Skills for the Next Generations of Leaders: What We Learned from ’08 + COVID

Consumer expectations have been changing (since the dawn of the digital age 20 years ago), and the pandemic has only accelerated the pace of that change. Two-thirds of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations, yet the same amount says that companies generally don’t understand their unique needs and expectations at all. A meaningful customer experience today is about creating interactions that build trust and increase engagement and loyalty. And the same goes for employees, who want their companies to treat them with trust and empathy.

This is especially top of mind coming out of the pandemic, which has hit people harder than any crisis in a generation. A recent VisitPay survey found that 61% of consumers say this year’s crisis had a more negative impact on their family than the 2008 recession.  

Today, successful brands are the ones that arm themselves with data and use those insights to fully understand customer behavior and employee needs to build a consumer-first company. When I was an EVP at Capital One, we were able to transform the company’s business model because we had more than a decade of curated data points. This dataset allowed us to understand different consumer dynamics–including how to manage risk and tailor our offerings. When the 2008 recession hit, we were well prepared to navigate its uncertainty because we had already created an unassailable business using data as an asset. The same is true for the approach we’ve taken at VisitPay, a patient financial experience platform. 

Here are three lessons that leaders can use when navigating the pandemic, and any future downturns. 

Adapt to changing consumer expectations

In this new digital reality, meeting customer needs is different from what it used to be. The market isn’t set up for consumer-first experiences yet, and so it’s incumbent upon companies to manage these experiences.  

The first step a brand should take is to ask for feedback programmatically. In the healthcare industry, for example, it’s only in the last ten years that patient payments have become a significant pain point for consumers and hospitals. Most payment platforms were built prior to the Affordable Care Act, so they weren’t built for the patient owing as much as they do today. Patients are easily frustrated because they’re working on a platform that wasn’t designed for the financial experience they need.

Surveying to find pain points in the experience is an important way of getting actionable feedback. Customer experience (CX) teams should partner with marketing teams to deploy survey questions through email campaigns, and do this several times a year to provide a useful benchmark of performance over time. This feedback can help companies know which specific problems customers are encountering to know if a point solution is needed, or a full platform shift. 

From there, don’t let the data sit. It’s critical to make improvements based on this feedback and tell customers what you’ve changed. When given the opportunity to provide feedback, some customers will vent years of built-up frustration. This is why it is important to not just collect feedback on the overall experience (such as through Net Promoter Scores) but also on specific moments during that experience (in healthcare, for example, what patients experienced when arranging a payment plan for a large balance). 

By doing this, key issues will quickly rise to the top. For finance and CX leaders, this kind of synthesis is truly a gift. The most problematic areas will be easy to identify and fix. 

Create a culture of transparency and accountability

Similar to proactively checking in with your customers for feedback (and actually acting on it), you should apply this same approach within your internal organization. Be sure you’re asking employees for their feedback, even when it’s tough to hear. Set a precedent of complete transparency and collaboration within your organization and encourage employees to share real-time feedback with colleagues and the leadership team. Make a point to listen to BIPOC employees’ perspectives and act on that feedback to help restructure inclusion initiatives within the company. Hold company-wide conversations on racial equity, increase diversity and inclusion training, and purposefully diversify recruiting efforts. As companies embrace full-time remote work, expand recruitment searches outside of your local geography to access talent from across the world. 

Step in to support your team wherever necessary, and help people achieve a purpose that’s bigger than they are. Pitch in where teams need extra support and expect that same collaboration from everyone in the company. Outside of that, it’s important to give people the ability to step into stretch roles, even before they may feel 100% ready. Give employees the opportunity for more leadership and new experiences based on their individual interests and preferences. 

Fail fast to move forward

Part of my philosophy is to have no fear of failure, as that’s part of the learning process. Research shows that how you fail (and particularly, whether and how you try again) determines if you’ll eventually succeed. It turns out that after an initial failure, there’s a difference in the behavior of winners and losers.

If there’s anything the pandemic taught us, it’s how to truly be agile. When the data (or consumer feedback) reveals something isn’t working, cut your losses and pivot to another solution. Continuously test and iterate upon that solution to stay ahead of market trends and changing expectations. The success rate of any kind of transformation is consistently low (under 30%) and so it’s only natural to rapidly evolve processes and the way you engage with consumers. Cultivate a culture that encourages employees to experiment and champion learning from mistakes.

As we come out of one of the worst years most of us can remember, it’s important to keep in mind that there is a business opportunity. Companies that can create a consumer-first experience will be best positioned to win. To do that, they’ll need the right tools to properly navigate changing expectations, a clear plan for innovation, and a commitment to support their workforces with transparency and accountability.

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