CX Interview Series with Annette Franz

August 6, 2020
Reading time:

We believe at all times that the knowledge that you need should find you. Knowing how hard that is to do for ourselves, we ventured out to try to help you with this challenge. When it comes to CX, that means bringing insights from the best and brightest CX professionals around the globe and bringing some of the knowledge they so diligently and admirably have built over the years.

One of our favourites and most respected CX professionals in the space is Annette Franz, CCXP.

Hope you enjoy reading the following interview just as much as we enjoyed chatting with Annette. :)

Chattermill: Let’s begin with the big questions - how do you define customer-centricity?

Annette Franz: Customer-centric companies put the customer at the centre of every decision made by both executives and employees of the company. Every action begins and ends with the customer in mind. The customer is infused into everything they do. I like to say: No discussions, no decisions, no designs without bringing in the customer and her voice, without asking how it will impact the customer, how it will make her feel, what problems it will help her to solve, what value it will create and deliver for her.

This understanding is the foundation of customer-centricity. The methods to achieve this understanding range from listening (e.g., surveys), to characterizing (i.e., personas), to empathizing (i.e., journey mapping). That understanding, once achieved, must then be communicated and operationalized throughout the company.

Customer-centricity, to me, is that whole process. Its foundation is a culture that is deliberately designed to be customer centric.

Chattermill: How can companies build and maintain a culture that puts the customer first?

AF: The hard thing is that as a company grows, priorities change, everything changes. How can we maintain that mindset of putting the customer at the centre of every decision? That’s the tough question - the biggest challenge.

Culture is the combination of values and behaviours; behaviours must be defined in order to help clarify the values and to align the entire company around the desired culture. Values must be more than posters on the wall; we must socialise and operationalize values. These values must be communicated right from the beginning, in the interview process and while on-boarding new employees so everyone knows what the goal is and what the culture is like.

But then they've also got to be operationalized correctly – from hiring to promoting to firing, based on these values and culture fit. Policies and processes must also be developed with the core values in mind.

This culture needs to be upheld at all times. It needs to carry companies through the good, easy decisions, and most importantly, through the tough and ambiguous ones. That’s how you maintain it. Discipline leads to success and discipline is doing the same thing on a bad day as you would in a good day. The same principle applies to building and maintain a customer-centric culture.

Chattermill: Relating to a company’s philosophy of hiring, firing, rewarding and incentivizing their personnel which supports a culture, what do you see as the biggest obstacles to the goal laid out in your answer above? Do you think those are people challenges, system challenges, or exogenous factors?

AF: It starts at the top. Companies need executive commitment and alignment across organisation. If you don't have the CEO on board or if executives aren’t committed to living this customer-centric culture day in day out, and being customer-centric at all times, then their behaviours will be observed by employees, and ultimately by the customers themselves. Human behaviour and market dynamics will be in charge of the rest. It's walk the walk, talk the talk, you know? That’s the only way to go about it. Plain and simple. If a company’s executives aren't modelling the behaviour that they desire, if they're not reinforcing customer-centric behaviour, if they're not recognising it, if they're not rewarding based on doing the right things for customers….then that's a real problem. The culture won’t survive the tough moments – which are inevitable, as we all know. It's going to be real challenge to get the entire organisation on board with, you know, being customer-centric. It’s so simple and straightforward, but for some reason, so easy to forget.

I would say that customer understanding is the cornerstone of customer-centricity. If we aren't taking the time to understand our customers, whether it's listening to them or doing the research to develop personas and more deeply understand our customers, or we're not journey mapping to fully understand the experience that they're having today, then we’re leaving so much valuable knowledge on the table, for companies’ benefits (their bottom-line, be it top-line or bottom-line growth) and for the benefit of the customer base that companies are supposed to be serving.

Chattermill: As a CX tools provider, we’re very curious about what problems people in CX have every day and what tools they look for and use to solve them. So, what kind of tools do you love to use and what seems to be missing in your daily work?

AF: I live by my calendar (laughs).

But when it comes to working with clients, I’m very observant about the problems they’re trying to solve and what they’re looking for in tools to solve them.

I would say that if you’re building a comprehensive stack to solve for CX problems, you must have a voice of the customer platform, a text analytics tool, predictive and prescriptive capabilities, and more, as well as an overall collaboration tool to plan and communicate with your team. The idea is to have the whole arsenal to deal with all the issues around CX and truly have a complete understanding of your customers’ problems and desires.

I think something else that CX professionals have to keep in mind as they're thinking about tools is how to centralise their data so that they can then more easily distribute it and make it accessible to people who need to use it.

So that’s a high-level, broad perspective on tools, but I think that, for me personally, because I don't have to interact with customers daily or gather feedback day in and day out, a lot of the work I do is solved by collaboration tools.

I see tremendous value not only in knowing what tools exist in the CX tech stack but especially in knowing how to choose them - what variables and factors should people be looking out for and comparing in order to find the best tool for the problems they’re trying to solve. For example, what are the criteria that I should be considering as I’m evaluating VoC platforms? And the reason I bring that up is that I've seen people ask about that within the CXPA discussion forum. I think that type of advice is missing or hard to find for the various types of CX tech but is very valuable to customers.

Chattermill: We’re very curious about how people improve themselves and we try to scale that onto other people. Therefore, what kind of books, blogs, podcasts or other resources do you consume in order to keep improving as a top CX professional?

AF: I think we need to read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, and watch videos. Consume every form of content out there - everything! Just be mindful of quality.

Regarding topics, the obvious topics of interest to me are: customer experience, employee experience, culture, and leadership. But I also like to read and consume content that explores topics that aren't necessarily within my area of work or written by customer experience people, where the thought leaders aren't necessarily directly related to CX. A good example is my interest in human behaviour. As we’ve discussed, the core of CX is the customer, whose core is human behaviour and social psychology. Therefore, I try to begin there and understand as much as possible about human behavioural patterns. The biggest topic of interest right now in this arena is empathy. Empathy is a big hot topic within the CX world. I've been reading books about empathy that are not by CX folks - I’m trying to broaden my horizon and think about other aspects of empathy that aren't related to dealing with customers or how to lead. Rather, I want to understand what drives empathy and how it’s received in different contexts and situations. Being multidisciplinary is the goal. This is perhaps the most important trait to develop. I believe that any successful CX professional must understand the basics of human behaviour and strive to be more multi-disciplinary to understand the many complexities of customer needs and expectations.

In terms of CX resources, I really love the CXPA. There are a lot of great resources there - we've got white papers, webinars, courses, and other content, and we've got a discussion forum where people are constantly posing and answering the most relevant questions around CX and sharing different insights and best practices to deal with every kind of problem. That type of digital space and resource is invaluable.

Chattermill: Moving on to your very successful career, I’m sure our readers would love to learn a bit more about how your got to where you are today and what skills do you believe one needs to succeed in the CX space?

AF: I don't really have an exciting story about how I got into CX (laughs). It was quite random. I was born and raised on a farm in Ohio, in the USA. Nobody ever said back then, “Hey I'm going to be a customer experience professional!” (They didn’t! That wasn’t a thing then!)

My first opportunity came from a newspaper ad that posted a job opening at J.D. Power and Associates. I love math, and I love writing, which are two basic market research skills. So I thought I’d give it a try, and I ended up loving the work that we did. Lots of it was focused on analysing customer satisfaction and customer loyalty; we definitely didn’t call it customer experience that back then.

So that was really the start of my career. However, I will say this – there are a lot of different entry points into a CX career. You can come from market research, from a voice of the customer vendor position, from consulting, customer service, the list goes on. I've seen as many different entry points for folks who come into this field.

The secret to success in a CX position is that you've got to have the right skills. Those skills vary from being able to communicate effectively, to building a coherent and persuasive business case, to being able to analyse customer behaviour. Ultimately, we’re talking about great communication and problem-solving skills. Also, I really think CX professionals must be entrepreneurial because many of these roles in CX are new, start-up roles, so you have to be adaptable, be able to learn new things quickly, be relentlessly curious, and think long-term. You've got to have analytical and critical thinking skills. You also have to have relationship-building skills because you're going to be building relationships both with your customers and across the organization, as you bring everyone together to focus on putting the customer at the centre. I think that it’s having those skills that is what's going to lead to success in this type of career.

Chattermill: Given the current climate, most companies are having to prioritise putting out fires rather than growing. So, we’d like to ask you about the biggest CX problems that you see companies facing today?

AF: The biggest problems I see are at the organisation level. Ultimately, their problems trickle to the customer, so companies must solve for that quickly.

In my view, these problems would be the lack of executive commitment, the lack of customer-centric culture, the lack of focusing on the employee, and not understanding that the employee experience drives a customer experience.

Companies must not view customer-centricity as a project. Rather, it must be the foundation of every decision, the only way of doing business. Customers inevitably feel the lack of service and focus on their needs and pains. The focus must be to always think about how to provide simple, effortless, convenient, and consistent experiences for customers. They want instant gratification. They want personal and personalised offerings, and all that isn't going happen if we don't have the foundation in place internally. So that's the big thing that we're seeing here also: brands must have the foundation in place to do what's right for the customer. It's certainly going to alleviate issues for the customer. After all, at the end of the day, business is all about serving customers well. If a company doesn’t, it won’t last.

Chattermill: Interesting, so you think that by solving one, you end up solving for both at the same time, killing two birds with one stone?

AF: Absolutely. It begins macro but trickles down to the micro. If there’s the correct foundation in place, one which is consistent across the organisation, you are able to (1) position yourself correctly to deal with obstacles, (2) keep every team in the company aligned towards the same objective, which will allow you to, (3) solve all the issues that customers will have throughout their journey.

Chattermill: Finally, we think it’d be a disservice not to address the elephant in the room on every Zoom call that everyone is having - how to deal with Covid-19 effects the best way possible. In your opinion, how has and will Covid-19 continue to impact CX going forward? And, perhaps more importantly, how can companies prepare for it?

AF: Ah, this question about Covid and how companies prepare for it. One of analogies I like to use is one that I wrote a blog post about years ago, “getting ready for Black Friday.” My response for “getting ready for Covid” would be similar. Make sure that you’ve consistently:

  • Stuck to your brand promise
  • Hired the right people for your organization
  • Allowed employees to do the right thing
  • Built a people-centric culture
  • Learned about your customers
  • Listened to your customers
  • Measured what matters

If you’ve got this foundation in place, or are diligently building it, then you’ll be fine. Sure, there are going to be some nuances because this is a trickier time. But with these practices and philosophy in mind, in the long-term, your business will prosper. If the organisation is working toward improving the customer experience every day and doing what's right for the customer, then delivering great experience is no different today than it was six months ago or a year ago.

Obviously, we must observe and study how customer behaviour is changing amidst this pandemic. But the fundamental principles behind customer-centricity will always remain the same. If you are, or have already, set up to follow these principles, you are listening and talking to customers, trying to understand what they need and what their pains are, then you’re already setting yourself up to win in the long run. Just follow-through and keep at it! Don’t yield.

A good company example to study and follow – during Covid and always – is Zappos. I believe you guys at Chattermill wrote a great piece about their customer-centric culture and approach to growth. Zappos is such an amazing company. To provide the best customer service, Tony Hsieh knew the culture was paramount to success – and he proved it through his response during Covid, too. Each Zappos employee needed to understand that customer experience is a priority for the whole company, not just a department.

I’m sure your readers can learn loads about Zappos through your blog post.

But before we go, I’d like to finish by adding a few tools or frameworks that can help you navigate uncertainty. Pre-mortems are great – here’s a great resource. What they try to do is be proactive, discuss potential risks, and be prepared for eventualities. With plans in place, companies and individuals can adapt easier and quicker to solve any type of problem.To do so, we must imagine and jot down all the risks and reasons why a specific project or strategy could fail. Then figure out a variety of remedies to prevent every angle of failure in order to try to prevent that failure from happening, but at least, having the right strategy in place in case it does fail. Again, it’s all about have the right foundation, structures, and processes in place. Preparation is everything.

Chattermill: Thank you so much for your time and for the very pleasant and informative conversation, Annette. We look forward to the next one!

Annette Franz is founder and CEO of CX Journey Inc. She’s got more than 25 years of experience (both client side and vendor side) helping companies understand their employees and customers and identify what drives retention, satisfaction, engagement, and the overall experience – so that employees, customers, and businesses reap the benefits and achieve their desired outcomes.

She recently wrote the book on customer understanding! She’s the author of Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of the Business). You can buy it on Amazon in paperback or Kindle formats!

Annette was named one of “The 100 Most Influential Tech Women on Twitter” by Business Insider and is regularly recognized by companies around the world as a top influencer in Customer Experience. She is also the 2020 Board Chair for the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA).

To follow her work, please refer to the following links:

CX Journey Inc.

Her LinkedIn

Her Twitter

Book on Amazon

See Chattermill in action

Understand the voice of your customers in realtime with Customer Feedback Analytics from Chattermill.