10 Lessons from Dell’s New Executive Director of Global CX

At Dell, Erin Walline is the new kid on the team—sort of.

She started working for the technology giant in 2003 and spent most of her career in its industrial design and usability engineering department. Her experience with mapping out the customer journey and applying customer feedback to product design caught the attention of senior leaders. So in December 2015, they appointed her the company’s first executive director of global customer experience. Now, she’s taking her emphasis on human-centered design and applying it to the rest of the organization.

“[Customer experience is] basically a human systems engineering problem,” Walline says. “What are the routes the customers go through and how do we make that experience better?”

Walline knows that customer experience (CX) reaches across all interactions and departments. And although she’s only held her position for a little over three months, she already has a lengthy list of short- and long-term goals to prevent any CX issues from going unnoticed. 

In terms of immediate goals, she plans to increase the cadence of how frequently Dell surveys its customers and is on the hunt for the right talent and standards of operations to make that a reality. She’s also aiming to build out Dell’s “Help a Customer” initiative, a department dedicated to solving escalated customer issues that aren’t easily resolved.

Walline’s long-term objectives are based on the knowledge that Dell has a diverse customer base that expects differentiated experiences. Some are frequent buyers of its consumer products, for instance, while others conduct infrequent business solution transactions. She aims to better aggregate Dell’s data to generate a complete picture for each segment and deliver prime customer experiences for each one.

“The experience has to be great for all of them,” she says, “but it may be different.”

I had the opportunity to sit down with Walline at her 90-day mark and discuss what it takes to create an optimal customer experience today. Here are 10 of her customer success secrets.

1. Understand that customer experience touches every facet of an organization. The responsibility of providing a winning customer experience can’t fall entirely on marketing and services’ shoulders. “Even if you’re not customer-facing, you might be developing a process that impacts a customer,” Walline explains. Adopting this company-wide mentality can help organizations strategize on how to address each interaction and identify areas where the customer experience falls short.

“[For] any interaction…we need to have a methodical point of view on how we want that customer to engage with Dell,” she says. “If we don’t know what that customer experience is, then we haven’t planned for it, and, therefore, it needs to be addressed.”

2. Adopt a unified definition of what’s “right.” Most brands want to do right by their customers, but people don’t always agree on what that means.

“At the leadership level, everyone wants to do the right thing…. [But] sometimes people have different ideas about what is right,” Walline says. “So, you have to have that anchor.”

Indeed, Walline encourages companies to have strong values and to communicate them effectively to their teams. This can help companies better understand which areas need more attention and invest in them, accordingly.

3. Be honest with your data. Data and customer insights are invaluable, but sometimes employees can spin this information in their favor. Walline says her job is to be a “truth-teller” and to digest and share data in a way that reflects what’s truly happening. Also, she says employees should question everything.

“It’s human nature to maybe only want to see positives,” she says, “but it’s important to make sure that we’re really, really, honest with ourselves.”

4. Don’t be afraid to work with unlikely partners. Sometimes brands can stretch their dollars by working with unexpected partners. For instance, when Walline worked in industrial design and usability engineering at Dell, she would sometimes work with Intel or Microsoft to pool funds to launch new products or innovations.

The secret to forming these partnerships, she says, is to prepare a business plan that communicates the business value of the partnership to the prospective partners. She also recommends that companies craft an elevator pitch that explains how the relationship will influence each partner’s target audiences.

5. Make sure you understand what your customers are really saying. Customer feedback can easily be lost in translation. Walline recalled a time when she was working with Dell’s engineering department to address negative feedback surrounding the company’s notebooks.

The company had received input that its notebooks felt “plasticy.” So it began investing in metal materials. Still, the criticism didn’t go away. As a result, Walline set out to identify what “plasticy” meant. Were customers referring to the temperature or the rigidity? She conducted experience studies and brought in prototypes and competitive systems to help identify what customers’ preferences were and what they found acceptable across various characteristics. She then took the feedback data and combined it with the mechanical data.

“We could essentially say, for example, ‘We know that if the display back displaces x amount, it’s going to be perceived as low quality or plasticy,’” she says. “That’s…how we would take subjective data and translate it into something meaningful that could be driven into product design.”

6. Acquire customer feedback through more than one technique. Surveys and focus groups are nice, but Walline encourages companies to look beyond these standard methods. “You can’t throw a focus group at everything,” she says. “That’s not the right way to do it.” Indeed, Walline encourages companies to experiment with other techniques, such as contextual inquiries or studying people’s behavior in a lab.

7. Work on your external and internal experiences. How can brands expect customers to love them if their employees aren’t even happy? To produce a brand experience that shines from the inside out, Walline advises companies to ensure that their employees understand their mission. Then, articulate to them how their tasks and performances ladder up to overall company goals. Doing so, she says, gives them tangible success that they can latch onto and guides their thought process when pitching ideas. She also suggests doing internal surveys to gauge employee sentiment. 

“I want to make sure that I’m always listening, not just to our customers…but [also] to employees,” she says.

8. Consider the whole picture. Listening to customers’ experiences and obtaining qualitative data is important. But it’s also important for companies to track quantitative metrics, such as NPS scores and time to resolution. “You have to have that qual and quant,” Walline says.

9. Look beyond your industry. It can be easy for professionals to focus solely on their own company. However, Walline says, it’s important for brands to get a competitive perspective of what’s going on in the world. As she puts it, “We have to make sure that we’re not looking at our own bellybutton all the time.” She also advises companies to look beyond their traditional sectors for inspiration. 

“Customer experience is one of those things that it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in,” she explains. “There are things you have to do to have a good customer experience.”

10. Don’t be “news reporters,” be “news makers.” Conducting research to solve a problem is one thing; acting on the findings from that research is another. If companies are going to invest the time and resources needed to conduct surveys or run focus groups, then they need to “shepherd” those insights through to action or make sure that the person they’re providing the information to clearly understands the challenge and solutions at hand, Walline says.

“[It’s] making sure that we’re actively engaged in solving the problems,” she explains, “[and] doing something about them—not just going, ‘Wooo! It’s a problem.’”

Correction 4/22/16: Walline started her career at Dell in 2003, not 2013 as previously stated.

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