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Igniting Performance as the CFO: Optimizing and Aligning the Employee Experience with the Customer Experience

By Ernie Humphrey, Treasury Thought Leader, Webinar Guru, Engaging Speaker 

The CEO walks into the CFO’s office and says, “You need to take more ownership of the customer experience and the professional development within and beyond your team.”

Even a few years’ ago many CFOs would have thought, and some still might think, is that the beginning of a joke?  CFOs are not known for superior soft skills or effective collaboration beyond the walls of Finance. However, the challenges and opportunities facing companies are ever evolving and complex, and as such the role of the CFO need to evolve in step for a company to deliver innovation and realize sustainable growth.  

The foundation of CFO success now encompasses the development and effective management of a high performance team. The CFO Alliance recently launched our 3rd quarter roundtable series Igniting Growth as the CFO: Cultivating a High Performance Team in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. We assembled CFOs, their HR counterparts, and performance management experts to explore and address the following questions:

  1. How can a CFO can collaborate with other company leaders to define success in Finance?
  2. How can a CFO identify the skills that the Finance team needs to acquire and/or upgrade to foster innovation and company growth?
  3. How can a CFO partner with HR to design programs that develop and reinforce key skills by delivering the right the employee experience at your company, and in doing so optimize the productivity of your Finance team by positively impacting the customer experience?

What does Success in Finance Look Like?

Defining success in Finance begins with defining success at the company level and understanding the key drivers of company value. For the purposes of our discussions, we focused on 3 of the top 4 drivers of company value as reported in the CIMA Study: Customer Satisfaction, Customer Relationships, and Human Capital.  These key drivers of company value may have more than a few CFOs scratching their heads as they would be looking to measure productivity (success) strictly in terms of traditional financial metrics such as net profit margin, current ratio, DSO and DPO and/or emerging financial metrics such as sustainable revenue growth, excess cash, or EBITDA versus cash flow.  These metrics reflect financial success, but given what impacts company value in the paradigm of drivers we described above we need to look a level deeper at non-financial metrics such as customer churn, average revenue per customer, monthly recurring revenue, employee engagement and human capital value added. In this new paradigm if companies effectively manage metrics that optimize the customer experience (the messaging and tone of each interaction with potential and existing customers) and the employee experience (interactions with co-workers, company culture, and every aspect of the work environment) then the desired financial outcomes will be achieved. 

On the surface, impacting the customer experience as the CFO seems a bit of a stretch. Historically, CFOs have had limited interactions with customers, most often times only engaging them when there are issues to be resolved relative to accounts receivable. The good news is that CFOs recognize that they need to develop relationships with customers in order to better serve customer needs, manage customer perceptions, deliver value, and identify opportunities to deepen and strengthen relationships. There are four key avenues in which Finance can pursue to impact the customer experience with the goals of improving customer retention (reducing customer churn), customer satisfaction, and the lifetime value customers:

1. Ensuring the right systems are in place to optimize the visibility into all actions that impact the customer experience across the enterprise.

  • Integrablity of business systems - ERP, CRM, CPM systems which can include social features that allow real-time chatter within these systems.

2. Building direct relationships with customers throughout the customer lifecycle

  • Involvement beyond being the bad cap and resolving crisis.
  • Build relationships with CFOs at customers.

3. Understand what Customers Want

  • Work with sales, marketing and business development colleagues to develop communications and research strategies to identify and confirm customer wants and needs.
  • Work to understand what customers need before they even know they need it.

4. Understand the real value of what your Company offers to customers

  • Work with sales to create communications with customers where the customers communicate what they view as the value being offered to them. Separate the actual from what your company may only perceive of the value being offered.
  • Work with sales to effectively communicate the economic value of all dimensions of vale offered by your company.

5. Understand the customer experience from the customer’s perspective

  • Work with sales and your customer service to identify what customers believe you are doing well and why, and in which areas you can do better and why.

The challenge in understanding and impacting both the customer experience and the employee experience for the CFO becomes much less daunting if we heed the advice of John Hugo, Vice President, Financials Products, Workday, and former SVP, Principal Accounting Officer, Life Time Fitness) to align the customer experience with the employee experience. John conveyed that the alignment of the customer and employee experience allowed him to define and manage success in Finance during his tenure at Life Time fitness.  John shared that leveraging customer success metrics by defining a framework by looking at co-workers across departmental lines as internal customers allowed him to measure a key dimension of the productivity of Finance in terms of how well the internal customers of Finance were served.  I.E, what the Net Promoter Score for Finance for internal departments (internal customers) which included HR, sales and operations.  In terms of impacting and optimising the external and internal customer experience, valuable insights are found in examining the intersection of internal and external customer feedback. Aligning the quality of the external and internal customer experience fuels a high-performance culture within and beyond Finance.

What Skills Matter in Finance?

The discussions around what skills matter most was facilitated by sharing ten skills/traits that past CFO Alliance roundtable attendees and surveys have identified as the most important:

  • Interpersonal Skills / Relationship Building * Financial Reporting
  • Effective Communication - written (e-mail, reports) and oral (presentation)
  • Financial Reporting    * Analytical Abilities    * Problem- Solving
  • Tech Savvy- Acumen relative to financial systems and other key business systems
  • Leadership   * Innovative/ Entrepreneurial  * Passion for Learning / Embrace Change
  • Knowledge of Relevant Industries including Competitive & Regulatory Dynamics

It is important to note that the skills/traits were put in an order to facilitate discussion and not meant to be a top 10 list. There was a consensus that all skills identified were important, and discussions evolved to consider which skills/traits mattered most. Three skills that were identified as being of increasing importance were:

  1. The desire and ability to develop a thorough understanding of a business (inside and out, business and operations, what companies do for customers).
  2. The ability to communicate financial information to non-financial professionals
  3. A passion for learning and embracing change.

Skills Gaps in Finance

Conversations around the most important skills for financial professionals evolved into CFOs identifying what they view as the biggest skills gaps in Finance talent from their perspectives relative to their teams and Finance professionals who they had interviewed to join their teams in 2016. CFOs identified three key areas of skills gaps:

  1. A general lack of intellectual curiosity, resourcefulness, and almost an inherent fear of failure.
  2. Communication skills in terms of what and how information is communicated within and outside the walls of Finance.
  3. Analytical skills to the point of making the right inferences and recommendations. Inability to mine actual business intelligence from data.
  4. The ability to communicate honestly about the challenges they face and what they need to be successful.

Delivering the Right Employee Experience

What defines the best employee experience in Finance? This is not a “one size fits all” answer, far from it. The question should be framed as follows: what defines the best Finance employee experience at my company? That answer depends on the current personality portfolio of your team, what you want that portfolio to become (I will address that in my next blog), your company’s culture, the markets your company serves now and wants to serve in the future, the current and future skills portfolio of your team, and the current and future strategic objectives of your company. The good news is that there are dimensions of a productive employee experience that can be leveraged in customizing the best employee experience within Finance, which should share several characteristics of the employee experience for any company employee across the enterprise.

CFOs in attendance shared several valuable tips and words of wisdom for fellow CFOs to leverage in delivering an employee experience that fuels productivity in Finance:

  1. “People do not care what you know unless they you know that you care.”
  2. The generational demographic of your team must be keep top of mind (i.e., millennials. Gen X, baby boomer, Gen Z).
  3. Lead by example, remove the perception of Finance as only the numbers person, have fun, experience all aspects of the business, care about each employee and customers.
  4. Develop programs to train team members to communicate beyond the department.
  5. Always promote the team, deliver an inclusive environment, and offer incentives at the team level.
  6. Consider the dynamics the physical environment. Do you have remote employees? What are the impacts to team chemistry?
  7. Embrace the diversity of your group and move them in the same direction.  

The foundation of optimizing the strategic value offered by the Office of the CFO at any company is having a Finance team of high performers. The definition of high performance (success) in Finance needs to align directly with company success. The definition of company success is in a constant state of evolution. Companies of all sizes are realizing that company value in today’s world is driven more and more by the effectiveness of customer relationship management and human capital optimization. CFOs need to assess, adapt and cultivate the skill set of their teams to deliver innovation and fuel sustainable growth in this environment.  Finance employees need the skills and tools to thrive in a business environment of market disruptions and function in an environment which offers business agility, productive agility (develop and enhance skills as the definition of productivity evolves), maintain and enhance performance through changes, and ultimately help define the changes that companies need to make to deliver market leadership.  

CFOs have the opportunity to collaborate with other company leaders to develop the recipe for high performance in Finance, which can then be tweaked and applied to other departments to optimize performance across the enterprise.