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CXBuzz Interview With Tom Tonkin CEO at The Conservatory Group

Hi Tom, tell us about yourself and your background and how you got to the CX space?

I have been in the technology and services space for the better part of 30 years.  I currently have a few roles. I’m the Conservatory Group’s CEO, an umbrella company for several various ventures that span both high touch management consulting and online sales practices.

I did not go looking for CX; CX found me.  My view is that CX has been around for as long as people have sought a business relationship.  We make CX more than it is because we introduced technology into the equation, but I believe that technology is nothing more than a proxy for how we intend to treat our customers.  Thus, when looking for CX technology, my view has been to look for technology that correctly communicates my intention as to how I want to treat my customers.

Online commerce was booming in 2020; how did it affect brands’ D2C strategy? – What should be the primary focus for brands this year?

Well, it’s fair to say that in 2020, we didn’t have a choice than to rely on online commerce to survive solely.  As the adage says, necessity is the mother of invention, and we saw a lot of great innovative ways to touch and service the customer.  The social distancing paradigm challenged our business practices to best touch the customer, especially in sectors where connecting the customer was essential to the service offered (e.g., food service).

I think 2021 will have many of the same elements as 2020, so, given that perspective, I would suggest that we need to continue to hone our innovation systems.  Not necessarily the innovations themselves, but how we come about innovations.  In a more sterile view, the pandemic gave us a new set of constraints to operate.  These constraints led us to (re)create how we conduct business.  What if we could manipulate limitations to assist in innovations? Let’s start asking ourselves questions like, what if we couldn’t serve our customers in the high touch way we have in the past?  It would appear that asking ourselves these kinds of questions may lead us into new and innovative practices.  I guess I’m suggesting challenging the status quo and developing new processes to lead us to innovations.

Tom’s checklist for digital transformation

In your POV – What is the ultimate checklist for a good digital transformation strategy?

First, I look for short digital transformational strategies, literally.  When a client comes to me with a 64-page file documenting their transformational strategy, I don’t even open it because I know it’s not transformational.  To me, being genuinely transformational means that you are reinventing yourself, rebirthing your business.  Clients with heavy, bureaucratic processes towards transformation are drawing from their past, which is not a great place for innovative and transformative ideas.

We tend to look back a lot as it provides a level of comfort and removes the unknown.  It would be plausible to suggest that looking at the past for solutions may only lead us to the same place we have figuratively lived.

A good transformative strategy is short with simple steps but not too far into the future.  All audacious and transformative goals are scary, often unknown as to how we are going to achieve them.  However, I also believe that taking those first few simple steps brings us new ways to reach those audacious goals.  The steps appear as we continue to move forward.

How much has the CEO’s role changed in the social distancing era – what role has a digital transformation in this crisis?

There was a delay between events on the front line of business and how it affected those in the boardroom.  For example, this situation challenged many of my CEO peers in conducting virtual board meetings and other business gatherings under the pandemic guidelines.  This new challenge helped in creating an empathetic view of their organizations as well as their customers.  Though there was more ‘virtuality’ in business practices, some of these practices have been around for some time, and I believe that the CEO did not know how these practices penetrated their business in a mission-critical way.

As far as the role of digital transformation, I believe it accelerated the timeline for digital transformation.  I know that many of the practices that organizations installed during this social distancing era will remain post-social distancing, such as curbside service, home deliveries, and at-home services (e.g., car detailing).  These offerings and many other similar ones will be part of everyday business in the future.

What was the biggest lesson you learned in 2020?

There are two lessons that I learned in 2020.  First, that Corporate America is a resilient group.  When faced with these external challenges, it appears that we rally into new ways of doing business.  Maybe the alternative is not rosy; nonetheless, we seem to get through it and land in a better place than where we started.  Second, that we should not wait for external forces to motivate our innovation; it also appears that we tend to take the path of least resistance when conducting business.  I realize that friction in business is costly; however, it’s that same friction that brings about new and innovative ways of thinking about solving problems and creating new opportunities for ourselves.  Perhaps we can get in front of these external factors and make our future.

2020 was the year of webinars and online events; what was your favorite one?

As you can imagine, I attended more online events in 2020 than many past years combined.  I will say that events that mimicked physical meetings were the most memorable.  For example, I attended conferences that had virtual breakout rooms after the main session.  You chose which break out you wanted to participate in, and the system automatically placed you in that session. That saved confusion and technical overhead, and it created a pleasant experience (after all, I’m talking about it now).

It looks like working from home will stay with us for the foreseeable future; how should CEOs gear up to the changing times?

In my personal view, working from home (WFH) has been a long-overdue practice in business, specifically in the knowledge worker space.  We still have many ‘Taylor-esque’ (referring to Fred Winslow Taylor model of work developed in the late 1800’s early 1900’s) modes of working in 2021, which have no benefit in the knowledge sector of the industry.  I would suggest that it has more of a detriment to the productivity and performance of individuals.  Given this as the setting, applying these outdated models in a WFH scenario becomes counter-productive.

The question I have for CEOs, can you shed this mentality?  To shed this mentality, I believe we must do the following three actions.  First, we must empower employees, specifically giving them the authority and resources to do their jobs.  Second, we must trust our employees to get their work done and not be ‘helicopter’ managers. Lastly, managers and leaders must move from managing effort to managing results, especially in the organization’s lower ranks.

Last but not least, what is your favorite CX metric?

I prefer to rely on metrics that have anything to do with customer satisfaction or sentiment.  The NPS is one that I think gets overlooked because of its simplicity, which, by the way, is a trait of a good CX metric, the ability to implement simplistically.  As of late, we are looking to find better CX metrics, which I believe is a good practice; however, we must be sensitive to the ease of implementation, gathering, and analyzing the data.  The reason that big data and analytics have caught fire is not that it’s new.  We have been doing analytics work for decades.  Its popularity gain came from the fact that gathering and analyzing large amounts of data has become affordable, timely and has achieved lower data acquisition barriers.

About the author

Alon is a Tel Aviv-based CMO a VC Consultant and the General Manager of CXBuzz. As a veteran in the Israeli Start-Up scene, Alon supports b2b tech startups in capturing customers' sentiment and embedding customer experience in the decision making process.


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