From CTO to CX Industry Analyst: An In-depth Conversation with Mark Hillary

Mark Hillary is a British/Irish writer and analyst based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is a former technology director turned communication adviser, writing books and blogs on technology, work, and globalization. He continues to write books on the future of technology and CX, contribute to media debate, advises corporate leaders, and ghost-writes content for several leading global CEOs.

Listen to the full interview here

Hey, Mark. Thanks for joining me. Do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance? 

Yeah, there’s no problem. 

Excellent. You have a unique view on the CX industry as a former technology director. You now work predominantly as a communication advisor due to your experience writing books and blogs on technology work and globalization for notable media outlets like Huffington Post and the BBC. Can you give our readers and our listeners today, a little more insight into your background, where you started and how you got to where you are today?  

Yeah. Thanks Hailey. And it’s great to be here. Thanks for the invite. I mean, it’s a sort of circuitous journey that I’ve taken because I started out, I originally studied computer science and then my first job was as a coder with Siemens. So I wrote a whole bunch of software, mostly retail software, stuff like checking your credit card and things like that. But over time, I moved into banking technology, I rose up the ranks and I ended up running all of the trading technology for a big French bank. And then after that job, I ran European technology for an American bank. So, I was kind of involved mainly in technology management. 

That got me into working with a lot of suppliers, you know, sort of in ITO and BPO. So I got a lot of experience working with many of the companies that we sort of talk about today in the CX space. But at one point, I spent time setting up a facility over in India for software development, and I found that not many people had really written stuff about this process, the whole outsourcing. I mean, this is around the time of the millennium, when so many companies were moving off to India, whether it was contact centers or IT development. And so I just wrote a book about the whole process and how do companies go about managing this entire process? 

The book did really well. There was the Financial Times and other big business journals reviewed it well, and I just sort of had a moment where I thought, okay, I’m just going to become a writer. I don’t want to get up early and go to the bank every morning. It’s taken time, but yeah, eventually I kind of moved into an environment where I’ve written 20 books about technology now. So, now my time is kind of split between new books that I’m working on, the media worked like commentary analysis and also helping corporate clients. I do a lot of ghostwriting and stuff like that as well. 

It’s so interesting Mark, you and I have known each other for quite some time, so when I found out that you had been so heavily involved in being a technology director and that space early on in your career, I found it so interesting. And then it made so much sense as to why you write so well on the subject. In that same realm as we move forward with our interview, can you share a little more about your day-to-day role and responsibilities, particularly apart from your writing, how you advise senior leaders in the customer experience realm. 

Normally the work that I’m doing, yeah, it does sort of split between my own personal pet sort of projects, the latest book I’m working on or something, and the kind of working with industry leaders. And that goes in one of two ways. Either it’s analysis work, where I’m actually working on specific projects or problems or analyzing maybe a different market or something like that, or it can be what you might think of more as like sales or marketing. Where I’m helping the leader themselves to sort of present their views in a better way. Because let’s face it, most sales directors or chief executives, they don’t have any time to write anything. So I’ll talk to senior leaders, find out what they’re thinking about, and then I will give them articles and white papers and stuff that actually kind of, it repeats back what they’re saying, but I just kind of add the gloss to it. 

That’s great and so helpful, especially it’s hard when to find that time as a senior leader to write, even though they have such great ideas. And I know from my experience of working from you in the past, what an incredible job you’ve done writing articles for organizations I’ve worked for. That brings me to my next question. Throughout your impressive career, and now specifically with the knowledge of your great background in technology in the CX space, what are the main pain points you’ve seen with contact center technology? Specifically the technology used to aid in customer service. 

Yeah. I mean, I suppose one of the recurring themes is the sort of rush to use tech to replace something or to reduce costs immediately. And a great example of this is where we’ve seen the growth and use of chatbots to prevent contact with a contact center. So, instead of presenting the technology as a solution that adds value, it’s quite often just being presented as a sort of cost reduction strategy because we can deflect away from having to pay for contact center agents. So, I think that’s been definitely one of the key sort of pain points that I’ve seen over the past few years with tech in contact centers and customer experience. 

Do you think it’s fair to say that we saw this big drift away from making customer service more personal, more human, and now we’re seeing the pendulum swing back to being more of a human-focused? 

Yeah, I think that, I mean, on that example of like the chatbots clearly, we swung away from the personal and the human touch and felt that the technology was going to offer an immediate replacement. We can reduce the headcount in the contact center because the chatbots should be able to handle all the simple questions. And then we found that actually the way that many of these tools were implemented, didn’t actually work very well and led to a real reduction and creating a poor customer experience. But I think that technologies like this, you are a contact center technology company, so you must experience this all the time. A lot of it is around the implementation and the appreciation of what the tools can actually do, because when you apply them in the right way, then they can actually work. I had a guest recently on my CX Files podcast talking about chatbots, and she gave a fantastic example of a travel company that once the contact center with the human sort of shuts down at the end of the day, the chatbots takeover, but the chatbots, they don’t even make an attempt to replace the human interaction. What they do is basically say, look, tell us what you’re interested in, tell us when you’re interested in travel, and we’re going to take all your details and then we’re going to feed that to an agent. What time do you want them to call you tomorrow? 

And so, that’s a much better way to sort of approach the problem because a chatbot gathering basic information like your name and phone number, when you’re interested in traveling, that’s simple and that’s exactly what a bot can do well. So I think that that’s where, where we’re starting to see this. The pain points are really around using the technologies in the wrong way. 

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Yeah. I think that’s exactly what we focus on here too, is the implementation oftentimes is where things get lost in translation. You have a company that goes in and they implement, but then they never follow back to see how it’s going. I like that about certain technologies, certain software in the industry right now, where the implementation of the software is done hand-in-hand with the software company, and then they take you through the journey too. So, when the pain points do arise with that software, the company’s there to either make changes in their software and improve, or that they can be there to hold your hand through making it work for you for the contact center specifically. 

We’ll get back to the questions I had for you. So we’re talking about how technology has changed or impacted the industry, maybe negatively with the chatbot. That implementation doesn’t always work out with this specific situation they’re needed for. But the question I have is what are some examples of how technology has changed or impacted the industry both negatively and positively? So perhaps we can focus more on the positive. 

Yeah, I mean, as I mentioned, yeah, just briefly, I suppose the negative side is that a lot of technologies just haven’t been well implemented and not thought through. So we can sort of park that I think, because I think that applies across many different technologies that have been tested and tried and either rolled out too early or just not thought through correctly. But on the positive side, I think that we’re actually seeing a wave of different emerging technologies throughout the industry that are helping, I think, to bring brands and customers closer together. 

And you can look at various specific areas such as data analytics, big data, being able to study patterns within data, using artificial intelligence or using machine learning to actually gather up every customer interaction, and remember the original problem and the solution. So if you imagine over time, your contact centers recording all this information about what are the paths from a problem to a solution. It basically gives the intelligence across every agent. So instead of an individual agent building up experience over time, you should be able to share that knowledge throughout the contact center. 

So I think that we’re seeing various technologies like this really helping, both improve the life of the agent through automation, making it much easier to get data moving from one system to another, as well as things like next best action. An AI system listening to the call and suggesting to the agent, I’m 99% certain, this is the document you need to show to the customer. This kind of thing really helps the agents. It’s improving their life, making the work easier for them. As well as on the other side, with the customers. I mean, things like using analytics to study what customers like and don’t like, and when they prefer to come shopping, what channels they prefer to use. I mean, all of this just makes the relationship between the brand and the customer closer and easier to manage. 

I love that you talked about making the agent’s job easier. Oftentimes the agent is the face of the company, the only touchpoint they have with a real human being within the organization. And so their satisfaction and happiness should really be something we focus on. And so I love that you spoke about that, which brings me to my next question. What is something that you wish more people understood about contact center processes, best practices and technology? 

Well, I’ll pick up on that point that you just made there immediately, because I think that if you can’t focus on the employee or the agent experience, then you’re not going to deliver a great customer experience anyway. If your agents are sitting there just watching the clock, waiting for the end of their shift, swearing under their breath because they have to do basic things like cut and paste a customer number from one application to another, then yeah, you’re not going to deliver great CX. So, using tech to improve the life of the agent is kind of fundamental because then you can focus on the CX side of this as well. 

I think that what’s very interesting in the contact center space is how we’re seeing so many different emerging technologies being proven on CX. The interface between brands and customers is really like a proving ground for things like chatbots, robotic process automation, natural language processing, being able to understand what customers say and then act on it immediately and all these other things I mentioned. Like analytics, AI, machine learning. We’re seeing all this stuff actually rolled out with real use cases in the CX space far ahead of many other industries. And I think that that’s really interesting. 

I think that if you look back at how people outside of the industry traditionally looked at contact centers, then it was just a customer calling about a product after they’ve purchased it. It was all about a complaint or a problem or a question, and it was someone who’s just bought your product and needs help. That’s completely changed now. Now we’re managing customer relationships on a sort of ongoing basis. Someone may be talking to a brand months or years before they ever actually make a purchase. So you can actually have interactions with people who are not your customers at all. 

And you could ask, well, what’s the value in talking to them? But now you’re looking at multiple years and decades of interaction as the kind of the norm. If I’m going to build a relationship, let’s say I’m a car company like Chevrolet, I don’t want to just make a sale and then forget about that person. I want to stay in touch with them after they become a customer and make sure that they are a repeat customer over several years. So, I think we’re seeing the customer service process become much more attached to the total lifetime value of the customer, rather than all the traditional metrics we see, which are only ever focused on those individual calls. 

You mentioned something about all these different technologies that we’re now using, all these flashy acronyms, RPA, and things like that. I think I’m going a bit off-script here, Mark, but we now are seeing that people thought RPA was going to be the end all be all. It came on and we’ve thought, oh, there we go. We’re going to let robots take over some of this heavy lifting for us in the CX world. What is your opinion on that? I think from my experience in the industry, what we’re seeing is we’re more of this people, process, and technology such as RPA starting to work together. What’s your opinion on what we first thought about RPA and where we’ve gotten to today with that specific technology? 

Well, I think that you can take an analogy going all the way back to say the nineties and the introduction of email in most companies. And you saw an expectation that some people just had to learn how to use it. And some executives would continue to print out their messages and then write replies and expect the secretary to reply to it. We saw that again, really with social media where there was a wave of companies banning social media saying it’s a waste of time before they started realizing, well, actually, no, this is a great way to have outreach to our customers. And you’re sort of seeing that again now, I think, with automation tools where I think that we will start to see people require knowledge or a basic literacy of tools like RPA outside of the CX and IT industries. 

What I mean is, when you look at anybody in any kind of professional job often has to do a lot of data sifting, often a lot of repetitive tasks and searching around for information. This could be an estate agent trying to find the ideal property where they’ve got thousands on their books, or it could be a lawyer trying to find a precedent over decades of legal cases. I think that we will see many professionals in all of these types of different industries and professions requiring something like RPA knowledge as a basic skill. Just like you expect somebody to be able to use email without training today. 

I love that idea, that it will become the norm across industries that we’re not seeing it in now, but many. That’s something that hasn’t been brought up, so that’s great. Thanks, Mark. What career or practical advice do you have for people looking to grow their skills and impact the technology used in contact center management? 

I think this goes back to the point I was just making about how much we’re now looking at brands, developing a relationship over 40 or 50 years with their customers, rather than just thinking about the contact center, managing that sort of two-minute phone call. So, that then brings you back to, well, how are companies going to do that? Clearly, there’s going to be a lot of data management involved and data analytics. We’re going to need tools like AI to be doing stuff like searching through the information, finding customer preferences. So, I think you just need to think much bigger than well, working at a contact center is about taking calls, because actually there is an incredible amount of different technologies that are now supporting the connection between customers and the brands that are trying to sell something. 

And we’ve seen this over decades now with Amazon developing… Amazon is a great example because everybody knows that just as they’re about to click to buy something, Amazon will always suggest, here’s a special offer on this product. Why don’t you buy this because we know it’s something that you’ll like and probably find useful based on your shopping history? But now we’re sort of seeing this across all kinds of industries. And so I think that when you sit back and think about what are the kinds of skills that I need? Definitely that there’s a wide range of technology skills that you can explore. But most of those emerging tech skills you can see quite easily how they map back onto the customer relationship, when you just think about it in terms of the brand managing that customer over 40 years. 

Thank you, Mark. So now we’re moving into the part of the interview that I really enjoy the most where I asked for basically career advice for myself, but also for our younger readers and listeners. If you could talk to your younger self, what would you warn yourself or tell yourself to do differently in regards specifically to your career? 

Yeah, I was looking at this question that you sent me and I was thinking it’s funny because I’ve had so many crazy experiences because of, I’ve studied business. I got an MBA. I studied computer science initially and I ended up working in technology. I also started doing a doctorate in psychology because that was something I was really interested in during my MBA. I quit that after a year just because I found that it was going to be very useful if I wanted to be a teacher, but not for any other kind of practical application. 

And so I think that one of the things I’ve found though, is that with my studies, they were always quite broad. The MBA teaches you everything from marketing to accounting. My original software engineering course that, that I studied when I was younger, it basically just teaches you how to code and do things like systems analysis. So I think that if I was looking back and maybe talking to someone younger, I would definitely sort of say maybe specialize a bit more, look at what you’re really interested and focus, drill down into that. Rather than just sort of spending a couple of years studying very, very broad subjects. Because eventually you need to get the experience in more specialized areas to actually find the value anyway. 

I like that idea. I would say the same if I was going to speak to a younger self, I would say drill down a bit more. Don’t get such a broad degree as I did the same thing. As my final question, Mark, what advice do you have for professionals responsible for managing contact center floors and choosing the best technology to streamline their agents processes in order to assure great customer experiences? 

Yeah, I mean, I think that I would go back to what I was saying about implementation and also just the utility of the technologies that you’re selecting and trying to implement. I mean, first, don’t be influenced just by the stuff that you read in the media. Endlessly you’ll look at, you know, magazines like Forbes that say that automation is taking over. We’re seeing the end of the contact center and the bots are here. I mean, the Economist wrote an article about five years ago that said contact centers have only got a couple of years left. And so, don’t just look at the technology for the sake of the technology, but look at how it can be implemented and how it can improve the work that the agent’s doing. How can it make them more efficient? How can it actually even make them enjoy their job more? Can you use technology to actually make their life a lot easier? Because then you are definitely going to see a lot of value from that. 

You improve the employee experience, and you’re going to boost CX as well, because nobody wants to be sitting there just doing the same thing over and over again. 

That’s great. Well, Mark, that brings us to the end of our interview. Thank you so much for joining us and I hope to speak to you soon. 

That’s great. Thank you very much. 

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