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...
Joe Rice, the CEO of CXponent has a long career as a successful executive and business owner in the CX space, focused on advisory and implementation services for IT, communications, and networking infrastructure, including deep expertise in vendor evaluation and assessment.
Welcome to the pod, Joe. Do I have your permission to record this call for quality assurance?
Yes, you do. It’s nice to be here. Thank you.
Thanks for taking the time out of your day to be here with us, Joe. Joe, to start us off can you give our listeners some insights into your background professionally, where you started and how you got to where you are today?
Yeah, so the journey of my career before being an entrepreneur was in sales. I started as an enterprise telecom sales rep and worked for AT&T, and then CenturyLink, which is now Lumen. And in 2012, I decided to make the jump to the indirect or referral partner channels, where a lot of these big Gartner ranked vendors across contact center and unified communications and networking have these really robust programs that enable partners, or referral brokers, or agents to basically add value around the purchasing process.
And so I went to a company called Avant Communications, which is a distributor for those types of services and they add value and other resources to people like us who work directly with clients. So as I went to Avant in 2012, we really saw… It was the early days of cloud. This industry and referral industry was born out of the telecom channel, which was a lot about brokering quotes on a spreadsheet off of price, didn’t have a lot of business context involved in that kind of sales process.
So my former partner and I realized there was an opportunity to add more value around helping clients adopt cloud. There were a lot more layers to purchasing cloud services, especially contact center services, than looking at, comparing features and trying to compare things and vendors on a spreadsheet. So we spun off and started a company called Acclivity in 2014, and we were really focused on billion to 10 billion in revenue, multinational, and really with the folks on the contact center space, along with networking and we reunified communications. I sold my interest in that last year and had taken some time off during the pandemic with family, and then had launched a new firm that’s in a similar space called CXponent. And we’re really focused on mid-market and helping clients at an advisory level really understand the interconnectedness of the decisions they make and the tradeoffs around all of the vendors available in the market, which there are many, and the technologies are all really good. So sometimes getting through the details and understanding the client’s current context can be difficult.
Great. That leads me to my next question. You have this long career working in all these different aspects of the CX industry. What do you feel are the main pain points you’ve seen regarding contact center technology, but specifically the technology that’s used to aid in customer service?
Yeah, I think consensus and alignment is one of the main things, and really what we see that as the primary area that needs help often is between IT and the business. IT is operating some of the premise infrastructures for call centers. If they’re in the middle of the cloud transition that may be giving up responsibilities and the business is going to be taking on new administrative responsibilities and getting aligned on the business case, the funding, who’s doing what, both on the implementation, and more importantly, the operating model, and having clarity around that is something that we’ve seen. Often clients can use some help accelerating that because ultimately there are different interests and stakeholders involved even beyond business and IT, and that goes as far as finance, procurement, security and compliance, legal, and that’s one of those areas that we really think can slow down clients in getting the benefits of the contact center technology. The other is application integrations. I think it’s easy to buy into the promise of eight easy APIs and being able to integrate data from different systems, but slowing down to define as a client what you really want, what you need, and then also how you’re going to be able to maintain and improve those integrations over time are something that we see often over sighted.
And it’s combining this operational model, which the contact center and business unit folks are excellent at. And how do we use technology to enable that? Because the technology on its own is, is not going to drive the benefits by itself. There’s got to be other changes and improvements that come along with that. And so one additional thing on that is the idea that this can be lifted shift, and we can just rip this old infrastructure and put it in the cloud and it’s going to be easy, or just going to work the way it used to, is another one of those things that just really, we haven’t seen work successfully.
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So you were talking about a lot of the communication that needs to occur between these different sectors inside of an organization. What do you think have been some of the solutions for these pain points that you just mentioned? But also, what do you think are one of the ways that we can enable better communication now that we have so many people, some agents are working from home, some of the leadership is working from home or remote, and then we have some individuals in the organization that are onsite?
What do you think are some of the ways that we can ensure that communication and the things that we’re using to implement the technology, what are the best ways that we can do that? What are some of the ways that you advise individuals to do that?
Yeah, well I think there are two segments to that. One is less about the technology enablement and more about where do we start the buying and implementation process from? And I think we view these things as three different stages of the journey. There’s the planning stage of getting project approvals and getting alignment and consensus. There’s the selection stage, which is really refining requirements and digging in to sift through the vendor marketplace and understand which vendor is the right, and actually negotiate the right contract and scope and design. And then there’s the deployment and operating model handoffs. And those three phases require different people often and stakeholders and different skill sets to ultimately succeed. So there’s planning, which is the foundation, there’s the selection, which is really understanding what you want and how you want to use it. And then the actual deployment operating model is often taken over by people who weren’t always involved in it and the genesis of this and having integration between those phases is really important. So one of the ways we try to simplify those things in phases is realizing that there are kind of three consistent strains throughout those phases. There’s the people planning, there’s the financial responsibility and then the technical design and the work that needs to be done matures and changes across those phases.
And if we can make it a little simpler to digest and understand that the journey of a design is about architecture at the highest level, then refining the technical requirements, then it gets negotiated into a service order and then actually gets deployed and configured on the system. Those are different phases and people that need to do be ultimately integrated and consulted to get those things right. And then there’s the same type of thing for finance in terms of getting the business case funded, negotiating the best deal, estimating and forecasting, not only the costs and how they’re going to change but also what the business benefits are. And that’s how we try to tie these things together and understand and create alignment across those things. Create clear responsibilities, really.
That’s great. So how do you think some of those roles have changed as far as… We talked about these three phases and that there are certain benchmarks in those three phases, and what do you think the impact has been that you’ve seen with your clients due to like we were talking about the remote work environment?
Well, I think one of the things that’s changed is from an architecture and design, and just thinking through how these technologies are going to be used. They used to be thoughts architected from a location-centric standpoint, meaning where are our data centers. Where are all our apps set? And then where are our locations and office buildings? Where are all of our people sit? And people build security and understood basically how the applications flew, or flow from data center all the way to the user from that location-centric thinking. And that clearly is no longer going to be the case, hybrid working is here to stay. And so I think one is a little bit of a mindset shift on when we think about design it’s, where are all of these cloud apps, which often could be you’re integrating with Salesforce and a Nice inContact or a Genesis, and a Power BI for database you’ve got all these different clouds and apps that have their own requirements and security and architecture that need to be designed. But more importantly, how do we deliver those apps securely and reliably to the work from anywhere of people? I think those answers are actually different for every client. And that’s part of what’s difficult I think for clients to buy these technologies is one, it’s a little difficult to understand the differentiation between the vendors, using ACD, IVR type in the routing and platforms as an example, with a Genesis or a Nice inContact. They’re both great products. So differentiation is difficult. Now, every client does have their own unique constraints and opportunities that they need to build around and architect in, based on what their existing infrastructure is. And I think understanding those unique things and opportunities and constraints for clients is really the context that can make those better decisions so remote workers are supported and also ultimately considered and how these decisions and designs get built.
What do you wish more people understood about contacts and our processes, best practices, and technology. And if you could, could you give it from the perspective of what you wish leaders of organizations who are purchasing the software you wish they understood more, or even down to perhaps a supervisor or manager on the actual contact center floor?
Yeah, I think one of the biggest things is anchoring the decisions and not only how you buy, but in how the products get configured and deployed in business issues. And what are truly the strategic business objectives that contact centers are looking for. That could be a reduction in contact rate or just overall interactions that could be an increase in average handle time. There are obviously a lot of metrics that contact centers have been tightly managing in a lot of different ways. And throughout these deployments… I feel like clients often have a tendency to lose sight of that, at least from not at the top, but from the top simmering down to all the people who are going to be making and deploying and making the decisions on how these systems get deployed, that the tech is going to solve a lot of these things. And the tech is just an enabler. And so I think really having this connectivity between, what are the business issues? What are the operational changes that we can make now because of this technology? As opposed to, how can this tech transform our organization? The people and the processes, and ultimately the mindset of reading and reacting and adjusting for these cloud systems is very important. And it’s still got to be rooted in change on the client side. And that’s not just related to the technology.
And what resources or specific individuals do you regularly reference to stay on top of industry trends and news?
I would say at the high level, in terms of how vendors are maturing and where they’re going, people like Jay McBain of Forrester is one. He really covers more of the channel on the technology side and how these vendor partners are investing in resources to make the customer experience better for their clients. So yeah, Forrester and Gartner at the highest level. There’s an analyst named Sheila McGee-Smith who covers the contact center industry pretty well, Sinead Aylward, which is a former client of ours. She was a VP of Contact Center Technology at Endurance Warranty, picks a lot of great stuff out there on LinkedIn.
And then there are a couple of other folks that more about our own personal relationships in mind, Dominic Pasta, who’s the lead contact center rollout in a project we worked on at Groupon, and he’s since gone on to Quicken Loans, just a nice career path and has really understands at that intersection of business and tech. And then another woman and colleague of mine named Melissa Copeland, who has just… I learned a lot through working with her and as a colleague on how this contact center operational mindset and changes, how that’s really got to be the anchor to in creating business value and the tech is an enabler around that. In terms of another podcast or a publication that I do listen to is there’s an Intercom podcast. Intercom’s a kind of chat and messaging tool often for SaaS companies. They’ve got a lot of customer experience and good content on their podcasts as well.
Excellent. I’ll have to check it out. I didn’t know Intercom had their own podcast, that’s great.
There’s lots of good stuff on there.
Moving forward into my favorite part of this is where we… It’s almost for my own personal gain. What career practical advice do you have for people looking to grow their skills and impact the technology used in contact center management?
Well, I talked about this a little bit. I think understanding the business issues and how operational improvements can impact those and then using tech as the enabler, I just think is a really important thing. If we can anchor and understand both sides of those, there’s a lot of power in translating those couple things. I would say, maybe even a step higher than that though, is that every organization that we work with, and I think this is true in many, is that the people and the personalities and the organization are actually what’s holding back the adoption of technology in the way of getting these technology benefits. And another way to say that is, this technology doesn’t configure itself, it’s going to take people and collaboration to go do that.
And that goes all the way from who are the people who are managing and supervisors to the agents and what is their life like today, and how can we make it better and put them in a better position to succeed? As you guys know very well, the agent is the frontline interaction with the customer. And there’s actually another person I’ve learned a lot from the contact center industry named Ryan’s Stinar, who’s a Director of Customer Experience at Bose, and he’s always had this rhetorical question which is, “Your agents are closer to your clients than anyone else on the planet, really, especially when they’re talking to them. So how are we going to do that? Or what are we doing to create value or those interactions?” And so when I think about the people side of this business and the empathy and the understanding that I think can… Ultimately the benefits of having that perspective, that’s something that I think of people launching into their careers, understanding the interpersonal dynamics and helping others succeed is a good way to go. It’s pretty good foundational advice for a good career.
I think that’s such good advice for having empathy for those individuals who are on the front lines and just exactly what you said, why wouldn’t you want to be enabling your individuals who are most likely the only touchpoint with your client ever. They’re the only human voice that they ever have and associated with your business, so why wouldn’t you want to be setting those individuals up for success regarding technology, or even how you’re making their work environment better? I completely agree with that.
If you could talk to your younger self, what would you warn yourself about or tell yourself to do differently regarding your career?
This is advice I’ve given a lot of former employees and people I’ve mentored is everyone is trying to figure out their careers and their issues and ultimately what’s in front of them from a business objective standpoint. Everyone is learning a lot along the way, even when people show up and they’re experienced and act like they’ve been there before, and maybe they have been there before. There’s no way any one individual is going to have all the answers. And I think for me, how it would have helped is just being able to take a deep breath and realize, I don’t need to know all the answers. I don’t need to get to a certain point of knowledge or expertise to engage and add value and ultimately release some of that fear. Everyone, at least in this buying advisory space, especially, they need to buy this technology to make progress and they need help. And very few people expect complete perfection on knowing every single detail. And so it’s just the idea that if you go ask questions and are very curious and understand and anchor in the client issues and constraints and opportunities that they have, that that really can guide, ultimately, or should guide, what your behavior is. As opposed to thinking that you need to get to a certain spot and then you’ll be good enough to add value or help clients.
Great answer, Joe. And on that, let’s leave on a positive note with the understanding of curiosity and always looking to learn more on the job, I think is a great way to end the podcast today. Joe, thanks for joining me and we’ll talk soon.
This interview is a part of our podcast series where we talk to the world’s leading CX experts about industry trends, CX technology, and simplifying the process of delivering great customer service. Click here to gain access to more great interviews with CX experts.
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