Martha Soehren, the senior vice president and chief learning officer at Comcast, doesn’t balk at change. Instead, she has faced it head-on, changed her career to align with her passion and helped Comcast forge ahead.
People inherently resist change, just as organizations do, because there is comfort in the familiar. But Martha Soehren refused to be conventional and opted for the road less traveled, leaving comfort behind and embarking in a new direction.
After spending 25 years with the U.S. Army, Soehren did the unexpected. She left her job as an executive officer with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and changed the course of her career. She wanted her education — a bachelor’s degree in technology, an MBA and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies — and her career to be aligned.
“I wanted to lead a learning institute. I knew I loved the facilitating [and] the teaching, but I also loved business,” Soehren said. “To get a good match between my career goals and my education, I thought [I would] try the corporate world, having never worked [in it before].”
She jumped into the unknown and landed at an organization with a philosophy similar to her own: Comcast. Comcast, like Soehren, recognized the need to change and embraced it.
According to data and rankings, the communications company, headquartered in Philadelphia, had room to improve on its customer experience. Additionally, employees wanted to be empowered in their interactions with customers.
“From our employee pulse survey, we know our frontline employees want to make a positive difference for the customers,” Soehren said. “They want to please them, they want to be there when they need them, [and] they want to do things right the first time. But sometimes there are just processes or interferences that keep that from happening.”
As a result, Comcast engaged in a massive effort to change its culture to become more customer centric, first evolving the Comcast Credo to place more emphasis on its 24 million customers.
“The [majority] of [our] employees are on the frontline, interfacing with customers either on phones or in the home,” Soehren said. “[So] when I think about my philosophy and my approach, it’s about what can we do to help frontline employees develop their skills so they provide a superior customer experience? Because, at the end of the day, we’re measured by, judged by and our reputation rests upon the customer experience.”
As part of this shift, Comcast implemented the Customer Guarantee, which was rolled out in January and enables frontline employees to apologize to customers and make up for “less-than-favorable service.” As an example, if a technician arrives late for an appointment, Comcast would offer that customer something in return, such as three months of free premium service.
“As an organization, we’ve always had a strong [emphasis] on the customer experience, but our customers are demanding more from us. And we intend to deliver on their expectations,” Soehren said. “We’ll see things like missed and late appointments [and] repeat service calls reduced.”
Comcast’s senior leaders recognized that training was essential to making this initiative successful. Without it, the organization wouldn’t be able to execute on its promise. So in transitioning to this customer-focused model, all of Comcast’s 100,000 employees will participate in training that explains the Customer Guarantee, the new Credo and everyone’s role in this change.
Most leaders in the organization will engage in a two-hour instructor-led course that teaches them how to reinforce and motivate customer-facing employees. And lastly, all frontline employees will participate in an interactive, instructor-led module that explains their role and lets them practice it through role-play.
“We’re getting everything in alignment: our credo, competencies [and] training,” Soehren said. “It feels like we have a laser focus on doing everything we can from the frontline to senior leadership [to] improve the reliability of our products and services and enhance and improve that customer experience.”
No matter what, Soehren believes there must be a marriage between Comcast’s business needs and learning. If a solution doesn’t meet a business need, then it shouldn’t be developed.
“When I first took this role, there were seldom invitations to sit at the table with our business leaders. Today, there’s hardly a time when we aren’t asked to come to the table,” Soehren said. “We understand the company’s goals, and [with] every learning solution we produce or deliver, we show how it connects to [those] goals.”
When asked what her most innovative initiative was, Soehren referred to the action learning assignments in Comcast’s high-potential programs. In Fundamentals of Leadership, which is for mid-level high-potential leaders, participants spend time with children in the crisis unit at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. After that experience, they’re asked to design a community project.
“We’re teaching people how to be stronger leaders while engaging in this community project,” Soehren said. “If you’re going to grow leaders, it’s more than just growing them around the business. It’s about growing them within their community and making the community within which our business exists a better and stronger place.”
In the Executive Leadership Forum, which is for senior-level high-potential leaders, participants develop solutions to critical problems within their systems or markets. Comcast executives then review each of the solutions to determine which should be implemented nationally.
“They take the time to evaluate and determine: Is this something we want to scale on a larger level?” Soehren said. “We’ve had some significant savings to the organization as a result of that and implemented some nice process improvements.”
In January 2008, the president and chief financial officer estimated that the projects from that year had a financial impact in excess of $30 million.
Other indicators also tell a burgeoning story of success. The promotion rate for participants in these programs is more than 50 percent, and Comcast is looking to get that even higher.
“You can look at the return on investment on these action learning assignments and the promotion rate, and it’s telling us we’re doing a lot of things right,” Soehren said.
As evidenced, measuring success is very important at Comcast. With respect to Kirkpatrick’s Levels of Evaluation, the learning department does Level I measurement on all content, Level II measurement on all of its technical content and Level III and IV measurement on action learning projects.
In addition, Soehren said it is measuring missed and late appointments, as well as repeat service calls pre- and post-training to see how they are impacted. As an example, Comcast just rolled out a new program called Defeat Repeats that places an emphasis on reducing the number of repeat service calls and visits. So far, one measurement shows as much as a 30 percent reduction in repeat service calls since the training started two months ago.
“We work with our business partners to connect the learning data to key performance indicators where possible,” Soehren said. “You can do it in a general way, but we’re working toward making the data more specific.”
One goal for the coming year is further integrating Comcast’s new human capital management system into the fabric of the organization so employees themselves can manage their learning, their careers and their employee profiles from one location.
“While introducing new technology is always a challenge, it’s also a positive,” Soehren said. “If we move forward in  with greater usage and [employees] really understanding what’s in it for them, that’ll turn out to be a huge plus for us.”
Soehren, like many others, also is predicting a shortage of resources due to the economy.
“It [has] required us to look at the way we’re structured, the way we operate and the way we manage our resources so that we are smarter with the way we do business,” she said. “I think that’s going to be an ongoing challenge: how we, the university team, can better leverage [our resources] and work together.”
But even with the economy in a recession, Soehren still has a busy year planned with a revised trainer development program, a redesign of content for frontline supervisors and managers and a new high-potential program for financial employees. In each of these endeavors, the top priority is to communicate value.
“Each of our four functional colleges [in Comcast University] is focusing heavily on measuring and communicating our value,” Soehren said. “We’re in a better position to do that now because we’ve gotten processes in place, we’ve expanded our suite of software applications to help us in development, and we just restructured our entire team in response to the economy. [This puts] us in better alignment so that we can do more with less from a development perspective without losing focus on our ultimate goal of providing a superior customer experience.”
As she looks back on all of this, Soehren is happy she took the road less traveled.
“The rewards [of this job] are so often intrinsic because, when you’re teaching some high potential how to problem solve or how to coach others, you’re helping them help so many others,” Soehren said. “You’re not just touching that one learner, but you’re touching that learner’s [entire] team.”Filed under: Measurement, Technology