A change management vision that's good for the organization, employee and customer

A customer communications management initiative is no small undertaking. Whether it's driven from the business or from the IT side, any overhaul of customer communications is going to touch a wide array of people, processes and technologies. We've worked with a broad range of financial services and insurance firms at various stages of the revamping of their customer communications programs, and the ones that succeed are those that make change management an integral part of their customer communications initiatives.

Following are some factors to consider as you incorporate change management into your customer communications program.

Start with the Vision
A clearly defined top-down vision sets up success more than bottom-up efforts. Start with a clear vision of what you want to be to your customers and why you are undertaking the initiative. What specific drivers and business priorities are behind your customer communications investment? Often a combination of cost savings, speed to market, electronic delivery, improved quality, improved customer experience or a major rebranding overhaul are each in the mix at some level.

As you reach key decision points, a clear understanding of your motivations will help guide you clearly through and avoid costly delays. Firms that fail to prioritize their objectives, or that declare the "Big Three" to be on equal footing, tend to have more difficulty making decisions.

The "People" Part of the Equation
Change management tends to focus on people, in part because people are often the most challenging variable in the mix. For any initiative, start at the top; secure the leadership and support of executive management to help communicate the vision and marshal the change throughout the organization. This is particularly critical for any initiative that involves consolidation of resources, potentially resulting in either reduction or redeployment of staff.

Many customer communications initiatives involve the establishment of a new organizational unit, possibly a Center of Excellence. Given the drivers behind your initiative, where does this new organizational unit belong: under business, operations or IT? How should the relevant resources be aligned—or realigned—to support the business needs?

For many employees facing change, the question is likely to be,"What's in it for me?" It's important to help individuals understand where they fit in the future organization, and it's the job of executives and program management to manage any fear. One method is to have employees focus on their core skills—e.g., writing, design, editing, composition, publishing, etc.—and how those skills will be used within the new organization. Each person's value is based not on the team or tool they've worked with for perhaps the last 10 years but on the core skills and the process knowledge they can leverage to help build a better future.

"The question is likely to be,"What's in it for me?" It's important to help individuals understand where they fit in the future organization, and it's the job of executives and program management to manage any fear."

The "Process" Part of the Equation
Customer communications initiatives generally involve some revamping of the existing publishing processes—and quite possibly a consolidation of those processes as well, especially if faster speed to market is one of your primary drivers.

We usually begin with an inventory of the publishing processes currently in existence and then evaluate them to determine whether any existing processes could potentially serve as the enterprise standard moving forward. Consider, though, the change implications for building upon that existing process. In some instances, it may make more sense to start over and completely redesign the process, getting constituencies, such as legal and compliance, onboard from the start.

Also, determine how you will measure improvement over the existing processes. After all, the newer process has to be better, faster or cheaper. So, define your metrics, and make sure they align with the business priorities outlined in your original vision.

The "Technology" Part of the Equation
We have yet to see a customer communications program that didn't involve significant technology change. Again, a clear understanding of the organization's prioritized objectives should drive your decisions. Technology selection should be based on how well it aligns with the corporate business objectives, while weighing factors such as cost, time to implement, skills transferability, etc.—not on the fact that a particular tool is the one IT knows and has a long-term career investment in. However, if cost savings is the business priority, switching costs become a major factor, and an upgrade of an existing solution may be the way to go.

In contrast, if improving the customer experience is the priority, it makes sense to go with the tool that will best enable the desired capabilities. Programs driven by cost savings tend to upgrade an existing in-house technology as their future core platform, while those driven by new capabilities and customer experience often choose to build a platform based on a new core technology.

If delivering on your vision requires technology consolidation, make sure you finish the job and truly retire any legacy tools and applications that no longer serve the vision. Put milestones for system retirement out on the IT roadmap, and abide by them. Celebrate these system retirements, just as you celebrate the release of new system capabilities when they come online.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
It may sound obvious or redundant in the case of a customer communications initiative, whose very focus is on communication, but the best way to manage change is to make communication a priority from the start. Develop a multi-phase communications plan around your customer communications initiative: a plan that articulates the vision and the business priority the initiative is intended to serve. Keep in mind that you are not just informing the organization about the changes to come but selling the changes to come.

People who understand the reasons for change are much more willing to accept it. So, in addition to building awareness of the initiative, seek to build an understanding of why the organization is moving forward. That reason could be market opportunity, the need to create competitive advantage, customer demand or simply the cost of doing business. In any case, make sure your staff understands why the organization is doing it and why it is doing it now.

Internal vs. External Impact
Much discussion around organizational change management (including the above) focuses on the internal impact of change: how change affects people within the organization. Yet, customer communications initiatives have implications outside the organization as well. So, any change management efforts should also have an external focus: How will the changes in your approach to customer communications impact your customers?

If you plan to communicate with your customers using new formats and new methods of engagement, how are they likely to react? Do your research, get customer feedback and understand any potential pitfalls before they crop up?

Realize that whatever your customer documents may look like today (the good, the bad, the ugly), your customers have gotten used to them, and most of them know how to navigate their way through your text and graphics to find the information they're looking for (although poorly designed documents are also a reason behind significant volumes of customer service calls or complaints). If you're making major changes, you owe it to your customers to provide guidance and to help them through the transition.

So, when you undertake a customer communications initiative, manage the change both internally and externally. Craft your message as appropriate for each group, and inform them of what is to come and why, addressing the ever-important question of, "What's in it for me?" Set their expectations for what will be changing, when it will be changing and how.

TOM ROBERTS is a principal consultant at Doculabs. For more, visit www.doculabs.com or email info@doculabs.com.

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