M&A checklist: Safeguard your customer experience
Mergers and Acquisitions
There are many sound commercial reasons for businesses to enter a merger or acquisition. But why is the failure rate for M&As so high, sitting at between 70-90%?
The synergistic allure that 1+1 might equal 3, can be persuasively compelling. Cross-selling opportunities, merging customer bases and perhaps the eradication of competition are just a few advantages. Yet there are many overlooked risks that can lead to failed transitions. A few are Ill-matched customer management practices and aberrant customer experiences that over time dilute brand values, erode customer bases and shrink sales.
So in the face of a merger or acquisition, how can businesses navigate the right path to deliver exemplary customer experience (CX)?
Use CX Network’s checklist of key customer experience considerations to make before, during and after a merger or acquisition.
What are the incentives for your business, investors, employees and customers? Customers should have sufficient warning of the transition taking place and must feel as if it is business as usual from start to finish and beyond. You can’t do this unless everyone is on the same page and are aware of the motives behind the transition.
- Realistic Synergies
Are you being realistic with your analysis? This involves weighing up whether the M&A will benefit or hinder your customer. Will this change damage their perception of your brand and force them to switch to a competitor? After all, without the customer, your business is redundant. Ask yourself: ‘How satisfied are the customers with their relationship with the company - both yours and the one you’re integrating with/acquiring? (Customer calls will often be an appropriate form to measure NPS scores)’.
- Are there any warranty issues with current or former customers?
- Will you be changing customer returns policy for one or both of the merged businesses?
- What are the sales terms/policies and have there been any unusual levels of returns/exchanges/refunds?
- Brand Value
What are your brand values? These have to align and complement your own company’s ethos externally and internally. For instance, you cannot be a sustainable company if you merge with a firm that does not live by the same morals - your customers will sense the disingenuousness. Ask yourself: ‘Will there be any issues with customer retention after the M&A takes place (including issues relating to the identity of the buyer)?’
- The Winner’s Curse
When entering a bidding war, make sure you don’t overpay. If this happens, your budget could be reduced in every aspect, and in particular on customer excellence, technology and employee satisfaction. It’s easily avoidable - if you are realistic from the start.
- Accurate Analysis
It is imperative that your investment bankers aren’t unrealistically optimistic; “Over-optimism may be the single biggest reason that shareholders are disappointed with the results of a merger or acquisition. The benefits described on paper are not realised and simply can’t be translated into the real world” says Matt Krantz and Robert R. Johnson. For instance, oversight on seasonality in revenue and the working capital requirements the company typically experiences.
It’s important to consider how salespeople are compensated/motivated and how the transition may affect the financial incentives offered to employees. Removal of bonuses or other incentives might look good on the balance sheet, but can cause rapid defection of high performing staff.
Over-estimated results will negatively impact customers. If things are not running smoothly in the back-end, it will seep through and show on the front-end, and your customers will notice.
- Culture Wars
Integrating companies can be difficult; differing office cultures can trigger tension and anger between employees. These factors can include attire, boundaries, office etiquette, work times and interactions between colleagues. The new culture, processes and leadership must be agreed on before implementing the M&A as employees have a direct impact on the customer experience delivered.
- Protect your brand
So you’ve been mindful of who you’ve partnered with, now don’t lose sight of your brand's identity and morals. On the subject of brand perception, Allen Grove, John Marshall and Rick Wise at Lippincott.com note: “Leaders who see its full potential, well beyond name and logo, gain a significant leg up in uniting companies and cultures with the values it presents to the outside world. Brand is the North Star — the focal point for closing culture gaps and setting the integration agenda, for team building and securing up-front buy in from management and employees, for communicating the story and attributes that will drive the success of any merger.”
If the company you’re planning to integrate with fails to adhere to your values, it could damage your brand’s reputation. Remember what brought your customer through the door in the first place. After all, the “brand’s value is one of the assets you’re purchasing.”
- Change Anxiety
HBR.org reports that “even the smallest operational change can have a significant negative impact on both employees and customers.” Change can make customers feel “uneasy, and they will be keenly focused on how the new relationship impacts them… they’ll be hyper-sensitive to every process change.” Research from Salesforce has revealed that 75% of people expect a consistent experience at all touch points from social media, apps and even in-person. Mistakes have shown that waiting too long to implement new organisational structures and appointing leaders has made talent executives leave and customers switch to competitors.
Separating the M&A process from normal business operations can help deter disruption. It is crucial to ensure your customers don’t feel that performance and customer care is deteriorating because of the change. This time period is vital not only for attracting new customers but retaining existing ones. Customer loyalty takes a long time to win, but mere moments to lose.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the action and logistics of integrating two organisations - but if leadership allows itself to get distracted from the core deliverables, the base business can quickly suffer.
- Integrating Systems
“A slow or poorly handled IT integration between merging companies can jeopardise the business goals.”
When ensuring ‘business as usual’ operations are running smoothly, your newly combined IT department has to define its long term objectives, costs and recognise potential synergies. Communication is essential between management and IT. “With IT playing an increasingly pervasive role in today’s organisations, successful merger integration requires close alignment of IT and the business side of a company before, during, and after the merger.”
- Your Employees
An M&A can be a turbulent time for employees; so what is your value proposition for your staff? Ask yourself; ‘why is the merger good for those who take the journey with you?’
Rumours and doomsday stories can run rife in the absence of a strong message - most employees will be fearful, trying to decide which of the amalgamated businesses will emerge ‘Top Dog’. If there are role overlaps will that result in job losses - specifically their job? There’s a high likelihood staff will dust off their resumes and scout new opportunities to get ahead of any exodus. In reality, it’s your best staff that leave first; they’re the talent who can easily find a new home.
Downsizing (euphemistically, “right-sizing”), may be desirable for the newly formed enterprise, but it is far better for the business to have the choice of who stays and who goes. Don’t forget that your employees are your customer experience delivery agents, so hold onto your best agents - it will make a difference.
- Message Consistency
Are the messages from both sides of the M&A aligned and communicated consistently across all channels and touch-points? Inconsistency confuses and can spook customers when you need them to feel positive and comfortable.
If you need to talk about “shareholder value” and “market dominance”, don’t forget to translate this into how it will benefit your employees and customers - sell them the dream too.
You’ll be familiar with the consultation meetings that take place around an M&A, these need to be more than a token exercise if you want to inspire your staff and include the customer on the agenda.
Train your employees to articulate the propositional message accurately; don’t assume because you’ve told them it once they’ll embrace it well enough to be able to ‘sell’ it to customers. Keep it simple and make it memorable.
- Talk can be cheap
Despite all the wonderful announcements you’ve made leading up to and during the M&A about the ‘bright new futures for customers, staff and shareholders’, everyone knows that talk is cheap. So show them the glistening results.
If your results are not as expected, be honest and upfront - this sets the tone for the chapter ahead. Don’t say, “well that was a disaster” without a plan of action. At this stage involve the opinions of your customers and employees. After all, the ones involved often have the most valuable insights and opinions.
We all know how ineffective new hires can be, and how long it can take them to become productive. Remember, systems, processes, products, and customer-sets will be different in this new landscape. So with an M&A even existing staff can revert back to ‘novice’ in some elements of their roles, which strains the customer experience, so don’t skimp on training.
Create a remedy for mistakes that may occur in the transitions wake. Prepare a rapid reaction force to fast-fix customer problems. Most people forgive mistakes, but almost no one is prepared to tolerate them if they are compounded by slow, difficult or frustrating resolutions. Aim to over-deliver on the CX promises, be better than your customers expect, and your new brand value will be enhanced.
In spite of training programmes, there may be years of legacy behaviours and cultures that conflict with the direction you seek.
Recidivism is a real enemy of change, so what will your response be? More training, more cultural ‘re-alignment’, or will it come down to; ‘if you can’t change the people... change the people!?’ There will always be detractors, sabetours and the most difficult to deal with - passive-aggressive staff members. Fast fix or fast fire? (Here’s an excellent short story on managing change: John Kotter, ‘Our Iceberg is Melting’.
- Customer Value Proposition
Post-merger, what is your customer value proposition? Concentrate on WIIFT (what’s-in-it-for-them). No one cares about what you gain from the new alliance, they want to know if/why it’s good for them. At worst, they’ll want to know why it’s not bad for them.
- Is it working?
In all the hiatus of an M&A it can be easy to lose track of certain elements, including the customer. Organise review periods and take feedback from customers. You had a plan, they’ve had their experiences and formulated their opinions, so it’s vital you conduct frequent litmus tests.
As Benjamin Franklin once said; ‘Failure to prepare, is preparing to fail’ . Once you’ve recognised potential challenges, have a strategic plan set in place, hired wisely, trained staff impeccably and assigned leadership roles to the right personnel, you’re heading in the right direction for an M&A.
Communicate with all levels of customers and employees, especially your IT team. Decide what your new brand is going to stand for and the culture you want to see in your offices, and stick to them consistently.
Above all, be selective about the brand you are planning to merge with or acquire; make sure your customer’s perception of their brand is positive, and vice-versa. It’s one thing to get customers through the door, but it’s a much tougher feat trying to win them back after they’ve abandoned you.