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...
Peter Ryan is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts in customer experience (CX) and business process outsourcing (BPO).
Throughout his career, Peter has advised CX outsourcers, contact center clients, national governments, and industry associations on strategic matters like vertical market penetration, service delivery, best practices in technology deployment, and offshore positioning.
Hi Peter. Do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance?
You most certainly do.
Thanks, Peter, and thanks for joining me today. You have a long career in analyzing and consulting on front office BPO ecosystems, including contact center outsourcers, CRM technology players, offshore development agencies, and industry associations. Can you give our readers some insight into your background, where you started, and how you got to where you are today?
Yeah. I, like most people, fell into the call center industry by accident. I was working in a variety of different sectors when I found myself looking for a job in London back in the early 2000s. And there was a company that conducted market intelligence, business intelligence services that I was familiar with because I had used them at a previous employer. And I applied for a role. Within a couple of days, I got a callback and they were asking if I’d be interested in interviewing for their CRM team. And I said, “Of course. I’d be delighted.”
The first thing I did, this is 2002 or 2003, remember, I went to Yahoo, not Google, but Yahoo and looked up, “What is CRM?” because I had no idea. But I really found my footing with a great group of people at this company and, I think, really found an industry that I probably never would’ve thought of joining, but am so glad I did, because it’s just been so full of interesting people, fascinating topics. It’s evolving constantly. There’s never a dull day when you’re working in customer experience.
Peter, can you share a little more about your day-to-day role and responsibilities, particularly how you advise senior leaders in the customer experience/customer service realm?
It can really vary. I would say that it can go from just maybe a quick telephone call for a senior leader to bounce an idea off me or to get a smell test based on what they’re hearing in the market and to try and align with what I’m hearing. It can go all the way into some fairly in-depth and fairly profound projects that I work on quite regularly that would perhaps deal with technologies, deal with different operating models, deal with changing ways of doing CX, and anticipating what both the client and what the consumer are looking for.
But I would say that probably the way I interact the most is from a consulting basis or providing my opinion regarding what’s going on in a particular space within the CX market and where that market might be going.
Sounds exciting. Something New thing every day!
Oh, absolutely. It is exciting. And that’s one of the things where we all have days where perhaps we’re stressed out or things might not be going the way that we plan for them to go at the start of the day. But really, there’s never a bad day if I’m honest with you, Hailey. It’s always something new. There’s always something going on. There’s always something exciting.
I think that it’s that stimulation that keeps the CX space as opportunistic as it does which reminds me of something that somebody said to me not too long ago, “if you think about the people, you met back when you started in the CX space, the likelihood is that they’re still working in the CX space”. I think that speaks volumes about it. Once somebody joins it, it’s very unlikely they’re going to leave, like the Hotel California.
The Bermuda Triangle of careers in the best way possible. Throughout your long career in consulting in this industry, what are the main pain points you have seen, specifically in regard to contact center technology and the technology that’s used to aid the customer service agent?
The technology pain points have been something I have been looking at or I’ve been dealing with really since day one, and what I would say if we’re just looking at this broadly, is the fact that organizations in many cases deploy technology. They’re not going to be friendly for the agent to manipulate or to be able to exploit to the fullest possible potential.
One of the things that I’ve always noticed is that you do get technology development firms that are trying to put forward cool solutions or wait…not cool solutions, but I would say solutions that are tech-heavy or that are very interesting from a developer standpoint but might not necessarily be as agent-friendly or as user-friendly as they need to be. That’s where you start getting agent frustration. That’s what you see that leads to attrition in a contact center. It causes exceeding costs, and it leads to an overall level of dissatisfaction.
One of the things that we know, when agents are not happy with the tools that they’re being provided with, this is going to make for a very tough experience for a consumer that might be phoning or interacting over a digital channel.
What are some of the tried-and-true solutions to the pain points you just mentioned that have been successful time and time again in organizations that you’ve consulted with?
It’s not rocket science. And I think that the organizations that get it right really get it right. From my perspective, the angle that makes a solution a good one, or that’s going to make it pertinent to the agent is, number one, listening to what the agents need, finding out exactly the types of tools that they require, and then tailoring the interface and the functionality to make sure that it’s going to be as agent-friendly as possible and something that an agent is going to be able to use on an intuitive basis. When they look at it, they’ll know exactly what they’re able to do after a little bit of training and they’ll be able to adapt to it very quickly.
I think equally speaking, something that is going to be in a position to make sure that it’s not just going to look good or it’s going to flow well when the agent’s using it, but it’s veritably going to help the consumer at the other end, that the agent, as they’re interacting with an end-user, is going to be able to use a tool to find real solutions in regards to what the consumer is looking for or in regards to what the consumer needs in order to resolve their issue.
And if I’m honest with you, Hailey, I think too often in the past, there have been solutions being put forward in front of agents that get it half right or that only get it halfway in terms of what the functionality is going to provide the agent as they look to try and interact with the consumer. It’s tough to multitask. We get that. But in my opinion, putting an agent in front of a solution, a technology solution that they’re going to be able to manipulate as they’re speaking or as they’re dialoguing with an end consumer in a fashion that they’re going to feel comfortable doing both at once is essential.
It might sound like a panacea, but I think that’s what the technology firms in CX need to be going for. That’s the only way that you’re going to ensure that the consumer is going to be happy, that their issue is going to be resolved, and that they’re going to be a return consumer because we all know in this game, loyalty is everything.
Great answer. I think we focus a lot on all the bells and whistles sometimes, forgetting that there’s actually a human being behind it that’s having to pull all those bells and whistles.
But you see, that’s exactly it. And I always love to use the example about a smartphone. We’re all using them. We all have them. They’re part of our lives, whether we like it or not. And I know everybody including myself says, “I’m going to try and reduce my screen time,” and good luck on that.
But think about the smartphone that you’ve got. Think about all the functionality that you’re using on that. You’re probably not even scratching 10% of it. And I think this is what, in many cases, organizations that are making these technology solutions forget. You can have all the bells and whistles. You can have all the functionality in the world. But the reality is, at any one point, an agent’s probably only going to be using about 20, 25% of that functionality. And a lot of it’s just being lost in the ether.
So, what are some examples of how technology has changed or impacted the industry both positively and negatively? I know we’ve brushed up on … We’ve touched on this, but perhaps we could delve a little deeper.
Well, from a positive standpoint, I really like what’s going on with knowledge management right now, solutions that are helping agents better position different products or services in front of the consumer. And it can be done with a variety of different methodologies or technologies, and it can be done using artificial intelligence. It can be done using gamification.
But in my mind, this is probably the frontline solution of 2021. We were picking this up in a lot of the research I’m doing. I just completed a study of 628 enterprise contact center decision-makers over the course of Q1, and knowledge management was right up there, and it’s understandable why.
In terms of technologies that have negatively impacted, I’d be remiss to say that there’s been any technology set that’s really got out there and that has not been good. I think that there are some solutions that are better than others. I think the ones that aren’t very good certainly have a negative impact on attrition, have a negative impact on consumer loyalty. What I’d say probably would be a usual suspect in terms of automated solutions that haven’t been properly deployed, and we’ve all heard the horror stories about these IVR trees or speech automated solutions that don’t work very well and the frustration that a consumer can have. Invariably, they’ll find a way to get to an agent and then shout at them because of how upset and frustrated they happen to be.
But the reality is these bad solutions, for every bad one, there’s a good one. And unfortunately, I think as consumers and as well as people in the CX space, we’re probably more programmed to remember the negative experiences as opposed to the ones that go seamlessly. And that’s unfortunate. But in my mind, any solution technology-wise that’s not deployed properly or that’s not being thought out properly is invariably going to fail. And that’s invariably, once again, going to have a negative impact on the loyalty a consumer has with an enterprise, whether it’s buying products or services.
Moving right along, what is something that you wish more people understood about contact center processes, best practices, and the technology?
Well, I think that if we’re talking contact center best practices and technology, then probably something that came up on a discussion I had with a client the other day that I think made so much sense is there’s a lot of metrics within the contact center. There’s a lot of numbers that are being analyzed on a constant basis. But bringing in some of the more qualitative elements and figuring out from agents, from team leaders, what are the processes that are working for them, why are they working, why are they not working, almost conducting forums or focus groups in order to find out a little bit on a more qualitative basis about what they’re feeling, what they like about their jobs, what’s helping them, what’s not helping them. And I think that would go a long way, as opposed to just almost dictating about how things are going to operate based on a whole set of operational KPIs.
And it’s not to say that you don’t want to use data. It’s not to say that you don’t want to analyze what some of the broader trends are from a quantitative basis. But I think one of the things that is being lost in the day-to-day operations of the contact center is almost that emotion that people on the front lines are feeling and that are thinking. And I think also a very important factor is asking these people who are on the front lines what would make their job more straightforward. We’re not talking about what would make their job easier. That might fall into it. But what will make a job more straightforward in terms of driving better outcomes on the whole with consumers? It’s amazing what you can find out from people who are working the front lines, and my experience is there’s always a lot of common sense there.
Great. So, here’s the fun part where you get to delve into the past of your career here. What career or practical advice do you have for people looking to grow their skills and impact the technology used in contact center management?
Probably the advice I would give, and it wouldn’t necessarily be advice to a younger self, but it might be to younger people in general, would be don’t be afraid to put your hand up. Don’t be afraid to raise issues if you see a piece of the technology that’s not working properly or if you see a solution set that could be improved upon.
And to my mind, the only way things are going to get better is if people on the front lines are vocal and that they come to the table with constructive ideas and constructive ways of improving solutions. I really think that in any type of an operation, especially for people who might be at the onset of their careers, it’s very much a case of you don’t want to say anything, you don’t want to rock the boat. But my experience has also been, especially as I’ve gotten older through the elements of my career, that the executive levels and the managers want to hear this. They want the feedback. It’s, in many cases, information they don’t have or thoughts that they wouldn’t have been front of mind. So, it’s important to bring this to the forefront.
If you could talk to your younger self, what would you warn yourself about or tell yourself to do differently regarding your career?
I think that’s a very good question. What I would tell my younger self would be, if you get yourself into a role that you don’t see a future in or if you don’t see an opportunity around … And you’ll know pretty quick. It’s like anything. You’ll know pretty fast if something’s going to be stimulating if it’s going to work for you or it’s not. Then don’t err on the side of just hanging out and seeing if things get better, because odds are they probably won’t. Take a chance, roll the dice, look for something different. Especially when you’re young, there are so many opportunities out there to find a different role in the same sector or maybe a different role in a different sector, even to go back to school and pursue an area of interest that you might not have been looking at when you were in high school or college that might have stimulated some type of interest later on in life.
That’s something that probably young people today have more of an opportunity around than at any other point in the last 50, 60 years. So, it’s just a case of really deciding what they want from a career and making it happen. Don’t listen to other people. Don’t listen to anybody else. People know in their hearts what they want to do, and they just need to pursue it.
Great advice. So, in that same realm of talking about advice, we’ll finish out our interview today with this question. What advice do you have for professionals responsible for managing specifically contexts center floors and choosing the best technology to streamline their agents’ processes in order to assure great customer experiences and great customer service?
I think, number one, shop around. Shop around. It’s not going to necessarily be the biggest names or the most expensive solutions that they’re going to be the best ones out there. Consult with the agents themselves in terms of what they need, what is going to be some of the requirements that they’re going to have in order to do their jobs better, and see if they can align with what’s out there.
My view is that there’s a lot of innovative technologies that are coming to the forefront from some really cool entrepreneurial CX technology firms that, if I’m blunt with you, Hailey, I think could give a run for the money with some of the more established, well-known global players out there. And it’s up to the individuals who are procuring these technologies to find out what’s going to work best for the people on the front lines, what’s going to provide the people on the front lines with the dexterity and the manipulability that they need, what’s going to give the analytics, what’s going to be able to feed into a full customer profile, and then figuring out what solution is going to work best in that regard.
All excellent advice. All right, Peter. Thank you so much for joining me today. This was great.
You are welcome, thanks for having me!
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