eadership in CX takes communication and commitment during disruptive times.

We live in a volatile world where the speed and spread of information, misinformation and off-the-cuff opinions can damage people, businesses, and governments in a matter of minutes. We also live in a non-private ecosystem where everything is open to the dangerous tactics of groups and individuals with a negative or potentially disruptive agenda.

All these factors can affect your professional reputation as well as that of your company. 

I know this firsthand.

My time running Borders Books and Music as the CEO was an incredible learning experience. Borders was an iconic brand in its day.

Ultimately, it was shut down as the digitalization of music, video, and, finally, books rendered the stores irrelevant and not economically viable.

The press went crazy when we filed Chapter 11 as Borders was a public company and the second largest bookstore in America.

This had a major emotional effect on the employees and stockholders. 

In February 2011, our call centers were overwhelmed, our 19,500 employees were devastated, and everyone wanted answers. This meant that we had to change the game and be hyper-responsive to all of our stakeholders and act with integrity and transparency in all of our communication.

We also consulted with Howard Schultz and Michelle Gass as we were business partners with Seattle's Best Coffee. Howard had just rejoined Starbucks as the CEO and more than welcomed a meeting with Borders.

He told me to; over-communicate, be human, and do the best we could to save the company. Starbucks would have our backs to the end because that is part of their core values.

As the last CEO of Borders, I also get the last word on this chapter.

After the death threats to my family, public humiliation, and significant personal loss as the number two investor behind Ben Lebow, I was devastated.

It took some time to grieve the loss of a company I love and the fantastic team behind it.

The big lesson I took away was;

Never lose perspective on what your customer expects from you and always put them first in your innovation and CX priorities.

I flew back to Ann Arbor after calling Judge Martin Glenn to tell him that the Najafi Companies backed out of the financial plan to support Borders emerging from Chapter 11.

Scott Henry, my CFO, and I returned to the company with 600 people in the audience to tell them that Borders was over. All 600 stood and clapped for a long time because they knew we gave our best to save what we all loved. I was spent intellectually and emotionally.

Fast forward to my much different experience at Staples and eBags - both companies put CX at the top of the priority list in every strategy discussion and both companies focused on CX metrics as a core value.

As a result, Staples dominated the office supply market with same-day delivery in 90% of the US markets. eBags revolutionized the UX/UI experience at every single customer touchpoint. Both companies were purchased at a premium. 

Later in my career, I accepted the position of CEO of Hanna Andersson and knew it would be my last. The mission was focused on saving this almost bankrupt brand. The first priority was to address the cash burn, poor top-line performance, and areas of profit drain.

The second was to figure out what to do about an excessive amount of inventory. The third priority was addressing a broken ERP system that made the distribution system unstable. I am a turnaround executive and it requires a very intense approach with a high sense of urgency. It is an exhausting process, but the focus was on  success and long-term survival.

We were running on empty already when disaster struck – a ransomware attack for $1M on Labor Day 2019. We were without any systems for over thirty days.

Once we were open for business on November 1,  the unthinkable happened again – a payment virus was sweeping customer data on every transaction. Embedded on the payment page, it was undetectable, but  it created a significant communication problem.

This moved CX to the front of the line on every consumer touchpoint.

We had to rebuild the trust of every single customer visiting our site. It was a make-or-break crisis for us.

Hopefully, you’ve never led a brand that had to deal with a breach like this, so you’re probably not familiar with the risk management steps involved.

First, legally, you must contact every customer that could possibly be impacted with an overview of the situation and an offer of free identity protection for a year.

Second, you must deal with every class action suit in California, and we had four.

Third, we needed to do cyber security reviews and enhancements to satisfy the legal and banking challenges.

Through it all, you have to show confidence to your customer at every touchpoint and rebuild trust if you have any hope of emerging from the other side in one piece.

This is where associate-level CX matters and listening and understanding are more important than directing and defending. It was unclear what the right communication strategy should be, both internally and externally.

Communication with the team, asking for committees to facilitate solutions, and mutual respect were foundational in allowing us to get through the moment and evolving the company's performance, value system, and ultimate credibility. 

Major challenges come and go in business. We must understand the forces, real or perceived, that impact our customer care workforce and provide an empathetic environment. The leader's job is to lead and create the best and most positive outcomes regardless of the environment.

All external communication must be carefully vetted as they can be taken out of context in the media and social channels.

CX starts with the team you have asked to represent the company on the front lines; it is only with their trust in the leadership and vision that any brand can survive a reputational hit. 

This is what we call the CX Factor.

All companies need a CX strategy that supports the brand position and core values.

The key stakeholders – associates, customers, suppliers, and investors require and expect a responsive company that strives to be excellent and consistently builds trust and engagement.

Always assume disruption, big or small, is on the horizon and develop your organization to lead and grow from the unexpected in the marketplace.

Oct 12, 2022

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