By Scott Robbin
Christine Gagnon expands on the value of her diverse background as a customer care executive, the art of managing both B2B and B2C relationships, and best practices on collaborating successfully with human resources.
[Scott Robbin]How did your previous experiences and skill sets help prepare you for your current role at OneWest Bank?
[Christine Gagnon] Having come from a professional services environment, I am accustomed to working with a variety of stakeholders whether in a client setting or internally with executive management. My current role includes interaction that spans broadly across the organization. For me, it’s a very good fit as it provides me a holistic view of the organization.
Also, having operated in a B2B environment has been helpful. I’ve learned a lot about the complexities that can exist when executing customer experience strategy in this space. I’ve served various clients in my prior role and have spent a great deal of time behind the scenes in the organization strategizing about how to maintain relationships and manage accounts. This helped me build my knowledge base so I could apply a similar methodology at OneWest. That being said, it’s slightly different because we do have the B2C component of our business as well.
"That’s why it’s very important for our employees to understand our strategy and have the tools to deliver."
When it comes to the B2B customer expertise, what do you find are some of the significant differences between catering to consumers versus businesses?
Even with customer segmentation, in B2C, we typically see more of a homogeneous customer base. This enables us to perform more tactical planning and operationalize our strategy more easily. For example, we may have a set of certain behaviors or standards that we want everyone on the frontline to execute, or we may standardize a process for serving a customer or set of customers, whether that is understanding their needs when they open an account or a follow-up call to see if there are any cross-sell opportunities. In the B2C space we can standardize more of these behaviors and interactions in the field as compared with B2B where typically we’re dealing with a variety of relationships.
Similar to my past experience, we have large customers that are highly sophisticated; we have customers with smaller operations and everything in-between. Each of these customers seeks unique value from the institution and delivery can be difficult to plan. It requires a lot of interaction and collaboration with the business units as well as a thorough understanding of our customers and their business.
"That alliance and that partnership is very important."
In my experience, when we think about execution in the B2B environment, we’re dealing with highly sophisticated relationship managers. Most of these professionals are accustomed to fostering relationships and delivering the customer experience in a high-touch, highly tailored fashion. The challenge then is not necessarily about how they become better relationship managers, but how we start to institutionalize those relationships and help the company reap the benefits of that relationship as an organization. The question becomes, when and if a key executive leaves, will the client follow? In addition to individual relationships, which are undoubtedly important, we want our customers to value the relationship with the entity as a whole as well.
Is there one aspect that you would say is the most difficult regarding strategizing the customer experience for B2B customers?
I would say it’s finding the balance between empowering the relationship manager to have the autonomy to manage the relationship as they see fit, while at the same time integrating some high-level structure and strategy around how they do this. That’s where we create the bridge between the individual to the institutional relationship. It requires planning; there is a delicate balance between relationship management at the corporate versus business unit level.
Switching gears a little bit, as someone with your diverse background, why do you find it so important for the customer side of the business to work hand-in-hand with the HR side?
My view is we can’t deliver on the customer experience in a way that’s going to drive value without having the organization designed in a way that can enable consistent delivery. When we think of HR, we think of culture, training, communication, recognition, incentives, all of the things that help shape our workforce. We can strategize about customer experience, but unless we have resources to “carry the baton” on the frontline, we won’t be able to execute. That’s why it’s very important for our employees to understand our strategy and have the tools to deliver. Typically many of these tools and programs originate within the HR function, particularly as it relates to training and communications. In my view, both customer experience and human resources are interdependent and we can’t deliver the ideal customer experience without that alignment. In fact, we lack that alignment, there can be unintentional conflict. Take incentives and metrics as an example; a call center may have an incentive or metric to manage the duration of a call. For simplicity, let’s say it’s five minutes. That may seem like an operationally efficient metric to have, but when we view this through the customer experience lens, it may take longer than five minutes to properly resolve an issue. That’s an example where there may be an incentive or metric that is not in-line with our ultimate strategy.
"Executives should view all of this flexibility as a blank canvas and a significant opportunity."
How do you ensure successful unity between customer care and HR and other business functions as well?
There is a clear partnership between HR and customer experience. We work together on company communications, training needs, engagement programs – the list is extensive. That alliance and that partnership is very important. We also have frequent and regular interaction with all business units to ensure we stay connected and that the line of communication is open.
How would your direct reports explain your leadership style? What kind of leader are you?
I like new ideas, creativity and thinking differently about problems. I want to provide my people the opportunity to leverage their own experiences, even though these experiences may not directly relate to customer experience or the exact problem at hand. In other words, being a CPA by background, I’ve been given the opportunity to take on this role and approach it from a different perspective. I think my people realize that I afford them the same opportunity.
Before we conclude is there anything else you’d like to touch on?
There are a few things I would say about customer experience as other executives try to make headway in this space. First, we cannot underestimate the level of leadership buy-in and support that is required for success. Every executive should take steps to obtain that necessary level of support. Stakeholders such as CEO, business unit heads and other leaders need to truly understand the customer experience – the function itself as well as the strategy. It can take time to get there, but it’s certainly worth the effort.
"In addition to individual relationships, which are undoubtedly important, we want our customers to value the relationship with the entity as a whole as well."
Second, this is a fairly unique space. Unlike in the CFO role, for example, where the responsibilities, policy and procedures are more clear and established, there is a significant amount of room to define and design the customer experience executive role to fit organizational needs. Furthermore, customer experience may encompass a variety of projects or initiatives all of which can be executed in a variety of ways, none of which would be technically “wrong”. Executives should view all of this flexibility as a blank canvas and a significant opportunity.
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough that communication to frontline employees is very important. We can plan at the corporate level, but making sure that the employees on the frontline really understand what we want to do, why we want to do it and how they fit into that picture is critical.
Christine D. Gagnon serves as First Vice President and Head of Corporate Customer Experience at OneWest Bank FSB, one of the largest financial institutions headquartered in Southern California. Her responsibilities include oversight of customer experience strategy development and execution at the corporate level and for all business units, including consumer and business-to-business channels.
Prior to joining OneWest in early 2012, Ms. Gagnon held the position of Senior Manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, specializing in financial services and corporate strategy. Over her ten-year tenure, she worked with various executive leadership teams, including U.S. and Global Strategy, U.S. Assurance, and U.S. Innovation to design strategies, drive change, and develop various cultural and customer-focused programs and collateral for a network of over 180,000 professionals.
Ms. Gagnon graduated magna cum laude with a degree of distinction from the University of Connecticut, earning a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. She also earned a Master of Business Administration and Master of Science in Accounting from the University of Connecticut and most recently attended Harvard Business School, where she completed executive education in the field of service strategy. Ms. Gagnon is a certified public accountant licensed in the states of California and Connecticut.