Welcome everyone once again to the latest installment of our series of conversations with industry leaders! Today we are speaking with Brad Cleveland, known globally as one of today’s foremost experts in customer strategy and management. He’s the former President of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and author of Call Center Management on Fast Forward (the third edition, updated to cover today’s multichannel, social environment, was recently released). He is an independent consultant and also serves as Senior Advisor to ICMI.

I got the chance to meet Brad last month at the ICMI ACCE conference in Seattle, at his session on Contact Center best practices.  He was definitely authoritative on the subject, but two things really struck me. First, his session (and as a rule, all the sessions at ACCE) was supported by theory, but geared to real world actions – things you can do today to make your situation better. Second, he took a holistic approach to the contact center, encouraging Contact Center managers to include IT folks, marketing folks, and IVR folks(!) in the conversation about how to improve performance since these groups all need to work together.  (This of course, is the heart of Vision Point Systems’ VoiceVision® pitch.) We spoke at length recently about trends in the Contact Center industry, and we’ve excerpted some choice bits for you below:

  • When we approach a system, we approach it holistically, from the demarc to the agent desktop.  Our experience has been that it’s rare to find an organization that has one person who owns the whole system, and as such there are inefficiencies that come out at the integration points. We tend to see conflicts among the various stakeholders; they have different strategic goals and different priorities. IT may own the Telco vendor relationship, and an IVR vendor may support the IVR application, but not the contact center hardware, which is handled by another party. The Contact Center manager is focused more on transactions than technology, and more often than not marketing is affecting the contact center traffic without being part of it, and on top of all that you have C-level staff making strategic decisions. There are a lot of chiefs, if you will, and they’re not always in sync.  What are you seeing in your experience?

I think that’s a common problem. You need to have a champion who drives overall direction at the executive level; without that, you’re fighting an uphill battle.  After years of experience, I’ve learned simply to pass on the job if there’s not an executive level sponsor.  We’ve got to have an executive sponsor. That’s the number one enabler. The second is to have a plan that guides development. Some organizations do it well. USAA has it. Zappos does a terrific job with it. Amazon, American Express, and others that come to mind…. for the most part they generally keep things moving across the board. There are lots of standout examples out there.  They’re just not the majority, yet. They certainly make great case studies for everybody else, though.

The third thing is operations – you need to see these initiatives executed on the ground. Beyond executive leadership and a plan, success comes down to execution at the operational level. You have to have an understanding of how operations work, and ultimately it comes down to a lot of blocking and tackling in the context of knowing what you want to do. Those three things will enable you to create a better direction. Building a cross-functional customer focus can and does work, but it has to be a priority. Once you make the investment, you can move strength to strength.  Good customer service is tough to copy.  It involves people, processes and technology. It’s a differentiator and it works in your favor once you get it in place.

  • What we’ve seen, when we get the call it’s about improving a situation, but we find that improvement is impossible until the system is brought under control. We find for example clients who don’t have the Call Flow written down, and that elements of the system that we consider fundamental are not well documented.  So we use a two-phased approach: bring the system under control, and then and only then consider attempts to improve it. In your experience, how common is it to find companies like we see – out of control in the sense that they don’t have a strong grasp of what the system is doing end to end?

I do see that. Again, we commonly find that there’s lots of blocking and tackling that needs to be done before bigger things can happen. Out of 100,000 or so Contact Centers in the US, employing some 4.5 million agents, only around 10% to 15% are creating substantial value at a strategic (cross functional) level.  Some don’t create much value at all – they tend to primarily put out fires and keep problems at bay – while many in the middle positively impact customer satisfaction but could do so much more to boost the return on these investments.

We break contact center value into three levels, 1) efficiency, 2) customer loyalty and 3) strategic value. For all we’re doing well, there’s a lot of opportunity for improvement at the strategic value level, and multiple channels will only increase this opportunity. Social media is putting some healthy pressure on this.  It’s an exciting time. As a profession, we’re in the early stages of learning the art and science of maximizing strategic value from customer interaction.

  • In your experience, what is the biggest thing Contact Centers are doing wrong right now?

Not thinking big enough. Running operations in a vacuum and putting out fires. They’re providing basic service, but not seeing the higher levels of value they could be creating.

  • Let’s talk about mobile, as that was one of the hot topics at ACCE this year. The message at ACCE was that mobile is already here and customers expect it.  Contact Centers must embrace mobile and social and make it part of their strategic plan. The audience in general seemed to agree, but there also seemed to be a wide range in terms of where organizations are in the process of that implementation. What’s your perception of the industry’s move toward mobile?

Recently I was part of a planning conference for a large health insurance company. One of the topics was that their mobile app development and management came out of a different division than the contact center. So, with everyone in the same room, they were able to whiteboard how inextricably integrated these two groups are (or should be) in delivering service. Everyone saw the need to make a structural change to the organization. You can’t have areas in relative isolation developing services. Customers want transparent, integrated services – they are simply interacting with the organization, and not thinking of channels or departments.

[When designing a mobile app] a practical consideration for the Contact Center is what environment is the customer IN when they call. Maybe the caller is in an airport between flights, in a busy, loud environment which has speech recognition implications or touchtone implications. How are they needing to use the services and what’s a practical way for them to engage when they’re not in an ideal environment?

  • In a VoiceVision engagement, we would bundle strategy, IVR, CC, Social media sites, and mobile. We would put them under the same umbrella. However, historically marketing would own social and web, customer care owns the Contact Center, IT owns vendor relationships including for example, the Telco relationship.  There ends up being a lot of bosses, if you will, with distinct agendas.  What we haven’t seen much of, is the one single person with the big picture view. Is this the chronic problem? Lately people have been talking about a chief customer officer as a solution. What do you see?

I’m not such a big fan of the need for a Chief Customer Officer per se, if only for the reason that a customer-orientation ought be baked into the organization’s design and approach without that layer. If you were already paying attention to fundamental things like customer focus, you wouldn’t need that champion. That said, CCO’s can be very effective, especially when an organization struggling with silos needs a jump start.  I’m also a little cautious about a lot of the “customer experience” projects that we’re seeing. In a lot of cases they’re attempts to restructure an organization so that they don’t have different departments doing their own thing – which is fine, as long as it goes beyond a temporary initiative and becomes part of an ongoing approach.

In the end – and at the risk of contradicting myself a bit –whether it’s Chief Customer Officer, a customer experience initiative, or any other approach, I applaud whatever it takes to get everyone focused on customers and on maximizing value. [Laughs] Whatever works!

  • When we describe what we do, we never describe it as the least bit radical, a lot of it is what you’d call “blocking and tackling,” we call if “Fundamentals.” We’ll get a call about improving an IVR, and we’ll ask for the call flow, and we’ll be told, ‘We don’t have that written down.’  That experience has led us to always first assess to what degree is the system we’re being asked to improve under control.  Getting the system under control – so you know what’s supposed to be happening – that’s the first priority.

That’s why I think you are going through a great door. It may not feel ideal. We don’t get through ideal doors in a lot of cases. Why not start with how people get into the system. I think it’s a great place to start.