Lessons Learned from VMWare: Competing With Your Leadership Team’s “Gut Instinct”

When was the last time you were mid-way through a presentation to your executive team and one (or more!) of them picked up their phone?

When your job is to lobby on behalf of your customer, this type of “tuning out” by your stakeholders is a recipe for failure. It can be most prevalent when recent business success has come easily. Leadership may be resting on its laurels and downplaying the need for customer input. If their instincts were right in the past, goes the logic, then why wouldn’t they be right in the future? Of course, this can become a curse, leading to strategies driven by gut-based decisions rather than customer-driven decisions.

Unfortunately, gut rarely succeeds in the long run. When the customer voice is neglected:

  • Customer needs are increasingly unmet
  • Innovations that could solve real-life problems are never created
  • Engagement with your brand suffers
  • Growth stagnates and competitors swoop in to fill the gaps

Regardless of why senior executives are going with their gut, it’s ultimately the job of the customer advocate to make sure the voice of the consumer is loud enough to disrupt the gut instincts of leadership. But how can you make this happen?

VMware provides a great case example. The customer voice has evolved into a strong presence across the campus, and major decisions are driven by insights from the Customer Advocacy team. However, it took persistence, consistent execution and grit to make this happen. We hope that our lessons learned can serve as a roadmap for your own.

Here are four steps we followed to establish Customer Advocacy as a strategic business partner to the executive team:

1. Identify your sponsors.

Having at least one strong internal advocate is table stakes for success. At VMware, that internal advocate has been our CEO Pat Gelsinger, recently enhanced by strong sponsorship from Michael Dell. Pat championed NPS with his leadership team and featured it as a key metric on his CEO scorecard. Had he not bought into Customer Advocacy’s vision, the customer’s voice would have been lost amidst all the competing priorities that demand attention from a busy executive team.

2. Stand firm behind your metric.

Before you can make prescriptive recommendations to your leadership team, you first must prove the value of the KPIs you deliver. Whether it’s NPS, some representation of brand perception, or a composite score designed to measure brand equity, your metric must be defensible. And by defensible, we mean bulletproof — the core metric must withstand all scrutiny to a degree that your leaders are unable to justify dismissing it. This means three things:

  • You must be persistent and patient in answering all questions related to the validity and reliability of that metric, including how data was collected, who it was collected from, and how the metric was calculated. Leaders who are inclined to go with their gut are also inclined to dismiss anything that contradicts their gut.
  • The way to overcome this cognitive dissonance it to produce the highest quality work. You can’t cut corners with your KPIs. You can’t collect data in a way that’s “good enough” or calculate your scores in a way that’s not statistically sound. Skeptical audiences will be looking for flaws to justify rejection of your positions — don’t let them find any.
  • You must successfully link your core metric to revenue. If you can demonstrate that an uptick in your performance score is positively correlated to revenue growth, your metric will be that much harder to ignore.

Regardless of why senior executives are going with their gut, it’s ultimately the job of the customer advocate to make sure the voice of the consumer is loud enough to disrupt the gut instincts of leadership. But how can you make this happen?”

3. Then, go beyond the number.

If you follow the advice laid out in step two, eventually skeptics on your leadership team will have no choice but to accept your performance score. They will start referencing it to measure how they’re doing and whether they’re getting better or worse over time. This is a milestone to be celebrated, but it’s not enough to bring consumer advocacy to life. At the end of the day, a score is just a number — the real value comes from the decisions the business makes based on that score. Unless you can offer tangible, specific guidance for what leadership should do differently, customer input will be interesting, but ultimately banished to the sidelines. One effective method is to leverage “what if?” simulations. At VMware, we created a simulator based on regression modeling that tells us how changes in customer sentiment will impact NPS.  For instance, a 10% improvement in customer satisfaction with our support services might generate a 3-point improvement in NPS. Since we have established the connection between NPS and revenue, we can translate the gains in support satisfaction to our topline growth. With a satisfaction goal established, we can work with the support organization on the changes they can implement to realize that improvement.

4. Cultivate internal relationships.

Once you have powerful insights and recommendations to share, it’s important to understand that how you deliver them can make or break your success. Early on in Customer Advocacy’s history, we shared our NPS findings and associated recommendations with the entire leadership team at once. Inevitably, the data would reveal that one team was performing worse than others. The intent was obviously not to shame or cause discomfort; it was merely to share the findings of our non-biased research. But, the unintended consequence of putting individual leaders on the spot was losing the support of those leaders. To address this problem, we decided to meet individually with each member of the leadership team once the results were compiled. This gave each leader a chance to digest the findings in a private, safe environment, as well as to jointly talk through solutions in advance of the official discussion about the results. Now, when the leadership team meets and reviews NPS research findings, each one knows what’s in the report and has had an opportunity to prepare for feedback and questions from her peers. The meeting itself is a more efficient use of time since the group can start talking about solutions, leveraging the data to justify increased investments where needed. It’s a team effort, and we’ve learned that relationship-building can turn once-adversaries into strategic allies.

Want to dramatically improve your ability to get past gut instincts and bring in the customer voice?

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ABOUT OUR CO-AUTHOR:
With more than 10 years of leading B2B Customer Experience teams at EMC and VMware, Kate Woodcock has learned how to side-step the typical CX challenges and objections. Earning strong sponsorship from the VMware Executive team and blazing the trail for the use of insights as a core part of data-led decision making. Kate and her team are driving real business change based on customer, partner, and employee input and opinion.