A Chief Revenue Officer’s Tale of CX, Demand Gen, and 2,000% Growth
By Ginger Conlon
If you’re not yet convinced that customer centricity is essential to business growth, talk to a chief revenue officer who’s certain that it is: Bill Walker.
Walker, CRO at Unison Home Ownership Investors, lives and breathes customer experience (CX). He asserts that, “CROs should be more concerned about customer experience to get the results they want. They need to be more attuned to the voice of the customer.”
During a recent conversation with MKTGinsight, Walker talked about focusing on CX and balancing dueling priorities during his first year at Unison—a year that the company grew 2,000 percent.
What drew you to Unison?
My background is largely in financial services. I’ve overseen acquisition efforts for several hyper-growth organizations, departments, and new product launches. When I was looking for my next opportunity, I wanted it to be a small company offering something that wasn’t a "me-too product." Unison is a completely different model for financing home ownership — without debt and monthly payments. Plus, I was attracted to the breadth of responsibility across growth marketing, operations, and business development.
For context, tell us a bit about what Unison offers.
At the highest level, if you're a prospective home buyer, our Unison HomeBuyer program matches your down payment, giving you a monthly payment that's 20 to 30 percent less than it would have been otherwise. This gives financial flexibility back to the consumer and stretches his or her buying power.
If you already own your home, Unison HomeOwner provides a way to access the equity built over time in your home. People can get off the treadmill of consolidating their credit cards, financing a home improvement, or funding their kids' college education, along with any other priority our clients may have.
In both scenarios, their home pays us when they sell it, or they can choose to buy us out at any time after three years. There are a lot of use cases that give the consumer more financial flexibility than the typical debt products that had always been the only available options.
As chief revenue officer, how does CX fit into your day-to-day responsibilities?
One of my top priorities is anchored around customer experience. We're a program that doesn't look like the programs that our clients may be familiar with – because we are not debt. For example, they know what a mortgage is, they know what a credit card is. They don't know what an equity investment is or how it works. They don’t realize how easy it can be to enter into a homeownership investment with us or all the ways that we can help them enjoy a better ownership experience over the years.
So, we want our consumer to be completely educated on how we're different than the financing options they've considered or used in the past. We want that information to be readily available. We want to give them as much information as they need, and we want to make sure they understand it before entering into a partnership with Unison.
At the same time, we don't want to be heavy-handed and have people jump through a lot of unnecessary hoops between engaging with us and getting to the finish line.
Balancing that is all about customer experience — especially because CX is such an important feedback loop to everything else that we do in terms of demand generation, onboarding, revenue, and managing the customer relationship after they originate. Understanding our customers helps us determine how we can give them the information they want, via the channels they want, when they want it, and in the amount that they want — all without beating them to death with it or making it hard to do business with us.
A lot of 2017 was built around trying to make that happen. How could we be accessible without being in the way? How could we explain things in plain English while being compliant?
I would argue that more CROs should be worried about the customer experience because if the experience is bad, it leads to poor outcomes across the company. Among other negative impacts, a poor customer experience is bad for reputation and brand management, hurts lead conversion, inhibits portfolio marketing, and limits the lowest-cost source of new customers: referrals.
How much of Unison’s marketing is in your purview?
We’re looking to differentiate direct response, campaign-driven demand gen, the onboarding experience, and conversion optimization from brand-building and the brand voice — though there is clearly a synergy among those efforts. Brand awareness and the brand voice are not necessarily activities that fall under “top of the funnel” demand generation. However, when done well, they will significantly enhance the effectiveness of campaign-driven efforts. Brand activities provide air cover for everything else we do. We are continuing to spend a lot of time on R&D for new channel, message, and product wins, in addition to partnerships and other initiatives that can fuel the next stages of growth.
How close is your relationship with Unison’s other executives?
Given the amount of resources and asks around our fast-growing organization for this digital transformation, it took making sure that all the stakeholders were in the room. This included folks from operations, legal and compliance, engineering, marketing and collaboration across the technology organization.
Let’s talk more about your first-year journey and your priorities during
There were several competing priorities that had to be balanced when I first joined the team. One was that we needed to drive demand so we could test the efficiency of our operations. Additionally, we needed to get the voice of the customer program going and get the sales team’s objection resolution and sales skills honed. Finally, we needed to test the digital experience that we were building.
At the same time, I was cognizant of the fact that we didn't yet have that great of an experience for a consumer to begin engaging with us; one that provided credible, easy to find, validation of who we are and information about how our products work, and delivered warm, qualified leads to our sales center. The first urgent need was to build out our digital assets in the form of an online storefront.
Unison had previously generated the vast majority of its business from people in the real estate ecosystem such as loan officers and realtors. I wanted to have a more balanced acquisition model that included direct-to-consumer efforts to complement and feed our existing referral channels.
What did you focus on to get those two priorities in motion?
First was proving that direct-to-consumer channels could work for Unison’s products. The DNA of the company had been that industry partners were really where our bread was buttered. Industry relationships are extraordinarily important to us and continue to be a huge driver of our growth. However, to complement our partner channel, we needed to launch traditional direct response channels along with an online experience to match our customers’ shopping expectations: 24/7 availability, easily navigable information, self-help research availability, and the like. A fully enabled digital experience is also the most efficient way to scale without hiring and training hundreds of call center agents.
We had to articulate a clear path for the evolution of the online experience; what each iterative chunk of work would be and how much further the online experience would go. To the team’s credit, there was incredible buy-in and excitement for the project, which enabled me to go out to a few trusted agency partners and build a low-touch skeleton site that served as a reasonable landing place for people responding to our digital and DM efforts — without committing millions of dollars and tons of internal resources to the effort.
We were willing to make the bet that it would work. We put a proof of concept out there, showed the wins, optimized, showed more wins, to the point where roughly halfway through the year it was obvious that it was working — that it was providing the feedback loop we hoped for.
From there, we were able to use more and more internal company resources to build out the content, web experience, and marketing channels.
What changed in terms of technology during this year-long evolution?
Once we established that there was an interest in responding to our marketing efforts and learning about our products online, we took the experience even deeper. Now, for example, we have APIs that access our proprietary investment management database along with the credit bureaus to determine if, based on the address entered, we are able to make an investment. This allows us to get back to the consumer with more solid, actionable information. We're probably on generation five or six at this point since we keep adding functionalities.
We're continuing to build out the online experience. In 2018, we’re looking to automate more of the underwriting process. We want to use external data sources to validate prospective clients’ information and make it less incumbent upon them to provide documents, when we can validate the information via more automated means.
We've been deepening how far you can go in the experience, automating as much as possible, and everyone has been excited to see the progress and results.
What do all these changes mean from a resource standpoint?
It means that we’re now using internal technology resources as much as possible versus outside agencies. We’ve been growing the team to add experienced leaders in technology, operations, marketing, and customer experience to take it to the next level.
Within the technology organization, we now have a head of product and a head of engineering who cross the divide between marketing and technology. They happen to speak both languages, which is great for us.
From a marketing perspective, we've hired channel experts in DM, email, and digital marketing. We’re also hiring to staff our marketing analytics function for testing, optimization, and messaging.
From an expansion standpoint, I'm in the process of hiring a head of business development to help us extend our brand via partnerships. Even though we grew roughly 2,000 percent in 2017, we still don't have a lot of brand recognition outside the states we're currently in. Co-branding is a tremendous opportunity for us to leverage other companies' brands, distribution channels, and client or member base to continue to grow our own brand and acquisition channels.
Talk about how you’re measuring success.
Growth is one way. We doubled each quarter, quarter over quarter, throughout 2017 and the expectation is we'll grow another 6X in 2018.
The Voice of the Customer program is another means by which we will measure success via Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and employee satisfaction. One of the measures I don't have yet that I would like for our business is a customer effort score.
An example of why we would want to start measuring customer effort as part of a long, considered purchase:
Just over midway through 2017, we had a cross-company project that was originally sponsored within my team and ultimately delivered by our business operations group that sought to dramatically decrease the amount of documentation and “friction” required to obtain a Unison Home Ownership Investment. We thought, “Wow, we put so much information in front of our customer in the interest of trying to make sure they're making an informed decision.” The trouble is if you put too much in front of them, they’re more likely to simply tune out and not read any of it. So, we reduced the amount of documentation we were putting in front of our consumer by more than 80 percent without sacrificing their overall understanding of our products. We still present a lot of information and make our language accessible, but with 80 percent less than it was.
We’re trying to make sure that consumers understand the nature of our relationship, how we're a partner, and how we're different without overwhelming them with information. Customer effort scores will tell us whether we’re doing a good job of that. Are we making it easy for our clients to do business with us? Or are we adding hurdles we don't need to?
Listening to our customers — hearing the good and especially the bad — is what’s going to drive improvements. That's the data that gets us to the next level in 2018.
About the Author
Ginger Conlon, chief editor and marketing alchemist at MKTGinsight, catalyzes change in marketing organizations. She is a frequent speaker on marketing and customer experience, and serves in advisory or leadership roles for several industry organizations. Ginger was honored with a Silver Apple lifetime achievement award for her contributions to the marketing industry.