the sales network director, and the director of warehouses, logistics, and transportation. Not the typical members you would expect. Of course, they had their additional tasks outside of this board, so their focus was diluted.
You joined as the Head of CX, and I'm curious why the CX department was established and what mandate did you have?
I joined during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic when the times were changing and the changes were so rapid that a giant company like Alza couldn't react flexibly enough. However, more people noticed that it wasn't just the company's inflexibility, but also the government regulations that were causing trouble for customers. So we needed to look at it comprehensively and purposefully.
That's why I came with the mandate to address any issue related to the customer, whatever it may be, find the weakest points, help to improve them, and propose solutions. It required a lot of collaboration with other departments and I think I joined at a great time when everyone was enthusiastic about this topic and the mandate was naturally growing as the results were becoming visible.
It's great when you enter an environment where people are enthusiastic. That really opens doors. Despite that, let me ask you. You mentioned that you had some tactics or strategies at the beginning. What was your approach or the first steps when you took on that position?
First and foremost, it's essential to realize that Alza isn't just an e-shop for end customers. Alza is also a large logistics company with its own transportation network, a huge IT department developing its products, it's a marketplace, etc... The variety of products and platforms is enormous and the approach needs to be simplified so that people don't get overwhelmed.
In the beginning, it was about realizing all the touchpoints with the customer. Orienting myself in what Alza encompasses, what it offers to the customer, and identifying where the customer experience can occur took a considerable amount of time. Establishing contact with the right people at the right touchpoints was a significant effort in the beginning. The starting point was to understand where the customer occurs and then identify the genuinely troublesome areas.
How do you actually identify all those touchpoints in such complexity? Where did you start? Did you conduct interviews with individual stakeholders, or did you choose a more systematic approach (customer journey mapping, data analysis)?
I used all the methods because I believed that in the beginning, it was necessary to combine everything and find the right path. Customer journey mapping is a fantastic tool but when I started sketching the first journey, it quickly branched off, splintered and the paths became incredibly complex. I quickly realized that customer journey mapping was entirely useless for me in the beginning.
I quickly realized that customer journey mapping was entirely useless for me in the beginning.
When you don't have research or can't buy expensive data, you either directly ask the customers physically present in the stores or those approaching the call center. We started to divide and sort the feedback based on the affiliation to individual departments. And then when you see one pile is much larger than the other, you can set your focus.
So, you approached it by departments, which makes sense. In each department, you had to dig into heaps of feedback and identify issues. How many people were involved in mapping these things?
I always encourage all my colleagues. I attend onboarding days every first day of the month, welcome all newcomers, and say: 'You are all my colleagues, and you all indirectly work for my department because whatever you do it always affects the customer.'
So, we simply went through all departments and reached an agreement with each department director to allocate a portion of their staff to us. With this team, we were able to
make significant progress in addressing the issue.
The first question I have regarding this is why do those department directors listen to you or why do those departments even talk to you? Because again, a common problem of large companies is that on one hand, they have big CX departments, but on the other hand, the CX requests still fall to the bottom of the priority list. How did you manage to overcome this?
Several things helped me. Firstly, it was the realization that the money is not generated by the website or application. Our revenue is not created by our warehouses and transportation, nor our great developers. It is our customers who pay our salary.
In discussions with individual directors it was crucial for me to define a metric. A specific number that is theirs, not mine. Be careful not to become the foolish person who walks around the company with emojis and your own silly metrics because people won't take you seriously.
You need to be a partner to that specific department and together define what they should be monitoring. What their metric is, that is also relevant for you. For example, we have a full portfolio of vacuum cleaners, nothing is missing, and this could be one of the customer numbers which is also a business number for them.
By clearly defining the metrics for each department, we avoided ending up with vague indicators like for example if the emoji face is greener or not at the end, because that is irrelevant to most departments.
Could you give a few more examples of those metrics? It's very interesting.
For example, when discussing with the finance department, at the beginning they said: "We are the finance department, we have nothing to do with the customer." And we had to think about where the finance department actually intersects with the customer experience and where it could provide better service.
We came up with a metric called Money Delay Index, which describes how long a customer has to wait for their refund. For example, when you decide you want to return something, the ideal situation is that the moment you close the locker door of Alza box, you receive a payment. Then the finance department comes in and says: "Wait but we have to check if the product is properly packaged, if anything is missing, we have to see which bank the customer used to make the payment, etc..."
They start telling me why it can't be done and I tell them why it should be possible and this is how we get to a result. It becomes a metric for the finance department because it also bothers them. They don't want to have pending payments that are not matched according to their financial parameters. It is their indicator, through which they can adjust their internal processes and I don't interfere with that.
The Money Delay Index makes sense because a person wants their money back. For other metrics it may be more complex to determine what the customer wants. How do you know which of those metrics are positive for the customer? Do you declare a customer service vision or do you prefer to gather feedback?
It's a combination of both. Alza has its own strategy. Our vision is ordering by thought, delivery by teleport. And this vision aligns us with what is right and what is not. Then it's a question of whether the customer values more our fastest delivery or, on the contrary, the most accurate one.
Our vision is ordering by thought, delivery by teleport.
At the same time, we listen to what customers say. We have a lot of feedback which is public and doesn't require extensive research. However, it often happens that customers say one thing and behave differently. It's important to consider their feedback as supplementary data and not rely solely on it.
Regarding the organizational structure, what is your position? And does the cooperation work for you?
I have a close relationship with the top management of Alza and the focus on the customer is quite clear there. Having this sort of relationship with the highest decision-makers stands me in a fantastic position where I have the support of the entire board.
It's often the case that CX teams have researchers and designers under their supervision... We discussed that it's not your role to have those people directly on your team. Is that correct?
Basically yes. I believe that part of the company operates based on product ownership, which makes a lot of sense. I am against having a large CX team with generalists under my supervision. When designing a specific delivery method for a specific segment, such as oversized goods, I need to have transportation specialists who can tell me what is feasible. Together, we strive for an ideal or realistic solution.
The CX team says: 'We think it should be like this,' but the department people are the specialists. We need to discuss with them what aspects of our vision are feasible and maybe even unexplored by anyone else yet and we want to be the first to test them. It doesn't make sense to me to have a large team of advisors who don't have the authority. They would still need to go to the specialists from the respective departments.
We've tried it a few times and it can work in certain cases, but if you want to make a disruptive change, it's great to have it done by the professionals.
Let me summarize this first part of the discussion. You are directly under the board, and your role is primarily to maintain the vision of customer experience and identify important common metrics and the stakeholders then work on those metrics themselves. Is that correct?
That's one way to put it. I want to give a shout-out to my boss, who is the IT director. I am the only CX person working in the IT department, but it makes the most sense to me to be involved in the creation of the entire web platform. That's where customers come and often end up.
Who are the people closest to you who help you implement this CX vision? What roles do they represent?
Formally they are communication specialists who handle all interactions between Alza and the customers. And now I don't mean marketing communications, but all the other types. For example, when you receive a confirmation SMS such as 'delivered to Alza Box', that's also part of the CX team. And then there are all the qualitative indicators where we define the level of quality we want to guarantee.
For instance, the quality of delivery, meaning punctuality. We know that if a customer doesn't receive their package on time, no CX metric will help. The smiley face won't be green. It will turn red immediately. Then we have specific metrics that we track.
A significant part of them consists of IT specialists, who deal with the customer behavior on the website. Returns are a crucial aspect of the entire CX as well. And I shouldn't forget the sales part, including physical Alza stores, which are also my close allies.
I'm interested in building a culture of customer importance in organizations with such complexity and diversity. Is it a topic for you?
Indeed it is a topic for me. Of course, there may be difficult situations where one has to choose. What is more important, revenue or customer satisfaction? And I'm here to prevent this kind of question from occurring.
Instant profit is fine, but it is the long-term profit brought by the customer we want. That's where my vision is. Once nobody asks this question anymore, whether it's profit first or customer first and it becomes clear that the customer always comes first, I think we're halfway there.
How do you plan to maintain this culture?
One great thing about Alza is that despite its corporate size, it maintains an incredible startup-like freedom. There is no research and development department here that generates ideas and the rest of us simply implement them. Quite the opposite, if anyone feels they have a great idea, they can go and make it happen.
Things really happen extremely quickly here and the ownership of innovations remains with individual specialists. I'm not a finance specialist and I don't know what the payment gateways do. But those specific specialists do and they don't wait for me to come up with ideas. They come up with them themselves and I believe that's why the company is so successful. We don't hinder innovations here. On the contrary, we strongly support them even at the cost of occasionally encountering failures.
That's an interesting perspective that the customer-oriented culture is maintained through an innovative mindset. Often they get internally consumed by the processes, which kills customer orientation.
That's right. I think it's great that as we all feel we're the market leader, we often carry the burden of innovation ourselves. We are the first ones to come up with an idea. Or maybe we're not always the first,v but we're the first ones to put it into practice.
Ideas are everywhere, but their application is something we are really good at, and we're not afraid of crazy ideas. The best thing about Alza, in my opinion, is that we bang our head against a brick wall and keep banging until it falls even though numerous people before us ended up with failure. We are not afraid to try and to prove them wrong.
How do you ensure a consistent customer experience across all channels with so many ideas?
I think that's probably the most challenging part of this job. The customer journey is quite knotty and there are areas at which we are strong and I feel we are almost there, but there are also areas at which we are weaker. And that, I believe, is actually the biggest challenge - not to have large fluctuations anywhere in the customer experience.
We are perfectionists, we want everything to be the best and the greatest. That's why sometimes it's difficult for us to admit that we are not 100% at something. That we can only achieve 80% for now and we are approaching that perfect score slower than we thought.
You mentioned you have a strategy that largely dictates the customer experience. Sometimes I notice a difference between CX and business strategy. Do they overlap in your case?
I wouldn't separate them at all. In my opinion, they should be aligned. We are all part of the business and everyone has revenue indicators in their evaluation, regardless of their role.
I believe it's necessary to merge business aspects with the customer first approach. I can't imagine my sales department doing something different than I do. Of course, we don't always have the same opinion and our ways to achieve the goal may differ, but in this aspect, we need to be on the same page.
Do you use any metrics for overall customer experience? Something that looks at the customer relationship across all departments?
Certainly yes. We have several different metrics and of course we look at them. But at the same time, whether I have a score of 17, 70, 96 or 93, it's still just a number to me. I need to understand more deeply what that number represents.
I don't want to get into situations where if the number goes down I start panicking and stressing out the whole company. That doesn't bring any benefit. It's important to be precise and know why the number is decreasing, in which specific department etc.
The customer we don't know about is the best one since they understand everything. They're satisfied because everything is simple and intuitive.
Then we come back to the fact that specific metrics from specific departments and their performance towards the customer are much more helpful to me. The overall number is certainly necessary from a long-term perspective. If I see that it's declining year over year, it's clear that I'm not doing well. But at the same time, I definitely don't overestimate it.
I don't go to sleep and wake up just to improve the number. I don't want to improve the number just for the sake of the number itself. I need to improve the process behind that number. There are various ways such as collecting feedback to improve the number, but that doesn't lead anywhere.
Do you engage in proactive discovery at Alza to seek new opportunities? Is there a specific team for it, or is it done by each department?
I think it comes naturally from each department. Specialists keep an eye on their respective fields and there is always plenty of ideas. But as I mentioned, we don't have a separate research department that generates ideas completely detached from reality. It's much better to combine forces, gather people who have ideas and let them brainstorm where we could go, what is feasible, what makes economic sense, what makes sense from the customer's perspective and don't be afraid to come up with something new that nobody has ever done before.
I'll mention something that is currently happening. It is the speed of delivery. Order by midnight and pick-up in Alza box in the morning. If I was a logistics person, I would say this idea is not possible. But we managed it. We gathered all the people involved, made many significant changes, thousands of processes were modified, but we achieved it.
Of course, customers greatly appreciate it and their favorability is growing tremendously. The fact that I can place an order from my bed at midnight and pick it up before the opening hours is just awesome and it brings us one step closer to our vision of teleportation.
It's hugely inspiring how the company culture helps to influence the customer experience. Finally, I ask all guests a question: What design challenge would you like to solve in your life?
For me every call at the call center is a challenge. Customers should call us only to tell us that their experience was great or if they're too lazy to read what's on the website. I'm willing to accept that type of call but I want to eliminate all the others.
That's one of the challenges for me to offer such a smooth and barrier-free customer experience that eliminates every unnecessary interaction. The customer we don't know about is the best one since they understand everything. They're satisfied because everything is simple and intuitive.
That experience without any obstacles, after which customers say: 'Wow, that was great! I want to shop there again and again!' That's the challenge for me. But I still have a few years ahead of me.
The full interview with Eva Šípková in Slovak:
Minimum Viable Podcast is brought to you every two months by the design studio Lighting Beetle*, which focuses on creating an exceptional customer experience.
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