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Ever notice how "Customer Experience" wasn't really a topic of conversation until SaaS came along? It's true. The SaaS model gave companies unprecedented flexibility in offering better solutions for customers, and thus the field of CX was born. And Mary Poppen—author of Goodbye, Churn. Hello, Growth!—was one of the people who made this happen! Below, she shares this and other insights with The CX Lead.

Tell us the story of how you got involved in customer experience. How did your career lead you here?

I started my career as a Consultant focused on organizational development and business process redesign to help companies deliver a better experience to their customers and employees. I then moved into the technology industry to help companies leverage new solutions to improve employee and customer experience. I started in “Customer Experience” long before today’s understanding of the term.

I began working for SuccessFactors, the first HCM SaaS solution, in the early days, before Software as a Service was understood. As expected, the traditional software delivery of the on-premise days was applied to SaaS and sure enough the customer received implementation services and technical support, but the actual adoption of the software was highly unmonitored.

I like to say it was moving from “Building Houses” (on-premise) to “Renting Apartments” (SaaS). With SaaS, if you didn’t like your landlord or the apartment building, you could up and leave quite easily, unlike the traditional on-premise software deployments. SaaS changed the focus of software to become a customer-centric sale and delivery vs. a product-centered sale and delivery. It was an opportunity to put the customer at the center of the value proposition. This was the start of refining what customer experience and value meant. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in shaping and evolving Customer Experience from early on…and it’s been an AMAZING journey! 

Expert Insight

I like to say it was moving from “Building Houses” (on-premise) to “Renting Apartments” (SaaS). With SaaS, if you didn’t like your landlord or the apartment building, you could up and leave quite easily, unlike the traditional on-premise software deployments.

In which industries, verticals or sectors have you focused your CX career? 

I’ve been very fortunate to work for B2B HR SaaS software companies most of my career. They offered solutions that spanned industries and segments of customers. If you had employees and customers, our solutions worked for you. The depth and breadth of use cases depended on the maturity of the companies we worked with, so we were able to uncover multiple CX journeys based on customer company goals, product/service complexity, organizational structure, revenue model, etc. We created a continuum of services that could meet customers where they were and grow with them, which allowed us to package services in a recurring revenue manner according to readiness.

This approach allowed for a strong customer experience as we were able to provide what customers needed, when they needed it and often before they knew they had a need…true customer intimacy. 

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Why do so many companies struggle with making CX a priority? What are some common mistakes companies make?

One of the biggest challenges is to align to revenue growth. Customer teams don’t typically get investment and prioritization unless they can show revenue outcomes for the organization. Any organization who has leadership that believes new growth is more important than ensuring existing customer success is a red flag in my book. Both are equally important. Keeping and growing customers brings far more success at lower cost than focusing on new customer acquisition alone. This can help the organization grow significantly at a fraction of the cost and an added benefit are the referrals and case studies that are created by existing customers. Once you get a customer, you should focus on keeping them for life! This starts at the top regarding priority and filters into the culture of the company. In today’s economy, this is even more important…growing NRR through existing customers. 

The other mistakes stem from siloed structures that don’t easily allow for sharing data or resources and don’t align priorities around common outcomes…namely outcomes for the customer. Cross-functional processes and systems aligned to ideal customer experiences and direct voice of customers would unlock the potential of organizations for greater innovation, scale and growth.

You’ve been selected to give a keynote address at a major CX conference. What topic will you discuss and what major points will you touch on?

The topic would be focused on “Experience Management” (XM) as a centralized focus reporting directly into the CEO. I would discuss how to create a Centralized Center of Experience (CCOE); the focus of this team would be cross-functional and would target experience design, implementation, success criteria and measurement for all stakeholders including customers, employees, partners, end users, etc. to uncover innovation and synergies at a scale never achieved as of yet!

This team would partner with each function to define roles, responsibilities, handoffs, resources, enablement, etc. needed to achieve strategic and holistic stakeholder experiences. This would elevate people experiences to be at the center of operating cadence and would help the entire organization focus on unified delivery of the company’s mission, unlocking revenue and growth at an accelerated rate. I believe CX leaders are in the best position to expand the focus on experience management across all stakeholder groups given their experience aligning CX across the organization. Similar approaches and best practices can be applied across stakeholder groups, and synergies as well as gaps in experiences can be found from centralizing XM.

Have you seen, firsthand, any AI impacts on the practice of CX? What impacts are you expecting in the next few years? 

I think of leveraging AI in two key ways. One is tactical usage, such content generation. The other is in the backend, analyzing trends and patterns across millions of data points to raise insights customer teams can use to be strategic and proactive. I’ve had teams that leverage both. Both of these pieces have value. Both will help teams scale. They’ll also help create an amazing experience for our customers.

But these tools come with risks too. If you’re not giving your team any guidance, they might end up communicating in a way that doesn’t follow policies and protocols in terms of what information gets shared. An important part of AI for CX will be building guardrails and governance for customer communication. You’ll have early adopters on your team that love new tech and innovation. They’re willing to just turn it on and try it. Then, you’ll have others that will need more guidance. They want direction, templates. They need that to be successful. Most CX teams are going to have a mix of different appetites for innovation. You have to decide how far to let people innovate and create new use cases, and then create consistency as you scale.

What skills and abilities have served you best in your CX career?

I’d say curiosity has been a key to success throughout my career. Keeping an open mind as to what solutions will work best, what will bring customers the most value, what do employees need to be successful in order to wow customers, etc. have helped me focus on the right actions in specific situations. In addition, the ability to build relationships and collaborate were extremely helpful to finding optimal solutions and gaining buy-in. I’d also say a fair amount of tenacity served me well to push through challenges. Having a support system and my own personal “Board of Directors” was critical to the achievements I’ve had in my career. I encourage everyone to surround themselves with mentors and friends who can challenge you, encourage you and give you new ways of seeing the world. 

Understanding customer behavior and sentiment will be critical in a CX role. Focus on growing your skills in leveraging data to inform decision making and action taking and work to build cross-functional relationships across the organization so that you can be a strategic advisor and trusted partner in aligning the organization around key customer outcomes. 

When did CX as a discipline pop up on your radar? How have you seen it evolve or change over that period of time?

CX is still going through a definition phase. Depending on who you ask, there is a wide range of CX understanding. To some, CX is some variation of combining existing customer teams such as customer success, support, implementation, etc. To others, it is a newer function within organizations focused on aligning the entire customer experience across the organization. To me, CX is the experience your customers have with your brand, products, services, processes and people from the time they first learn about you until they become a customer and then throughout the relationship. CX is impacted by every employee in an organization and therefore cross-functional alignment of goals and priorities to customer outcomes is critical. A CX team has the opportunity to design, measure and innovate the customer experience in partnership with every function in an organization. This approach brings visibility of customer voice and impact to the entire organization so leaders can align and employees can deliver a seamless experience with positive outcomes to customers. CX can bring significant differentiation and growth for organizations, allow for amazing employee experience and engagement and delight customers in new and personalized ways!

What trend do you think will be most impactful in the CX space over the next three years?

Using data to predict customer needs! CX needs to leverage data and create insights so that customer teams can be proactive and personalized in their delivery. AI is critical to scale this and Customer Intelligence is becoming extremely important as a focus for organizations. After decades of collecting data on customers across functions, it’s time to bring the data together to tell a story on what drives customer success and double down on actions (across all functions in the organization) that will retain and grow customers.

In addition, the tech stack needs to align to drive a meaningful and value-added customer experience and outcomes for customers. Siloed data and processes are no longer going to differentiate the customer experience and create value for customers. The entire customer journey (from prospect to renewal/expansion) must align and be cohesive. Data and AI will help achieve this outcome. Customer Intelligence, applying customer behavior and sentiment to priorities and resources, will become more and more critical for organizations to compete and succeed in the future.

If there’s anything else that you’d like to share with our readers, please let us know! You’re welcome to share any “hot takes” you might have on the practice of CX, or anything you feel sets you apart in the CX space. 

I wrote a book entitled “Goodbye, Churn. Hello, Growth!”  to focus on the evolution of how far we have come with putting customers at the center of our businesses and what that means to revenue, employees and customers. Companies that still focus solely on revenue growth and product innovation without understanding their customer’s voice are missing the boat on the true impact of customer experience. When customers are at the center of your business, great things happen. The book is a guide for deploying a more customer-centric focus in order to create “WOW'' outcomes for your company, your employees and your customers!