Customer experience: Is there a “secret sauce” in the Pacific Northwest?

The rise of “customer is the king” strategies has prompted us to study consumer-oriented businesses to understand how they think, what they do differently, and the results they achieve. While one can find customer experience and satisfaction leaders around the world, it is hard not to take notice of the particularly high concentration of organizations based in the Pacific Northwest—including Alaska Airlines, Costco, Nordstrom, Amazon.com, and others—that have found success by making customer experience part of their DNA.

Is there a “secret sauce” that elevates attention to customer experience in the Pacific Northwest? To test our hypothesis that regional companies are more likely to excel in customer experience, we interviewed several executives who have worked with and for leading brands based in the region. We asked them to share perspectives on service characteristics unique to the region and how those may have played a part in their companies’ growth and success. Collectively, their insights revealed three common themes about Pacific Northwest business culture and history that may have a particular impact on customer experience.

A strong sense of community
The executives interviewed noted a propensity to share openly across the regional community for the purpose of benefitting all. Why? One explanation might be the area’s geographic “separation” from other industrial areas across the country, increasing their willingness to look to others close to home for insight and support.

Deanna Oppenheimer, CEO and co-founder of CameoWorks and formerly president of retail financial services for Washington Mutual, believes local leaders of the past helped set the tone for this sense of community and collaboration. “This business community didn’t evolve as a financial and steel market; it was built through the efforts of individuals—visionary leaders and entrepreneurs, such as Bill Boeing, who moved in the same circles and shared openly with each other, even though they were in very different businesses and industries,” she said. That spirit and collaboration, she added, helped make the Northwest “culturally innovative” and highly focused on doing what’s right for customers.

Resourcefulness
Companies in the Pacific Northwest have been bold and creative in using customer experience and connections to thrive and survive.

Many companies are willing to challenge the status quo and be bold. Costco is one of those companies that is doing this by building customer experience into its core. “Our founder knew that in building a company with a low-cost business model, people wouldn’t believe it until they experienced it,” said Richard Galanti, chief financial officer of Costco. “We knew it would be perplexing to the market, and if people had a poor experience—an unsatisfactory interaction with employees, a bad product, etc.—then we wouldn’t win. So we had to find ways to build it into our core.”

Innovation—to be better, not just different
All of the executives interviewed talk about continuously looking for new ways to get better and the importance of innovation in connecting—and maintaining connections—with their customers.

Curtis Kopf, director of innovation and customer experience for Alaska Airlines, described the company’s history of using technological innovation to do things other airlines couldn’t or wouldn’t. For example, it was the first airline to embrace e-commerce and the first to offer self-service check-in capabilities. He said the company recently introduced a dedicated customer innovation function. “Innovation is solving problems in new ways,” Kopf explained. “We have always been very focused on customer experience, but now we have one group dedicated to it all the time.”

Alaska’s monthly satisfaction surveys score customer effort when interacting with the airline. “Our goal is ease for the customer, and we want our actions to be data driven,” said Kopf. In-airport research and development, customer journey mapping, an airport experience team that designs check-in and boarding processes, and mobile and digital innovation teams are all part of the company’s commitment to remaining on the leading edge of customer experience.

What’s next?
The executives interviewed said they are always looking forward.

“We always have room to improve—from our checkout times to connecting online and in the store,” said Costco’s Galanti. “We have a multi-year program underway to modernize much of our IT systems and infrastructure, including upgrading our customer-facing technology, so we will be poised for the next ten years.”

For others in the region looking to do the same, CameoWorks’ Oppenheimer believes the good news is that there are many great examples close to home from which to learn. “The Northwest is steeped in decades of customer-first people and companies. Grocery, retail, manufacturing…there are so many great examples here,” she said. “It’s palpable.”

Customer focused organizations - those based in the Pacific Northwest or anywhere around the globe – know that at the end of the day, being customer centric is simply good for business.  There is much to be gained from sharing with and learning from leading companies, like those featured in this article, who are constantly innovating in these areas.  To do this, you might consider getting involved with peers at the Seattle based Customer Experience Professional Association (www.CXPA.org), or your local CXPA chapter. Or you can reach out to West Monroe Partners to learn more about best practices in customer experience and how organizations like yours are making strides to put the customer at the center of everything they do.

Kyle Hutchins is Director of Customer Experience for West Monroe Partners based in the Pacific Northwest.  He can be reached via email at khutchins@westmonroepartners.com or on Twitter @kylehutchins.

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