When companies merge, customer experience (CX) is often overlooked — yet it’s arguably one of the most important aspects of any company. In fact, according to Gartner research, tomorrow’s companies are expected to compete primarily on customer experience.
I just took my company through an acquisition and found that even the smallest operational change can have a significant negative impact on both employees and customers. While keeping CX top of mind throughout the whole M&A process is challenging, the benefits are undeniable: It keeps your most coveted customers and your team intact.
Maintaining quality customer experience, we found, requires a mix of expert individuals and operational processes. Here are some of the best practices we learned:
Separate the M&A process from normal business operations. It’s easy to get caught up in the logistics of trying to integrate two organizations. After all, during a merger, that’s where all the action is. But if leadership allows itself to get distracted, the base business can quickly suffer.
In many cases, integration efforts can take up so much time, energy, and attention that managers and employees are distracted from their day-to-day roles. All too often, poorly managed systems migrations — or uncoordinated actions — can lead to miscommunications with customers. Our own focus throughout the integration process was to keep customer needs at the forefront of our decision making and actions. We did this by making sure communication and clarity were a high priority with our teams, to ensure there was no information vacuum consumed with gossip. In more practical terms, the CEO of business operations managed operational integration discussions, which allowed the COO to focus on delivering excellent service for our client partners.
Change can make customers uneasy, and they will be keenly focused on how the new relationship impacts them. They will also likely be hypersensitive to every process change. By consistently and effectively communicating the benefits and management of the new, combined organization, you’ll keep your customers happy and ensure quality. It’s also important to explain the changes that would have happened anyway — for example, process improvements, strategic shifts in the market, and realignment of structures — regardless of what is happening due to the integration process.
Create a dedicated deal team. A deal team is made up of professionals covering all aspects of the integration, including experts from business operations, legal, tech, and finance. Creating a separate, dedicated team to focus on M&A issues will ensure the process does not impinge on day-to-day business. Employees throughout the company can be pulled in on an as-needed basis but are otherwise free to focus on providing exceptional customer service.
Implement structures that are focused on keeping the customer experience at 100%. Research from Salesforce tells us that 75% of people expect a consistent experience wherever they engage with brands — whether through social media, mobile apps, or even in-person. Managers need to understand how CX models will be integrated during a merger, and keep a close eye on how changes may impact the customer experience. One common mistake companies make is waiting too long to put new organizational structures and leadership in place, causing talented executives to leave for greener pastures, and customers to switch to a competing brand.
Establish and standardize processes early so that everything that made you successful originally has the best chance of being repeated in the new company. Deloitte says the consumer’s decision to buy a product or service is impacted by their overall enjoyment of their experience. During our own merger, I knew that the most important structure I needed to retain and support throughout the integration was getting both operations and CX processes right. We did this by defining what was transactional in our customer experience and what was adding value to the brand. For example, we focused on the high-value-add elements of our customer experience, which included the operational framework we dubbed BCX (Beautiful Customer Experience), partner success relationship management processes, and high-complexity customer contacts. The more transactional elements of our service, which were less aligned to the core value proposition and therefore prioritized less highly, included financial back office, data analysis, and IT services.
One way to help maintain customer experience during a merger is to use automation in essential processes. Be smart with automated email correspondence with customers by communicating what they need to know and how it impacts their relationship with your brand. But don’t overdo it — they don’t need to know every detail of the integration. You can also use CX bots to host customers through routine experiences. This helps to free up valuable people for more-critical CX engagement. In doing so, you’ll stand a much better chance of making valuable customers feel loved.
Don’t neglect your culture. Every organization has its own set of cultural norms, values, and assumptions that govern how people conduct themselves and act with one another. One of the biggest challenges of most acquisitions or mergers is figuring out what to do about the combined company culture. Typically, the acquirer wants to maintain its own culture, which underpins the strategy. Sometimes the acquirer hopes to infuse the target company’s culture into its own. During the M&A process and negotiations, it is important to think of the cultural elements that are essential to the business’s substance. Throughout the negotiations, having a discussion about which cultural elements will be core in the new company will help simplify the later integration process and the effectiveness of post-deal delivery. Whatever the situation, commit to the culture you want to see emerge from the integration, talk about it, and put it into practice. Then executives from the CEO on down need to manage the culture actively.
A study by The Economist and Genesys suggests that in companies where the CEO or another high-level executive oversees CX initiatives, the wider company is more likely to believe in the strategy. Consequently, the company is more likely to be profitable. For us, that meant creating an organizational structure and decision-making principles that were consistent with our desired culture. As the leader, I took every opportunity to be the role model for the desired culture, and we’re now stronger than ever.
Constant, consistent communication is essential during mergers and acquisitions. Provide clarity so that your team understands what’s happening. The change that inevitably happens can lead to uncertainty for many people, so managing change — for both internal teams and external customers — needs to be the CEO’s number one priority.
Regardless of the motivation behind the merger, companies who keep the customer experience at the forefront during the entire process will not only keep current customers but also set the company up for future success.
This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review on June 6th, 2018.