When Ven Bontha took a new position at the Houston-based cement manufacturer he works for, he found inspiration for the new job and a way to help transform the business when he added an in-ground pool to his house.
But the inspiration didn't come from digging a hole and pouring the cement. Instead, it came from his experience applying for a bank loan online.
He applied online for the loan without ever speaking to a bank representative, and the money was simply put into his account. Curious why it was so easy, Bontha visited his local branch and spoke to the manager, who showed him that the bank tracked his deposits, checking accounts and history all in one place and was able to prequalify him for the loan.
Bontha had recently taken over as director of customer experience for Cemex, a global cement manufacturer with worldwide headquarters in Mexico City. Operating in a commodity business, executives there knew that the path to growth was through improving the customer experience -- a tall task for a business that had been operating the same way for decades.
“Nothing changes in building materials industry,” Bontha said. “I’ve been here 30 some years. We do everything the same way. It’s all status quo, even [the way] we entertain our customers is the same. We had to start thinking about changing.”
After visiting his bank, Bontha felt it could be done.
“I said, ‘There is hope,’” Bontha recalled.
Bontha looked to his hometown bank, but also to companies from several different industries looking for clues, tips and advice for transforming the customer experience. It included visits to the APQC, Fidelity investments and a week at Continental Airlines.
Cemex also hired consultants to conduct an exhaustive study of its customer base, interviewing not only the owners of the companies it does business with but the people who interact with Cemex regularly.
The primary complaints from Cemex’s customers were around the lack of self-service capabilities and service delivery.
Cemex’s U.S. business is primarily selling cement in bulk. It serves 28 states, and customers can interact with Cemex via multiple locations: a cement plant or a distribution plant, or they could simply call one of the third-party logistics providers that Cemex uses to deliver some of its loads. Naturally, this led to some confusion when it came to billing, orders and customer history.
“It could take 15 days to find a delivery ticket,” Bontha said. “You can tell that the customer was not happy with this kind of service. We knew we had to collapse multiple points of contact into a single point of contact.”
Bontha volunteered for the role of customer experience director after moving over from the IT group, where he ran post merger integrations. He was a one-man show initially, but once he was armed with the results of the customer study, he brought aboard a new team.
“We wanted to bring a fresh approach to what we were going to do,” he said. “I didn’t want predetermined ideas. The common perception in the industry was ‘our customer is this way’ or ‘our customer is that way,’ which is not true. Things are changing.”
The group first traveled to a cement plant in San Antonio, where Bontha said the people were likely to be more accepting of change. There the team started listening in to customer interactions themselves.
One 15-minute interaction demonstrated some of the challenges in overhauling Cemex’s CRM program. The call never included a word about the order. As Bontha listened to the agent and the customer chitchat he saw the agent just write down an order for two loads of type 1 cement to two places in Texas.
“We know him well, that’s what he wants all the time,” she explained to Bontha.
“The question was, How do we change this behavior,” Bontha said.
Ultimately, that meant a new CRM system. For years Cemex had run a heavily customized version of JD Edwards. By 2008 the company had elected to go with SAP companywide. Before committing to SAP CRM, Bontha ran a pilot project with Salesforce.com and LeanLogistics.com, preferring a Software as a Service (SaaS) application for testing.
So with SAP’s ECC on the back end, Cemex launched the SAP portal, pushing customers to what it calls the Cemex Customer Portal.
“Planning, tendering, dispatching -- carriers come through the Internet to accept the loads and deliver. That’s how we have visibility into our loads,” Bontha said.
The SAP CRM system is combined with a Verint system for workforce optimization and a Cisco system for call routing. Some of Cemex’s customers run transportation management systems from SAP that they can integrate with Cemex; others upload the information to Excel spreadsheets.
Cemex has also automated its delivery system to provide cement shipments the minute they’re needed. A sensor on the customer site alerts Cemex when supply is low and automatically triggers a delivery request within SAP.
“We’ve eliminated customers calling carriers directly,” Bontha said. “Now we have visibility into all the loads [and where they're] going.”
Cemex also has video cameras at some loading docks that are fed into the contact center that customer service agents can access and, in the event of a breakdown or technical glitch, they can explain to customers why there’s a delay and how long it may take to correct.
While the system is now in place, Cemex has not stopped focusing on the customer. Bontha has two groups within his customer experience organization, an operational group that focuses on customer service and an innovation group that focuses on the operation team and improving processes and performance. It’s roughly a 40-person team with six people focused on innovation.
That innovation team also participates in a “day in the life of a customer” program, where members make site visits and observe their customers’ interaction with Cemex.
“We want to see what issues they have and how we can solve them,” Bontha said.