How should companies rethink organizational structure to better meet customer demands for personalization? One way to start is to appoint a top executive with the mandate and power to design, orchestrate, and improve the customer experience. Kathy Tobiasen is one such leader.

Tobiasen is Vice President of Customer Experience at The Nature’s Bounty Company, a global manufacturer and retailer of vitamins, nutritional supplements, and beauty products. In this interview, she gives her perspective on how leading companies are reorienting around the customer in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our current era of exponentially disruptive technological change.

Salesforce’s upcoming “State of the Connected Customer” report on customer expectations shows that a majority of customers will share data to receive personalized product recommendations. What’s your take on this? Is The Nature’s Bounty Company stepping up the focus on delivering personalized experiences?

My job title might be a good place to start. It’s the first time The Nature’s Bounty Company has created a role for a vice president of customer experience. We created it because we see customer experience excellence as the crucial differentiator in the market today. But defining what’s excellent now goes far beyond delivering experiences that are merely convenient and accessible. Customers are starting to expect that companies know who they are, what they’re interested in, what they want, and when they want it. So, being able to personalize their experience of your brand consistently and seamlessly across the buying process has never been more important. For us, it’s a strategic priority.

How are new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) influencing the way companies navigate this more demanding customer experience landscape?

Right now, we want to be able to meet demands for real-time, personalized execution across the enterprise. We also want to optimize the customer experience across multiple channels and product lines, at every stage of the buying process.

The most effective way we can achieve this is with data and advanced technologies. Take what we’ve done with our standard customer newsletter, for example. Using intelligent tools and systems powered by machine learning and predictive analytics, we have the capabilities to personalize content in real time. We can, for instance, include specific categories of interest for individual customers based on their purchase history, along with complementary content to help upsell and cross-sell. Say we see that somebody is purchasing a supplement like fish oil. We know that vitamin D goes well with that, so we can recommend that and share other content based on previous expressions of interest. So, these tools are helping us be more intelligent about our data and the products we recommend — and much more creative about how we make those available to customers.

You mention the need to ensure that company processes can meet demands for seamless, personalized execution. What are some of the other changes you’ve made at The Nature’s Bounty Company to help you reorient the company around the customer?

A major challenge has been helping our people to understand that the customer experience is not only about isolated touchpoints during the purchasing process — what happens when a sales representative engages with a customer on the phone, for instance. It’s more about how customers experience our company across every single interaction.

If you can look at that bigger picture, you get the deeper insights that allow you to stay in sync with a customer throughout their journey with our company. You need to understand the individual experience that each customer has had. For example, this is Jim Smith from Chicago, Illinois, who has purchased $5,000 worth of products from us over 10 years. It’s all about us being able to tell those personalized stories.

Business units need alignment to do this. Rather than our people asking, “How can I sell more?” for example, the starting point for everyone has to be: “Are we putting the customer’s perspective front and foremost?”

To enable that, we’ve been trying to break down silo walls, where people come at the business only from the point of view of their function. We’ve been trying to create cross-functional teams that can take a more holistic view of the customer journey.

Aligning around the customer journey is an ideal that many companies strive for, but how do you actually take the first step to initiating change?

The starting point is to get buy-in from the leadership teams. You need their support to align everyone around the idea that improving customer experience will enhance business performance across the enterprise. My mantra is, “Are we winning and retaining more customers because of this shift?” If we are, then our business will be more successful.

After that, it’s about being very strategic around how you work across the organization and taking small steps to enable change. It’s been an uphill battle, but we’re getting there.

You mention that cultivating a customer-centric culture can be a change-management challenge. How have you gone about overcoming that challenge? What’s helped you build awareness and buy-in internally so the company can deliver seamless experiences?

We’re finding a data-driven approach is extremely valuable. One thing we did is build a “customer health” dashboard that we’re now sharing across the organization, which asks questions like: “Have we gained more customers?” “Have we earned the right to gain more customers?” and “What trends are we seeing within our total customer base and then within specific segments?” Internally, that gives us a great way to demonstrate with data what’s happening with our customers and how we as a business are responding.

Then we’re going one step further and integrating this data with our “voice of the customer” data. We have our digital site feedback and verbatim responses from our Net Promoter Score reports. Overall, that gives us a rich picture, and when we work through everything to see what our customers are telling us, and to isolate the challenges they are having, we’ll generally find that these touch just about every business unit. They’re enterprise-wide issues that we need to solve, rather than being the responsibility of any one team. So, that data gives us the evidence that allows us to come together collectively and say, “Okay, we’re going to share the way we deal with these problems as a business.” From there, we can get to work.

What advice would you have for companies starting to think about how to deliver a better customer experience? What are three key things they should be thinking about as they move forward?

Think like the customer — that’s the first thing. That means really understanding who they are and what their experience of your brand looks like right now. You’ve got to get granular by listening to people, talking to them, and absorbing as much feedback as you can.

Second, don’t work in silos — you need cross-functional teams if you want to obtain a single customer view.

And third, embrace analytics and new technologies. The capabilities these provide let companies make real-time, data-driven decisions and help them create the personalized experiences people now demand.

We're publishing a series of articles focused on the future of customer experience in the run up to Connections, June 12–14, in Chicago. For more insight, check out this article on why customer experience begins with human nature, this five-point checklist for exceptional customer experience, and this article on the power of empathy in creating personalized customer experiences.