Hi Michael, tell us about yourself, your background?
I started out in tech, specifically IT infrastructure, before transitioning to internet software development. In 2003, I started my first strategy and marketing firm. I was able to grow that to 18 employees before selling it in 2007.
From there, I was hired by a medical products start-up to raise outside investment capital, which I did successfully. The investor took controlling interest and asked me to stay on and run the company. Mostly it was using the investment capital to develop and execute the go-to-market strategy of a mature product. Unfortunately, after the housing bubble crash and recession, the markets for the product dried up, and the investor decided to close the company. I started a second marketing and strategy firm which I ran for three and a half years before selling the company and taking a role as the Director of Marketing for an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) company.
In 2014 I was hired by Salesforce. I was initially hired to manage one of the top five accounts in the company, but it didn’t take long before I was asked to help solve some of the challenges facing customers across the product and services teams in North America. That led to being invited to start and grow the Customer Experience practice within the largest division of Salesforce. After almost six years at Salesforce, I returned to the East Coast, and I am currently a Vice President of the SMA Group. As the Senior Customer Experience Consultant, I advise companies on improving CX efforts, building CX teams, and developing a CX mindset for rank and file employees.
Online commerce was booming in 2020, and so did consumer reviews. – How can brands better utilize this data to improve their customers’ experience?
The trends were pretty clear leading up to 2020, I think COVID just accelerated the pace at which commerce moved online. There are a number of excellent tools on the market that aggregate data, like consumer reviews, and help brands understand more about the experience of their customers.
These tools will give brands greater insight into the experiences of their customers through consumer reviews, social media posts, and even discussions about products and services on discussion-oriented websites and forums. I think that this represents a tremendous opportunity for brands to gather more data and, perhaps more importantly, richer data to help inform how to maximize customer interactions. What this also means is that brands need to get better about deciding what data is meaningful and how best to interpret it.
Technology has given us the gift of data, but it can also be a curse because the volume of data we are collecting can be overwhelming. Natural language processing tools can help mine consumer reviews to help CX professionals understand what is going well and what isn’t. I think there is a great deal of exciting possibilities in this space.
What is one element that must always be considered when working on a CXM (customer experience management) strategy?
Integration. I like to think of Customer Experience (CX) as a skill rather than a function within a company. Some companies create a CX team and think of it as a listening function. I think that’s the wrong approach. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to be listening, but CX is so much more than that. Customer Experience has to be something every team within a company is invested in.
The Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) was founded in 2011, that’s 10 years ago. To give you a little context, that was the year that the Samsung Galaxy SII (with an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera) was released and Siri was introduced in the iPhone 4S. In that time we haven’t seen as much integration of CX into core operations. There are glimmers of hope as some companies are beginning to think about CX in a more meaningful way, by designing their business operations around the customer journey. But we still have a long way to go.
As companies think about CX and their strategy, they should be considering how they can be more flexible to adjust to the changing needs of customers. Again, look at what COVID did for online retailing. Some companies experienced massive growth in online sales during 2020. Products that were previously sold through brick/mortar retail began selling directly to the consumer.
These companies had to be able to pivot, adjust their supply chain, and begin thinking about how to support and educate their customers directly. That’s a massive change for how a company operates in the span of 12 months. I think we are just going to see more of that in the years ahead. Companies need to be flexible. Integrating CX into all aspects of their business is going to be a big part of that.
Do you think personalization and customer-centricity are going to become increasingly more relevant in the coming year? How so?
Yes. Customers want to feel valued. There is a growing research that shows that customers are now making purchasing decisions based on far more than price. A brand’s reputation and its commitment to social justice are just two key factors that are becoming increasingly important. We know that consumers are willing to pay up to 16% more (according to research by PWC) for a better experience. This means that brands need to know more about their customers and how to make sure they are getting the right information to the right customer. It is going to put greater pressure on brands to cultivate and nurture ongoing conversations with their customers. The best of breed brands have already started doing this. This also means that customer experience (CX) teams need to think beyond the survey. Customers tell their favorite brands a lot about themselves while they do business with them.
The best CX teams are already listening. As the data is gathered, I see more and more brands getting customers involved in marketing, manufacturing, distribution, and even product design. Take, for example, the tik-tok video of Nathan Apodaca riding a skateboard to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” drinking Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice. Ocean Spray moved quickly when it happened, making Mr. Apodaca the centerpiece of a sustained marketing campaign. I think we are just going to see more of that.
This year more brands will move beyond marketing as they put customers in the middle of product design and development. The challenge many brands will face will be how to personalize the experience at scale. There are some companies that are already testing innovative ideas and seeing good results. Consistent with my answer to the previous question, the most successful will be those that are integrating CX principles into all aspects of business operations.
What are some of the ways companies can strive to eliminate the CX Gap?
Good data and flexibility. Change is hard for people and it is even harder for large organizations. I am sad to say that many companies, perhaps more than half, don’t even know that they have a CX gap. My experience is that companies, especially the largest brands, have trouble being agile when it comes to making the changes needed to reduce, or eliminate, the CX Gap. More and more companies are trying to be agile and I think you are going to see companies rethinking how they operate to make it easier for them to adjust to the experience of their customers. The ability to be nimble, embrace change, and stay innovative are all leadership challenges.
To answer your question more specifically, I would recommend that companies evaluate their leadership teams in terms of their willingness to be flexible and their ability to foster environments where teams can pivot as customer needs change. The best customer experience programs and teams are those that are constantly pushing on the edges of innovation. I am not just talking about product innovation either, I would also include innovation in business processes, staffing, and corporate communications.
The idea of being nimble also holds true for the data that companies use to understand the experience of their customers. Today’s data that helps a company understand customer experience is not the data it will be using tomorrow. Just look at how customers have moved from Facebook to YouTube to Instagram to Tik Tok and you see how that would impact the data that would be useful in helping you understand what’s happening with your customers.
The last thing I would add in terms of recommendations on how to eliminate the CX gap is the idea of cross-training teams and individual employees on CX principles, best practices, and thought leadership. I think you are going to see more companies adding customer experience competency to a developer, billing specialist, support agent, and so on. It is the next iteration of the champion programs that some companies already have in place. I think it will be essential for successful companies to do this. I also think the bar will be higher for anyone in a leadership role to not only understand customer experience but also be ready to talk about how the principles and approaches can meaningfully be applied to their teams or divisions. I am talking about CXO level and the next level or two down, specifically.
What’s the most insightful book you read in 2020?
Actually, I re-read “The Effortless Experience” by Matt Dixon and was struck by how much of it is still really important to anybody in a CX role now. While some of the book is call-center focused, there are so many valuable recommendations that companies can apply to all aspects of the business life cycle.
Michael’s predictions for the future of CX
What are your predictions for trends in customer experience in the coming year?
While social media has been the lifeblood of marketing, I think you are going to see companies keeping Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at arms length in favor of investing more money in tools and technologies that enable them to own, and more importantly, control the customer experience. A great example would be Lululemon, who bought Mirror in mid-2020, which demonstrated how they understand that long-term success is about being a fitness lifestyle company and not just an apparel company. There is value in curating a complete experience for your customer. For that reason, I think companies will start investing in tools and technologies, such as their websites, to bring customers into their branded and curated experience.
For companies not able to employ an acquisition strategy, I see more innovative partnerships between companies that can mutually benefit from working together to curate and better control the experience of shared customers. Social media gives the power to social media companies and, at best, is a place for companies to advertise and market. I see brands taking a page from the Lululemon playbook and bringing influencers into their own tools to offer experiences for customers that reinforce the brand value proposition.
Last but not least, what is your favorite CX metric?
Ha! I laughed out loud at this question. Mostly because I have written about and consulted to many companies about the importance of not getting tunnel vision on a single metric. My opinion is that there is no single metric that is the right metric. Each industry, company, and data point are different.
Executives and leaders that I have consulted to and worked for like to boil customer experience down to a single number. It’s a big mistake to do that. There is no one number. Internal business changes, market changes, as well as changing customer needs and habits will require you to constantly assess what metrics you need to be evaluating to give you the best chance at understanding the experience of your customer. Good data analysis in the CX world has to be multi-faceted, flexible, and evolving.