Leading Customer Experience in a Family Owned Business, with Dave Nelson [CB17]

Episode Overview

Continuing to explore customer experience leadership in many different sectors of business, my podcast today is with Dave Nelson, the Chief Customer Officer at Armstrong Relocation & Companies, a very large family-owned business that provides moving and relocation services  as the agency for a national moving company brand.

In our conversation, Dave and I discussed how he leads customer experience in a family-owned business, and as an agency to a larger corporate entity.

He details his very rigorous approach to culture development and employee engagement, as well as accountability – which I found to be very refreshing and clear and actionable.

About Dave

Dave Nelson Customer Bliss PodcastWe’ll take this straight from Dave’s LinkedIn:

I’m a difference-maker in a wide range of strategic roles (Enterprise Leadership, Leadership Development, Corporate Culture, Customer Experience, Process Improvement, Sales and Marketing), having added value to both public and private companies in multiple industries.

My overarching professional goal is to enable companies, government agencies and third party intermediaries to achieve their global employee mobility goals by elevating the customer experience and enhancing workplace productivity, while reducing the costs and risks associated with relocation-related disruption.

I pursue my professional goal by ensuring that our people and our processes deliver the performance our most discerning clients deserve. I have a passion for seeking wisdom, building people and telling the truth.

Dave’s CCO Pathway

Dave came into CCO work from sales and marketing. This gave him a strong background in understanding how the company worked, but it was also a much-more defined role — as in, many traditional leaders understand what “sales” and “marketing” are. It’s less clear what a “chief customer officer” does to some of those colleagues. This presented both opportunities and challenges for Dave.

The executive team at Armstrong ultimately reports to two families with controlling interest in the company. In order to grow sales, the executive team — and the owners — decided to open a CCO role. When Dave was first presenting the concept, he didn’t even have it earmarked for himself. In order to make it work, though, he needed sales segment leaders on his team. “It wasn’t the ownership families committing to one new position,” Dave admits. “It was more like committing to four new positions, which is never easy.”

“We started thinking about why our best customers viewed us as great partners,” says Dave. “We had them interviewed by a consultant across 10 different criteria. Some of the common themes were affirmation, and some were insightful.”

This work led to an employee population study — i.e. why did people want to work/stay at Armstrong? — and then to agency leaders.

The three-to-four step process led to about 20-22 characteristics distinctive of Armstrong. They distilled that down to seven principles and allowed them to “take customer experience more seriously.”

Armstrong DNA

There’s an Armstrong “Center of Excellence” where the seven principles mentioned above are taught. Employees must go through the Center of Excellence and master the principles of company operations before they get versed in the technical skills of the job. This is an inverted process for many companies, who often drill on day-to-day tasks and technical skills before embedding the cultural/vision aspects. This is all part of Armstrong’s DNA, shown visually here:

Family Owned Business Vision
Click to see at full size

Unity, integrity, attitude, value, relationships, communication, and generosity are the seven principles.

Every Thursday morning, the company has meetings where these principles are repeated — and examples of customer success in each area are shared.

Tying the DNA to operational elements

This DNA above is great. I love it! And I love the weekly huddles that reinforce the DNA. But I’m also wise and have been doing this work since 1983. I understand that, to some execs, this might be “fluffy.” So I wanted to know from Dave how this gets baked into operational elements, up to and including compensation.

“Every year we set 3-4 enterprise goals at Armstrong,” Dave explained, “and there are also particular goals unique to agencies and teams.”

“There’s an emotional part of the work and message, which is what our best customers and some disenfranchised customers are saying about us,” he notes, “and then there’s a strategy part off that, and there’s an enterprise goals part off that. Compensation is aligned with the enterprise goals.”

“We have a concept called Servant Spirit, which has helped us a lot. We have so many people who go above and beyond in service to the customer. That happens in many service organizations, so it’s not unique to us — but we go above and beyond with it. We collect stories all month.”

“Imagine a family with two young children, super stressed on moving day. A guy on a pack crew in Missoula, Montana helping that family can send in a story about the driver of that truck going above and beyond. The stories come in and it’s wonderful to see them. We share the stories with teams across the country every week, but every month, we elevate 1-2 stories with pictures and, yes, bonuses. Those are Servant Spirit Award winners.”

“Who wouldn’t want peers to tell great stories about you?”

Find the proving points

This is a huge deal. Since CCO work is often not super well-defined when it begins, you need to find proving points. These are actions where you can define a goal, measure the goal, hit the target, and show that to others. If you’ve done this 3-4 times, other executives will begin to understand the work and trust you with bigger decisions and responsibilities.

The ownership litmus test

There are many pros — but some cons — to working in a family-owned business. One of the interesting aspects is trying to figure out what the owners truly care about. I asked Dave about this.

“At the end of a year, the owners will divide up the spoils, and rightfully so, as they are the biggest investors,” says Dave, “and in those periods of time you can get a sense of what’s important to them and what defines success for them. In a multi-owner situation, which is common, sometimes there’s 1 or 2 owners who have a stronger affinity for the customer experience work. Trying to align with that person is a wise thing to do, and that person can bring the other owners along. Now, all owners ultimately value the customer, but finding the right alignment is important.”

“What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then”

This is my “pay-it-forward” question, and I hope it helps younger CCOs-in-training understand where they need to be focusing as they rise up in their careers. Dave’s advice included:

  • “It’s gonna take longer than Superman or Superwoman could achieve:” Remind yourself of this constantly. It’s not overnight solution work. “Some of this comes back to a value my parents instilled in me,” says Dave. “If you’re doing the right thing, you’ll reap the right rewards. The plant comes up. You just don’t know how long it takes.”
  • “It’s easy to get caught up in metrics:” This is how we all get graded in companies, so it’s natural. “But you’ve gotta get behind that number to real comments from real customers to understand what’s going on.”

We’ll be back on Thursday with a new blog and next Tuesday with a new podcast episode. As always, thank you for reading and listening!

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