What can Gandalf and Pepper Potts teach us about customer experience? In this insightful interview with Nate Brown, co-founder of CX Accelerator and a renowned CX expert, he takes us on a journey through his career and shares valuable insights into the world of CX.
You’ve worked with customer experience in various capacities over the years. Could you please share a bit about your journey and how you ended up in CX?
I started my career selling postage meters on the streets, but I quickly realized I wasn’t very good at it. However, I discovered that I had a passion for serving customers and finding ways to improve their experience. After a year, I transitioned to a customer service role at a startup where I had the opportunity to help hundreds of people every day with their safety training. This experience ignited my interest in customer service and led me to become the leader of the customer service team.
With time, I started to notice that there was a lot of friction in the customer service process, with customers facing the same issues repeatedly. I realized there must be a way to reduce this friction and enhance the customer experience. That’s when I discovered the concept of customer experience (CX) through mentorship and the guidance of industry experts like Jeff Toister, Annette Franz, and Jeanne Bliss.
With this newfound knowledge, I started integrating CX principles into our business. I formed a cross-functional coalition, where leaders from various departments came together to focus on CX. Eventually, I took on the role of CX director, which was my first true CX job. It was a tremendous learning experience, and I had the opportunity to work with organizations from various industries, helping them with their CX challenges and customer-centric transformations.
Throughout this journey, I also engaged in speaking, writing, and participating in conferences and associations. It became clear to me that CX has a profound impact on people’s lives, making them better and easier. When we collectively excel in CX, it benefits both customers and businesses, leading to sustainable growth, customer loyalty, and business success.
In parallel to my career, I started CX Accelerator, a nonprofit community dedicated to equipping and connecting CX professionals and accelerating their careers. It has been a labor of love, and I’ve gained invaluable knowledge and personal growth through this initiative. Community advocacy has become a significant focus for me because I believe that community is essential to CX work. Brands are inviting customers to co-create and engage in meaningful experiences together. It’s not just about CX professionals interacting in isolation; it’s about modeling the power of community and building strong brand communities.
How do you manage your time between the community and your full-time job? With numerous initiatives, what does a typical day at work look like for you?
In my role at Arise, I’ve been fortunate to have the freedom to pursue various exciting projects, knowing that thought leadership brings positive outcomes to the organization. However, it can be challenging to navigate everything. CX Accelerator is my passion project on the side. I contribute to it as much as I can, but Arise is where most of my focus lies.
We’re exploring how to create relevant, valuable content that highlights the incredible power of our service partners who are the backbone of what we do at Arise. They offer exceptional service and have found a remarkable work-life balance through remote work. Our goal is to facilitate the right connections between these talented individuals and the brands that need their expertise. It’s an exciting time to be in the gig economy space as more people embrace this flexible work model.
What do you see as the main challenges in CX nowadays?
There is a prevalent issue of short-term thinking in many businesses, driven by the quarterly revenue shareholder model. Unfortunately, customer experience does not neatly fit into that framework. CX is about cultivating long-term relationships, and while it offers a tremendous return on investment (ROI), it requires time to achieve. Often, CX leaders face the challenge of limited runway and patience from senior leadership, as well as insufficient investment.
Many CX leaders struggle to prove the meaningful ROI of their initiatives. This struggle puts their impact and influence at risk, and there is a pressing need to demonstrate the value of their work clearly. The primary challenge is to connect the dots effectively and showcase the impact on loyalty in terms of employee experience and customer loyalty. This, in turn, affects crucial metrics such as share of wallet and customer lifetime value, ultimately driving business value.
To overcome these challenges, CX leaders must undertake the task of connecting various dots. This could involve expanding their scope of control, upskilling themselves, or addressing organizational friction and resistance. It requires time and the cultivation of allies within the organization. Rather than forcefully pushing everyone into the CX mindset, it’s more effective to plant seeds of customer-centricity and gradually shape the culture. Even if not explicitly labeled as CX, getting people to think in a customer-centric way and prioritize the voice of the customer can make a significant impact.
Why is there such a big resistance to change and why is it so difficult for CX leaders to drive organizational change?
Change fatigue is a significant challenge in organizations. Every department and leader has their own agenda and priorities, creating a landscape of competing initiatives. Unfortunately, most of these change management endeavors, including digital transformations and cultural change initiatives, have a high failure rate. Demonstrating meaningful outcomes for the business is a daunting task.
However, CX is not alone in this struggle. We must find a way to leverage CX as a Trojan horse and align it with other change initiatives that show promise. The goal is to simplify the process and identify areas of positive momentum where CX can be integrated. Rather than adding another item to people’s to-do lists, we should focus on unlocking their existing desires and guiding them to become ambassadors and guides for customers.
The work of CX revolves around empowering people to be more capable of delivering exceptional experiences, instead of burdening them with additional tasks. It’s about tapping into their innate motivation and providing them with the tools and support they need. Simultaneously, it’s crucial to hire individuals who align with the values, culture, and mission of the business, individuals who genuinely want to do the right thing. By combining these elements, we can bring about transformative change while reducing friction and complexity in the organization.
How do you see the use of technology in customer experience? What are the biggest opportunities for CX professionals leveraging their work through technology?
I must admit that I’m not well-versed in generative AI and the buzz surrounding it. However, I find it intriguing and have been contemplating its implications. Jonathan Schroer, the Chief Innovation Officer at Arise, used a metaphor that resonated with me when discussing the future of customer service. He mentioned Jarvis from Iron Man, a helper who takes in various variables and guides the hero, in this case, the customer, toward their definition of success.
As I delve deeper into the metaphor, I’ve been contemplating the true guide to Iron Man, which turns out to be Pepper Potts. Pepper provides the conscience and impetus behind Iron Man’s actions, emphasizing not just what he does but why he does it. Ultimately, Pepper’s influence leads to Iron Man’s sacrificial acts for the greater good. Brands can learn from this combination, harnessing the technological capabilities of Jarvis alongside the human touch represented by Pepper. It’s through this synergy that brands can be effective guides, amplifying co-creation possibilities with customers and making a significant impact.
The opportunity to listen more effectively to customers is enormous right now. Traditional structured channels like surveys and customer interviews are becoming less effective. Instead, we need to tap into the unstructured customer feedback available in the world. Gathering valuable insights from unstructured data, which comprises the majority of customer feedback, is crucial.
With advancements in VoC capabilities, we can combine unstructured data with structured data, enabling us to gain a more intelligent and holistic view of our customers’ thoughts and feelings. This comprehensive understanding empowers CX professionals to make a real difference in customers’ lives, enhancing their experience, and fostering loyalty. By proving the ROI of our work through VoC, we can demonstrate the value we bring to the organization. The power of VoC technology is truly exciting, and I believe we should celebrate it more.
What is the secret of companies that excel in the Voice of the Customer? What are they doing differently from the rest?
I’ve learned that being a great CX professional is not just about listening to the angry or happy customers. It’s about being present where the customers are talking. Take GoPro, for example. They understood the importance of engaging with their customers in third-party communities where people dissect brands and their value propositions, sometimes leading to a loss of credibility for those brands.
GoPro took a different approach and started to actively participate in these communities, validating its members, and taking their feedback seriously. They made adjustments to their products, services, and messaging based on the insights they gained. They became heroes within that community by authentically listening and responding to their customers. It’s a testament to their maturity and ability to be where their customers are and actively engage with them.
It’s essential for companies to learn from different industries and adopt best practices to improve their CX strategies. However, it’s not just about the companies; it’s also about individuals starting their careers in CX. My advice to them is not to make the same mistake I did. I used to approach CX with a confrontational attitude, trying to force people to care about it. It was ineffective, demotivating, and self-centered.
Instead, CX professionals should adopt the Gandalf model rather than the Moses model. Like Gandalf, they should create a fellowship, bringing people together around a shared purpose and helping reduce friction across the business. They need to identify the brand’s core promise, unify employees around it, and work towards a more seamless customer journey. It’s about making the customer the hero and guiding the business to understand and support that journey.
CX professionals shouldn’t focus solely on growing the CX function for its own sake. It’s about cultivating a customer-centric mentality across the entire organization. It’s about empowering others to serve customers better, providing the necessary context and guidelines. It’s not about the CX leader but about enabling others to do the right thing for the community of customers the business serves.
How do you envision the future for your role within your organization and what are you looking forward to in the next five years?
I believe we’re currently facing a significant epidemic of loneliness in our society. People are searching for meaningful connections and a sense of identity. In the realm of customer experience, I think the focus will increasingly be on fostering genuine connections and uniting individuals around a purposeful brand promise.
I’m passionate about being a voice in this movement and driving positive change. I want to support and equip community moderators and cultivators, as that’s where my heart lies. Arise is an incredible community of service partners and businesses, and I strive to serve them in the best way possible. I want to enhance the experience for service partners, making it the very best it can be. My intention is to dedicate more of my energy to this area.
My goal is to empower the next generation of customer experience professionals, both through Arise and CX Accelerator. I want to ensure that this work takes root and flourishes within the organizations we have the privilege to serve. Its importance cannot be overstated. If our work can improve and simplify people’s lives while fostering meaningful connections, it is our duty to succeed. In today’s disconnected and overwhelmed world, the need for customer experience leaders to make a genuine impact is greater than ever.
Simultaneously, our efforts in customer experience are instrumental in driving business growth. It’s not just an altruistic endeavor; it’s how we earn the right to expand our businesses. The field of customer experience should be thriving, and professionals within it should feel fulfilled, happy, and excited about the work we do.
To wrap up, what would you say is an essential skill that CX professionals should cultivate?
One aspect that I believe is undervalued in the CX profession is curiosity. Cultivating a sense of curiosity and excitement about our work can be a powerful tool. Developing curiosity about how we can better serve our customers and fulfill our brand promise is crucial. Instead of simply instructing others, we should intentionally foster curiosity and develop capable thinkers who genuinely want to serve.
Let me share a funny example that stuck with me. Two young guys were discussing how positioning a product on a particular shelf would improve the shopping experience. They observed that customers often had to search for it, and they brainstormed ways to make it more accessible. These guys were both cashiers at Trader Joe’s, not executives or managers. Yet, they were deeply invested in creating a better retail environment.
This story highlights the impact of cultivating curiosity. Trader Joe’s had instilled in its frontline employees a sense of excitement about the positive difference they could make in customers’ lives. By empowering their employees to dream and encouraging innovative thinking, Trader Joe’s fostered a culture where great ideas could emerge from the frontline. The best innovations often come from those directly interacting with customers. Unfortunately, without developing curiosity, such opportunities can be missed.
If we can inspire people to dream about serving customers better, we’ll be in an excellent position as CX leaders. Encouraging curiosity and empowering employees to think innovatively is vital. Ultimately, it leads to a more fulfilling and impactful customer experience.