Our overall brand perceptions are invariably shaped by our experiences. And loyal customer relationships can be severed in moments by a negative service interaction.
Jason Bradshaw was appointed Volkswagen Group Australia’s first director of customer experience 12 months ago, an executive-level role he claims is also a first for Australia’s automotive industry. The remit: Put the customer front and centre across HQ, as well as its dealership network, making customers the first, second and third priority behind every business decision.
“We recognise as a business that if we are going to drive our CX forward, the director needs to be responsible for all the major touchpoints impacting our team member’s experience as well as the customer’s experience across the whole lifecycle of ownership,” he says. Bradshaw’s department is responsible for contact centre, roadside assistance, customer satisfaction and loyalty, customer experience programs, CRM and its staff academy.
“It takes a lot of energy and focus to move from a very product-centred industry to one that matches its product experience with a seller/customer experience as well.”
Bradshaw also works closely with the group’s marketing leader and brand marketing teams to ensure VGA delivers on brand messaging. “We have just won back-to-back car awards and that increases our customers’ expectations, so we are working together to ensure we deliver an integrated customer experience. I’m at the table and part of the conversations around what we’re doing in marketing.”
CMO recently caught up with Bradshaw to hear what steps he’s taken to bring customers into the very heart of business decision making, and how culture, service, advocacy and technology contribute to experience success.
Step 1: Set the agenda in the first 90 days
Bradshaw’s first priority was to make sure everyone at VGA and its dealers understood the term ‘customer experience’.
“There is a big difference between satisfaction and experience, and the first order of business was to make sure everyone serving our dealers and end customers understood what good looks like,” he says.
To do this, Bradshaw developed an online customer experience training program for the VGA dealer network as well as corporate employees, which subsequently won an award at the LearnX Impact Awards this year. Hundreds of team members and staff completed this within the first few days of launch, he says.
The second priority was VGA’s customer care division, which Bradshaw admits was disjointed and struggling to deliver adequate levels of service.
“Now, no customer goes unheard. That was really important, so we spent time focusing on retraining and embedding that customer-first culture in that team,” he says. The third priority was establishing a strong team that could help orchestrate the aggressive change program.
“By end of the first 90 days, we had created and launched our customer experience strategy across the brands, announced it to dealerships and then got on with the business of improving our customers’ experience,” he says.
Step 2: Get a cross-channel customer view
Alongside the strategic and cultural efforts, Bradshaw quickly implemented Salesforce CRM across the customer service team. Previously, the group used multiple systems to service end customers, raising the chances of something going wrong and complicating the service process.
“It was important to implement a CRM system that was multi-platform, multi-channel, and allowed us to measure the performance of the team really clearly,” he explains. “That gave us the tools to see that single view of customer from an inquiries point of view and manage that appropriately.”
Bradshaw is now looking to source and implement a whole-of-group CRM system, ensuring teams have a complete view of the customer across customer care, sales and service.
Step 3: Have the right CX principles
Two pillars support the customer experience strategy for Volkswagen brand. The first is what Bradshaw describes as its five CX principles.
“Our belief is if team members deliver on these principles, customers will work away not only satisfied, but importantly, advocating Volkswagen as their brand of choice,” he says. “The other pillar is what is known as the ‘Volkswagen way’, which is about how a team member interacts with customers each and every way. It’s about creating a framework for them to build an emotional connection with a customer so we can seek to understand them and deliver on their needs.”
Rather than subscribing to a specific service method for all customers, Bradshaw says the emphasis is on ensuring every customer gets served in a way that meets or exceeds their individual needs.
“Our cars have never been known for being boring or plain, nor should our customer experience,” he adds.
Step 4: Allow consumers to rate the dealer network
Tackling service standards has meant making significant changes to the way dealers are engaged, recognised and rewarded. So in July, Bradshaw launched a dealer star rating system across the Volkswagen website based on customer feedback.
“We receive 40,000 pieces of customer feedback every year around their experience in the dealership,” he says. “When a customer is searching for a dealer, they can get a sense of the experience they get. It’s transparent, through different star ratings, and empowers customers. They could for example, choose to go to the dealer five minutes further away if they’re really looking for a premium people experience that matches the joy of the car.”
Getting that over the line required candid conversations with the dealers, Bradshaw says. “Customers today are so familiar with online reviews sites... It was a good news story, as dealers could see the value in a rating system that was truly representative of what they delivered to customers,” he says. “And it encouraged those who perhaps weren’t where they needed to be focus on improving.”
Step 5: Build the service and innovative capabilities of dealers
Bradshaw has actively looked to build dealer capabilities and skills since the day he arrived at VGA. Not content with just online CX training, he recently took 25 dealers on a five-day study tour to the US, spending time with customer experience champion brands such as Disney Institute and The Ritz-Carlton, as well as industry thought leaders including Scott Kane and Joseph Michelli.
“Everyone saw a significant uplift in experience they deliver to the customers. That is an example of how big, bold and different we are prepared to be to deliver a consistently premium experience for our customers,” he says.
Metrics have been vital as a check and balance system, so not surprisingly, these have also had an overhaul under Bradshaw’s stewardship. From standard sales and after sales surveys at dealership level, VGA now measures both at a sales consultant and service advisor level.
VGA is going one step further in January by overhauling its customer experience survey and measurement program and will launch a new CX portal, measuring both Net Promoter Score (NPS) as well as satisfaction. Australia will be first market globally for VGA to use both NPS and customer satisfaction.
Bradshaw says the name of the game is improving customer advocacy. “If a customer gives us a less than satisfactory score, they get asked if they want direct follow up. We also send an immediate alert to sales and service staff as well as the dealer’s principal. They have 48 hours to review that concern or I come knocking.”
Step 6: Get executives backing your efforts
As one of five directors at VGA, Bradshaw has an influential position in the business.
“We understand as brand leaders and one of the world’s most recognised automotive groups, that our future is firmly planted in the experience we deliver to customers,” he says. “In our 2025 strategy, one key pillar is delivering excited customers.”
Step 7:Tackling the emissions crisis
All of these customer experience efforts come in the wake of significant brand challenges globally. Last September, Volkswagen saw billions wiped off its brand value and faced significant financial fines and customer charges after the US Environment protection Agency reported defects with the emissions software used in its vehicles.
The ‘defeat devices’ were found to be telling millions of the company’s vehicles to go into ‘clean mode’ when being tested for emissions. The scandal caused shockwaves around the world and has cost as much as US$25 billion as the group undertakes a global recall program to fix the vehicle problem. In August, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission also launched a Federal Court action against Volkswagen and its local subsidiary over the diesel emissions scandal.
Having been appointed before the scandal broke, Bradshaw says he met with the new MD, Michael Bartsch, and asked one question: Given the issues on the table, did that change VGA’s commitment to CX?
“Michael said we must stay strong and be focused on customers so that we always do the right thing by customers,” he says. “I’d like to think we have communicated and shared information as quickly as we can with customers. We did a video locally to reassure customers we would do what we could to communicate around and recall vehicles as quickly as possible.”
Another step in preparation for that recall has been to work with dealers to ensure they manage customers coming back for rectification work with the utmost professionalism, Bradshaw says.
“Every brand of our size has something that doesn’t go to plan at times,” he comments. “The job of the true leadership team is to stay strong to what is important to the business and customers clearly are to us.”
Step 8: Tap digital and data insight
Furthering Bradshaw’s CX efforts are digital connectivity and data insight. While many brands have had to suffer the consequences of social media ire, this level of transparency has been a good thing to address, he claims.
In recent months, VGA has invested in additional tools to source social customer commentary in order to analyse, guide and drive customer experience programs. “There are a million data sets out there, our job is to distil that into something that can drive the right actions,” he says.
More widely, Bradshaw and his team are actively sharing other types of data-led consumer insights with dealers and corporate employees.
“When a customer comes to pick up the car from service department, for example, we found that if we do the routine stuff in 8 minutes or less, they’re more likely to be delighted,” he says. “We wouldn’t have those insights if we just looked at a score. So we’ve moved the dialogue from what’s the score to what are customers saying and nuggets of gold in those words, regardless of channel.
“Despite customers having a magnifying glass on what we are doing at the moment, and rightly so, we have been about to improve our customer satisfaction based on their feedback year-on-year to record levels for the brand. This has been in the face of the brand challenge of the emissions issue. It gives credibility to the initiatives we have been deploying.”
Step 9: Keep the focus on customer loyalty
Customer experience is ultimately about building customer loyalty and advocacy. “We have been working closely with dealers this year to engage with customers based on engagement, to work the cost of ownership to be more definable, and offer more value through our programs,” Bradshaw says. “To do that, we have been investing in education in our technical teams.”
Further initiatives are on the way in 2017. One is a mobile app for dealers that will serve push notifications to help them respond to urgent customer issues. A new website, called ‘I am Volkswagen’, will also launch, aimed at attracting, retaining and rewarding team members in the group or for dealer partners.
“We want to attract the best of the best in the industry and keep them engaged in our network,” Bradshaw says. “We also have some exciting stuff we’re launching with our apprenticeship program and training programs.”
Step 10: Balance commercial with customer attributes
Through all of these efforts, Bradshaw says a vital personal attribute has been resilience.
“As a chief customer officer, you walk fine line between being commercial, but also championing customers’ needs,” he claims. “For me, having satisfied customers and sales isn’t enough. It has to be done in a sustainable way so business can keep delivering on it, and so that the business achieves all its objectives.”
Bradshaw says a chief customer officer is being able to understand these two things are intertwined. “Long-term profitability comes from having long-term customer advocates,” he says.
“I’d like to think that in the boardroom, I talk with us much credibility as our sales initiatives as I do with customer experience initiatives and that I don’t do anything that plays against that strategy either.”
Bradshaw’s final attribute for the chief customer officer is tenacity. “At times, I have to hold up a virtual mirror and say dear colleague, I love working with you but I don’t love what you’re doing here,” he says. “You have to do it in a way that allows you to keep working with them the next day.”