Thomas Cook: You have to get people to get great customer experiences

Leader of business improvement for UK-based travel group shares her methods of turning around culture and process in order to deliver better customer experience

Any organisation wanting to make the change to a more customer-led business needs to factor in the human element if they’re to be successful, Thomas Cook UK’s leader of business improvement claims.

Erika Toth began her working life as an engineer, assisting travellers by redesigning and streamlining processes in ground operations and passenger handling for Malev Hungarian Airlines.

Now 17 years later, her career path has come full circle, as she takes the skills she has developed in process and system improvement and applies them to improving the customer experience of the 20 million people who travel with the UK-based Thomas Cook Group each year.

In addition to aviation and travel, Toth has directed change programmes in telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries. She is a certified change manager, and holds qualifications in improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma.

Throughout her career she has witnessed many successes and failures in improving customer experience and business performance. When projects do fail, she says the common factor to look at and explore further to ensure successful change in the next round is the people who are delivering and receiving the services.

“Most of these efforts tend to fail because they don’t take into consideration the people who operate those processes and the people who receive the end result of that process,” Toth says.

Erika Toth
Erika Toth

Speaking ahead of her appearance at the CX Tech Fest event in Melbourne in August, Toth says the approach she brings to her role as group head of business and continuous improvement at Thomas Cook is very people focused.

“When you want to make a change happen, whether it is a smaller change or you want to transform the entire operation, it is important you understand that whatever you design, it is going to be delivered to human beings by other human beings,” Toth says. “So how do you change the mindsets of those people and enable them to deliver consistently high quality service while continually looking for ways to create an even better experience?”

It is a question whose answer has stymied numerous change programs, and one that has become more critical as the digital era has swung the spotlight onto improving customer experience.

Toth says one of the key mistakes organisations make when re-engineering processes is to make them too rigid. While this might be done in the mistaken belief that such rigidity is essential in establishing new behaviours for staff, ultimately it limits the outcomes they can deliver.

“Customers are human beings – they are like us,” Toth says. “Therefore scripting everything and trying to create robots to deliver something to the customer is just not going to work. If you try to script every single move, staff won’t have any creativity to connect with the customer, to delight customers, or even just to fix a problem that could be easy to fix.”

Another common mistake in transformation and process change is failing to accurately understand the actual current state of the organisation. Toth says while most organisations will attempt some form of review, often they are not honest in their assessment.

Any change program is doomed to fail if the people implementing it either don’t see their leaders in the organisation being fully aligned to the sentiment of the change, or can’t understand the reasoning behind the change. Hence Toth says communication and continuous engagement is critical, and this includes ensuring staff across all parts of the organisation understand the customer experience and what is being changed.

This has been one of the changes she has championed at Thomas Cook since joining last year.

“My role really is focused on creating and implementing the culture of customer-centric continuous improvement,” Toth says. “One of the things that has started to make its mark in the organisation is bringing the voice of the customer into what we are talking about every day.

“We listen to our customers and use various different customer insights to understand what is going on in their heads and why they do what they do. Even if their wording is not kind, we can use that to continuously improve. In the same way, feedback on everyday activities is applicable in the entire organisation.”

That means not only ensuring that customers are heard by staff in customer-facing roles, but that their feedback permeates other parts of the organisation, including its back-office functions. It also means people and teams can give and take feedback on what has been happening in their function or operation, and use it to improve.

“I am hearing more departments asking what is happening in customer experience and in improvement, and how they can contribute,” Toth says. “Individuals have started to be more interested, and are wanting to participate.

“The next step will be to move from influencing individuals to influencing the collective. Culture doesn’t change in large numbers of people; culture will change in small teams.

“If you are able to influence a small team, then you will be winning, because it will multiply itself.”

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