“Interview with Benoit Rengade, Customer Experience Director at Michelin

Benoît is not a marketer, but his remarkable action in favour of the Customer Experience at Michelin can be considered as a model for all professionals. A success that is based on an uncompromising vision of customer relations practices – even if it means breaking certain well-established dogmas.

Marketing ZERO – Michelin is an industrial company, a sector where the customer experience does not have the same importance as in other sectors, such as the consumer goods or luxury goods industries. However, Michelin is regularly cited for its CX initiatives and you are considered a “voice” in this field. How do you explain this?

Benoît Rengade – The word of the customer holds considerable power, that of accelerating the transformation of the company. I was a salesman and then Sales Director at Michelin for many years. From the field, when I observed a dysfunction, if I passed it on to the departments concerned, I rarely saw any reaction. Since I have been Customer Experience Director, I provide Comex with the minutes of exchanges with a particular customer as often as possible, then I distribute them internally. Without omitting anything about their dissatisfaction, even in its sometimes very direct formulation. The impact is then immediate. People sometimes say to me: “Your last report was like a bomb. The customer stories I tell have the merit of accelerating the transformation of the company, so that decisions are made not on the basis of an internal process, but on the basis of what the customers think.

But isn’t this the case in all companies? Don’t they have statistics on the level of satisfaction of their customers?

Statistics are necessary but by no means sufficient. If I simply explain internally that the percentage of dissatisfied customers has increased on this or that the NPS is only 15, I get a lukewarm reaction. If, on the other hand, I present a customer verbatim, with a few selected words, my audience reacts much more strongly. And if I show a video in which the customer expresses factually the reasons for his dissatisfaction, the effect is even more noticeable. Ideally, of course, I should put the client in front of the directors and managers, because then they can feel the emotional charge of the person they are talking to, and I do this as often as possible, for example by inviting the top management to regularly “close the loop” with detractors, or by inviting a client to speak in front of a group of directors. This often produces an electroshock. It is this emotional charge that drives the action.

What method have you put in place to ensure the best possible experience for Michelin customers?

It comes from many discussions with my colleagues in other companies, but also with Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey. I built it around 4 axes: Listen, Act, Mobilize and Maintain.

Listen: listening to customers is the beginning and the end of everything. You have to be able to listen to the customer whatever channel they use to express themselves. I have a sort of mantra, a question that I repeat every time a colleague submits an action plan to me, in any field whatsoever: “What does the customer think? I repeat it so often that my colleagues are amused. But they also remember it.

Act: if a customer expresses a negative opinion, we have to react immediately. My role is to ensure that negative comments are identified as quickly as possible, and then to help the operational staff, who are the most legitimate to respond, to do so quickly and well.

Mobilize: similar to the ‘huddles’ at Bain&Co, we have created Customer Rooms at all levels: territory, region, Group. They bring together those who have an impact on the customer experience and are responsible for dealing with the most complex cross-functional problems, those that the front line cannot handle. We then have a central Customer Room that meets every month, in which the COO systematically participates. It is held in a hall in the centre of the company, a place where everyone can see it.

Maintain: beyond the devices and messages, there are attitudes to be put in place, a way of being, a service attitude that is not just a posture. This state of mind guarantees the continuity of our Customer Experience.

Let’s talk about organisation. Traditionally, the CX depends either on marketing, which defines the customer journey, or on Customer Relations because of the importance of the Contact Centre in the experience. What is the organisation at Michelin?

I am not attached to marketing or even to sales, but to Quality. This gives me a certain neutrality, with a culture of rigour in the implementation of systems, and of course control. At Michelin, Quality, traditionally focused on the product, has been reinvented to deal with the entire customer journey, and has been renamed Customer Promise Guarantee. This is a major transformation.

What is also significant from my point of view is that Michelin has chosen, by giving me the responsibility for CX, a commercial profile and not a marketing one. From my point of view, this is a justified choice because marketing at Michelin consists essentially of understanding customer expectations in order to build offers. It is therefore a long-term activity. You study a market, you listen to a person. Whereas customer experience is a short-term activity: there is a problem to be solved immediately. Like sales…

I see another advantage. Paradoxically, sales people are the most resistant to CX because they are convinced that they know their customers. As I come from sales, I am legitimate in explaining to them that this is not necessarily the case. If I ask them: “What do you think are the main concerns of customers?”, they say it’s supply, logistics or invoicing… But no, it’s not: it’s the relationship with Michelin, whether or not they feel listened to, whether or not they are considered – that’s what concerns them most. Listening to a customer requires putting oneself in their shoes, and therefore giving up one’s own convictions. This necessary questioning is a difficult exercise, but I can help the teams because I have been in their shoes, and they know it.

If there is an effort, you have to be able to show concrete results. How do you measure the progress made by the Michelin Customer Experience, and on the basis of what objectives?

Since the beginning, I have told my teams: “The first person who tells me that the objective is to increase the NPS is fired. The only objective that counts for me is to improve the customer experience. Don’t confuse the temperature of the pool with the thermometer! We all know how to raise the thermometer without raising the temperature of the water… I’ll give you an example: the rate of employee engagement with the company. We measure this through a few declarative questions to which, as you might expect, everyone gives the maximum mark and answers what the company wants to hear. And since the rate is good, managers tend to think that employees are happy. But it’s not the same thing at all: you can be lucky enough to have employees who are engaged because they love the company, but whose work experience is poor.

So numerical targets are not enough, especially if they come from within. “What cannot be measured does not exist,” they say. I have the intuition that this is a mistake, like the fool who looks for his watch under a street lamp because there is a light, when he has lost it elsewhere. The only one who can tell us what our improvement objective should be is the customer. Each customer will define what they consider to be a good experience, one focusing on delivery times, another on the responsiveness of customer service, for example.

This implies asking them from the beginning of the relationship and creating a very complete monitoring dashboard, but also monitoring them over time. Here is an example. An important customer ordered a new type of tyre from us. We realised that it had to be environmentally friendly, have a low rolling resistance, but also have good grip, etc. In the end, the tyre was designed to be environmentally friendly. In the end, the tyre we made for him fitted his specifications perfectly … but its life span was one third shorter than normal. The customer was obviously dissatisfied. We gave him the cherry on top, but not the cake. If they had been more involved in the design process, this problem would have been detected much sooner and a waste of time and money would have been avoided, as well as a loss of image with this customer. Listening to the customer is not only at the beginning and the end, but longitudinally.

What you are describing is the work of listening every day and translating it into concrete actions. We are far from the wow effect, which is nevertheless described as one of the key success factors of CX?

The magic effect in the industry is the ability to react quickly. “Wow, they are fast at Michelin. But anyway, I’m sceptical about the real effectiveness of an “effect”. An effect fades. And if it worked well once, the customer expects it again the next time. If you create a surprise effect, you must regularly create a new surprise. This is not only artificial, it’s exhausting. It’s glitter marketing… and certainly not in the Michelin culture.

So I wouldn’t say that we try to give our customers an exciting experience – we’re talking about buying a tyre here – but we can make sure that it’s a pleasant experience. The customer is sensitive to this and talks about it.

By definition, experience is a concrete thing. In my email signature, there is this maxim from Steve Jobs: “Customers don’t measure you on what you tried, they measure you on what you deliver”. When it comes to CX, we are under an obligation not of means, but of results.

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