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CTO Perspective: How Hamesh Chawla Took His Development Team From Product-Centric to Customer-Centric

360 Perspectives: Solving Complex Customer Needs

Learn how Hamesh Chawla, Chief Product and Technology Officer at Edelman Financial Engines, formed teams to think and operate more holistically based on customer needs, despite the challenge of having operations nationwide.

Edelman Financial Engines (EFE) experienced something of a lightbulb moment last year. The company, the largest independent registered investment advisory (RIA) in the U.S., realized that it was devoting a not-insignificant chunk of its R&D dollars to mobile app features that few customers used. That realization kickstarted a cultural, organizational, and data-driven transformation to be more customer-centric.

One year into this transformation, Executive Vice President and Chief Product and Technology Officer Hamesh Chawla has formed teams that think and operate more holistically based on customer needs, despite the challenge of having operations nationwide.

How has EFE managed to pull off something that is so vexing to so many?  

Of course, change is hard, and Chawla has faced headwinds in this ongoing transformation. With more than two decades in executive leadership and senior product management, Chawla has led customer transformation at two different companies. So he’s familiar with the pitfalls, and knows what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s what he recommends to peers starting down this path:

1. Shift from functional teams to “journey teams”

The drive toward better customer engagement and more relevant products took off in a big way when executives shared important principles on how to organize not around individual departments and incremental feature development but on customer-focused teams working toward a shared goal, says Chawla.

Chawla calls these “journey teams,” and they’re made up of stakeholders across the organization focused on a specific customer need. For example, an onboarding journey team might consist of app developers, front-end developers, and operational and deployment teams working together to ensure a better onboarding experience for new customers. Journey teams focused on active enrollment, in another example, would involve marketing and business development to improve the enrollment process.

“We’re asking stakeholders to work on a customer journey KPI,” says Chawla. “Our developers no longer deliver a product or play with the hottest technology. They work to improve metrics for the customer.”

In the past these teams would work in relative isolation, with little direct knowledge of customer needs or what other teams were doing. They’d complete their tasks and hand off to the next group, which would do the same until a feature or product eventually hit the market which no one really knew if its financial planners or customers wanted in the first place.

No more. 

Today, teams are comprised of end-to-end developers, versus functional experts, who rely on customer feedback and close monitoring of site usage to decide which products and features to build. 

He adds that while leadership agreed customer-centricity was a great thing, that in and of itself was not, nor should be, the ultimate goal. “The question we asked ourselves is, what are we really trying to do?” In their case, what they were really trying to do is increase enrollment, engagement scores, and retention rates. Those are measurable KPIs around which the journey teams, and in fact the entire company, can coalesce and be held accountable.

Key KPIs for Edelman Financial Engines

  • Engagement Score:
    • When did users engage or fall off? What are they clicking on?
    • What is the nurture open rate?
    • Mobile app registrations: what features are customers using?
  • Product usage: what are planners and customers using within the platform?
  • Retention Score: What are the retention trends? 
  • Customer Satisfaction Score: Customer Satisfaction Survey (CSAT)

A line can then be drawn from the implementation of customer-centric features and customer data to better business outcomes. One example: diving into aggregated analytics to understand why customers were not clicking on an enrollment button can lead to taking steps to enhance usability and greater likelihood of enrollment.

2. Enable your teams with the right infrastructure

Chawla’s first attempt at moving fast in a customer-first transformation didn’t pan out, he says, because the technology infrastructure did not align to the changes he was making organizationally. Internal stakeholders did not have easy access to unified customer data. Instead, data was spread among various systems with no single source of truth. (EFE has since created a data lake.)

Additionally, Chawla learned that developers will quickly abandon a project without the tools and automation to support it. They needed infrastructure with automation in crucial areas like testing and deployment and the ability to surface real-time usage data to inform and adjust the team’s product backlog and daily to-do lists. The EFE team has adopted a new way of managing  pipelines, allowing it to quickly roll things forward and roll things back. “There’s a shift around infrastructure. We’re asking everyone to move faster, and that means you need the right instrumentation to be successful.”

3. Establish regular committees and feedback loops

According to David Low, Senior Director of Product Management and a member of Chawla’s team, the company now has journey team subcommittees staffed by executives who nominate delegates in specific geographies to serve customers in those areas. 

“We can bring the voice of the customer into our discussions, validate requirements, view prototypes, and iterate on what is being delivered,” he says.

The subcommittees, made up of product managers, customer service personnel, and  financial planners, meet monthly or bimonthly, where the developers demo prototypes or finished products for the team to react to. These groups help product managers road test things in production before releasing to customers. 

“It’s useful for us to understand customer requirements and to make sure we’re on point,” says Low, who noted that two such pilots this year (in July and September) gave them confidence to move ahead with a product launch slated for 2020. 

Equally as important, these cross-functional subcommittees give EFE’s far-flung teams — they operate nationwide — opportunities to create internal relationships that spark creative ideas that solve customer needs.


4. Reevaluate the way you hire and develop talent

Being customer-centric inherently means that people will be asked to wear more hats. At EFE, product managers and developers previously specialized in one area, such as mobile app or front-end and back-end development. Now they work on a journey team striving toward a KPI, responsible for the end-to-end customer experience across channels and devices.

Chawla is shifting the mindset of the organization by asking people to think about the end user and have more accountability. This has changed the way he hires and evaluates incoming talent. “If we’re going to focus on the entire customer journey, there can’t be any handoffs between teams. You have to ask the hard question of whether your organization is capable of absorbing that shift.”

It’s possible that not everyone will be comfortable and thrive in the new environment. And that’s okay. What’s important is that you find your internal champions and the right skill sets.

5. Be relentless in the pursuit of data-driven development

Chawla and his team no longer spend time and money developing products without customer data to support the need. They monitor how customers use the site and mobile app, and know exactly how people use EFE’s services and products. The cloud infrastructure makes it easier to monitor and gather these insights, he says. “What they use and how often tells you a lot about what you should fix or where you should invest your time.”

“We’ve stopped building things just because [someone] asks for it, and started testing whether customers actually use it.”

This, he says, has resulted in a shift in priorities of product development but has yielded more customer-centric, engaging products and features that enable EFE to deliver on its KPIs. 

Low echoes that sentiment, saying that EFE collects feedback from clients and financial planners in the field before any major product release.

“We go to national sales meetings having credibility with planners,” says Low. “We can tell them what we’re doing is based directly on their feedback and customer data. We have broken down the walls not only between ourselves and our clients but among ourselves. I can’t think of doing [development] any other way.”

Building an end-to-end relationship with customers

While EFE might not yet have achieved the holy grail of a 360-degree view of all customer activity, it has made tremendous strides in the way its product teams monitor and gather customer information, and work as a cross-functional team to deliver on key business metrics and time to market.

In short, they’ve aligned around solving customer problems, not delivering a product for its own sake. This transformation has upended its hiring practices, technology infrastructure, and more. 

“It changes the game on how we’re thinking,” says Chawla. “We have journey teams that understand the customer better, which translates into more nimble development and lets us build better products and services. It’s taking some time, but we are building an end-to-end relationship with our customers.”

To follow this series, download the customer 360 playbook, subscribe to our blog newsletter, and check out our last installment on the importance of changing mindsets in your organization.

This post is part of a regular series called 360 Perspectives, featuring customers, partners, and experts unraveling the complexities of what it takes to change mindsets, connect silos, and put the customer at the center of their business.


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