How uniting employee and customer experience is helping Adobe disrupt

Adobe's EVP of employee and customer experience talks to CMO about how she's working to foster a customer-centric culture that copes with rapid change and growth

Adobe’s workforce has changed by as much as 30 per cent in the past 5-6 years as it builds the agility, capability and diverse thinking it needs for rapid innovation and growth.

Speaking to CMO in an exclusive interview while visiting Adobe Symposium in Sydney, the vendor’s executive vice-president of customer and employee experience, Donna Morris, said modern businesses need to set the tone culturally for continual disruption.

This requires a corporate strategy that embraces change, risk-taking, iteration and diversity of thought. And that means not only retraining and developing existing capability, but being ready to swap out and recruit staff, too.  

“At Adobe… we accept doing the same thing continually is not going to deliver the desired outcome,” she said. “We’ve set the tone that we are going to have to continue to grow, and the enabler of that growth is continued disruption.

“Taking your strategy and trying to do something very different with all the same people doesn’t necessarily lead to that outcome. First and foremost, the question you have to ask is: Do you have a workforce that is agile and adaptive? That’s paramount.”

At Adobe, that’s seen Morris and her team focus closely on org development, design, capability building – but also capability buying and attracting new talent.

“Take my function alone: 25-30 per cent are new people that have joined us in the last five years by virtue of change,” she said. “Much of that was as a result of ‘enabled attrition’, because people didn’t have the skills and capabilities that could support what the new business model could be. And we’ve had to execute similar change efforts across a number of groups.”

“If you don’t have a workforce that’s really change adept, that ends up becoming a big barrier.”  

Uniting people with customer experience management

Morris has a unique role overseeing both the HR side of Adobe’s business as well as its customer experience and support efforts. The joint role was created 18 months ago and oversees more than 1300 staff globally.

Morris has been with Adobe for 15 years, joining following the vendor’s acquisition of Canadian software player, Accelio, in 2002. She became SVP of human resources in 2007 before taking on real estate and operations in 2013, a decision recognising the importance of place in how people work.

Donna Morris
Donna Morris


“As we continued to grow and work directly with our customers, whether that be in our individual business with Creative Cloud or Document Cloud, or our enterprise business, we realised we needed to be as great to work with as we are to work for,” she said. “That required cultural change.”

Prior to establishing the customer and employee experience division, Adobe’s customer service teams were fragmented across individual and enterprise business units.

“We didn’t take a holistic view of our customers or recognise the fact customers sometimes both straddle the individual and enterprise products. So step one was marrying them together,” Morris said.

“The other thing is experience is all about people. If we don’t have customers, we are not successful; if we don’t have employees, we’re not successful. Ultimately, my combined role is making sure people are successful and we grow our relationship with them. If they’re an employee, that means attracting and developing them and helping them grow. If it’s a customer, it’s the same thing.”

Driving customer centricity

From the outset, Morris has focused on ensuring Adobe employees collectively align to customer experience, one of the company’s core priorities.

“My responsibility is more around culturally changing the environment and who we are as a company to be more customer oriented,” she explains. “On the support side, it’s trying to be more effective as a support organisation and leveraging technology, including our own, to do that.”

Adobe’s ambition is to be as great to work with as it is to work for, Morris said. “We’ve had a great track record being recognised for a great employer. We need to take that same energy and pivot, and say if you are a customer of ours, are we really a great company to work with? That takes all of Adobe to change,” she said.  

One important task over the past 18 months has been consistent focus on increasing the vocabulary around ‘customer’ within the enterprise. “We call them ‘experienceathons’,  where employees actually get a hand at what the experience is, and we have listening stations where employees can listen to customer issues we have,” Morris said.  

In addition, it’s vital every executive and team member has responsibility for the customer, and to do that, Adobe has changed its employee rewards system. Today, all staff are subject to an annual incentive plan for which customer is 50 per cent of total payment.

“That’s a key lever – we needed to have everyone feel they had skin in the game,” Morris said. “I think there are structural elements in terms of who really believes they have accountability specific to the customer. Strategy always drives structure, and structure drives systems, people and processes.

“From a high level, there’s the responsibility to say your customer mandate is core to what your company strategy is. How that represents itself in the accountabilities people have and how you get your organisation designed is a key part of that.” 

Customer experience metrics are a vital part of this equation. Adobe uses customer acquisition as well as retention, plus Net Promoter Score.

“My greatest sense of satisfaction on the journey so far would come from our Digital Media business, where they have the highest percentage of employees that identify with understanding the needs of the customer. That’s a big win,” Morris said. “We have to get the other business unit [enterprise] there and we have a ways to go. Ultimately, we have to measure the success and ensure every employee understands they play a role and have a responsibility to the customer.”

The experience when customers interact with support teams is also measured through an internally developed barometer.

“Third is our ability to have reference accounts. Fourth is multi-solutions – once a customer has three or more solutions, they’re starting to retool their enterprise and we look at that closely,” Morris said. “Retention is another big one for us – how that looks across solutions, then in aggregate.”

Fostering innovation

Meanwhile, from a staff perspective, Adobe is actively working to build a diverse and inclusive environment that encourages a different ways of thinking.

“At the highest level, diversity means you have a group of individuals that bring different perspectives and experiences, and hence different ideas to a company,” Morris said. “How might that present itself? Companies more gender representative of the population tend to have a track record of more ideas and ideation.”

One way Adobe strives for disruptive thinking is through its ‘Breaking Bias’ initiative, aimed at helping staff recognise their inherent biases in order to remove them.

“Our goal is to increase the awareness that we each come with a bias, and our best work is done when we realise that exists and we include more people,” Morris said.

Fostering ideation and innovation is also a focus, and Adobe’s Kickbox program gives people an opportunity to take risks by providing a framework around ideation and innovation. The initiative revolves around a red box, which includes US$1000 and a number of tools to help launch a new idea.

Morris also believes fostering adaptive thinking is about cultivating an environment that encourages collaborative exchange. To do this, Adobe introduced ‘check in’, an ongoing process around feedback, expectations, and setting growth and development expectations.

“If you role model it by saying some of the programs and processes are commonplace and you’re willing to change and get rid of them, it sets the tone that it can be done in one group. And from there, it can be done in another,” she continues.   

All too often, innovation is considered the preserve of product development, Morris comments.

“But the greatest innovation that’s happening right now is in business models, not necessarily in technology,” she claims. “There’s no reason why finance people can’t be innovative. It’s more about you cultivating an environment where people feel they can try new things and experiment.”

Aligning with marketing

Even before Adobe put both people and customer experience under her watchful gaze, Morris found a close ally in Adobe CMO, Ann Lewnes. That relationship has only continued to grow.

“That’s because of one reason: A brand’s biggest advantage and enabler are the people that work for you, and your customers,” she said. “When I think of dynamic tension, it’s more around whether are we really driving the investments that make us effective in terms of communicating with our customers or employees. Who holds the support function honest? A big piece of that is marketing, because marketing is doing the customer insights.

“NPS is also being driven out of the marketing organisation, and it’s the CMO giving me my report card. On the flip side, who do I give my report card to if I don’t feel like our brand is being exemplified to be in the best interests of our employees and customers? It’s the CMO.”

Morris also participates in a quarterly review with key business unit leaders, such as Adobe Digital Marketing leader, Brad Rencher, Lewnes and executive VP of worldwide field operations, Matt Thompson, to talk about measurements and the actions needed to continue moving the needle on experience improvement.

“So much of how we operate is matrix in nature,” she said. “For instance, one of the impediments we have is we’ve grown rapidly, through both building and buying. When we acquire a new technology – such as TubeMogul – our customers are happy, but if it doesn’t actually work effectively and integrate in a more seamless manner, we end up having problems.

“Some of our NPS comes down to our ability to ensure we’re working on integration of our products as well as the time for value for those products. It doesn’t take one function, it takes multiple functions to work on that.”

The importance of diversity

Through all of this, Morris advocates diversity as an important ingredient of people and customer culture.

“We need to make sure as a company we’re viewed as #adobeforall. And if we’re going to be successful, we have diverse customers and we need to reflect that,” she said.

Over the next six months, Morris’ next milestone is for customers of Adobe’s Creative Cloud to be exposed to a different experience specific to the in-service experience they have with the company.

“The second thing is we will have tangible, different results in terms of the gender representation of Adobe globally,” she said. “And we’ll be very proud about being outspoken about how we pay around the globe in terms of equal pay.” 

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