Connecting Culture & Strategy with Yvette Mihelic

AskNicely Team

In February 2022, hundreds of leaders from service businesses across the world gathered together online to take part in the Global Frontline Experience Summit, an event we are delighted to sponsor and host again after its hugely successful first run in 2020. It was a phenomenal event with a contagious heaping of inspiration, excitement and possibility for anyone working in the customer experience and frontline service space. 

If you missed the summit, brought to you by our Frontline Magic Community don't worry! All of the‍ sessions are available right here, and are just as powerful the second time around.

How do you make customer experience a genuine passion for each individual employee? In the public transport sector, Yvette Mihelic, Director of Customer Experience for John Holland, has ignited a passion in every worker - from the customer service teams, to the mechanics, to the cleaners - using a harmonious balance of strategy and culture. With over 20 years of extensive experience across various industries and sectors, Yvette understands how you can connect your employee to your customer, no matter their role. 

Culture vs Strategy 

When it comes to motivating employees and reaching business goals, a harmonious balance between culture and strategy is required. One can’t work without the other. An awesome strategy is useless without a passionate team of employees behind it, and an awesome culture, without clear objectives, direction and coaching, won’t get you very far. 

Yvette highlights that culture “isn’t about workspaces and perks like comfy chairs and ping pong tables”. She says company culture influences the way people act, from how they make decisions to what employees believe is good or bad for success. Many people believe that “culture will eat your strategy for breakfast”, but on the other side of the thought spectrum, some people believe strategy is just as important for long-term business success. Yvette recognizes this viewpoint and says, “strategies enable solvency, which then enables culture to happen in the first place”. In the end, Yvette believes it’s the best of both worlds that create business success: “In all honesty, I believe that both culture and strategy nurture each other.”

Yvette says that in order to pull off a customer centric strategy, you need a customer centric culture. “It needs to be in the DNA of the organization in order to bring that strategy to life and be successful” she explains. But there needs to be a balance in the strategy-culture relationship because “equally, if the strategy is ho-hum, or it’s not clear in direction, even the best culture in the world isn’t going to improve the P&L position”. 

Yvette references Tanner Bechtel of XPLANE, who echos Yvette’s thoughts when describing the connection between strategy and culture – 

“Strategy is our journey. It is what we aspire and conspire to complete. It is a conscious choice in direction. Culture is the landscape. A mile on pavement takes much less work, gear, and preparation than a mile through a mountain pass. The terrain (culture) must be considered when planning our journey (strategy), and the realistic perspective must be applied when planning. We wouldn’t want to take off across the Andes in tennis shoes and shorts. By understanding the terrain, we can intelligently plan a successful journey.”

Culture and Strategy in Action

Like every service business around the world, John Holland has a prominent focus on the customer experience. They know just how important it is in order to differentiate themselves from their main competitor — the private vehicle. Unless they can provide a better experience, they’ll never gain an increased share of a customer’s travel wallet. 

When taking over the light rail contract in mid-2020, Yvette and her team put everything they could into creating a harmonious balance between culture and strategy - with the customer at the heart and center. 

The first step was to assess the current performance and culture that John Holland had inherited. “At the outset, we wanted to engage the hearts and minds of our people and in turn, create a commercially stable organization”. 

Yvette stresses that culture and strategy requires a holistic approach. They needed to focus on the whole team to create a great customer experience, from the frontline team to the train engineers. “Our services are like a buffet. It’s really easy to focus on dessert, or the front of the team, but what’s equally important is the entire end-to-end team” she explains. Unless all employees who contribute to the customer experience aren't recognized, then you won’t be able to create a truly customer-centric culture. With that, you’ll be unable to deliver on the strategy or meet the customer satisfaction targets. 

Yvette and her team set out to understand what drives customer satisfaction, and found that reliability, running on time and onboard comfort were equally as important as customer service. Then by linking what teams are responsible for the satisfaction drivers, John Holland could articulate clearly what each role contributed to the customer experience. 

Once contributions and roles were figured out, planning for action had begun. John Holland created a training package called Customer Connect, which aimed to inform employees about the overall strategy and the impact each employee had on the customer experience. (We call this, connecting the frontline to the bottom line

Key features from the training workshops included: 

Representation from as many different teams as possible — “This was critical to ensure that the team was able to understand how the customer experience is built from the beginning to end and how it’s impacted by every individual”

Plenty of interaction between participants — so they could understand each other’s perspectives, roles and responsibilities. 

Share customer experience outcomes regularly — that includes drivers, performance metrics and outcomes. 

The workshops aimed to unite the team and connect them, no matter their role, to the customer experience. 

Different Customers, Different Approaches 

Not all customers are the same. So, empathy and cultural awareness are critical to delivering excellent customer experiences. To make sure all customers have a wonderful journey, the John Holland team engaged in various training programs to help their teams understand how best to meet unique customer needs. For example, they introduced training for cross-functional teams like visual and audio impairment training. This awareness also led to the changed placement of items at stops and made sure audio announcements were regular and clear. 

To help customers who didn’t speak English, team members wore flags of the languages they spoke on their name badges. That way, customers and other team members can converse in a language they feel comfortable with. All of these small, often overlooked details would help the team achieve an awesome experience. 

The Results?

John Holland’s approach to the light rail contract is used as a shining example of what happens when you create a customer-centric strategy that’s supported by a customer-centric culture. 

To measure success, the John Holland team uses a peer and customer feedback-driven recognition program. This helps individual employees and teams see the direct impact they're having on the customer experience, areas they’re nailing and areas to work on. In addition, indicators of John Holland’s success include a year-on-year decrease in customer complaints (a reduction of 18%), high scores for mystery shopping (90%), increased employee retention and referrals for others to join the John Holland team have also increased. Finally, financial reports have shown annual improvements from this new approach year on year. All in all, with the focus on customer-centricity and creating a great workplace culture, John Holland’s is a business that is going full steam ahead, their success not slowing down any time soon. 

Want to see more presentations from the Global Frontline Experience Summit? We’ll be releasing blogs every week diving into all the juicy insights from our incredible lineup of speakers. In the meantime, you can join the Frontline Magic Community to receive updates, frontline news and more!

AskNicely Team
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AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
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AskNicely Team

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