Corporate mergers represent some of the most difficult and complex actions undertaken in today's marketplace. The bigger the companies involved, the more epic and convoluted the gyrations required to fuse cultures, balance sheets, operations, business processes, and brands.
Unfortunately, with the focus on all the complexities involved, not to mention the immense costs of such operations and the negotiations involved between the two parties, the customer experience can suffer as other aspects of business are moved to the forefront.
In recent memory I've had the opportunity to witness two massive mergers, and their impacts on the customer experience, simply because I was the customer in question for both.
WaMu > Chase
When HYDRANT chose Washington Mutual as our business banking partner, we did so, in part, because of the customer experience they offered. Phones were answered by real people, their branches were pleasant to visit, and mercifully un-corporate in both their architecture and culture. The web site, in particular, was generally very well designed, and quite usable. While we didn't always get perfect service from the company, we did always feel like we were dealing with human beings in a setting that empowered them, and empowered us as customers.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, WaMu was snapped up by J.P. Morgan Chase
, and the decision was made to retire the Washington Mutual brand.
Following the merger, I supremely regret not photographing the remarkable evolution of our local WaMu branch as a case study in how to obliterate a brand and everything it stood for. While it may be somewhat clichéd to talk about a corporate giant
Every week or two I would stop by my branch to find something changed. First it was the removal of the WaMu logos. Then the multicolored pendant lights were swapped out for blue. Then the carpets went to at monotonous gray. Then the walls were repainted and the open plan teller stations were replaced with an utterly traditional bank of tellers hidden behind a long counter. Then they were further separated from customers by two inches of bulletproof glass.
Around about this time I started to receive calls from chipper and overly friendly "business banking specialists" who always claimed to have enjoyed meeting me the other day (even though they hadn't) and looking to build a relationship with me, a valued business customer. I still get calls of this sort every six to eight months, as that is about when my local branch seems to get a brand new business banking representative. In the branch, genuinely friendly faces in casual clothing were replaced by suit-wearing folks who were clearly following the corporate guidelines to greet all customers who walk in the door, and say "Thanks!" to everyone leaving.
During this time, of course, the WaMu website disappeared, to be replaced by Chase.Com. From a technological perspective, this transition took place incredibly smoothly, with no loss of data, functionality, or downtime -- a truly remarkable feat of system and data migration. Of course, since then I've been stuck using a functional site that can do most of what I want, but a site that is horribly designed and riddled with usability issues (a redesign is in the works, and has been for more than a year). The site, too, both in its experience as well as the brand it conveys, has lost an elegance and a humanity that it once had.
So why haven't we switched banks? Two simple reasons: we're not aware of someplace that offers all the services we want at a better experience and a better price (devil we know versus the one we don't); and secondly that switching banks is such a phenomenal pain in the rear that we can't be bothered.
These two reasons probably keep many customers appearing "loyal" to executives who read the reports on churn in their customer base following such a merger and sigh with relief. But that doesn't mean that all is well. It merely means that customers remain satisfied. But satisfaction is no longer the standard for customer experience. It hasn't been for at least two decades.
Continental > United
I've been a loyal United Airlines
customer for my entire life. I got a frequent flyer number when I was just a child, and accrued
Experiencing the merger of Continental Airlines
and United as both a customer and a customer experience expert has been fascinating. From a purely operational and business process standpoint, the merger has gone fairly smoothly. By smoothly, I mean that in the past 18 months of traveling, I have experienced very little interruption to the basic service that I expect from the airline: flights that go where I want them to, when I want them to, without losing my luggage along the way. Just as with Chase's subsuming of the WaMu experience, the basic nuts and bolts of the operations have continued. This fact no doubt represents a herculean amount of effort from the companies involved, and they should be commended for a job well done.
But just as with the Chase merger, the way that the brand experience has been handled can only be characterized as atrocious.
Starting with the choice to literally merge the two companies' logos (the Continental globe and the United type treatment) the customer experience and brand expression of the company feels like it was cobbled together through contract negotiations. You can almost imagine the discussion in the board room as the two companies worked through things. OK, we'll get rid of the "U" logo and add your wireframe globe, but we're keeping the type (equally as bad a job as the new Microsoft logo, which has been catching flak this month). We'll keep our mileage plus program name, but we'll use your membership numbers. We'll take these pages from your web site, and merge them with ours.
The results have been almost laughable. The United web site
went from being one of the best in the business to having some of the worst usability of any airline web site I've ever used. The design language seems to change from one page to another, as it appears that literally entire sections of the United web site were replaced with the corresponding pages from Continental. The site's home page, for instance retains the old United.Com navigation bar, while the content underneath has clearly been pulled from the continental web site. I count at least 15 different variations in typeface on the home page.
But it's not just the web site. All sorts of things have changed for me as a customer, and very few for the better. Merging two of the world's largest air carriers and all their customers must, of course, necessitate some change. But as humans, we don't like change. Even changes for the better rattle us, as pretty much every major e-commerce redesign in history has proven (conversion rates and customer feedback often see a brief dip as people get used to the new site).
But despite taking into account my own primal reactions to change, things with this new merged customer experience aren't just different, they're worse. After buying a plane ticket online I now get twice as many e-mails with half as much of the information I need in them. The confirmation of my ticket purchase doesn't actually include the flight times or flight numbers. I have to wait for a completely separate e-mail to arrive that has that info in it. Dozens of equally small aspects of the way I interact with my airline have changed, adding up to a simple result: dealing with my airline of choice has become more difficult, and more unpleasant, especially in an age where I am encouraged and even required to process my relationship with the company online.
The Danger of Mergers
Very few mergers leave customers feeling cared for and more confident of the combined entity. The reasons are obvious -- companies focus on the core business aspects of the merger rather than the "finer points" -- but to the customer, those finer points matter a lot. Because of the disruption inherent in such large corporate pivots, it can be all too easy for executives to chalk up rockier relations with customers to the overall turmoil of the process, rather than something that could have been avoided. That turmoil can also mask the true damage that the experience can produce in customer trust, confidence, and loyalty.