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HomeInterviewsCXBuzz Interview with Priyama Barua, VP of CX Strategy at Merge

CXBuzz Interview with Priyama Barua, VP of CX Strategy at Merge

Hi Priyama, tell us about yourself and your background.

I utilize design-led innovation to improve people’s experience with a product, service, or ecosystem. They may be customers, employees, or stakeholders. This eventually results in better business outcomes for my clients. I work in Boston as the Vice President of Experience Strategy at Merge, an integrated marketing agency where I lead a team of researchers and strategists. Our work is focused on health, finance, and consumer goods.

I have a master’s degree in design management and an MBA in operations and am a frequent contributor to thought leadership in my industry. In my past lives I owned and operated a design consultancy in India and taught at a premier design higher education institute.

How did you start working in the customer experience space?

A guest lecturer at my master’s program talked to us about how her company utilized human-centered design methods to improve patient’s lives. I was blown away at the empathy-led approaches at Mad*Pow and reached out to them for a job. With them, I worked with Fortune 100 companies in building a strong foundation of customer understanding, and helped transform their products, services, and business models to be more experience-led.

What do you think the top priority should be for a company that wants to improve its customer experience?

Build internal knowledge about the importance of customer experience. It should not be one team’s responsibility but instead be ingrained in everything the company does. In addition to awareness and knowledge, it’s important to decentralize decision-making and allow people to take ownership on the customer experience. Having blinders on often results in silos where people don’t consider the entirety of what the customer experiences in their interactions with the company. A customer doesn’t care about departments and lines of business. To them the company is one entity and should come across as so.

How can companies better listen and understand their customer base?

It is often an uphill battle for me with many clients to get them to understand that their perceived impression of their customer’s experience is not always real. I often hear “We know our customers and we know what they want”. This is almost never true or there’s significant gaps in understanding.  What ends up happening with anecdotal understanding is that problems that are outliers gain prominence due to their severity. This is why we at Merge employ trained researchers to recruit a representative sample of the customer base and find patterns and trends to uncover true experiential problems. We believe that people are the experts of their own experiences and if they’re behaving a certain way it’s our job to uncover the reasons and create frictionless interactions.

Many companies are currently undergoing digital transformation processes – what are your tips on a successful digital transformation?

Considering the employee experience should be a big part of the transformation effort. If this doesn’t happen, employees get stuck with ill-designed systems that are patched together. Far too often I’ve observed the need for extensive training, delayed go-live dates, employee frustration, and the need to switch between multiple systems to complete a simple task. Gone are the days of the old ways of thinking that internal systems don’t need to be at the same level experientially as customer-facing touchpoints.

What are some CX companies and solutions you’re keeping your eyes on right now?

Companies like Parsley Health and One Medical are changing the primary care landscape in America. They bring a modern healthcare experience to patients with physical locations that are well designed, seamless, and hassle-free patient communication, and the ability to get care when patients want. No more long IVR systems and being bounced around siloed call centers. And people are willing to pay extra for the removal of the experiential frustrations they encounter elsewhere.

One Medical is also especially outstanding because it built its own electronic health record (EHR) system. Research with multiple health care providers has shown dissatisfaction with EHRs and its role in physician burnout is apparent. One Medical built their system from the ground up and alongside physicians thereby truly meeting their needs. A better physician (employee) experience leads to a better patient (customer) experience. These companies have completely moved away from their category in terms of meeting experiential customer expectations.

Google’s Care Studio, although mired in controversy, is also poised to change the world of EHRs and eventually physician and patient experience. Keep an eye on it.

What are some of your tips for people who want to work in the CX sphere?

CX professionals need to know a little about a lot of topics. Read a lot. Listen to podcasts. Go to conferences. Talk to coworkers and people outside of your domain to learn about what they do. You don’t have to have a formal “CX” role to champion for a good CX. I’ve met many clients in marketing, operations, digital transformation who wear this hat and advance their company’s thinking.

Reflect upon your own experiences with companies that you interact with. Developing a keen sense of observation and the ability to impartially evaluate an end-to-end experience is key. Many job openings will look for prior experience but there are people like me out there that look for the right mindset and demonstrated critical thinking skills.

So many things changed in 2020. While some things are going to return to “normal,” what are new trends and habits you think will stay with us in the long term?

Agency work had a sharp uptick in 2020 with clients realizing the need to adapt their business to the digital first landscape. Even industries that relied heavily on face-to-face interactions have shufted to digital being the first and sometimes only way to make an impression on prospective customers.

2020 was also a year for racial reckoning in America. Businesses are realizing the importance of taking action towards equity. I’ve seen requests to gather more racially diverse understanding of customers and evaluate how that may influence people’s experiences. Since a lot of my clients are in healthcare and finance, the result of inequity is starker and damning.

Companies’ adaptation to remote work has also resulted in happier employees that are more productive in their contribution to the vision of the organization. Continuing to provide flexibility is certainly on the cards for several industries.

eCommerce boomed in 2020, and consumers started leaving more product reviews online. How can we make the most out of this momentum?

Product reviews are an important tool in the eCommerce realm but are often marred by bots and paid reviewers skewing the results. Tools like Fakespot have cropped up to weed out the fake reviews from the probably genuine ones. Companies should take stronger measures to ensure the veracity of reviews if they’re to gain from this momentum. What good are reviews if no one trusts them?

It’s also important to get smarter with mining reviews to surface why some reviewers left a positive comment and others left a negative one. For example, on examining reviews on some furniture I wanted to order, I found that most negative reviews were centered around shipping time rather than product quality. Since shipping time wasn’t as important to me, I could order the product without worry.

What is your favorite CX metric? Why?

This is too contextual to synthesize to just one. I think it’s important for anyone involved in CX to examine the end-to-end metrics laid out on a customer journey. This helps uncover the weak links in the experience and boost the parts of the experience that result in customer delight.

For example, If I’m looking at a call center experience, I like to look at how many calls were resolved in the first go. If I’m looking at a checkout experience on digital interfaces, I’d like to examine the task completion time. If I’m looking at returns, I’d like to look at the reasons for return.

Blanket metrics like NPS are often connected to teams’ performance evaluation but are over indexed in the sense that they don’t provide actionable direction on what about the experience needs to be improved.

About the author

Efrat Vulfsons
Efrat Vulfsons
Efrat Vulfsons is the CEO & Co-Founder of PR Soprano and the editor of CXBuzz parallel to her soprano opera singing career. Efrat holds a B.F.A from the Jerusalem Music Academy in Opera Performance.



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