With over 25 years in the IT analyst industry, Michael Barnes has been following the CX space since its inception. His deep experience with digital tools, and with guiding companies through digital transformations, lends an invaluable perspective to his customer experience strategies, a few of which we discuss below.
Tell us the story of how you got involved in customer experience. How did your career lead you here?
I’ve been an industry analyst for over 25 years, steadily evolving over the course of my career in much the same way technology decisions, influence and even purchases have evolved; from an IT-centric worldview to a business-centric worldview to now, of course, a customer-centric worldview. Extending the analogy between my career and most business’ view of technology, the real acceleration happened approximately ten years ago, when digital transformation initiatives really took hold. These digital initiatives (and the technology underpinning them), very clearly transformed how firms’ engage with customers, creating far greater intimacy, velocity, and most importantly, immediacy.
Why am I calling out immediacy as most important? Because it shined a spotlight directly onto CX, and the importance of consistently delivering positive experiences. During the early stages of digital adoption, IT strategies were still primarily focused on automating and optimizing ‘internal’ business processes and functions, and traditional marketing strategies were still focused on isolated campaigns and aspirational brand building.
But in a digital world these approaches are doomed to fail. Simply put, through digital engagement customers have more options; both an increased awareness of alternatives and the ability to act on that awareness. As the economist in me would put it, barriers to exit for customers in many (most?) markets have dropped dramatically. If customers perceive their experiences with a brand to be consistently poor, they’ll go elsewhere, no matter how effective or memorable a brand’s advertising may be.
And with immediacy, firm’s IT function must also adapt. It’s not enough to drive efficiency and optimize existing processes, firms thrive by embracing agility, and continually seeking ways to deliver value to customers. Hence the rise in CX as a business priority, function, and discipline. Since this new reality impacts all aspects of firms’ technology strategies, (not to mention their business strategies), as an industry analyst this is exactly where I should be.
In which industries, verticals or sectors have you focused your CX career?
CX trends clearly impact all industries, verticals and sectors, but my primary focus has been in a few key markets, specifically: financial services, (including retail banking, insurance, retirement/wealth management), public sector, (both state and federal), healthcare and utilities.
Why do so many companies struggle with making CX a priority? What are some common mistakes companies make?
Companies struggle with CX because it ultimately impacts all aspects of the organization. A few of the most common mistakes I (still) see companies making:
- Treating CX strategy as an exercise in customer understanding. Journey mapping workshops are hugely valuable to facilitate cross-functional communication and understanding of how customers engage with an organization. They’re also key for identifying customer pain points and opportunities to add value. But if there isn’t a clear implementation plan in place, and leadership support, for translating that understanding into action than much of the effort will be wasted.
- Equating CX to customer service. Improving customer service, including a strong focus on contact center experiences, is an essential part of any CX strategy. But it’s not sufficient. CX initiatives must extend to all aspects of customer engagement, from brand marketing to sales (both e-commerce and physical) to product or service delivery (supply chain, partner channel, warehousing, logistics) to traditional back-office solutions (billing, warranty, returns).
- Thinking the goal is always to ‘delight’ customers. Customers have different expectations from the organizations they interact with depending on what point they are at in their journey. An airline passenger may prioritize efficiency, ease and clarity when booking a ticket online. But prioritize timeliness, warmth and empathy when boarding the plane. Understanding how customer expectations may vary is key to positively (and cost-effectively), improving their perceptions.
- Leaving it to the CX team. Successful CX initiatives impact all aspects of the organizations. Hence all key functions need to be involved, both in terms of providing input into CX strategy and in helping deliver a positive experience. Even traditional ‘non customer-facing’ functions, such as IT, Legal, and Operations, are all critical to success.
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 evolving challenge/opportunity of customer trust. How to establish it, maintain it and strengthen it, especially given the disruption, concern and misunderstanding driven by AI-related news, capabilities and hype.
Have you seen, firsthand, any AI impacts on the practice of CX? What impacts are you expecting in the next few years?
The combination of Generative AI, Predictive AI, Machine Learning and Automation are already having a profound impact on how organizations understand, engage and serve customers. Personalization has become far more widespread, and more effective. Customer service staff are becoming more productive and knowledgeable of customers in real-time. Self-service capabilities (via AI-enabled chatbots in particular) are improving dramatically. All of these trends will accelerate dramatically over the next few years.
What skills have served you best in your CX career?
From my viewpoint three of the key skills are:
- Listening and collaborating. Different functions have very different views of the customer and how the firm engages with them. Ensuring and encouraging open and clear communication and action across traditional internal silo’s is a key success factor.
- Empathy. Every successful CX program is driven from an outside-in perspective, starting from how customers perceive the brand and what they expect from that brand. The ability to walk in the customers’ shoes is another key success factor.
- Pragmatism. As previously noted, no organization can delight customers at every step in those customers’ journey. Resource constraints are a fact of life, especially for smaller firms or those in markets with very small margins. Successful CX pro’s are adept at collaborating with key stakeholders to identify the biggest CX bang for the buck.
What’s the best advice you’d give someone just starting out in their CX career, or just starting to transition from a related discipline like call-center or customer service management?
Develop or enhance the three skills I’ve listed above. And immerse yourself not only in CX theory, practices and approaches, but also in the nitty-gritty of the business. Effectively speaking the language of the customer is necessary but not sufficient. Successful CX pro’s are practical business people, expert at speaking the language of the business.