In this candid interview, Sonia Bhatia Salmin, Ex-Head of Customer Experience at Piramal Pharma Solutions, shares her thoughts on the importance of CX, and how she led Piramal Pharma Solutions into becoming one of the most customer centric pharmaceutical companies in India. Piramal is a Pharmaceutical Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization, offering end-to-end services required to bring a drug to the market place faster and is renowned for its quality and reliability.
I invite our readers to comment and ask questions on similar challenges they might be facing in their organisations, when it comes to setting up a customer centric culture. I would be more than happy if I could be of any help. This article is framed in a question-answer format; please feel free to share your feedback on the article too.
Vivek: Could you tell us a bit about your personal story that led to you building a career in Customer Experience?
Sonia: Mine has been a roller coaster journey. I completed my engineering in 2001, majoring in Electronics. However, to be honest, there were really very few jobs for engineers in that year. So, I joined a call center – a technical voice based one – and my profile was that of a technical consultant to customers outside India. But in a call center, you don’t talk to a customer face to face; you do it over a phone. For this reason, the service one provided was all the more important. That was my introduction into the customer experience industry.
While still deliberating on what career I must choose, I moved on to the Taj Group of Hotels, serving as a guest relation executive with Taj Land’s End in Bandra, Mumbai. It was here that I exactly understood what customer experience really is. Now, Taj is an extremely customer-centric brand; their employee training program, their way of dealing with customers is very different and top-notch. In my role as guest relation officer, I understood that you cannot make customers happy always; nevertheless, you must provide the best possible solution to them. It is here that I learned the nuances of customer experience. For instance, we would have repeat customers at Taj very often and we were always looking at how we could add more value to their stay. I was given an open hand to understand the customer psyche. I would invite these guests for coffee and chats to understand their likes and dislikes, mostly just to listen to them. To prepare myself in advance, I would go through their profile saved on our CRM to understand them better. After meeting these guests, I would also update their profiles in the same CRM, so that they could have a great experience across all the Taj Hotels. It was here that I understood that the small things matter to customers the most. For example, making a long-stay guest feel at home by arranging for a cake on their birthday or organizing an evening party to get them acquainted with other guests, went a long way in improving the customer experience. The six months that I worked with Taj really helped me hone my CX skills.
Post Taj, I moved to the telecom industry and worked with Lucent Technologies but by then, I had found my calling. I realized that a desk job was not for me and that I wanted to interact more with people.
That’s when British Airways (BA) came my way and I joined British Airways as a cabin crew. As we know, the entire process of flying can be exhausting for a customer – the immigration, the long queues etc. I would always try to make a customer’s onboard experience comfortable; sometimes just a cheerful smile can go a long way. For me, it was not just a job – it was more about making each experience a special one. For instance, whenever a customer had a bad experience, I would report it to my sales team and base manager in BA for service recovery. This way the customers know that we have heard them and are truly apologetic for a bad experience they faced and want to make up for any troubles caused due to us.
Vivek: Right. So that the customers also believe that the relationship is more valuable.
Sonia: Correct. In BA, I would remember the likes of the repeat customers and serve them the same the next time, such as the kind of tea they like, the way they like to have their drinks, food preference, which would make them extremely happy and surprised at the same time! I became a senior in only five years and was the youngest member of the senior team. Subsequently, I began to manage a crew of 13. Even when I was heading this crew, my evaluations of them would be on how customer-centric they were – whether my crew was engaging meaningfully with customers was always important to me.
There is also this pleasant memory with the airline that I would like to share. British Airways had started a new initiative called ‘Golden Ticket’ whereby all the gold card holders could give a ticket to any airline staff who provided them with a memorable service. I was the only one who got four in a year! It was a great moment and I felt great satisfaction in knowing that I had made a difference.
So, after this experience of 9 years, Piramal happened. Piramal Pharma Solutions was looking for someone from the hospitality industry to head the customer centricity initiative in order to change its outlook from a manufacturing company to a services company. It needed to build an outside in perspective.
The decision to join Piramal in this new role was tough and challenging as I had the sole responsibility to create the entire CX culture in the company. The pharmaceutical industry was entirely new to me; however, I also thought that this was a wonderful way of creating value to customers and doing something I’m extremely passionate about.
I must admit that the journey was not simple; it was a roller coaster ride. But three years hence, and we have achieved what we wanted to. Customer centricity is the DNA of the company; every single person here passionately works towards the customer.
Vivek: Thanks for sharing that story Sonia – it was amazing. I can see you always had a very customer-centric approach towards every role that you have played professionally. Is there any personal experience which really wowed you? Any example of a great experience which you would like to share with our readers?
Sonia: Yes, I do have a story that I would like to share. It’s an experience that I had with an Uber I booked recently. I met this Uber driver who was extremely professional and maintained his car so well that it seemed like an Avis. The driver was impeccably dressed and extremely courteous. He called me the minute he arrived at the chosen point and when I sat in a car he is said,“Namastey! Hame seva ka mauka dene ke liye dhanyawad.” (Greetings! Thank you for letting me serve you.) It was impressive. He also informed me of my destination, of how long we’d take to reach, and the route he’d take. I was totally blown away. You’d know how the drivers here are right? I was actually astonished by his behaviour.
That’s not all. He had a newspaper in the car, a bottle of water for the passenger, some soothing music, an air freshener. He also checked whether the temperature of the air-conditioner was good enough.
Vivek: Wow! That seems like a very personalised experience. That’s as good as a personal chauffeur, right?
Sonia: Indeed. I thought that this guy couldn’t be real! Being from the customer service industry, I myself have laid down some ground rules for the drivers who pick our customers from airports in terms of how they must be dressed and the amenities that the car must have. This driver did exactly whatever was required. Hats off to him!
Vivek: Wonderful! I can imagine how happy this experience would have made you. So, Sonia, in your career as a CX professional, what was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Sonia: My biggest challenge was foraying into the pharmaceutical industry from the aviation industry – two industries as different as chalk and cheese. Fitting into the pharmaceutical industry and gaining acceptance were perhaps amongst the biggest challenges for me, initially.
I overcame this step by step. My first year was spent in understanding the organization, making observations about what needs to be done, implementing good practices, and, finally, rolling out customer centricity in the company. In a company as diverse as Piramal, with 12 sites spread across continents and several business functions, changing the mindset of people was a huge challenge. Initially, it was assumed that CX was just a wave that will fade away with time. So, the first step was to bring the entire leadership team on board; we do know how CX follows a top-down approach and, therefore, it is pivotal that the top management endorses the initiative from day one. At Piramal, I had the support of our CEO and CFO, but the bigger task was to make the entire organization aware of this process. A series of leadership meets were conducted where the entire focus was on helping everyone understand what customer centricity is, why it is important for Piramal Pharma, and how it will add value to the organization in future. The mission of Piramal was understood: we did not want to be just a low-cost company. We wanted to be a capable company where customers come because of the superior customer experience and the quality of the products. Our CEO, in all his communication across the company, highlighted customer centricity as the way forward and used examples of how our good service towards our customer created a long-lasting impression on them.
So, eventually all the leaders connected and understood the importance of this initiative. Next, we mapped the entire customer journey at each of the 12 sites to identify the current customer and business issues and, subsequently, every site undertook projects to help enhance customer experience. Gradually, the positive changes were seen: things changed, the way we handled customer visits at our site changed.
Today, even the kind of presentations we do are customer-centric: we do not believe in just showing our customers what we do; rather, we show how we could benefit them by customizing our solutions. A testimony to this is a recently held DCAT event in New York, where each and every one of our key customers said that CX is the key differentiator for Piramal.
Customers found that the way we follow up with them is immensely valuable. We conduct yearly customer surveys and follow closed-loop feedback process: it’s never about just taking the survey; what is more important comes after – connecting to customers and understanding how we can improve our services. The customers valued this very much.
We are the first pharmaceutical company to have added Net Promoter Score in Pharmaceutical Contract Development and Manufacturing Organisation (CDMO) business. We do an extensive analysis for each of our sites on how customers have rated us and, as an organisation, are aggressive about turning passives and detractors to promoters. To add to the NPS, Piramal was also the first to introduce Customer Effort Score (CES) to measure how easy the Piramal team made it for the customer to handle an issue.
Vivek: To summarise, when you started at Piramal, your initial challenge was to get senior leadership and the internal stakeholders on board to show them the value of CX. How you overcame that is by conducting various leadership workshops plus by putting in several measurement metrics such as NPS and CES, which started showing quantitatively where Piramal stood and what it needed to do. Finally, you were declaring to your customers that centricity is crucial to brand Piramal, which, in turn, created more trust between the brand and the customer. Is that correct?
Vivek: My next question for you is this, Sonia. You have actively said that customer centricity must be the DNA of the company. How do you think this impacts the experience delivered to the customer in a company? And what would be your suggestions to help a company build that kind of culture?
Sonia: The first thing I believe that any company needs to do is to understand who its customer is. This is something that should be understood by each and every member of the organisation. This is exactly what we did at Piramal. We helped everyone understand that although we are making API’s and formulations for Big Pharma companies, these are actually being developed into medicines that are used by patients. This approach helped us comprehend that our final customers were not just big pharmaceutical companies but the patients who are using our products. Our CEO communicated this message to everyone that their roles could save human lives and hence they were as important as doctors, who wouldn’t be able to save lives without the medicines we manufacture. In this manner, we inculcated in the employees a sense of ownership to deliver the product on time, to be transparent to the customer, and to proactively offer solutions to any issues our customers might be facing.
Using the right message about how we are here to save people’s lives brought a sense of ownership amongst all the employees of the customer experience. Even with our Business Development (BD) team, we helped them understand that just selling is not going to add value unless the customer has a good experience. Only when they have a great experience end-to-end will customers come back to us, and, will we get more business from them. This is how the BD team also started seeing value in customer experience.
Vivek: In essence, understanding who your customers are and communicating the same across the organisation will help change the culture towards customer centricity.
Vivek: Great! So, following up from the previous question, what do you think is the need of the hour in the customer experience space in India?
Sonia: The need of the hour in India is to create more awareness towards CX. Many companies believe that customer experience is just a department. Because of this attitude, CX takes the first brunt of the budget cuts in most organisations. Unfortunately, that is such a wrong attitude. On the contrary, just like so many other research papers show, improving CX is the only way forward. To resolve this in India specially, I believe that we must have more forums and seminars to educate more professionals about customer experience. Today in India, on the scale of 1-10, we are only 4 or 5 with the acceptance of customer experience. We need to be more involved and the need of the hour is to spread this message.
Vivek: So, you are saying that I should be doing more such interviews and editorials so that people like you can educate us.
Vivek: Sonia, coming from the diverse experience that you have, what are the key differences in customer expectations between B2C and B2B?
Sonia: I think they are just the same, Vivek. There is this perception that B2B and B2C are different, but the customer actually expects the same thing in both. Customers want you to be absolutely transparent, provide a great quality product, an on-time delivery, and a perfect service at the end.
For instance, let’s compare a B2C online Amazon with a B2B Piramal Pharma at different points in the customer journey. Firstly, in both, the customer expects the right products and the right quality of the product. Secondly, once the customer has placed the order, he expects a timely update. Finally, if the received product is poor in quality, he expects it to be replaced. It is exactly the same thing in the B2B industry.
Vivek: That’s an interesting outlook! So, you are saying that essentially, customer expectations are the same as we are dealing with people.
Vivek: Such a great answer Sonia. Thanks for that.
Now moving on, we hear many stories where companies have gone over-the-top to delight the customers. While it is great for customer experience, it is also a cost to the company. How do you think we can make CX initiatives worth the cost and the effort? Also, what kind of ROI must the senior management look for in investing in customer centricity?
Sonia: For me, going over the top might not help. Think of it, if you spend your entire budget for CX initiatives in a year but you fail to follow up on that, it is pointless. So, I think you must start with small steps. First of all, you identify where the gaps are, then identify what the customer wants and accordingly, plan your process. Rather than investing in everything, invest in wherever you see a value-add from the customer’s perspective.
Additionally, building a customer experience function in the company is critical. Setting up a CX function shows that the leadership truly believes in this and the customers also get a clear message that their experience is important to the company. With the CX team, the customers also get someone who would listen to them. So, I’d say that investing in this CX function and investing trust and ownership in it is crucial but you must not overstretch on the budget. You have to balance it out. It is important to build a robust company and show the management the value of customer experience. Today, when we show the worth of CX, the management is willing to invest more.
It’s a journey really; it cannot finish in a year. Every year is a new step and every way is a new way. It took us almost 3 years to get where we are, but we still have the risk of sliding back if we stop putting the effort in being customer centric. At the end of the day, ROI is how many customers are retained over a period of time and CX helps towards the cause.
Vivek: My next question is that customer experience is a fairly new management thinking and there is a lack of specialisation in this space. I have also observed professionals, whose primary skills are marketing or customer service, see that customer experience is part of their key result area (KRA). What would be your word of advice for such individuals?
Sonia: Customer experience is different from customer service or marketing. To be customer centric you need to meet the functional, emotional, and accessible needs of a customer. Customer service is a department, customer experience provides a holistic approach for every department to provide a delightful end to end journey to customers.Today in our company, customer experience is part of everybody’s key result area: it’s part of the KRA of business development, the CFO, the finance team, the marketing team, the site head, and the production head. So, customer centricity is part of everyone’s KRA; however, we have Customer Experience team to lead this initiative.
Vivek: What about professionals who are looking at specialising in customer experience. What would be your word of advice for them?
Sonia: They should give the CCXP exam, which stands for Certified Customer Experience Professional. I am certain that it will enhance our value in the industry. Today we also have a CX University in Delhi, affiliated to the one in the US, which is creating more awareness in this direction.
Vivek: Right, so some formal training and education around this management thinking is important.
Sonia: Correct, yes.
Vivek: My last question is what books on customer experience would you recommend for our audience to help them be successful CX professionals?
Sonia: I’d highly recommend the Chief Customer Officer, and Chief Customer Office 2.0 by Jeanne Bliss. Additionally, one can visit CXPA website, blogs of Temkin Group and Clear Action are also great resources to learn from. Ian Golding is in the process of publishing a book on Customer Experience; I reckon that is something to watch out for.
Vivek: Thank you so much for your time, Sonia. I can see that there are so many nuggets of gold in our talk. I am sure our readers would love this!
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