Hi Nick, tell us about yourself, your background?
I would describe myself as a lifelong management consultant although I initially started out working as a programmer in a systems integrator. After about 7 years of programming various types of computers, I found myself managing a group of consultants on a government-funded study. I spent a few weeks being thoroughly confused but once I’d got to grips with it I discovered that building up ideas and getting buy-in for them was even more interesting than technology and something that I wanted to do.
I spent most of the 1990s on business reengineering projects across Europe which, as reengineering was a new concept at the time, was pretty exciting as I think you could describe it as a voyage of discovery for both the consultant and the client.
I then spent nine years working for BT in a variety of executive roles and it was there that I was truly bitten by the CX bug. I was responsible for developing the strategy for BT’s mass-market contact centers – the customers’ first port of call for faults, billing queries, operator services – the whole works. At the time there was a big focus on cost reduction as the contact centers had grown in an ad hoc fashion over the preceding years and there was very little consistency. Part of our strategy was to rationalize and consolidate the centers but at the same time to work towards a more consistent end-to-end experience. That was a massive undertaking and continued long after I left.
For the last decade and a half, I have been working as a freelance consultant, specializing in various aspects of customer-centric strategy and change. I’m particularly interested in how companies deal with what you might call the margins: customers who have vulnerabilities or special needs and customers who complain. I think how organizations behave in those situations says a lot about how they deliver an experience for all their customers. Almost by definition, those areas don’t receive much attention – but they should.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve taken on a new role, alongside my consulting work, as Director of the Centre for Management Consulting Excellence. CMCE is a volunteer-led organization supported by the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants which is one of the livery companies in the City of London. (Livery companies date back to medieval times and exist to promote their professions through philanthropy and education, as well as providing opportunities for socializing.)
CMCE helps consultants improve what they do for their clients by introducing them to new ideas and research. We also help bridge the gap with academic researchers. We organize regular events to discuss consulting and business topics, an annual research conference and carry out research and surveys into various topics. Our most recent report is into how clients can get the best value from their consultants – a truly outside-in approach to consulting.
Online commerce was booming in 2020, and so did consumer reviews. – How can brands better utilize this data to improve their customers’ experience?
I think there’s still too much focus on numbers and ratings: the obsession with Net Promoter Score is understandable but it crowds out other ways of getting to customer experience. Based on what I’ve said earlier it won’t surprise you to learn that I think that complaints are an under-used resource for getting to customer stories. It’s important to be able to analyse this qualitative data to find common themes – but don’t forget about those outliers of really poor experience that are in danger of overshadowing all the good work you do on improving the experience for the majority.
Nick’s tips for personalization
What tips do you have for companies that want to improve their personalization strategies?
My starting point is “why do you need a personalization strategy?” – it’s still possible to run a very simple operating model where you don’t need to invest in personalization. There’s nothing wrong with a “one size fits all” approach if – and this is critical – you have a sufficiently large target market for whom that’s going to work.
I think that, now that it’s become easier to personalize the experience, companies will head off down that road without asking that fundamental question. However, let’s assume that you do need to personalize and again it comes down to working out what your target market actually wants – I’d express it as what outcomes they are seeking from your company (or as Clayton Christensen puts it, the job to be done for the customer).
Let’s take banking as an example: I have an account with one of the newer online banks that I use for low-cost purchases that pre-pandemic I would have mainly done in cash. From my point of view, I don’t need a personalized service but the bank will be able to harvest data from my and other customers’ transactions that will tell them about spending behavior which could enable them to develop targeted offers. They haven’t targeted me with any so far and I think it may be a while before we see that becoming commonplace.
Do you think personalization and customer-centricity are going to become increasingly more relevant in the coming year? How so?
I think it will be a slow journey. The pressures of COVID-19 will have made companies more conservative as they focus on preserving their customer base and workforce and emerging into the “next normal”. It’s always been tough for CX leads to make the case for what’s often incremental investment in new capabilities and COVID-19 doesn’t make it any easier.
Customer-centricity is always relevant but businesses have been slow to catch up despite there being many examples of companies who have achieved sustained high performance through focusing on customer outcomes and delivering them excellently.
Those benefits are there for businesses who pivot gracefully to a customer-centric model.
Social media pages have become crucial for companies in most industries, especially in eCommerce. What’s the most common mistake you see in a company’s social media strategy?
I think not replying to customer feedback on the page is still the biggest mistake. One UK train operator continued to post how well it was doing when customer comments about cancellations and uncomfortable seating were rife. It undercut any positive message they were trying to get across and made them look tone-deaf to customer dissatisfaction. Customers will pick up on this and it will influence their buying decisions. If you’re not prepared to respond then don’t use an interactive medium.
What’s the most insightful book you read in 2020?
It’s actually a re-read and a book that I’m applying to in 2021. “Beyond Default” by David Trafford and Peter Boggis was published in 2017 and is, in my view, the best book on strategy implementation that you can find. The basic idea is that organizations have a trajectory that’s subject to internal and external forces and, if you don’t have a proactive change strategy you’ll end up in a “default” future that may be different from the one you’d like to see. If it isn’t, then you don’t need a strategy, but I’d say for most organizations the default isn’t likely to be acceptable. The book sets out some practical approaches to setting your trajectory which is based on the author’s experiences with their clients.
I should state that both the authors are ex-colleagues of mine and David has now joined us in CMCE to help us reset our strategy. It will be an interesting case, I hope, as we’re all part-time volunteers in a non-profit organization so our strategic forces have both similarities and differences with commercial enterprises.
It looks like working from home is going to stay with us for the foreseeable future. How should Executives gear up to the changing times?
I’m a bit of an old hand at working from home as I’ve been doing so since 1998 although in practice it’s always been a hybrid model. BT was ahead of the pack in terms of encouraging home and flexible working as it had the technology to support it but what I learned from leading teams in that environment is that you need to find a way of replicating the water cooler or coffee machine conversations. In those pre-Zoom days, I would simply ring my team up for a chat even though that could occasionally feel a bit artificial. Now that we have videoconferencing everyone’s a bit more used to the occasional awkward silences you get in a Zoom conversation so it’s become part of the fabric of working life.
Executives are going to have to change their behavior, become more people-focused, and pay more attention to mental health issues. It’s easy for team members to become disconnected and isolated when working from home so even though they may be hitting all their targets you need to dig below the surface to find out how they are getting involved with the organization.
I think it’s particularly hard for new joiners who won’t have the traditional face-to-face formative experiences that build good working relationships and there have been some reports in the media of burnout for junior staff, particularly in professional services firms. That why CMCE’s April event will be on mental health and mindfulness – consultants need to pay attention to these issues: if they do they’ll be in better shape to deliver value to their clients.
Last but not least, what is your favorite CX metric?
I like complaints-related metrics, particularly if they indicate that the customer has moved from being a potential loss to an enthusiast for the organization. In my experience that’s something that companies don’t consider: once the customer has complained they’re – rightly – concerned with restoring the product or service and providing compensation but they rarely think about what it would take to turn that customer into an advocate.
I’m also very keen on the audience reaction to our monthly CMCE Showcase events. I initiated post-event surveys at the beginning of the year so I don’t have that many data points yet but one of the questions is “Did you learn something new?” – if the majority say yes then that shows we’re heading in the right direction.