Melding the Employee/Customer Experiences at Adobe

At Adobe Systems, the software-development company behind such inventions as Photoshop and the PDF format for documents, some of its latest innovations have involved creating new ways for its 17,000 employees to never stop thinking about customer satisfaction.

Take an event that the San Jose-based tech pioneer calls the “experience-a-thon,” loosely modeled on the hackathon format. Donna Morris, executive vice president of customer and employee experience at Adobe, who’s behind the effort, says the firm’s line employees get a chance to try out a new product like Adobe Spark–its interactive storytelling app–from the same fresh mindset as its customers, and give feedback to the tech staff developing it.

“We call them ‘lay users’: People who don’t use the product on a regular basis,” says Morris, who’s voiced her passion for finding the connections between employees and their customers since she arrived at Adobe in 2007. “It’s like fresh eyes; they might provide a different perspective on what we might need to change to meet the needs of the customer.”

Morris is one of just a handful of career HR leaders who now also wear the newfangled hat of chief customer service officer–trendsetters on the cutting edge of a new business philosophy. The basic idea is that, in an era of increased focus on growing profits through a more satisfied workforce, that same people-oriented mindset can build a happier customer base. By broadening the scope of HR to include the customer experience, companies can better compete in a world in which the employee and customer experiences are quickly melding.

Empathy as a Driver

John Boudreau, research director for the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations and a professor of management and organization, says he’s seeing the “concentric circles” of HR departments and the budding field of customer experience increasingly overlap, as companies recognize that better people management can often be a solution to their problems in customer relations.

Boudreau cites the efforts of top HR executives at clothing giant The Gap a few years ago in addressing worker-exploitation issues at its overseas factories–work that was critical to rebuilding the brand and retaining its concerned customers. HR executives, he says, are increasingly tasked with tackling a company’s thorniest issues and, with the new customer focus, “now there’s this other area of human experience where there’s a lot to be learned.”

Morris certainly agrees that the qualities that drive worker happiness and consumer satisfaction are closely linked. She notes that “empathy is something that’s so important in all relationships … whether it be with a customer or an employee, the reality is we’re all people who want to connect.”

The past decade has seen the rise of the chief customer experience officer title, which recognizes that organizations that had historically focused on siloed departments such as sales or finance could grow revenue with a more holistic emphasis on how the company treats its customers. This seems especially true in an era in which consumers are increasingly drawn in by an attachment to a brand rather than the appeal of a specific product.

In 2011, a Harvard Business Review study found that many of the initial pioneers as chief customer experience officers were internal hires from departments such as sales, marketing or a business unit. In the last few years, however, more companies have developed a focus within HR of mastering the “employee experience.” Cutting-edge companies like Airbnb have even re-christened the traditional CHRO position as the chief employee experience officer, whose goal is to retain rising stars and turn them into satisfied brand ambassadors. Meanwhile, the rise of big data to better measure performance, as well as the notion that a company does better when both the employee and the consumer believe that the firm is socially responsible, have helped corporate leaders discover the potential synergy between HR and customer experience, or what some call CX.

“I think it’s super-blurred,” says Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and CHRO at Lincoln Financial Group, the Radnor, Pa.-based insurance and asset management firm, when asked about the lines between managing the employee experience and the customer experience.

Buckingham notes the firm’s IT managers can work to make it easier for employees to update their personal information, such as an address or phone number, after they’ve left the office, and then turn around and design similar programming changes that benefit consumers. “I think it’s all just … experience,” she says.

At the beginning of the decade, Buckingham was deeply involved in an overhaul of Lincoln Financial’s marketing strategy, which ultimately placed several key customer-oriented responsibilities–including developing consumer insights, branding communications and corporate social responsibility–under her command, in addition to running HR for the nearly 12,000-employee firm. From that perch, she oversees efforts like a recent campaign to engage employees in better understanding the financial-services needs of millennials and Generation Z, who grew up watching their parents struggle with the 2008 financial crisis.

The employee/customer overlap has also provided Buckingham a chance to boost Lincoln Financial’s brand through its philanthropy, as it doles out $10 million in charitable grants to the communities where its major offices are located, and through partnerships between employees and the Philadelphia Eagles to provide eye exams to underprivileged children. “The volunteerism in this company is just crazy; it’s not just millennials,” she says.

Jason Hanold, managing partner at Hanold Associates, an Evanston, Ill.-based executive search firm, agrees that the push for social responsibility–which motivates up-and-coming executives while promoting consumer-brand loyalty–will drive the increasing emphasis on merging the employee and customer experiences.

“How do we do good as an organization? It’s a critical question that’s being asked by employees, especially by millennials and Generation Z,” he says. He notes that companies taking a public stand on high-profile issues–for example, the environmental activism of outdoor outfitter Patagonia–is becoming a key tool in recruiting top talent, even as such efforts also become a centerpiece of their marketing campaigns.

Finding the Commonalities

Adam Malamut, the chief customer experience officer for Marriott International, says the goals of a modern HR department–attracting and retaining top people and getting the most out of them through their devotion to the brand–are almost identical to the goals of building customer loyalty. “It’s different sides of the same coin,” says Malamut. “They feed off each other. To me, that’s the engine of innovation that a company needs to have.”

Malamut himself is, in many ways, the new face of customer experience. Educated as an industrial organizational psychologist, he worked for 15 years in HR for Marriott, tackling areas such as performance management and analytics. He says he increasingly found himself involved during those years in developing HR strategies that supported and strengthened the Marriott brand, until he was named the company’s first chief customer experience officer in 2015.

“Customer experience, in my mind, is largely about building new organizational capabilities, business processes, etc., around the business interests of the central client; in this case, it’s the B-to-C customer,” Malamut says. “And it’s really no different, in many respects, from HR, where you’re building organizational capabilities and business processes around associates and their roles.”

The role that highly trained and engaged employees play in building customer loyalty is critical at a firm like Marriott, with 6,500 properties in 127 different countries, and a full-time workforce of 177,000 people. During Malamut’s tenure as chief customer experience officer, a prime focus has been using big data to develop better information about each customer, which Marriott and its employees can use to better manage their travel experience.

“We are the largest hotel company in the world but our aspiration is to be the world’s favorite travel experience company,” he says, “and because of that, we are dabbling and playing in other areas that are synergistic with our core offerings.”

Malamut says one of his biggest initiatives since he took on customer experience at Marriott has been the development of a high-tech data pipeline that can give hotel staff the best possible information about individual guests–their preferences, or issues that might have arisen in their past visits, for example–“so [hotel staff] can have more engaging and elevated conversations and service opportunities with each and every customer.”

Marriott employees’ ability to use data in real time is critical to a new partnership the company has with PlacePass, a tours-and-activities metasearch platform that offers 100,000 different experiences like shark-tank diving, camel tours or cooking lessons.

“We’re working with our hotels to enable our associates now to look at their jobs not just as transacting and making the hotel’s service delivery spot on,” he says, “but also how can they curate and design new experiences, and how can they add these experiences into a marketplace.”

Embracing an Evolution

Joseph McCabe, Boston-based vice chairman of Korn Ferry, says an ideal study for new perspectives on the role of HR in improving the customer experience is the corporate call center, where past practices were built around efficiency and limiting the time of each call–with little regard to how customers were actually treated. The new focus, he says, looks more clearly at “what are we incentivizing” in employee behavior.

At Adobe, Morris says, the decision to name her the firm’s first chief customer experience officer while she continues to serve as the CHRO was the culmination of the company’s business model evolving. Instead of it being built just around the breakthrough nature of specific products, it also became centered on nurturing long-term relationships with both individual and business customers.

Specifically, Adobe launched the Creative Cloud as a subscription service in 2012 that required the company to focus more on connectivity as it sought to grow revenues through its website. The company also expanded its business-to-business enterprise component as more of its corporate clients looked to become more digitally focused.

“That brought to us a reality that we needed to be as great to work with as we were to work for,” Morris says. When the company decided to place all of its functions related to the customer experience under one department in 2015, Morris–who notes that “ultimately, your customers are your business, so I have personal passion around the customer”–was the logical choice to oversee it.

One of the major innovations launched at Adobe under Morris has been an effort to align compensation awards more closely with metrics tied to servicing and building relationships with the customer, as opposed to more traditional measurements like sales. The new metrics, she explains, are broadly tied to expanding the base of consumers or retaining those already on board.

“Every employee now is tied to the customer in some sort of incentive compensation,” Morris says, adding that “it’s much easier and faster to do that when you’re already leading the employee function and the compensation system.”

Morris says the company’s intranet, called Inside Adobe, now offers clear-cut examples of what employees should be doing to improve the customer experience. This includes finance employees developing payment terms that are easier to understand and use, simplified contractual terms coming from the legal department, more personalized approaches to consumers from marketing or HR hiring more empathetic staffers.

“What we try to do through our check-in process is make sure employees do understand what role they respectively play that helps the customer,” Morris says.

Employees are also encouraged to listen to their customers, literally. One of the innovative approaches launched after Morris’ arrival has been so-called listening stations–either physical locations or online capabilities for employees to hear conversations with actual Adobe customers, in order to get a better sense of what consumers like or don’t like about the firm’s products.

“It’s a very effective tool for the product managers and the engineering teams to really understand what the sentiment is,” Morris says, although she did acknowledge that the novelty of listening to the calls can wear off after a while.

Yet Morris sees the merging of the employee- and customer-experience programs as something that’s here to stay, and which an increasing number of companies are going to emulate. “I believe that having all of the employees aligned and incentivized to be tied to the customer definitely helps because there’s the carrot and the stick; they’re feeling part of that process,” she says. “Within the company, the dialogue is around our customer and the focus of building a company that cares, a company that’s really focused on the success of our customer as something we contribute to, to be on a journey. This is a journey, not a destination.”

John Bremen, managing director for human capital and benefits at Willis Towers Watson, says he sees growing “commonalities” between HR’s traditional function and the new customer experience role: “understanding human behavior and motivations, being empathetic but also being analytic.” He says the growing customization and personalization of products and services, in a time of improved data, are bringing the functions closer together.

Malamut agrees that the ideal customer experience can only be created by engaging the workforce.

“It’s all about the talent,” he says. “It’s all about the innovation engine that is created through the people that work in that company–how you set up your work context to be engaging, how you give them new concepts and how you teach them on new types of skills–whether it’s design thinking or about staffing or designing a brand. All of that feeds into the core culture that drives innovation … . If your employee experience is an afterthought, I don’t see how you can expect the employee base to deliver on your aspirational customer experience.”

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Will Bunch
Will Bunch is a freelance writer based in the Philadelphia region who writes on human resources and other business topics. He can be reached at [email protected]