In customer relationships, there comes an inevitable time when customer and provider may encounter challenges. Many of these problems stem from customer expectations that go unmet. Good leaders address these issues head-on. Not only do they fix the problem, they also work to rebuild the relationship.
Gaven Fahl is the Director of Worldwide Critical Accounts Program (CAP) at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. In her line of work, she and her team provide tactical management for strategic high-level enterprise accounts in a critical state. She has built several customer service organizations from the ground up in her over 25 years in customer service. In 2016, her team won the President’s Quality Award, HPE’s top award for quality.
At a high level, Gaven is responsible for repairing and rebuilding key strategic relationships with HPE’s customer base. The inspiration for CAP originated from her previous leader, Rusty Walther, who had previously implemented similar programs at Cisco and NetApp. Gaven hoped to take her startup background and integrate it into an established company like HPE where it could create significant impact.
This impact ended up exceeding Gaven’s hopes. They had initially aimed to meet their original mandate of repairing and rebuilding strategic relationships. However, their efforts were so successful that those relationships expanded well beyond where they were before they had been broken.
HPE executives call in CAP to address relationship issues that are hurting the company’s bottom line. Often, it is a result of a gap between what HPE delivered and what their customer expected. Everyone has the best intentions at the beginning of a project when excitement is running high.
The reality is that during this starting period, adequate preparations are not always done. Even the smartest of customers fall into that lull at the onset of the sales process.
These moments of conflict are when Gaven and her team provide the most value. It is undeniably a stressful and difficult job. However, theirs is a uniquely opportunistic situation. They fix these customer rifts and turn the situation around.
Behind the Critical Accounts Program
In a large organization like HPE, Gaven faced many different challenges in implementing a program like CAP. One of the most important elements in making CAP work is when executives buyiin from the start across the organization. The organizational chart flips upside down when the executive team agrees that everybody in the company works for the CAP manager.
Another element is a focused and dedicated approach to the relationship, not just its issue. Part of what makes CAP so successful in HPE is that they have this unique approach. While it is essential to have departments that handle the issues, the work they put into building the relationship itself is equally important.
Assessing whether the nature of the issue is at the level of the relationship is part of Gaven’s job. Her team specializes in intervening at the relationship level. Several factors are considered, such as the size of the customer and what kind of impact to the company revenues the issue is causing. They transfer issues-based situations to other departments equipped to handle them.
Understanding and being prepared to articulate the benefits of a program like CAP is essential in replicating its success in a similar model. It is an investment in key resources to create a strong foundation of customer relationships to protect the bottom line. It enables new growth by reigniting and driving future revenue.
A program like CAP helps leaders learn more about the company and its customer relationships. The real basics of communication and documentation is key in strategic relationships. Transparency is essential to defuse and address situations where missed expectations cause damage.
How does the Critical Accounts Program work?
Gaven and her team hold themselves accountable to an ongoing process of recalibrating the existing customer relationship. They intend not only to address the issues, but to rebuild the relationship. Once this stage is complete, they sustain the relationship and keep it thriving moving forward.
There are four unique phases in the process. First, put out the fire. Gaven believes that it is important to ensure that there is room for a calm conversation. Clear the room of smoke and have that discussion with the customer.
Next, peel back the layers. This is where the team sits down and evaluates the straw that broke the camel’s back. Strong relationships withstand technical issues and keep going. However, if the relationship is beginning to break under the strain of all the issues, then find the starting point of the problem.
Third, build and rebuild for future success. For Gaven, this is when the team does whatever it takes to ensure that this customer account doesn’t return to them. They set up the account for success in the future. When a new set of technical issues arises, the relationship and its repaired processes will sustain them through that difficulty.
Finally, monitor the account. Gaven and her team spend around a month observing the relationship at the end of their engagements. They ensure that the new processes that have been put in place are working and troubleshoot when necessary.
The impact of COVID on the Critical Accounts Program
The pandemic had a minimal impact on CAP, where travel is limited for financial reasons. While face-to-face interactions with customers are ideal, it is not a requirement. In fact, Gaven and her team do many of their efforts remotely. Sometimes, the customers also prefer the resolution of the issues straight away, rather than spend time discussing it with someone.
Gaven believes that the approach to relationships and customer service must be straightforward, sometimes to the point of bluntness. The pandemic in some ways opened that lane up for her team as well as their customers. They are more open about the situation and their shared goal of solving their problems. It makes having a conversation easier.