Mothers in the small Swiss village of Bulach may have been wary of the man with a goatee staring at them as they struggled to navigate an ATM, grocery bag in one hand, fractious child in the other. But the man didn't care what their PIN numbers were or how much money they had in their accounts. He wanted to know, Why didn't they just put the bag down?
The answer: The bags were paper, and when the ground is wet—it rains a lot in Switzerland—putting them down means getting the contents soggy. Now, thanks to the man with the goatee, Stephan Kubler, the moms using the ATM at the Credit Suisse branch in Bulach can keep their groceries dry, by resting them on an inch-high grille.
Kubler spends each and every working day spying on Credit Suisse customers. He's part of a small team led by customer-experience renegade David McQuillen, a 36-year-old American who's challenging the top executives at the blue-chip Swiss bank to get out of their Zurich offices and—gulp!—meet some customers.
Almost every company has something about customer focus in its mission statement. Trouble is, the larger the organization, the more executives tend to insulate themselves from customers. Some rely on customer-satisfaction surveys and focus groups. Others simply assume that customers are just like them.
No, they're not, says McQuillen. And the problem with thinking they are is that companies end up creating products and processes that suit them, not their customers. "You need," he says, "to go out and talk to customers to find out what they want."
The "experience immersion" is his way of forcing busy executives to do just that. The two-hour exercise begins with a visit to three local bank branches. At the first branch, McQuillen teaches execs how to watch customers; at the second, they complete a typical customer task, such as exchanging foreign currency; and at the third branch, they're given a few questions to ask actual customers—by far the most intimidating task. Back in McQuillen's office, the executives visit the bank's Web site and attempt to check the interest rate for a mortgage or find out which bank cards can be used abroad. And they try to fill out credit-card application forms.
Each session, says McQuillen, yields results. Two of the branches visited during immersions are now being redesigned at the request of participating execs. Another manager, who was forced to cool his heels in a long line, kicked off a project to reduce waiting time. Christoph Brunner, COO of Credit Suisse's private-banking unit, realized that "in some cases, we actually make it hard for customers to do business with us. [I saw] that little things make a big difference. For example, just having signage that people understand. Having friendly and helpful employees. As a bank, we often think that only the financial products themselves matter—but there is so much more that goes around that."
The idea for the immersion came from a presentation McQuillen made in 2004 to 200 of the bank's senior managers. Most were paying more attention to their BlackBerrys until McQuillen announced he was about to make a call, from the stage, to a Credit Suisse service center. "I saw fear in their faces, because they didn't know what the experience was going to be. We have 5 million customer interactions every month, and I realized then that if our senior managers didn't know what was going on in those interactions, the CEO probably didn't know, either." In fact, Credit Suisse CEO Ulrich Korner appreciated the immersion so much that he instructed all of his direct reports to do it too.
McQuillen's team of five currently has 19 projects, as well as the immersion, in progress. Some, such as helping redesign bank branches or prototyping clearer account statements, have been sanctioned officially. Others are, um, less sanctioned. When McQuillen suggested asking Plain English Campaign experts in London to help simplify the bank's basic-account application forms, the bosses said no. So he did it anyway. "We do a lot of stuff we think is good and then apologize later," grins McQuillen.
"You can do this stuff in two or three days. You don't have to spend half a million dollars on research. Just go and observe."
He has also decided, unilaterally, that the bank should be doing more to help customers with disabilities use its branches, offices, Web sites, and call centers. The average age of Credit Suisse private-banking clients is 67—yet in conservative Switzerland, there's little legal compulsion for companies to make products or services accessible, as is the case in the United States or much of Europe.
So McQuillen made each member of his team spend a day in a wheelchair. Then he invited 50 of the bank's senior managers to an event in May during which they were made to spend time in a wheelchair, wear a weighted suit made to re-create what it's like to be 70, and eat lunch in the dark, courtesy of Zurich's Blind Cow restaurant, where all of the waiting staff are visually impaired.
Recruited at the height of the dotcom boom to help build a Web site for wealthy private clients, McQuillen was a hair's-breadth away from being fired after the bubble burst. But he hung on, convincing a colleague that he could help with new branch projects. Now, although still regarded as a maverick, he has freedom to take on projects across the bank. Customers seem impressed: "I don't understand [why] other banks have yet to do this," says a corporate client in Zurich. And companies such as ABN Amro, Capital One, Safeco, and Telecom New Zealand are interested in learning about the immersion process themselves.
McQuillen just grins and shakes his head. What he does, he says, is really pretty simple. "I'd like to make it sound like we're using rigorous science, but we make it up as we go along and stick with the things that work.
"You can do this stuff in two or three days—you don't have to spend half a million dollars on research. Just go and observe."
Ian Wylie is a Fast Company contributing writer in London.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.