Customer success, service, and support are crucial components of customer experience strategy. On this episode, Michael Krigsman explores the future of customer success and contact centers with two of the world's most qualified experts on professional services call center outsourcing.

The guests on this episode are Chris Caldwell, President of Concentrix Corporation, a multi-billion leader in the contact center industry and Phil Fersht, a world-renowned industry analyst and the founder of HFS Research.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Caldwell, tell us about Concentrix?

Chris Caldwell: I'm responsible for the Concentrix business globally. We're about $4.7 billion with about 220,000 staff, 40 different countries around the world, so a fairly large pool of data that we look at when we look at customer experience and fairly diverse client group around the world that really allows us to understand, see trends, and see where the business is going as a whole.

Phil Fersht, tell us about HFS Research?

Phil Fersht: We're approaching our tenth birthday next year. We're quite global now. We have about 50 staff and one of the largest analyst teams dedicated to what we call the Triple-A, which is Analytics, AI, and Automation. Then we have a very specific focus on business services where we really get down and dirty on how that whole industry is being transformed across the customer experience. Also, we look at how the customer experience is tied to the middle and back office of the organization as well.

What's happening with modern contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, I think, a lot, Michael. They've dramatically changed over even the last two to three years where much more technology is involved in the contact centers. There's a lot more nonvoice happening in the contact centers. I think Phil has talked a lot about One Office where back-office processes that used to be done outside of the contact center are now bring brought into the contact center to allow for better contact and customer resolution.

I think we're also seeing a significant amount of investment in really trying to drive analytics within the contact center, not only to make sure that clients get sort of a 360-degree view of their customers, but also that customers don't get frustrated if they tweet at you and then they call in. They want you to understand what they tweeted at you and how to resolve things better. In fact, we're seeing clients start to rename them from contact centers to brand engagement centers to brand centers to customer resolution centers, so a lot more than just sort of the standard contact center that you might have thought of just a couple of years ago.

Phil Fersht: The contact center was really the traditional kind of place in business process outsourcing where initially companies would assign contracts to companies to get customer services delivered around the world using different languages, often using lower-cost locations, et cetera. That industry is fairly mature today. It's still growing, believe it or not, at about 5% a year.

I find it quite amusing that it's actually hard for our call center businesses right now to find enough call center staff. There's a lot of talk about automating the contact center but, right now, we're just still struggling to find good people to take the calls.

It is an industry in transition. There are a lot of exciting things happening where we're looking at mixes of AI type offerings and cognitive assistant type offerings that are mixed with human and voice agent offerings as well.

Our research has shown that a focus on the customer experience is the number one strategic imperative from the highest performers in the Global 2000. That means there's a lot more focus and attention on that frontline; how we're interacting with the customer. Not just helping them get what they need quickly, but also anticipating their needs down the road, often before they know what their needs are themselves.

It places companies like Concentrix and many of the other contact center businesses in a very strategic position in the industry. We're enjoying watching this battle for who is going to win this war as things continue to evolve.

What does transformation mean for contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Well, I totally agree with Phil. It's funny; people have said that contact centers are going to be dead or have been dead for years. The reality is, they are growing at 5%, which is not insignificant. Getting good quality staff in the numbers that we're talking about is not insignificant either, including the technology going in to help those staff get proficient as quickly as possible is just improving month on month and quarter on quarter, so really, really dynamic around that perspective.

I think, also, to Phil's point, the reality is, clients are focused on what is that customer experience that they need to do and how is it aligned to their brand. Do they have a VIP brand or do they have a white glove brand? Is it a lowest-cost delivery brand?

Really, the ones who are winning in the battle for market share are the ones who understand it, look at it holistically, and come up with a strategy and then work with a partner on how to deliver on that strategy. When it works, it's just incredibly, incredibly powerful, not only for our clients to take share, but also lower their cost of operations by improving their revenue, lowering what we call rework of bad, disconnect, frustrating engagements, and really allowing for a better experience for their customers.

Phil Fersht: There's a lot of rhetoric and noise, particularly from the IT sector, that contact centers are going to be automated away. It's all about the touchless digital interfaces, the Amazonification of business.

When you consider Amazon itself has 95 call centers across the world and expanding, Airbnb has a larger number as well, it tells you that we're in a world now where we're seeing traditional business channels mixing very effectively with digital business channels. I think the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon is a perfect example of how to take a traditional channel and really get the perfect hybridization between a human type business transaction and a digital business transaction to increase the business and effectiveness of Whole Foods.

Similarly, when you look at what's going on in the retail pharmaceutical space where, suddenly, now you can get prescriptions delivered to your front door, all types of things happening. We're seeing increased ease of doing business, a very compelling combination of people, technology, AI, and bots to service the customer very effectively.

Chris Caldwell: The evolution of what the contact center is has changed pretty dramatically. I think people have this mind that they call in and get a problem resolved. The reality is, when people put their brand strategy around a contact center and say, "Okay, what are they really trying to engage with?" there's a lot more sort of consultative engagement with customers. There's a lot more analytics going into the customer experience and saying, "Okay, this is a journey we now need to take our customers on."

There are a lot more non-voice interactions that are happening, whether it be AI, whether it be better content, whether it be better mobile experiences for the customers. All of that is being driven out of the contact centers.

Finally, the clients that are really progressive are looking at, give us as much insight as you can about how our customers feel about our products, services, and brand. The only way of doing that is having very robust tools in the contact center to feed that, filter it out, and give it back to the customers to say, "This is what your customers are thinking of your products and services," which is incredibly powerful.

Is customer experience essential to contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Absolutely. It's part of our vision statement that we want to be the greatest customer engagement company in the world. The reality is that the clients who are succeeding and are doing very, very well--Phil named a number of them--are just fanatically, fanatically focused on what that customer experience is.

It's more than just a CSAT. It's more than NPS. It's really focused more on sentiment analysis. It's really focused on what's the emotional engagement that that customer has when they engage with a brand and being able to really enrich that.

The clients who really understand about that emotional connection realize that that's a very different type of engagement that they need to do, both from a toolset, journey, holistic experience perspective that are beating, frankly, the companies out there that are just focused on lowest cost, get the people off the phone, don't even give them the phone number, and see if they can struggle to figure it out themselves.

Phil Fersht: Chris has always been a very forward-looking guy with what he's doing with Concentrix because I think they were originally a technology business before they merged with IBM Services Business about five, six years ago. It's interesting to see how they've really leveraged technology quite aggressively as they've evolved their companies.

I think, when we look at the industry as it is today, we are going through a transition. Companies are trying to figure out how fast they can move when they look at emerging technology. They need to make bets on where to make their investments versus maybe fewer investments, for example.

The customer experience is obviously extremely critical to them. Finding the right partners who can help you achieve much more empowerment and engagement with your customers is more challenging than ever because, the reality is, the partners who often got us here might not be the ones to take us where we want to go because you've not just got to understand your customer. You've almost got to second-guess them and anticipate where they're going to shift.

You need to get closer to the way they operate. You need to get closer to your agents to make sure they really understand how to interact most effectively. You need to know the pain points. You need to also understand what your competition is doing.

Each industry is different. When we look at the insurance sector today, we see some very disruptive firms like Lemonade coming along, which could completely change the landscape of that industry. If you can't move to a very digitized customer service model quickly, you really could be out of the game.

I presented Lemonade to a major investor the other day. They actually managed to take out a policy by the time I'd finished the presentation. It was that eye-opening.

In other industries like banking, for example, may move a little slower. It's harder to get customers to switch. But, at the same time, customer service is still absolutely imperative as a growth mechanism.

We really have to understand the transition we're in and the speed customers are moving at. It's been a conversation Chris and I have had in the past. There's been frustration that sometimes customers just want to keep doing things the same old way.

Are contact center customers still stuck in old ways?

Chris Caldwell: We still have clients who are languishing in old habits who talk about wanting to reinvent a customer experience and then you're driven to procurement and they start talking about AHT and what's the lowest cost per transaction. Really, customer experience is the last thing on their menu of what they want to procure.

We have more and more clients, both new ones we're acquiring as well as existing ones, that realize they need to change in order to survive, grow, and do some really innovative things. That's incredibly exciting.

What's even more exciting is that we're also seeing a lot of cross-industry looking. For instance, we've got an airline that was saying, "Hey, what's going on in the new, innovative, gig economy world for customer service?" We've got a bank who says, "Look, we don't care what other banks are doing. Show us what the best customer engagement is when it comes to consumer electronics and software."

We're seeing a lot of these different types of unique views cross-industry that are really driving a lot of creativity when it comes to new engagement strategies. I think that's really where the future is. Then layering on technology, layering on staff because I do think, regardless of how much technology there is, there's always going to be people involved and engaged, whether it be voice or nonvoice, in these interactions and helping them be as powerful and robust as possible.

Phil Fersht: Where do you feel customers are reaching out for help here? Things are shifting in terms of, they want solutions, they want them now, they want partners who really understand them. A lot of them want to go to traditional technology services or consulting businesses. Others are seemingly partnering more with their contact center businesses themselves.

As you look at the landscape of partners that are evolving here, do you feel, Chris, that your competitors are changing? Do you feel like you're moving into a competitive landscape that you've never seen before? Do you sometimes feel it's the same as the old school and it's the same old brands that you're coming up against?

Chris Caldwell: No, it's interesting. We've seen an evolution of who we are competing with. You're seeing a lot more digital marketing agencies in this space than you've ever seen before. We're seeing a lot more consultative services companies in this space who will then say, "Well, look. I'll get together a bundle of services and help present this."

We're seeing traditional players that are continuing to evolve, grow, and execute differently. Then we're seeing some unique boutique players who are saying, "Look. We know how to do mobility and mobile apps. Frankly, you don't need people. You just need the killer app to go on a desktop or go on a mobile device." The reality is, we're seeing a bunch of these different competitors that are coming into the space, which is, I think, frankly, healthy and good, overall, and really drive for a better experience.

What we are finding from a client perspective is that there's a lot of debate within our clients about who owns the customer experience. Is it the now chief digital officer? A few of our clients have chief experience officers. Some of our clients, some of it's owned by marketing. If it's the website, it's owned by technology. If it's the mobile application, it's owned by the sales team or support team if it's the contact center.

Anywhere where that entire experience isn't owned by one person where there's not one throat to choke, we find that there is trouble. It takes too much time internally to engage those different groups to get to what that experience needs to be.

What should companies do to gain a more holistic view of the customer?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, that's a good question. A lot of it comes down to the company's culture. It's just who owns what and is it a legacy reason why they own it or is it just because some areas are problematic?

Look, the reality is, a lot of people don't want to take on the support part of the organization because it generally is a cost center versus a revenue center. It's generally where you get escalations versus praise. That sometimes is separated out from some of the other areas.

A lot of the marketing resources in Web or mobile tend to look at that of saying, "Well, this is really the future. I don't want to deal with the legacy."

Where we found the big change agents is, honestly, where there's a leadership team at the top that says, "Customer experience is critical. This is totally strategic to us and we need to assign someone to own it from beginning to end and put on this holistic feel to it." That's where we're seeing big gains. Frankly, those are the clients that are really exciting to work with because there are no preconceived notions. Everything is up for grabs. They really started the base of saying, "What is that customer journey with our brand, how do we lay it out, and how do we beat our competition with it?"

How do modern contact centers drive business model changes?

Phil Fersht: Yes. I think it was distilled earlier, what we were talking about with the fact that Amazon did that move with Whole Foods as a great example of how to take a traditional retail business and really blend that with a digital, complete model from customer to supplier, for example, and things like that. It's very interesting how it's the blending of the model that is driving new demand and new interest than just having, "Let's move to pure automation," and that sort of thing.

It really depends on the industry, the way the customer wants to be serviced, the times that they need to have interaction, with voice versus digital versus maybe even Alexa, that type of thing. Things are moving pretty dramatically in that regard.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. The reality is, the business model is one element. I think brand identity is another element that takes a lot of thought and changes how people use contact centers and use any type of engagement services that go along with it.

We are seeing a lot more channels pop up, regardless of the business model, to Phil's point. Alexa is now becoming a big one. Google Home is becoming a big one.

We just put in an Alexa app for someone that you can actually ask for my retirement savings and Alexa will tell you what it is. You can say, "Well, if I want to retire ten years from now," and Alexa will interact with the financial institution that we did the support for that basically will have that whole conversation without any advisor being there.

All these new channels are popping up that are enhancing the business models, I think. Fundamentally, it still comes back to, what is the brand, what does it want to represent, and how does it want to engage its customers?

What do all of these changes imply for the contact center business model?

Chris Caldwell: We have a model of how we want to engage with our customers, how we develop partnerships with them, what we look at, and how we govern around those partnerships. Frankly, we're looking at everything from the start, the beginning, like from recruiting. Are we hiring the right people to come in and work in the new toolsets with a lot more technology? Requirements for a lot more empathy is a skill set that might not be as robust as what we need in our workforce.

In terms of multitasking and having more consultative engagement in talking with customers, whether it be through voice or nonvoice versus more scripted interactions because there's nothing worse than when people get a scripted interaction when they're talking to someone. We're looking for people who understand and can be thought-provoking on some of the insights that they give. Even at the frontline level to say, "Hey, I'm listening to all this interaction with customers. There's a better way of doing this."

Not only how we recruit them; it's also how we train them. There is a lot more gamification in place. No one wants to sit through six weeks of PowerPoint presentations and figure out how to do their job. They want to have a lot more engagement and interaction.

They're used to technology being very, very simple, so one of our biggest complaints from some of our staff is, "Hey, the customer's technology, the screens that we're asking for and we're using, are antiquated." We still have clients who have greenscreens.

They're like, "I downloaded an app from the app store and it's instantaneous. It works so smoothly. Why can't this happen?" We're spending a lot more time on changing the technology that our staff are using in working with our clients from that standpoint.

Then, lastly, Phil has been talking about this for a long time. Call it RPA. Call it AI. Call it whatever you want to call it. The reality is that there is a lot of tedious work that needs to come out of the contact centers that people don't enjoy doing that generally slows down the process for the customer.

Our goal is to erode a fairly significant portion of our revenue every year by just automation, automation, automation, automation so that our people are really focused on high-value engagement and interactions with customers. Really, it changes right across the supply chain when it comes to this business.

What are the challenges around customer data?

Phil Fersht: I think one of the biggest challenges that we haven't spoken about so much today is getting the right data to really understand the customer more effectively. When that customer is in communication, whether it's digital, whether it's voice, the company understands them and can anticipate what they want. They know the history of your users, that sort of thing.

I feel the biggest problem in the industry right now is broken marketing processes. I was having a conversation with a couple of CDOs recently. We talked about RPA, as an example. They actually came out and said, "If we could get some better automation across our marketing and started fixing some of these manual workarounds and broken processes, it would have a huge impact on our business."

The problem is, a lot of CMOs and CDOs, for example, that think that's sort of beneath them. I think one of the key things that we need to start thinking about here is fixing underlying processes so we get better data. It's all about data, ultimately, understanding the customer, and predicting the customer. A lot of customers are really struggling with that right now.

I think that's where firms like Concentrix can really get ahead. Building some type of uniform platforms, customer data platforms, for example, that's a really hot topic right now in the industry. There are a lot of little startups, a lot of players in that space. You've got your bigger players like the Omegas and your Salesforces. Then you've got little startups coming in.

Getting that customer data platform right, having some type of uniformity, having an underbed, having a real capability and backbone is where this has to go. I now feel, until enterprises actually fix those underlying processes, they're going to struggle to see real progress.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. It's interesting. We have a little over 50 unicorns that we deal with. Whether they built the application and they built the experience from the ground up, their data is fantastic. Frankly, they're the first to drive more machine learning. They're the first not to have sort of bad processes, for the most part. They're the first to look at AI and some of these newer advanced tools and be able to actually get some use out of them, even in small scale.

To Phil's point on the enterprise, not only marketing processes and data points are broken. We've got disparate financial systems; disparate pick, pack, and ship systems; disparate customer systems. We have a large client that has, I think, 11 or 12 Salesforce instances for their customer base.

When you get those types of challenges, to Phil's point, there is a lot of work that needs to be put into place to get that uniformity on the data side to then say, "Okay. Now we can actually speak intelligently to our customers and have one voice." That is a long trek to go and a lot of work needs to go down that path before you start to see big improvements.

I think, from an AI perspective, overall, we've played around. We have a client who play around with it. There are definitely some great use cases.

Is it taking out vast amounts of work out of the systems? We're not necessarily seeing that, to Phil's point, just because some of the data is just not there to connect all the different points.

I always remember the best technology I've had is sometimes like talking to a six-year-old. One statement is great. It can respond to it. When you start to layer on context and you start to layer on the whole experience, it kind of falls flat and, frankly, detracts. We've seen this. Some technology deployed in this area detracts from customer sentiment and actually gives you a lower CSAT score. It may be at a lower cost, but a lower CSAT score. I don't know anyone who is trying to drive to that area.

How do you keep a vocal minority of customers from having too much impact on your decisions around customer experience and your product roadmap?

Phil Fersht: It's true. A vocal minority can swamp what your customers really want. Having a very strong ability to understand customer sentiment across the board is absolutely critical. It depends on what business you're in. It depends on how you interact with your customers, how you get data from your customers, especially during calls and that sort of thing as well.

Firstly, it's understanding that there is a vocal minority because sometimes many companies don't. They just hear noise come in. They see public complaints on social media and things like that.

They've really got to understand the core issues. They really have to set up a data platform in a way that they have that information. They really understand what the key issues are and how to get ahead of them. I think, again, it all boils back to the intelligence of your capabilities, the smartness of the people running your customer operations, so they actually know this is just maybe 10% of our customer base and the other 90% is actually perfectly happy with this issue, to get ahead of that.

Chris Caldwell: To me, it's a combination of things. First of all, it is making sure that the tail isn't wagging the dog by understanding the data, having the right data, and capturing the right data properly and using it. I think the second thing is, that's why I'm a huge, huge proponent of sentiment analysis where you're not sending out a survey and saying, "Hey, fill this out," because that only gets 10% to 15% of the people who respond and you either get the highs and the lows on those surveys versus sort of the masses.

In that sentiment analysis, it's really understanding, okay, what moves the needle and what's important? I think it's also important because what it brings out is we have this common debate that says, if you have someone who contacts you who is extremely loyal to your brand, they have an okay engagement, and they still like your brand but they're just not as fanatical about it, is that better or worse than someone who is really contacting you because they're incredibly, incredibly frustrated with your brand and you get them to be neutral where they're not going on Twitter and saying, "I hate this company"?

The reality is that, right now, there's a lot of debate around that because all the systems, generally, are saying, "Oh, focus on either the bottom quartile or the top, but not, how do you actually move everyone up across the whole spectrum of engagement. It's really, really, really fascinating stuff, and I think that also will help drive better subjective engagement with customers versus kind of running around.

We have one interesting customer who actually grades their customers internally with a customer score. Depending on what that customer score is--which they link to influence, share of wallet, and a whole host of other things--they will react to a comment that comes in. If comments come in from this sort of quadrant of people, they take it very, very seriously. If comments come in from this quadrant of people, they go, "Hmm, okay, interesting, but let's see where it goes before we take action." You're seeing that going back to the data and just being a lot more versed and having a lot more ability to articulate what's coming out from the data.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, it sounded like you were agreeing. I don't know if you had another comment on that as well.

Phil Fersht: It's getting me thinking a bit. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Clinton a few weeks ago. He said one thing which resonates with me, which was, he thought social media was great when it first hit the scene because he thought no one could control it. [Laughter] Now it's become a real issue for obviously not just politicians but businesses in general.

You can get minorities of people making a lot of noise on social media, which you need to control if you're running a business. It could be you're running an airline and there are two or three companies and clients who really hate you. They're going out and attacking your brand all the time. You've got to figure out, how do you manage that minority to keep the majority away from that as well?

I do think that there are shifts happening in society that is having a big impact on how we actually manage this moving forward. There's no hard and fast answer to this beyond, you've got to be really smart about this. You need to have people managing your social media sites as well as your own data platforms and your own call centers to really get ahead of this.

There isn't a set way of doing this. You've got to be really smart. You've got to understand your customers. You've got to really focus on controlling the noise as much as you can.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, and it's also the speed of response because sometimes people thought of social media as an afterthought. Still, to this day, there are some big brands that, if you tweet at them, if you get a response back in two or three days, you're doing well. Yet, there are others that you tweet and, within a minute, you'll get a response back. Clearly, we're seeing more and more companies going, "Okay, even if they're a minority, even if they've got something," to Phil's point, "before it starts roller-coasting, let's figure out how to deal with it," and address it in almost real-time.

Why do some companies offer excellent service while others don’t?

Chris Caldwell: Yeah. That's a great question. Look, I'll tell you. My experience, personal experience, always comes from the top of our clients. If the client's executive team strongly, strongly believe in customer experience and they focus on things like that, they procure, which is really critically important to procure around customer experience and they have collaboration around the different groups around customer experience, then that's when you get that incredible customer experience. Those are the companies that you read about and hear about all the time going, "Wow, this incredible experience happened." People share on social media and they drive great brand loyalty.

Where you get fractured ownership of the experience, where you get, I'll call it, lip service to customer experience, and then it goes to a procurement team--Phil jokes about this because I hate to say it but I call the procurement team one of the great devaluers of business--is where they solely buy on certain things. It's not on customer experience. It's not on the total cost of ownership. It's simply driving down to the lowest cost of transaction.

Then you will get these very, very different types of customer experiences. They can be frustrating. They tend to be driven by monopolies in certain markets because they don't necessarily need to improve.

Those times are changing. As Phil pointed out with new insurance companies, new banking companies, there is a new, disruptive model coming out in almost every segment of our business that have kind of thrown out the old and said, "Hey, we're going to compete on customer experience." I think that's why it's one of the really exciting times right now.

Phil Fersht: It's interesting. I met with the head of operations for HSBC Bank a few months ago. They had a real issue with their customer experience. They were like number seven in the banking league for Europe, I think it was, in terms of customer sat. First Direct was number one.

What did they do? They went and acquired First Direct. A lot of it was because they really couldn't shift the culture and how to improve their own customer intimacy and customer experiences. They wanted to learn from another company. They wanted to bring that culture into the business as well.

In some instances, it's very cultural. It's something that's been in the company for a long time. You need to figure out maybe a game-changing initiative that can shift things.

Sometimes it's outsourcing. It could quite simply be, "Hey, let's go to Concentrix or Teleperformance or Sitel or one of these firms to see if they can shift our culture and do this differently as well." That's often what has to happen to change the game.

Are contact centers the same as call centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh. I think it comes up with a new name; everyone comes up with a new name every couple of months. As I mentioned, we have clients who call it brand engagement centers because the reality is, in our centers, probably 30%, 40%, even 50%, 60% of the volume can be nonvoice and have other things and other types of engagement.

Contact center is sort of the term of the day. The reality is, it's really about customer engagement centers that are probably the most prevalent and properly articulate what we actually do.

Phil Fersht: I think the contact center is a fairly meaningless term. You can call up your IT support line and you'll get put through to a contact center in Bangalore or whatever to fix your IT problem, but it's not called a contact center because it's an IT services shop. The same with finance and accounting. You could even call your doctor helpline and you get put through to an offshore doctor in Manilla and that sort of thing.

A contact center, really, is a housed building where you have service staff who are delivering needs for you, whether it's customer engagement, whether it's something purely fulfillment focused, whatever. I think it's a fairly broad term and I think Chris has a very good point that there needs to be a better shift in how we talk about these things because it's more of an engagement center. It's like, how do you get service?

I called my mobile phone provider the other day. I had no idea who was servicing me and where he was from. He could have been in Manilla. He could have been in Mexico. I was tempted to ask him after a while.

It just gets to the point of engaging with this customer. What type of service am I getting? Is there any follow up afterward and that sort of thing?

Chris Caldwell: Frankly, the physical idea of everyone sitting in the same space is no longer valid. Frankly, we have some customers that their engagement center wraps around 20, 30 different centers around the world and follows the sun. It's very, very seamless.

We have thousands of people who work at home as individuals who will support brands and do amazing jobs of customer engagement. Then we have gig workers who are sort of independent and will spend a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there over a course of a month supporting a client or supporting a customer. The whole premise of everyone sitting in one space is also somewhat old school and not necessarily reflective of what this new business looks like and how people service their customers.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, you are a consumer. You buy things. You have to get tech support, I'm sure, at various times. When you're calling up some company, whoever it is--bank, phone company, whatever--asking for support, what goes through your mind?

Chris Caldwell: Well, you know what? I have a very, very high bar. [Laughter] I talk about it in staff meetings all the time. I always give a great customer example and a bad customer example of brands that I interact with.

I look at everything from, is it a scripted experience, is it not? Is it technology for the sake of technology or is technology really helping? Is it a bot that I have to get out of because I can't get something solved or not?

I intentionally, because of the business I'm in, go out and look for these experiences. I also look at the company culture.

A great example is, I have a very favorite airline. I'll call them out because I love them so much. Cathay, they're not a client of ours, but I had a problem, I tweeted and got an instant response, instant engagement. Just fantastic. It was a great experience.

I have another airline that I had an issue with and talked to them. They said, "Well, we can't tell you who runs customer service for privacy information and we can't really help you. Sorry. Hope you have a nice day," as they left me stranded in an airport in a foreign country. [Laughter]

The reality is that it's all about that, do you feel engaged? Are you emotionally connected to the experience? Did they resolve your problem? You walk away going, "Wow, I would spend money with that company again." If you spend money with that company again, they've done their job.

What's your advice to the contact center or engagement center industry? 

Phil Fersht: That's a very good question. I was thinking you were going to ask me about the people who buy services, so it's sometimes more fun to talk about the people who sell services.

The first thing is, stop trying to sell services the way that you're structured to sell them and start thinking about selling them the way your customers want to buy them because that's the big difference now. It's really understanding what your customers want and being able to come up with almost like a portfolio approach of servicing their needs, making sure you've got the right startups, relationships, and expertise around you to deliver many of the things they need. Stop trying to maybe sound the same as everybody else and just really listen to what they want and really get people in who understand the nuances of AI, automation, machine learning, all the things that are really changing the industry right now.

If you don't do that and you're just focusing on saying, "We do better customer service," at some point, you're going to see a downscale in your business. When we look at the contact center industry right now, it's pretty much the same established set of players, the same 500 logos. It's a shuffling of the pack that's going on all the time. It's a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of who is going to win this war.

You've got to focus on rising to the top. You've got to focus on analytics, automation, and AI, and have that conversation. If your company isn't doing that, you're worried about that, and you want to be a real leader in this industry, then go and work for a contact center provider who does because you have a choice.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, let me just very quickly because we are going to run out of time, what advice do you have for companies that are buying contact center services? Really fast, please.

Phil Fersht: Look at your customer processes. Figure out exactly how you want to wire them, configure them, and the outcomes you want. Then look at who can deliver on them. Don't try and buy new kits, new tech for the sake of it. Figure out exactly what you want and then figure out how best to get it.

What advice do you have for companies that want to provide a better experience to their customers?

Chris Caldwell: Don't buy technology or kits for the sake of being new. Make sure that there's a clear direction and decision of what your brand is. Do you know your brand strategy? Most clients cannot articulate that clearly. Make sure you work with a company that's you're culturally aligned to, that you are going to be transparent with, and have those conversations so that you can actually move forward versus trying to figure out via this offense/defense thing that keeps going along.

I'd also say that the companies that really create wow experiences for their customers are ones that enable their frontline staff, whether it be their partner or their own, to do wow experiences. They're not measured on the clock. If they get two seconds over on a call, a chat, or a tweet, that they're penalized. That they are actually able, engaged, and empowered to make sure that there are wow experiences.

If you get those three out of the way, frankly, the rest is a lot easier.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, again, very, very fast, I need to follow up with one last question, which is, you mentioned brand strategy. From your perspective, what is the link between a company's brand strategy and the customer experience, including the contact center?

Chris Caldwell: Very simple. If you have your brand strategy, you know how you want to treat the clients or customers. You know what the experience they want to walk away from every engagement is. You know what your cost model is to provide that level of experience.

You know what you're expecting from that experience so that if you go to a customer and say, "How was your experience with my brand?" they will tell you exactly what you want to hear. If there's a disconnect anywhere along there, that's where you get, frankly, the back and forth and the mismatched expectations with your customers.

 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Caldwell, tell us about Concentrix?

Chris Caldwell: I'm responsible for the Concentrix business globally. We're about $4.7 billion with about 220,000 staff, 40 different countries around the world, so a fairly large pool of data that we look at when we look at customer experience and fairly diverse client group around the world that really allows us to understand, see trends, and see where the business is going as a whole.

Phil Fersht, tell us about HFS Research?

Phil Fersht: We're approaching our tenth birthday next year. We're quite global now. We have about 50 staff and one of the largest analyst teams dedicated to what we call the Triple-A, which is Analytics, AI, and Automation. Then we have a very specific focus on business services where we really get down and dirty on how that whole industry is being transformed across the customer experience. Also, we look at how the customer experience is tied to the middle and back office of the organization as well.

What's happening with modern contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, I think, a lot, Michael. They've dramatically changed over even the last two to three years where much more technology is involved in the contact centers. There's a lot more nonvoice happening in the contact centers. I think Phil has talked a lot about One Office where back-office processes that used to be done outside of the contact center are now bring brought into the contact center to allow for better contact and customer resolution.

I think we're also seeing a significant amount of investment in really trying to drive analytics within the contact center, not only to make sure that clients get sort of a 360-degree view of their customers, but also that customers don't get frustrated if they tweet at you and then they call in. They want you to understand what they tweeted at you and how to resolve things better. In fact, we're seeing clients start to rename them from contact centers to brand engagement centers to brand centers to customer resolution centers, so a lot more than just sort of the standard contact center that you might have thought of just a couple of years ago.

Phil Fersht: The contact center was really the traditional kind of place in business process outsourcing where initially companies would assign contracts to companies to get customer services delivered around the world using different languages, often using lower-cost locations, et cetera. That industry is fairly mature today. It's still growing, believe it or not, at about 5% a year.

I find it quite amusing that it's actually hard for our call center businesses right now to find enough call center staff. There's a lot of talk about automating the contact center but, right now, we're just still struggling to find good people to take the calls.

It is an industry in transition. There are a lot of exciting things happening where we're looking at mixes of AI type offerings and cognitive assistant type offerings that are mixed with human and voice agent offerings as well.

Our research has shown that a focus on the customer experience is the number one strategic imperative from the highest performers in the Global 2000. That means there's a lot more focus and attention on that frontline; how we're interacting with the customer. Not just helping them get what they need quickly, but also anticipating their needs down the road, often before they know what their needs are themselves.

It places companies like Concentrix and many of the other contact center businesses in a very strategic position in the industry. We're enjoying watching this battle for who is going to win this war as things continue to evolve.

What does transformation mean for contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Well, I totally agree with Phil. It's funny; people have said that contact centers are going to be dead or have been dead for years. The reality is, they are growing at 5%, which is not insignificant. Getting good quality staff in the numbers that we're talking about is not insignificant either, including the technology going in to help those staff get proficient as quickly as possible is just improving month on month and quarter on quarter, so really, really dynamic around that perspective.

I think, also, to Phil's point, the reality is, clients are focused on what is that customer experience that they need to do and how is it aligned to their brand. Do they have a VIP brand or do they have a white glove brand? Is it a lowest-cost delivery brand?

Really, the ones who are winning in the battle for market share are the ones who understand it, look at it holistically, and come up with a strategy and then work with a partner on how to deliver on that strategy. When it works, it's just incredibly, incredibly powerful, not only for our clients to take share, but also lower their cost of operations by improving their revenue, lowering what we call rework of bad, disconnect, frustrating engagements, and really allowing for a better experience for their customers.

Phil Fersht: There's a lot of rhetoric and noise, particularly from the IT sector, that contact centers are going to be automated away. It's all about the touchless digital interfaces, the Amazonification of business.

When you consider Amazon itself has 95 call centers across the world and expanding, Airbnb has a larger number as well, it tells you that we're in a world now where we're seeing traditional business channels mixing very effectively with digital business channels. I think the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon is a perfect example of how to take a traditional channel and really get the perfect hybridization between a human type business transaction and a digital business transaction to increase the business and effectiveness of Whole Foods.

Similarly, when you look at what's going on in the retail pharmaceutical space where, suddenly, now you can get prescriptions delivered to your front door, all types of things happening. We're seeing increased ease of doing business, a very compelling combination of people, technology, AI, and bots to service the customer very effectively.

Chris Caldwell: The evolution of what the contact center is has changed pretty dramatically. I think people have this mind that they call in and get a problem resolved. The reality is, when people put their brand strategy around a contact center and say, "Okay, what are they really trying to engage with?" there's a lot more sort of consultative engagement with customers. There's a lot more analytics going into the customer experience and saying, "Okay, this is a journey we now need to take our customers on."

There are a lot more non-voice interactions that are happening, whether it be AI, whether it be better content, whether it be better mobile experiences for the customers. All of that is being driven out of the contact centers.

Finally, the clients that are really progressive are looking at, give us as much insight as you can about how our customers feel about our products, services, and brand. The only way of doing that is having very robust tools in the contact center to feed that, filter it out, and give it back to the customers to say, "This is what your customers are thinking of your products and services," which is incredibly powerful.

Is customer experience essential to contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Absolutely. It's part of our vision statement that we want to be the greatest customer engagement company in the world. The reality is that the clients who are succeeding and are doing very, very well--Phil named a number of them--are just fanatically, fanatically focused on what that customer experience is.

It's more than just a CSAT. It's more than NPS. It's really focused more on sentiment analysis. It's really focused on what's the emotional engagement that that customer has when they engage with a brand and being able to really enrich that.

The clients who really understand about that emotional connection realize that that's a very different type of engagement that they need to do, both from a toolset, journey, holistic experience perspective that are beating, frankly, the companies out there that are just focused on lowest cost, get the people off the phone, don't even give them the phone number, and see if they can struggle to figure it out themselves.

Phil Fersht: Chris has always been a very forward-looking guy with what he's doing with Concentrix because I think they were originally a technology business before they merged with IBM Services Business about five, six years ago. It's interesting to see how they've really leveraged technology quite aggressively as they've evolved their companies.

I think, when we look at the industry as it is today, we are going through a transition. Companies are trying to figure out how fast they can move when they look at emerging technology. They need to make bets on where to make their investments versus maybe fewer investments, for example.

The customer experience is obviously extremely critical to them. Finding the right partners who can help you achieve much more empowerment and engagement with your customers is more challenging than ever because, the reality is, the partners who often got us here might not be the ones to take us where we want to go because you've not just got to understand your customer. You've almost got to second-guess them and anticipate where they're going to shift.

You need to get closer to the way they operate. You need to get closer to your agents to make sure they really understand how to interact most effectively. You need to know the pain points. You need to also understand what your competition is doing.

Each industry is different. When we look at the insurance sector today, we see some very disruptive firms like Lemonade coming along, which could completely change the landscape of that industry. If you can't move to a very digitized customer service model quickly, you really could be out of the game.

I presented Lemonade to a major investor the other day. They actually managed to take out a policy by the time I'd finished the presentation. It was that eye-opening.

In other industries like banking, for example, may move a little slower. It's harder to get customers to switch. But, at the same time, customer service is still absolutely imperative as a growth mechanism.

We really have to understand the transition we're in and the speed customers are moving at. It's been a conversation Chris and I have had in the past. There's been frustration that sometimes customers just want to keep doing things the same old way.

Are contact center customers still stuck in old ways?

Chris Caldwell: We still have clients who are languishing in old habits who talk about wanting to reinvent a customer experience and then you're driven to procurement and they start talking about AHT and what's the lowest cost per transaction. Really, customer experience is the last thing on their menu of what they want to procure.

We have more and more clients, both new ones we're acquiring as well as existing ones, that realize they need to change in order to survive, grow, and do some really innovative things. That's incredibly exciting.

What's even more exciting is that we're also seeing a lot of cross-industry looking. For instance, we've got an airline that was saying, "Hey, what's going on in the new, innovative, gig economy world for customer service?" We've got a bank who says, "Look, we don't care what other banks are doing. Show us what the best customer engagement is when it comes to consumer electronics and software."

We're seeing a lot of these different types of unique views cross-industry that are really driving a lot of creativity when it comes to new engagement strategies. I think that's really where the future is. Then layering on technology, layering on staff because I do think, regardless of how much technology there is, there's always going to be people involved and engaged, whether it be voice or nonvoice, in these interactions and helping them be as powerful and robust as possible.

Phil Fersht: Where do you feel customers are reaching out for help here? Things are shifting in terms of, they want solutions, they want them now, they want partners who really understand them. A lot of them want to go to traditional technology services or consulting businesses. Others are seemingly partnering more with their contact center businesses themselves.

As you look at the landscape of partners that are evolving here, do you feel, Chris, that your competitors are changing? Do you feel like you're moving into a competitive landscape that you've never seen before? Do you sometimes feel it's the same as the old school and it's the same old brands that you're coming up against?

Chris Caldwell: No, it's interesting. We've seen an evolution of who we are competing with. You're seeing a lot more digital marketing agencies in this space than you've ever seen before. We're seeing a lot more consultative services companies in this space who will then say, "Well, look. I'll get together a bundle of services and help present this."

We're seeing traditional players that are continuing to evolve, grow, and execute differently. Then we're seeing some unique boutique players who are saying, "Look. We know how to do mobility and mobile apps. Frankly, you don't need people. You just need the killer app to go on a desktop or go on a mobile device." The reality is, we're seeing a bunch of these different competitors that are coming into the space, which is, I think, frankly, healthy and good, overall, and really drive for a better experience.

What we are finding from a client perspective is that there's a lot of debate within our clients about who owns the customer experience. Is it the now chief digital officer? A few of our clients have chief experience officers. Some of our clients, some of it's owned by marketing. If it's the website, it's owned by technology. If it's the mobile application, it's owned by the sales team or support team if it's the contact center.

Anywhere where that entire experience isn't owned by one person where there's not one throat to choke, we find that there is trouble. It takes too much time internally to engage those different groups to get to what that experience needs to be.

What should companies do to gain a more holistic view of the customer?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, that's a good question. A lot of it comes down to the company's culture. It's just who owns what and is it a legacy reason why they own it or is it just because some areas are problematic?

Look, the reality is, a lot of people don't want to take on the support part of the organization because it generally is a cost center versus a revenue center. It's generally where you get escalations versus praise. That sometimes is separated out from some of the other areas.

A lot of the marketing resources in Web or mobile tend to look at that of saying, "Well, this is really the future. I don't want to deal with the legacy."

Where we found the big change agents is, honestly, where there's a leadership team at the top that says, "Customer experience is critical. This is totally strategic to us and we need to assign someone to own it from beginning to end and put on this holistic feel to it." That's where we're seeing big gains. Frankly, those are the clients that are really exciting to work with because there are no preconceived notions. Everything is up for grabs. They really started the base of saying, "What is that customer journey with our brand, how do we lay it out, and how do we beat our competition with it?"

How do modern contact centers drive business model changes?

Phil Fersht: Yes. I think it was distilled earlier, what we were talking about with the fact that Amazon did that move with Whole Foods as a great example of how to take a traditional retail business and really blend that with a digital, complete model from customer to supplier, for example, and things like that. It's very interesting how it's the blending of the model that is driving new demand and new interest than just having, "Let's move to pure automation," and that sort of thing.

It really depends on the industry, the way the customer wants to be serviced, the times that they need to have interaction, with voice versus digital versus maybe even Alexa, that type of thing. Things are moving pretty dramatically in that regard.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. The reality is, the business model is one element. I think brand identity is another element that takes a lot of thought and changes how people use contact centers and use any type of engagement services that go along with it.

We are seeing a lot more channels pop up, regardless of the business model, to Phil's point. Alexa is now becoming a big one. Google Home is becoming a big one.

We just put in an Alexa app for someone that you can actually ask for my retirement savings and Alexa will tell you what it is. You can say, "Well, if I want to retire ten years from now," and Alexa will interact with the financial institution that we did the support for that basically will have that whole conversation without any advisor being there.

All these new channels are popping up that are enhancing the business models, I think. Fundamentally, it still comes back to, what is the brand, what does it want to represent, and how does it want to engage its customers?

What do all of these changes imply for the contact center business model?

Chris Caldwell: We have a model of how we want to engage with our customers, how we develop partnerships with them, what we look at, and how we govern around those partnerships. Frankly, we're looking at everything from the start, the beginning, like from recruiting. Are we hiring the right people to come in and work in the new toolsets with a lot more technology? Requirements for a lot more empathy is a skill set that might not be as robust as what we need in our workforce.

In terms of multitasking and having more consultative engagement in talking with customers, whether it be through voice or nonvoice versus more scripted interactions because there's nothing worse than when people get a scripted interaction when they're talking to someone. We're looking for people who understand and can be thought-provoking on some of the insights that they give. Even at the frontline level to say, "Hey, I'm listening to all this interaction with customers. There's a better way of doing this."

Not only how we recruit them; it's also how we train them. There is a lot more gamification in place. No one wants to sit through six weeks of PowerPoint presentations and figure out how to do their job. They want to have a lot more engagement and interaction.

They're used to technology being very, very simple, so one of our biggest complaints from some of our staff is, "Hey, the customer's technology, the screens that we're asking for and we're using, are antiquated." We still have clients who have greenscreens.

They're like, "I downloaded an app from the app store and it's instantaneous. It works so smoothly. Why can't this happen?" We're spending a lot more time on changing the technology that our staff are using in working with our clients from that standpoint.

Then, lastly, Phil has been talking about this for a long time. Call it RPA. Call it AI. Call it whatever you want to call it. The reality is that there is a lot of tedious work that needs to come out of the contact centers that people don't enjoy doing that generally slows down the process for the customer.

Our goal is to erode a fairly significant portion of our revenue every year by just automation, automation, automation, automation so that our people are really focused on high-value engagement and interactions with customers. Really, it changes right across the supply chain when it comes to this business.

What are the challenges around customer data?

Phil Fersht: I think one of the biggest challenges that we haven't spoken about so much today is getting the right data to really understand the customer more effectively. When that customer is in communication, whether it's digital, whether it's voice, the company understands them and can anticipate what they want. They know the history of your users, that sort of thing.

I feel the biggest problem in the industry right now is broken marketing processes. I was having a conversation with a couple of CDOs recently. We talked about RPA, as an example. They actually came out and said, "If we could get some better automation across our marketing and started fixing some of these manual workarounds and broken processes, it would have a huge impact on our business."

The problem is, a lot of CMOs and CDOs, for example, that think that's sort of beneath them. I think one of the key things that we need to start thinking about here is fixing underlying processes so we get better data. It's all about data, ultimately, understanding the customer, and predicting the customer. A lot of customers are really struggling with that right now.

I think that's where firms like Concentrix can really get ahead. Building some type of uniform platforms, customer data platforms, for example, that's a really hot topic right now in the industry. There are a lot of little startups, a lot of players in that space. You've got your bigger players like the Omegas and your Salesforces. Then you've got little startups coming in.

Getting that customer data platform right, having some type of uniformity, having an underbed, having a real capability and backbone is where this has to go. I now feel, until enterprises actually fix those underlying processes, they're going to struggle to see real progress.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. It's interesting. We have a little over 50 unicorns that we deal with. Whether they built the application and they built the experience from the ground up, their data is fantastic. Frankly, they're the first to drive more machine learning. They're the first not to have sort of bad processes, for the most part. They're the first to look at AI and some of these newer advanced tools and be able to actually get some use out of them, even in small scale.

To Phil's point on the enterprise, not only marketing processes and data points are broken. We've got disparate financial systems; disparate pick, pack, and ship systems; disparate customer systems. We have a large client that has, I think, 11 or 12 Salesforce instances for their customer base.

When you get those types of challenges, to Phil's point, there is a lot of work that needs to be put into place to get that uniformity on the data side to then say, "Okay. Now we can actually speak intelligently to our customers and have one voice." That is a long trek to go and a lot of work needs to go down that path before you start to see big improvements.

I think, from an AI perspective, overall, we've played around. We have a client who play around with it. There are definitely some great use cases.

Is it taking out vast amounts of work out of the systems? We're not necessarily seeing that, to Phil's point, just because some of the data is just not there to connect all the different points.

I always remember the best technology I've had is sometimes like talking to a six-year-old. One statement is great. It can respond to it. When you start to layer on context and you start to layer on the whole experience, it kind of falls flat and, frankly, detracts. We've seen this. Some technology deployed in this area detracts from customer sentiment and actually gives you a lower CSAT score. It may be at a lower cost, but a lower CSAT score. I don't know anyone who is trying to drive to that area.

How do you keep a vocal minority of customers from having too much impact on your decisions around customer experience and your product roadmap?

Phil Fersht: It's true. A vocal minority can swamp what your customers really want. Having a very strong ability to understand customer sentiment across the board is absolutely critical. It depends on what business you're in. It depends on how you interact with your customers, how you get data from your customers, especially during calls and that sort of thing as well.

Firstly, it's understanding that there is a vocal minority because sometimes many companies don't. They just hear noise come in. They see public complaints on social media and things like that.

They've really got to understand the core issues. They really have to set up a data platform in a way that they have that information. They really understand what the key issues are and how to get ahead of them. I think, again, it all boils back to the intelligence of your capabilities, the smartness of the people running your customer operations, so they actually know this is just maybe 10% of our customer base and the other 90% is actually perfectly happy with this issue, to get ahead of that.

Chris Caldwell: To me, it's a combination of things. First of all, it is making sure that the tail isn't wagging the dog by understanding the data, having the right data, and capturing the right data properly and using it. I think the second thing is, that's why I'm a huge, huge proponent of sentiment analysis where you're not sending out a survey and saying, "Hey, fill this out," because that only gets 10% to 15% of the people who respond and you either get the highs and the lows on those surveys versus sort of the masses.

In that sentiment analysis, it's really understanding, okay, what moves the needle and what's important? I think it's also important because what it brings out is we have this common debate that says, if you have someone who contacts you who is extremely loyal to your brand, they have an okay engagement, and they still like your brand but they're just not as fanatical about it, is that better or worse than someone who is really contacting you because they're incredibly, incredibly frustrated with your brand and you get them to be neutral where they're not going on Twitter and saying, "I hate this company"?

The reality is that, right now, there's a lot of debate around that because all the systems, generally, are saying, "Oh, focus on either the bottom quartile or the top, but not, how do you actually move everyone up across the whole spectrum of engagement. It's really, really, really fascinating stuff, and I think that also will help drive better subjective engagement with customers versus kind of running around.

We have one interesting customer who actually grades their customers internally with a customer score. Depending on what that customer score is--which they link to influence, share of wallet, and a whole host of other things--they will react to a comment that comes in. If comments come in from this sort of quadrant of people, they take it very, very seriously. If comments come in from this quadrant of people, they go, "Hmm, okay, interesting, but let's see where it goes before we take action." You're seeing that going back to the data and just being a lot more versed and having a lot more ability to articulate what's coming out from the data.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, it sounded like you were agreeing. I don't know if you had another comment on that as well.

Phil Fersht: It's getting me thinking a bit. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Clinton a few weeks ago. He said one thing which resonates with me, which was, he thought social media was great when it first hit the scene because he thought no one could control it. [Laughter] Now it's become a real issue for obviously not just politicians but businesses in general.

You can get minorities of people making a lot of noise on social media, which you need to control if you're running a business. It could be you're running an airline and there are two or three companies and clients who really hate you. They're going out and attacking your brand all the time. You've got to figure out, how do you manage that minority to keep the majority away from that as well?

I do think that there are shifts happening in society that is having a big impact on how we actually manage this moving forward. There's no hard and fast answer to this beyond, you've got to be really smart about this. You need to have people managing your social media sites as well as your own data platforms and your own call centers to really get ahead of this.

There isn't a set way of doing this. You've got to be really smart. You've got to understand your customers. You've got to really focus on controlling the noise as much as you can.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, and it's also the speed of response because sometimes people thought of social media as an afterthought. Still, to this day, there are some big brands that, if you tweet at them, if you get a response back in two or three days, you're doing well. Yet, there are others that you tweet and, within a minute, you'll get a response back. Clearly, we're seeing more and more companies going, "Okay, even if they're a minority, even if they've got something," to Phil's point, "before it starts roller-coasting, let's figure out how to deal with it," and address it in almost real-time.

Why do some companies offer excellent service while others don’t?

Chris Caldwell: Yeah. That's a great question. Look, I'll tell you. My experience, personal experience, always comes from the top of our clients. If the client's executive team strongly, strongly believe in customer experience and they focus on things like that, they procure, which is really critically important to procure around customer experience and they have collaboration around the different groups around customer experience, then that's when you get that incredible customer experience. Those are the companies that you read about and hear about all the time going, "Wow, this incredible experience happened." People share on social media and they drive great brand loyalty.

Where you get fractured ownership of the experience, where you get, I'll call it, lip service to customer experience, and then it goes to a procurement team--Phil jokes about this because I hate to say it but I call the procurement team one of the great devaluers of business--is where they solely buy on certain things. It's not on customer experience. It's not on the total cost of ownership. It's simply driving down to the lowest cost of transaction.

Then you will get these very, very different types of customer experiences. They can be frustrating. They tend to be driven by monopolies in certain markets because they don't necessarily need to improve.

Those times are changing. As Phil pointed out with new insurance companies, new banking companies, there is a new, disruptive model coming out in almost every segment of our business that have kind of thrown out the old and said, "Hey, we're going to compete on customer experience." I think that's why it's one of the really exciting times right now.

Phil Fersht: It's interesting. I met with the head of operations for HSBC Bank a few months ago. They had a real issue with their customer experience. They were like number seven in the banking league for Europe, I think it was, in terms of customer sat. First Direct was number one.

What did they do? They went and acquired First Direct. A lot of it was because they really couldn't shift the culture and how to improve their own customer intimacy and customer experiences. They wanted to learn from another company. They wanted to bring that culture into the business as well.

In some instances, it's very cultural. It's something that's been in the company for a long time. You need to figure out maybe a game-changing initiative that can shift things.

Sometimes it's outsourcing. It could quite simply be, "Hey, let's go to Concentrix or Teleperformance or Sitel or one of these firms to see if they can shift our culture and do this differently as well." That's often what has to happen to change the game.

Are contact centers the same as call centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh. I think it comes up with a new name; everyone comes up with a new name every couple of months. As I mentioned, we have clients who call it brand engagement centers because the reality is, in our centers, probably 30%, 40%, even 50%, 60% of the volume can be nonvoice and have other things and other types of engagement.

Contact center is sort of the term of the day. The reality is, it's really about customer engagement centers that are probably the most prevalent and properly articulate what we actually do.

Phil Fersht: I think the contact center is a fairly meaningless term. You can call up your IT support line and you'll get put through to a contact center in Bangalore or whatever to fix your IT problem, but it's not called a contact center because it's an IT services shop. The same with finance and accounting. You could even call your doctor helpline and you get put through to an offshore doctor in Manilla and that sort of thing.

A contact center, really, is a housed building where you have service staff who are delivering needs for you, whether it's customer engagement, whether it's something purely fulfillment focused, whatever. I think it's a fairly broad term and I think Chris has a very good point that there needs to be a better shift in how we talk about these things because it's more of an engagement center. It's like, how do you get service?

I called my mobile phone provider the other day. I had no idea who was servicing me and where he was from. He could have been in Manilla. He could have been in Mexico. I was tempted to ask him after a while.

It just gets to the point of engaging with this customer. What type of service am I getting? Is there any follow up afterward and that sort of thing?

Chris Caldwell: Frankly, the physical idea of everyone sitting in the same space is no longer valid. Frankly, we have some customers that their engagement center wraps around 20, 30 different centers around the world and follows the sun. It's very, very seamless.

We have thousands of people who work at home as individuals who will support brands and do amazing jobs of customer engagement. Then we have gig workers who are sort of independent and will spend a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there over a course of a month supporting a client or supporting a customer. The whole premise of everyone sitting in one space is also somewhat old school and not necessarily reflective of what this new business looks like and how people service their customers.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, you are a consumer. You buy things. You have to get tech support, I'm sure, at various times. When you're calling up some company, whoever it is--bank, phone company, whatever--asking for support, what goes through your mind?

Chris Caldwell: Well, you know what? I have a very, very high bar. [Laughter] I talk about it in staff meetings all the time. I always give a great customer example and a bad customer example of brands that I interact with.

I look at everything from, is it a scripted experience, is it not? Is it technology for the sake of technology or is technology really helping? Is it a bot that I have to get out of because I can't get something solved or not?

I intentionally, because of the business I'm in, go out and look for these experiences. I also look at the company culture.

A great example is, I have a very favorite airline. I'll call them out because I love them so much. Cathay, they're not a client of ours, but I had a problem, I tweeted and got an instant response, instant engagement. Just fantastic. It was a great experience.

I have another airline that I had an issue with and talked to them. They said, "Well, we can't tell you who runs customer service for privacy information and we can't really help you. Sorry. Hope you have a nice day," as they left me stranded in an airport in a foreign country. [Laughter]

The reality is that it's all about that, do you feel engaged? Are you emotionally connected to the experience? Did they resolve your problem? You walk away going, "Wow, I would spend money with that company again." If you spend money with that company again, they've done their job.

What's your advice to the contact center or engagement center industry? 

Phil Fersht: That's a very good question. I was thinking you were going to ask me about the people who buy services, so it's sometimes more fun to talk about the people who sell services.

The first thing is, stop trying to sell services the way that you're structured to sell them and start thinking about selling them the way your customers want to buy them because that's the big difference now. It's really understanding what your customers want and being able to come up with almost like a portfolio approach of servicing their needs, making sure you've got the right startups, relationships, and expertise around you to deliver many of the things they need. Stop trying to maybe sound the same as everybody else and just really listen to what they want and really get people in who understand the nuances of AI, automation, machine learning, all the things that are really changing the industry right now.

If you don't do that and you're just focusing on saying, "We do better customer service," at some point, you're going to see a downscale in your business. When we look at the contact center industry right now, it's pretty much the same established set of players, the same 500 logos. It's a shuffling of the pack that's going on all the time. It's a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of who is going to win this war.

You've got to focus on rising to the top. You've got to focus on analytics, automation, and AI, and have that conversation. If your company isn't doing that, you're worried about that, and you want to be a real leader in this industry, then go and work for a contact center provider who does because you have a choice.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, let me just very quickly because we are going to run out of time, what advice do you have for companies that are buying contact center services? Really fast, please.

Phil Fersht: Look at your customer processes. Figure out exactly how you want to wire them, configure them, and the outcomes you want. Then look at who can deliver on them. Don't try and buy new kits, new tech for the sake of it. Figure out exactly what you want and then figure out how best to get it.

What advice do you have for companies that want to provide a better experience to their customers?

Chris Caldwell: Don't buy technology or kits for the sake of being new. Make sure that there's a clear direction and decision of what your brand is. Do you know your brand strategy? Most clients cannot articulate that clearly. Make sure you work with a company that's you're culturally aligned to, that you are going to be transparent with, and have those conversations so that you can actually move forward versus trying to figure out via this offense/defense thing that keeps going along.

I'd also say that the companies that really create wow experiences for their customers are ones that enable their frontline staff, whether it be their partner or their own, to do wow experiences. They're not measured on the clock. If they get two seconds over on a call, a chat, or a tweet, that they're penalized. That they are actually able, engaged, and empowered to make sure that there are wow experiences.

If you get those three out of the way, frankly, the rest is a lot easier.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, again, very, very fast, I need to follow up with one last question, which is, you mentioned brand strategy. From your perspective, what is the link between a company's brand strategy and the customer experience, including the contact center?

Chris Caldwell: Very simple. If you have your brand strategy, you know how you want to treat the clients or customers. You know what the experience they want to walk away from every engagement is. You know what your cost model is to provide that level of experience.

You know what you're expecting from that experience so that if you go to a customer and say, "How was your experience with my brand?" they will tell you exactly what you want to hear. If there's a disconnect anywhere along there, that's where you get, frankly, the back and forth and the mismatched expectations with your customers.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Caldwell, tell us about Concentrix?

Chris Caldwell: I'm responsible for the Concentrix business globally. We're about $4.7 billion with about 220,000 staff, 40 different countries around the world, so a fairly large pool of data that we look at when we look at customer experience and fairly diverse client group around the world that really allows us to understand, see trends, and see where the business is going as a whole.

Phil Fersht, tell us about HFS Research?

Phil Fersht: We're approaching our tenth birthday next year. We're quite global now. We have about 50 staff and one of the largest analyst teams dedicated to what we call the Triple-A, which is Analytics, AI, and Automation. Then we have a very specific focus on business services where we really get down and dirty on how that whole industry is being transformed across the customer experience. Also, we look at how the customer experience is tied to the middle and back office of the organization as well.

What's happening with modern contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, I think, a lot, Michael. They've dramatically changed over even the last two to three years where much more technology is involved in the contact centers. There's a lot more nonvoice happening in the contact centers. I think Phil has talked a lot about One Office where back-office processes that used to be done outside of the contact center are now bring brought into the contact center to allow for better contact and customer resolution.

I think we're also seeing a significant amount of investment in really trying to drive analytics within the contact center, not only to make sure that clients get sort of a 360-degree view of their customers, but also that customers don't get frustrated if they tweet at you and then they call in. They want you to understand what they tweeted at you and how to resolve things better. In fact, we're seeing clients start to rename them from contact centers to brand engagement centers to brand centers to customer resolution centers, so a lot more than just sort of the standard contact center that you might have thought of just a couple of years ago.

Phil Fersht: The contact center was really the traditional kind of place in business process outsourcing where initially companies would assign contracts to companies to get customer services delivered around the world using different languages, often using lower-cost locations, et cetera. That industry is fairly mature today. It's still growing, believe it or not, at about 5% a year.

I find it quite amusing that it's actually hard for our call center businesses right now to find enough call center staff. There's a lot of talk about automating the contact center but, right now, we're just still struggling to find good people to take the calls.

It is an industry in transition. There are a lot of exciting things happening where we're looking at mixes of AI type offerings and cognitive assistant type offerings that are mixed with human and voice agent offerings as well.

Our research has shown that a focus on the customer experience is the number one strategic imperative from the highest performers in the Global 2000. That means there's a lot more focus and attention on that frontline; how we're interacting with the customer. Not just helping them get what they need quickly, but also anticipating their needs down the road, often before they know what their needs are themselves.

It places companies like Concentrix and many of the other contact center businesses in a very strategic position in the industry. We're enjoying watching this battle for who is going to win this war as things continue to evolve.

What does transformation mean for contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Well, I totally agree with Phil. It's funny; people have said that contact centers are going to be dead or have been dead for years. The reality is, they are growing at 5%, which is not insignificant. Getting good quality staff in the numbers that we're talking about is not insignificant either, including the technology going in to help those staff get proficient as quickly as possible is just improving month on month and quarter on quarter, so really, really dynamic around that perspective.

I think, also, to Phil's point, the reality is, clients are focused on what is that customer experience that they need to do and how is it aligned to their brand. Do they have a VIP brand or do they have a white glove brand? Is it a lowest-cost delivery brand?

Really, the ones who are winning in the battle for market share are the ones who understand it, look at it holistically, and come up with a strategy and then work with a partner on how to deliver on that strategy. When it works, it's just incredibly, incredibly powerful, not only for our clients to take share, but also lower their cost of operations by improving their revenue, lowering what we call rework of bad, disconnect, frustrating engagements, and really allowing for a better experience for their customers.

Phil Fersht: There's a lot of rhetoric and noise, particularly from the IT sector, that contact centers are going to be automated away. It's all about the touchless digital interfaces, the Amazonification of business.

When you consider Amazon itself has 95 call centers across the world and expanding, Airbnb has a larger number as well, it tells you that we're in a world now where we're seeing traditional business channels mixing very effectively with digital business channels. I think the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon is a perfect example of how to take a traditional channel and really get the perfect hybridization between a human type business transaction and a digital business transaction to increase the business and effectiveness of Whole Foods.

Similarly, when you look at what's going on in the retail pharmaceutical space where, suddenly, now you can get prescriptions delivered to your front door, all types of things happening. We're seeing increased ease of doing business, a very compelling combination of people, technology, AI, and bots to service the customer very effectively.

Chris Caldwell: The evolution of what the contact center is has changed pretty dramatically. I think people have this mind that they call in and get a problem resolved. The reality is, when people put their brand strategy around a contact center and say, "Okay, what are they really trying to engage with?" there's a lot more sort of consultative engagement with customers. There's a lot more analytics going into the customer experience and saying, "Okay, this is a journey we now need to take our customers on."

There are a lot more non-voice interactions that are happening, whether it be AI, whether it be better content, whether it be better mobile experiences for the customers. All of that is being driven out of the contact centers.

Finally, the clients that are really progressive are looking at, give us as much insight as you can about how our customers feel about our products, services, and brand. The only way of doing that is having very robust tools in the contact center to feed that, filter it out, and give it back to the customers to say, "This is what your customers are thinking of your products and services," which is incredibly powerful.

Is customer experience essential to contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Absolutely. It's part of our vision statement that we want to be the greatest customer engagement company in the world. The reality is that the clients who are succeeding and are doing very, very well--Phil named a number of them--are just fanatically, fanatically focused on what that customer experience is.

It's more than just a CSAT. It's more than NPS. It's really focused more on sentiment analysis. It's really focused on what's the emotional engagement that that customer has when they engage with a brand and being able to really enrich that.

The clients who really understand about that emotional connection realize that that's a very different type of engagement that they need to do, both from a toolset, journey, holistic experience perspective that are beating, frankly, the companies out there that are just focused on lowest cost, get the people off the phone, don't even give them the phone number, and see if they can struggle to figure it out themselves.

Phil Fersht: Chris has always been a very forward-looking guy with what he's doing with Concentrix because I think they were originally a technology business before they merged with IBM Services Business about five, six years ago. It's interesting to see how they've really leveraged technology quite aggressively as they've evolved their companies.

I think, when we look at the industry as it is today, we are going through a transition. Companies are trying to figure out how fast they can move when they look at emerging technology. They need to make bets on where to make their investments versus maybe fewer investments, for example.

The customer experience is obviously extremely critical to them. Finding the right partners who can help you achieve much more empowerment and engagement with your customers is more challenging than ever because, the reality is, the partners who often got us here might not be the ones to take us where we want to go because you've not just got to understand your customer. You've almost got to second-guess them and anticipate where they're going to shift.

You need to get closer to the way they operate. You need to get closer to your agents to make sure they really understand how to interact most effectively. You need to know the pain points. You need to also understand what your competition is doing.

Each industry is different. When we look at the insurance sector today, we see some very disruptive firms like Lemonade coming along, which could completely change the landscape of that industry. If you can't move to a very digitized customer service model quickly, you really could be out of the game.

I presented Lemonade to a major investor the other day. They actually managed to take out a policy by the time I'd finished the presentation. It was that eye-opening.

In other industries like banking, for example, may move a little slower. It's harder to get customers to switch. But, at the same time, customer service is still absolutely imperative as a growth mechanism.

We really have to understand the transition we're in and the speed customers are moving at. It's been a conversation Chris and I have had in the past. There's been frustration that sometimes customers just want to keep doing things the same old way.

Are contact center customers still stuck in old ways?

Chris Caldwell: We still have clients who are languishing in old habits who talk about wanting to reinvent a customer experience and then you're driven to procurement and they start talking about AHT and what's the lowest cost per transaction. Really, customer experience is the last thing on their menu of what they want to procure.

We have more and more clients, both new ones we're acquiring as well as existing ones, that realize they need to change in order to survive, grow, and do some really innovative things. That's incredibly exciting.

What's even more exciting is that we're also seeing a lot of cross-industry looking. For instance, we've got an airline that was saying, "Hey, what's going on in the new, innovative, gig economy world for customer service?" We've got a bank who says, "Look, we don't care what other banks are doing. Show us what the best customer engagement is when it comes to consumer electronics and software."

We're seeing a lot of these different types of unique views cross-industry that are really driving a lot of creativity when it comes to new engagement strategies. I think that's really where the future is. Then layering on technology, layering on staff because I do think, regardless of how much technology there is, there's always going to be people involved and engaged, whether it be voice or nonvoice, in these interactions and helping them be as powerful and robust as possible.

Phil Fersht: Where do you feel customers are reaching out for help here? Things are shifting in terms of, they want solutions, they want them now, they want partners who really understand them. A lot of them want to go to traditional technology services or consulting businesses. Others are seemingly partnering more with their contact center businesses themselves.

As you look at the landscape of partners that are evolving here, do you feel, Chris, that your competitors are changing? Do you feel like you're moving into a competitive landscape that you've never seen before? Do you sometimes feel it's the same as the old school and it's the same old brands that you're coming up against?

Chris Caldwell: No, it's interesting. We've seen an evolution of who we are competing with. You're seeing a lot more digital marketing agencies in this space than you've ever seen before. We're seeing a lot more consultative services companies in this space who will then say, "Well, look. I'll get together a bundle of services and help present this."

We're seeing traditional players that are continuing to evolve, grow, and execute differently. Then we're seeing some unique boutique players who are saying, "Look. We know how to do mobility and mobile apps. Frankly, you don't need people. You just need the killer app to go on a desktop or go on a mobile device." The reality is, we're seeing a bunch of these different competitors that are coming into the space, which is, I think, frankly, healthy and good, overall, and really drive for a better experience.

What we are finding from a client perspective is that there's a lot of debate within our clients about who owns the customer experience. Is it the now chief digital officer? A few of our clients have chief experience officers. Some of our clients, some of it's owned by marketing. If it's the website, it's owned by technology. If it's the mobile application, it's owned by the sales team or support team if it's the contact center.

Anywhere where that entire experience isn't owned by one person where there's not one throat to choke, we find that there is trouble. It takes too much time internally to engage those different groups to get to what that experience needs to be.

What should companies do to gain a more holistic view of the customer?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, that's a good question. A lot of it comes down to the company's culture. It's just who owns what and is it a legacy reason why they own it or is it just because some areas are problematic?

Look, the reality is, a lot of people don't want to take on the support part of the organization because it generally is a cost center versus a revenue center. It's generally where you get escalations versus praise. That sometimes is separated out from some of the other areas.

A lot of the marketing resources in Web or mobile tend to look at that of saying, "Well, this is really the future. I don't want to deal with the legacy."

Where we found the big change agents is, honestly, where there's a leadership team at the top that says, "Customer experience is critical. This is totally strategic to us and we need to assign someone to own it from beginning to end and put on this holistic feel to it." That's where we're seeing big gains. Frankly, those are the clients that are really exciting to work with because there are no preconceived notions. Everything is up for grabs. They really started the base of saying, "What is that customer journey with our brand, how do we lay it out, and how do we beat our competition with it?"

How do modern contact centers drive business model changes?

Phil Fersht: Yes. I think it was distilled earlier, what we were talking about with the fact that Amazon did that move with Whole Foods as a great example of how to take a traditional retail business and really blend that with a digital, complete model from customer to supplier, for example, and things like that. It's very interesting how it's the blending of the model that is driving new demand and new interest than just having, "Let's move to pure automation," and that sort of thing.

It really depends on the industry, the way the customer wants to be serviced, the times that they need to have interaction, with voice versus digital versus maybe even Alexa, that type of thing. Things are moving pretty dramatically in that regard.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. The reality is, the business model is one element. I think brand identity is another element that takes a lot of thought and changes how people use contact centers and use any type of engagement services that go along with it.

We are seeing a lot more channels pop up, regardless of the business model, to Phil's point. Alexa is now becoming a big one. Google Home is becoming a big one.

We just put in an Alexa app for someone that you can actually ask for my retirement savings and Alexa will tell you what it is. You can say, "Well, if I want to retire ten years from now," and Alexa will interact with the financial institution that we did the support for that basically will have that whole conversation without any advisor being there.

All these new channels are popping up that are enhancing the business models, I think. Fundamentally, it still comes back to, what is the brand, what does it want to represent, and how does it want to engage its customers?

What do all of these changes imply for the contact center business model?

Chris Caldwell: We have a model of how we want to engage with our customers, how we develop partnerships with them, what we look at, and how we govern around those partnerships. Frankly, we're looking at everything from the start, the beginning, like from recruiting. Are we hiring the right people to come in and work in the new toolsets with a lot more technology? Requirements for a lot more empathy is a skill set that might not be as robust as what we need in our workforce.

In terms of multitasking and having more consultative engagement in talking with customers, whether it be through voice or nonvoice versus more scripted interactions because there's nothing worse than when people get a scripted interaction when they're talking to someone. We're looking for people who understand and can be thought-provoking on some of the insights that they give. Even at the frontline level to say, "Hey, I'm listening to all this interaction with customers. There's a better way of doing this."

Not only how we recruit them; it's also how we train them. There is a lot more gamification in place. No one wants to sit through six weeks of PowerPoint presentations and figure out how to do their job. They want to have a lot more engagement and interaction.

They're used to technology being very, very simple, so one of our biggest complaints from some of our staff is, "Hey, the customer's technology, the screens that we're asking for and we're using, are antiquated." We still have clients who have greenscreens.

They're like, "I downloaded an app from the app store and it's instantaneous. It works so smoothly. Why can't this happen?" We're spending a lot more time on changing the technology that our staff are using in working with our clients from that standpoint.

Then, lastly, Phil has been talking about this for a long time. Call it RPA. Call it AI. Call it whatever you want to call it. The reality is that there is a lot of tedious work that needs to come out of the contact centers that people don't enjoy doing that generally slows down the process for the customer.

Our goal is to erode a fairly significant portion of our revenue every year by just automation, automation, automation, automation so that our people are really focused on high-value engagement and interactions with customers. Really, it changes right across the supply chain when it comes to this business.

What are the challenges around customer data?

Phil Fersht: I think one of the biggest challenges that we haven't spoken about so much today is getting the right data to really understand the customer more effectively. When that customer is in communication, whether it's digital, whether it's voice, the company understands them and can anticipate what they want. They know the history of your users, that sort of thing.

I feel the biggest problem in the industry right now is broken marketing processes. I was having a conversation with a couple of CDOs recently. We talked about RPA, as an example. They actually came out and said, "If we could get some better automation across our marketing and started fixing some of these manual workarounds and broken processes, it would have a huge impact on our business."

The problem is, a lot of CMOs and CDOs, for example, that think that's sort of beneath them. I think one of the key things that we need to start thinking about here is fixing underlying processes so we get better data. It's all about data, ultimately, understanding the customer, and predicting the customer. A lot of customers are really struggling with that right now.

I think that's where firms like Concentrix can really get ahead. Building some type of uniform platforms, customer data platforms, for example, that's a really hot topic right now in the industry. There are a lot of little startups, a lot of players in that space. You've got your bigger players like the Omegas and your Salesforces. Then you've got little startups coming in.

Getting that customer data platform right, having some type of uniformity, having an underbed, having a real capability and backbone is where this has to go. I now feel, until enterprises actually fix those underlying processes, they're going to struggle to see real progress.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. It's interesting. We have a little over 50 unicorns that we deal with. Whether they built the application and they built the experience from the ground up, their data is fantastic. Frankly, they're the first to drive more machine learning. They're the first not to have sort of bad processes, for the most part. They're the first to look at AI and some of these newer advanced tools and be able to actually get some use out of them, even in small scale.

To Phil's point on the enterprise, not only marketing processes and data points are broken. We've got disparate financial systems; disparate pick, pack, and ship systems; disparate customer systems. We have a large client that has, I think, 11 or 12 Salesforce instances for their customer base.

When you get those types of challenges, to Phil's point, there is a lot of work that needs to be put into place to get that uniformity on the data side to then say, "Okay. Now we can actually speak intelligently to our customers and have one voice." That is a long trek to go and a lot of work needs to go down that path before you start to see big improvements.

I think, from an AI perspective, overall, we've played around. We have a client who play around with it. There are definitely some great use cases.

Is it taking out vast amounts of work out of the systems? We're not necessarily seeing that, to Phil's point, just because some of the data is just not there to connect all the different points.

I always remember the best technology I've had is sometimes like talking to a six-year-old. One statement is great. It can respond to it. When you start to layer on context and you start to layer on the whole experience, it kind of falls flat and, frankly, detracts. We've seen this. Some technology deployed in this area detracts from customer sentiment and actually gives you a lower CSAT score. It may be at a lower cost, but a lower CSAT score. I don't know anyone who is trying to drive to that area.

How do you keep a vocal minority of customers from having too much impact on your decisions around customer experience and your product roadmap?

Phil Fersht: It's true. A vocal minority can swamp what your customers really want. Having a very strong ability to understand customer sentiment across the board is absolutely critical. It depends on what business you're in. It depends on how you interact with your customers, how you get data from your customers, especially during calls and that sort of thing as well.

Firstly, it's understanding that there is a vocal minority because sometimes many companies don't. They just hear noise come in. They see public complaints on social media and things like that.

They've really got to understand the core issues. They really have to set up a data platform in a way that they have that information. They really understand what the key issues are and how to get ahead of them. I think, again, it all boils back to the intelligence of your capabilities, the smartness of the people running your customer operations, so they actually know this is just maybe 10% of our customer base and the other 90% is actually perfectly happy with this issue, to get ahead of that.

Chris Caldwell: To me, it's a combination of things. First of all, it is making sure that the tail isn't wagging the dog by understanding the data, having the right data, and capturing the right data properly and using it. I think the second thing is, that's why I'm a huge, huge proponent of sentiment analysis where you're not sending out a survey and saying, "Hey, fill this out," because that only gets 10% to 15% of the people who respond and you either get the highs and the lows on those surveys versus sort of the masses.

In that sentiment analysis, it's really understanding, okay, what moves the needle and what's important? I think it's also important because what it brings out is we have this common debate that says, if you have someone who contacts you who is extremely loyal to your brand, they have an okay engagement, and they still like your brand but they're just not as fanatical about it, is that better or worse than someone who is really contacting you because they're incredibly, incredibly frustrated with your brand and you get them to be neutral where they're not going on Twitter and saying, "I hate this company"?

The reality is that, right now, there's a lot of debate around that because all the systems, generally, are saying, "Oh, focus on either the bottom quartile or the top, but not, how do you actually move everyone up across the whole spectrum of engagement. It's really, really, really fascinating stuff, and I think that also will help drive better subjective engagement with customers versus kind of running around.

We have one interesting customer who actually grades their customers internally with a customer score. Depending on what that customer score is--which they link to influence, share of wallet, and a whole host of other things--they will react to a comment that comes in. If comments come in from this sort of quadrant of people, they take it very, very seriously. If comments come in from this quadrant of people, they go, "Hmm, okay, interesting, but let's see where it goes before we take action." You're seeing that going back to the data and just being a lot more versed and having a lot more ability to articulate what's coming out from the data.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, it sounded like you were agreeing. I don't know if you had another comment on that as well.

Phil Fersht: It's getting me thinking a bit. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Clinton a few weeks ago. He said one thing which resonates with me, which was, he thought social media was great when it first hit the scene because he thought no one could control it. [Laughter] Now it's become a real issue for obviously not just politicians but businesses in general.

You can get minorities of people making a lot of noise on social media, which you need to control if you're running a business. It could be you're running an airline and there are two or three companies and clients who really hate you. They're going out and attacking your brand all the time. You've got to figure out, how do you manage that minority to keep the majority away from that as well?

I do think that there are shifts happening in society that is having a big impact on how we actually manage this moving forward. There's no hard and fast answer to this beyond, you've got to be really smart about this. You need to have people managing your social media sites as well as your own data platforms and your own call centers to really get ahead of this.

There isn't a set way of doing this. You've got to be really smart. You've got to understand your customers. You've got to really focus on controlling the noise as much as you can.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, and it's also the speed of response because sometimes people thought of social media as an afterthought. Still, to this day, there are some big brands that, if you tweet at them, if you get a response back in two or three days, you're doing well. Yet, there are others that you tweet and, within a minute, you'll get a response back. Clearly, we're seeing more and more companies going, "Okay, even if they're a minority, even if they've got something," to Phil's point, "before it starts roller-coasting, let's figure out how to deal with it," and address it in almost real-time.

Why do some companies offer excellent service while others don’t?

Chris Caldwell: Yeah. That's a great question. Look, I'll tell you. My experience, personal experience, always comes from the top of our clients. If the client's executive team strongly, strongly believe in customer experience and they focus on things like that, they procure, which is really critically important to procure around customer experience and they have collaboration around the different groups around customer experience, then that's when you get that incredible customer experience. Those are the companies that you read about and hear about all the time going, "Wow, this incredible experience happened." People share on social media and they drive great brand loyalty.

Where you get fractured ownership of the experience, where you get, I'll call it, lip service to customer experience, and then it goes to a procurement team--Phil jokes about this because I hate to say it but I call the procurement team one of the great devaluers of business--is where they solely buy on certain things. It's not on customer experience. It's not on the total cost of ownership. It's simply driving down to the lowest cost of transaction.

Then you will get these very, very different types of customer experiences. They can be frustrating. They tend to be driven by monopolies in certain markets because they don't necessarily need to improve.

Those times are changing. As Phil pointed out with new insurance companies, new banking companies, there is a new, disruptive model coming out in almost every segment of our business that have kind of thrown out the old and said, "Hey, we're going to compete on customer experience." I think that's why it's one of the really exciting times right now.

Phil Fersht: It's interesting. I met with the head of operations for HSBC Bank a few months ago. They had a real issue with their customer experience. They were like number seven in the banking league for Europe, I think it was, in terms of customer sat. First Direct was number one.

What did they do? They went and acquired First Direct. A lot of it was because they really couldn't shift the culture and how to improve their own customer intimacy and customer experiences. They wanted to learn from another company. They wanted to bring that culture into the business as well.

In some instances, it's very cultural. It's something that's been in the company for a long time. You need to figure out maybe a game-changing initiative that can shift things.

Sometimes it's outsourcing. It could quite simply be, "Hey, let's go to Concentrix or Teleperformance or Sitel or one of these firms to see if they can shift our culture and do this differently as well." That's often what has to happen to change the game.

Are contact centers the same as call centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh. I think it comes up with a new name; everyone comes up with a new name every couple of months. As I mentioned, we have clients who call it brand engagement centers because the reality is, in our centers, probably 30%, 40%, even 50%, 60% of the volume can be nonvoice and have other things and other types of engagement.

Contact center is sort of the term of the day. The reality is, it's really about customer engagement centers that are probably the most prevalent and properly articulate what we actually do.

Phil Fersht: I think the contact center is a fairly meaningless term. You can call up your IT support line and you'll get put through to a contact center in Bangalore or whatever to fix your IT problem, but it's not called a contact center because it's an IT services shop. The same with finance and accounting. You could even call your doctor helpline and you get put through to an offshore doctor in Manilla and that sort of thing.

A contact center, really, is a housed building where you have service staff who are delivering needs for you, whether it's customer engagement, whether it's something purely fulfillment focused, whatever. I think it's a fairly broad term and I think Chris has a very good point that there needs to be a better shift in how we talk about these things because it's more of an engagement center. It's like, how do you get service?

I called my mobile phone provider the other day. I had no idea who was servicing me and where he was from. He could have been in Manilla. He could have been in Mexico. I was tempted to ask him after a while.

It just gets to the point of engaging with this customer. What type of service am I getting? Is there any follow up afterward and that sort of thing?

Chris Caldwell: Frankly, the physical idea of everyone sitting in the same space is no longer valid. Frankly, we have some customers that their engagement center wraps around 20, 30 different centers around the world and follows the sun. It's very, very seamless.

We have thousands of people who work at home as individuals who will support brands and do amazing jobs of customer engagement. Then we have gig workers who are sort of independent and will spend a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there over a course of a month supporting a client or supporting a customer. The whole premise of everyone sitting in one space is also somewhat old school and not necessarily reflective of what this new business looks like and how people service their customers.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, you are a consumer. You buy things. You have to get tech support, I'm sure, at various times. When you're calling up some company, whoever it is--bank, phone company, whatever--asking for support, what goes through your mind?

Chris Caldwell: Well, you know what? I have a very, very high bar. [Laughter] I talk about it in staff meetings all the time. I always give a great customer example and a bad customer example of brands that I interact with.

I look at everything from, is it a scripted experience, is it not? Is it technology for the sake of technology or is technology really helping? Is it a bot that I have to get out of because I can't get something solved or not?

I intentionally, because of the business I'm in, go out and look for these experiences. I also look at the company culture.

A great example is, I have a very favorite airline. I'll call them out because I love them so much. Cathay, they're not a client of ours, but I had a problem, I tweeted and got an instant response, instant engagement. Just fantastic. It was a great experience.

I have another airline that I had an issue with and talked to them. They said, "Well, we can't tell you who runs customer service for privacy information and we can't really help you. Sorry. Hope you have a nice day," as they left me stranded in an airport in a foreign country. [Laughter]

The reality is that it's all about that, do you feel engaged? Are you emotionally connected to the experience? Did they resolve your problem? You walk away going, "Wow, I would spend money with that company again." If you spend money with that company again, they've done their job.

What's your advice to the contact center or engagement center industry? 

Phil Fersht: That's a very good question. I was thinking you were going to ask me about the people who buy services, so it's sometimes more fun to talk about the people who sell services.

The first thing is, stop trying to sell services the way that you're structured to sell them and start thinking about selling them the way your customers want to buy them because that's the big difference now. It's really understanding what your customers want and being able to come up with almost like a portfolio approach of servicing their needs, making sure you've got the right startups, relationships, and expertise around you to deliver many of the things they need. Stop trying to maybe sound the same as everybody else and just really listen to what they want and really get people in who understand the nuances of AI, automation, machine learning, all the things that are really changing the industry right now.

If you don't do that and you're just focusing on saying, "We do better customer service," at some point, you're going to see a downscale in your business. When we look at the contact center industry right now, it's pretty much the same established set of players, the same 500 logos. It's a shuffling of the pack that's going on all the time. It's a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of who is going to win this war.

You've got to focus on rising to the top. You've got to focus on analytics, automation, and AI, and have that conversation. If your company isn't doing that, you're worried about that, and you want to be a real leader in this industry, then go and work for a contact center provider who does because you have a choice.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, let me just very quickly because we are going to run out of time, what advice do you have for companies that are buying contact center services? Really fast, please.

Phil Fersht: Look at your customer processes. Figure out exactly how you want to wire them, configure them, and the outcomes you want. Then look at who can deliver on them. Don't try and buy new kits, new tech for the sake of it. Figure out exactly what you want and then figure out how best to get it.

What advice do you have for companies that want to provide a better experience to their customers?

Chris Caldwell: Don't buy technology or kits for the sake of being new. Make sure that there's a clear direction and decision of what your brand is. Do you know your brand strategy? Most clients cannot articulate that clearly. Make sure you work with a company that's you're culturally aligned to, that you are going to be transparent with, and have those conversations so that you can actually move forward versus trying to figure out via this offense/defense thing that keeps going along.

I'd also say that the companies that really create wow experiences for their customers are ones that enable their frontline staff, whether it be their partner or their own, to do wow experiences. They're not measured on the clock. If they get two seconds over on a call, a chat, or a tweet, that they're penalized. That they are actually able, engaged, and empowered to make sure that there are wow experiences.

If you get those three out of the way, frankly, the rest is a lot easier.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, again, very, very fast, I need to follow up with one last question, which is, you mentioned brand strategy. From your perspective, what is the link between a company's brand strategy and the customer experience, including the contact center?

Chris Caldwell: Very simple. If you have your brand strategy, you know how you want to treat the clients or customers. You know what the experience they want to walk away from every engagement is. You know what your cost model is to provide that level of experience.

You know what you're expecting from that experience so that if you go to a customer and say, "How was your experience with my brand?" they will tell you exactly what you want to hear. If there's a disconnect anywhere along there, that's where you get, frankly, the back and forth and the mismatched expectations with your customers.

 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Caldwell, tell us about Concentrix?

Chris Caldwell: I'm responsible for the Concentrix business globally. We're about $4.7 billion with about 220,000 staff, 40 different countries around the world, so a fairly large pool of data that we look at when we look at customer experience and fairly diverse client group around the world that really allows us to understand, see trends, and see where the business is going as a whole.

Phil Fersht, tell us about HFS Research?

Phil Fersht: We're approaching our tenth birthday next year. We're quite global now. We have about 50 staff and one of the largest analyst teams dedicated to what we call the Triple-A, which is Analytics, AI, and Automation. Then we have a very specific focus on business services where we really get down and dirty on how that whole industry is being transformed across the customer experience. Also, we look at how the customer experience is tied to the middle and back office of the organization as well.

What's happening with modern contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, I think, a lot, Michael. They've dramatically changed over even the last two to three years where much more technology is involved in the contact centers. There's a lot more nonvoice happening in the contact centers. I think Phil has talked a lot about One Office where back-office processes that used to be done outside of the contact center are now bring brought into the contact center to allow for better contact and customer resolution.

I think we're also seeing a significant amount of investment in really trying to drive analytics within the contact center, not only to make sure that clients get sort of a 360-degree view of their customers, but also that customers don't get frustrated if they tweet at you and then they call in. They want you to understand what they tweeted at you and how to resolve things better. In fact, we're seeing clients start to rename them from contact centers to brand engagement centers to brand centers to customer resolution centers, so a lot more than just sort of the standard contact center that you might have thought of just a couple of years ago.

Phil Fersht: The contact center was really the traditional kind of place in business process outsourcing where initially companies would assign contracts to companies to get customer services delivered around the world using different languages, often using lower-cost locations, et cetera. That industry is fairly mature today. It's still growing, believe it or not, at about 5% a year.

I find it quite amusing that it's actually hard for our call center businesses right now to find enough call center staff. There's a lot of talk about automating the contact center but, right now, we're just still struggling to find good people to take the calls.

It is an industry in transition. There are a lot of exciting things happening where we're looking at mixes of AI type offerings and cognitive assistant type offerings that are mixed with human and voice agent offerings as well.

Our research has shown that a focus on the customer experience is the number one strategic imperative from the highest performers in the Global 2000. That means there's a lot more focus and attention on that frontline; how we're interacting with the customer. Not just helping them get what they need quickly, but also anticipating their needs down the road, often before they know what their needs are themselves.

It places companies like Concentrix and many of the other contact center businesses in a very strategic position in the industry. We're enjoying watching this battle for who is going to win this war as things continue to evolve.

What does transformation mean for contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Well, I totally agree with Phil. It's funny; people have said that contact centers are going to be dead or have been dead for years. The reality is, they are growing at 5%, which is not insignificant. Getting good quality staff in the numbers that we're talking about is not insignificant either, including the technology going in to help those staff get proficient as quickly as possible is just improving month on month and quarter on quarter, so really, really dynamic around that perspective.

I think, also, to Phil's point, the reality is, clients are focused on what is that customer experience that they need to do and how is it aligned to their brand. Do they have a VIP brand or do they have a white glove brand? Is it a lowest-cost delivery brand?

Really, the ones who are winning in the battle for market share are the ones who understand it, look at it holistically, and come up with a strategy and then work with a partner on how to deliver on that strategy. When it works, it's just incredibly, incredibly powerful, not only for our clients to take share, but also lower their cost of operations by improving their revenue, lowering what we call rework of bad, disconnect, frustrating engagements, and really allowing for a better experience for their customers.

Phil Fersht: There's a lot of rhetoric and noise, particularly from the IT sector, that contact centers are going to be automated away. It's all about the touchless digital interfaces, the Amazonification of business.

When you consider Amazon itself has 95 call centers across the world and expanding, Airbnb has a larger number as well, it tells you that we're in a world now where we're seeing traditional business channels mixing very effectively with digital business channels. I think the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon is a perfect example of how to take a traditional channel and really get the perfect hybridization between a human type business transaction and a digital business transaction to increase the business and effectiveness of Whole Foods.

Similarly, when you look at what's going on in the retail pharmaceutical space where, suddenly, now you can get prescriptions delivered to your front door, all types of things happening. We're seeing increased ease of doing business, a very compelling combination of people, technology, AI, and bots to service the customer very effectively.

Chris Caldwell: The evolution of what the contact center is has changed pretty dramatically. I think people have this mind that they call in and get a problem resolved. The reality is, when people put their brand strategy around a contact center and say, "Okay, what are they really trying to engage with?" there's a lot more sort of consultative engagement with customers. There's a lot more analytics going into the customer experience and saying, "Okay, this is a journey we now need to take our customers on."

There are a lot more non-voice interactions that are happening, whether it be AI, whether it be better content, whether it be better mobile experiences for the customers. All of that is being driven out of the contact centers.

Finally, the clients that are really progressive are looking at, give us as much insight as you can about how our customers feel about our products, services, and brand. The only way of doing that is having very robust tools in the contact center to feed that, filter it out, and give it back to the customers to say, "This is what your customers are thinking of your products and services," which is incredibly powerful.

Is customer experience essential to contact centers?

Chris Caldwell: Absolutely. It's part of our vision statement that we want to be the greatest customer engagement company in the world. The reality is that the clients who are succeeding and are doing very, very well--Phil named a number of them--are just fanatically, fanatically focused on what that customer experience is.

It's more than just a CSAT. It's more than NPS. It's really focused more on sentiment analysis. It's really focused on what's the emotional engagement that that customer has when they engage with a brand and being able to really enrich that.

The clients who really understand about that emotional connection realize that that's a very different type of engagement that they need to do, both from a toolset, journey, holistic experience perspective that are beating, frankly, the companies out there that are just focused on lowest cost, get the people off the phone, don't even give them the phone number, and see if they can struggle to figure it out themselves.

Phil Fersht: Chris has always been a very forward-looking guy with what he's doing with Concentrix because I think they were originally a technology business before they merged with IBM Services Business about five, six years ago. It's interesting to see how they've really leveraged technology quite aggressively as they've evolved their companies.

I think, when we look at the industry as it is today, we are going through a transition. Companies are trying to figure out how fast they can move when they look at emerging technology. They need to make bets on where to make their investments versus maybe fewer investments, for example.

The customer experience is obviously extremely critical to them. Finding the right partners who can help you achieve much more empowerment and engagement with your customers is more challenging than ever because, the reality is, the partners who often got us here might not be the ones to take us where we want to go because you've not just got to understand your customer. You've almost got to second-guess them and anticipate where they're going to shift.

You need to get closer to the way they operate. You need to get closer to your agents to make sure they really understand how to interact most effectively. You need to know the pain points. You need to also understand what your competition is doing.

Each industry is different. When we look at the insurance sector today, we see some very disruptive firms like Lemonade coming along, which could completely change the landscape of that industry. If you can't move to a very digitized customer service model quickly, you really could be out of the game.

I presented Lemonade to a major investor the other day. They actually managed to take out a policy by the time I'd finished the presentation. It was that eye-opening.

In other industries like banking, for example, may move a little slower. It's harder to get customers to switch. But, at the same time, customer service is still absolutely imperative as a growth mechanism.

We really have to understand the transition we're in and the speed customers are moving at. It's been a conversation Chris and I have had in the past. There's been frustration that sometimes customers just want to keep doing things the same old way.

Are contact center customers still stuck in old ways?

Chris Caldwell: We still have clients who are languishing in old habits who talk about wanting to reinvent a customer experience and then you're driven to procurement and they start talking about AHT and what's the lowest cost per transaction. Really, customer experience is the last thing on their menu of what they want to procure.

We have more and more clients, both new ones we're acquiring as well as existing ones, that realize they need to change in order to survive, grow, and do some really innovative things. That's incredibly exciting.

What's even more exciting is that we're also seeing a lot of cross-industry looking. For instance, we've got an airline that was saying, "Hey, what's going on in the new, innovative, gig economy world for customer service?" We've got a bank who says, "Look, we don't care what other banks are doing. Show us what the best customer engagement is when it comes to consumer electronics and software."

We're seeing a lot of these different types of unique views cross-industry that are really driving a lot of creativity when it comes to new engagement strategies. I think that's really where the future is. Then layering on technology, layering on staff because I do think, regardless of how much technology there is, there's always going to be people involved and engaged, whether it be voice or nonvoice, in these interactions and helping them be as powerful and robust as possible.

Phil Fersht: Where do you feel customers are reaching out for help here? Things are shifting in terms of, they want solutions, they want them now, they want partners who really understand them. A lot of them want to go to traditional technology services or consulting businesses. Others are seemingly partnering more with their contact center businesses themselves.

As you look at the landscape of partners that are evolving here, do you feel, Chris, that your competitors are changing? Do you feel like you're moving into a competitive landscape that you've never seen before? Do you sometimes feel it's the same as the old school and it's the same old brands that you're coming up against?

Chris Caldwell: No, it's interesting. We've seen an evolution of who we are competing with. You're seeing a lot more digital marketing agencies in this space than you've ever seen before. We're seeing a lot more consultative services companies in this space who will then say, "Well, look. I'll get together a bundle of services and help present this."

We're seeing traditional players that are continuing to evolve, grow, and execute differently. Then we're seeing some unique boutique players who are saying, "Look. We know how to do mobility and mobile apps. Frankly, you don't need people. You just need the killer app to go on a desktop or go on a mobile device." The reality is, we're seeing a bunch of these different competitors that are coming into the space, which is, I think, frankly, healthy and good, overall, and really drive for a better experience.

What we are finding from a client perspective is that there's a lot of debate within our clients about who owns the customer experience. Is it the now chief digital officer? A few of our clients have chief experience officers. Some of our clients, some of it's owned by marketing. If it's the website, it's owned by technology. If it's the mobile application, it's owned by the sales team or support team if it's the contact center.

Anywhere where that entire experience isn't owned by one person where there's not one throat to choke, we find that there is trouble. It takes too much time internally to engage those different groups to get to what that experience needs to be.

What should companies do to gain a more holistic view of the customer?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh, that's a good question. A lot of it comes down to the company's culture. It's just who owns what and is it a legacy reason why they own it or is it just because some areas are problematic?

Look, the reality is, a lot of people don't want to take on the support part of the organization because it generally is a cost center versus a revenue center. It's generally where you get escalations versus praise. That sometimes is separated out from some of the other areas.

A lot of the marketing resources in Web or mobile tend to look at that of saying, "Well, this is really the future. I don't want to deal with the legacy."

Where we found the big change agents is, honestly, where there's a leadership team at the top that says, "Customer experience is critical. This is totally strategic to us and we need to assign someone to own it from beginning to end and put on this holistic feel to it." That's where we're seeing big gains. Frankly, those are the clients that are really exciting to work with because there are no preconceived notions. Everything is up for grabs. They really started the base of saying, "What is that customer journey with our brand, how do we lay it out, and how do we beat our competition with it?"

How do modern contact centers drive business model changes?

Phil Fersht: Yes. I think it was distilled earlier, what we were talking about with the fact that Amazon did that move with Whole Foods as a great example of how to take a traditional retail business and really blend that with a digital, complete model from customer to supplier, for example, and things like that. It's very interesting how it's the blending of the model that is driving new demand and new interest than just having, "Let's move to pure automation," and that sort of thing.

It really depends on the industry, the way the customer wants to be serviced, the times that they need to have interaction, with voice versus digital versus maybe even Alexa, that type of thing. Things are moving pretty dramatically in that regard.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. The reality is, the business model is one element. I think brand identity is another element that takes a lot of thought and changes how people use contact centers and use any type of engagement services that go along with it.

We are seeing a lot more channels pop up, regardless of the business model, to Phil's point. Alexa is now becoming a big one. Google Home is becoming a big one.

We just put in an Alexa app for someone that you can actually ask for my retirement savings and Alexa will tell you what it is. You can say, "Well, if I want to retire ten years from now," and Alexa will interact with the financial institution that we did the support for that basically will have that whole conversation without any advisor being there.

All these new channels are popping up that are enhancing the business models, I think. Fundamentally, it still comes back to, what is the brand, what does it want to represent, and how does it want to engage its customers?

What do all of these changes imply for the contact center business model?

Chris Caldwell: We have a model of how we want to engage with our customers, how we develop partnerships with them, what we look at, and how we govern around those partnerships. Frankly, we're looking at everything from the start, the beginning, like from recruiting. Are we hiring the right people to come in and work in the new toolsets with a lot more technology? Requirements for a lot more empathy is a skill set that might not be as robust as what we need in our workforce.

In terms of multitasking and having more consultative engagement in talking with customers, whether it be through voice or nonvoice versus more scripted interactions because there's nothing worse than when people get a scripted interaction when they're talking to someone. We're looking for people who understand and can be thought-provoking on some of the insights that they give. Even at the frontline level to say, "Hey, I'm listening to all this interaction with customers. There's a better way of doing this."

Not only how we recruit them; it's also how we train them. There is a lot more gamification in place. No one wants to sit through six weeks of PowerPoint presentations and figure out how to do their job. They want to have a lot more engagement and interaction.

They're used to technology being very, very simple, so one of our biggest complaints from some of our staff is, "Hey, the customer's technology, the screens that we're asking for and we're using, are antiquated." We still have clients who have greenscreens.

They're like, "I downloaded an app from the app store and it's instantaneous. It works so smoothly. Why can't this happen?" We're spending a lot more time on changing the technology that our staff are using in working with our clients from that standpoint.

Then, lastly, Phil has been talking about this for a long time. Call it RPA. Call it AI. Call it whatever you want to call it. The reality is that there is a lot of tedious work that needs to come out of the contact centers that people don't enjoy doing that generally slows down the process for the customer.

Our goal is to erode a fairly significant portion of our revenue every year by just automation, automation, automation, automation so that our people are really focused on high-value engagement and interactions with customers. Really, it changes right across the supply chain when it comes to this business.

What are the challenges around customer data?

Phil Fersht: I think one of the biggest challenges that we haven't spoken about so much today is getting the right data to really understand the customer more effectively. When that customer is in communication, whether it's digital, whether it's voice, the company understands them and can anticipate what they want. They know the history of your users, that sort of thing.

I feel the biggest problem in the industry right now is broken marketing processes. I was having a conversation with a couple of CDOs recently. We talked about RPA, as an example. They actually came out and said, "If we could get some better automation across our marketing and started fixing some of these manual workarounds and broken processes, it would have a huge impact on our business."

The problem is, a lot of CMOs and CDOs, for example, that think that's sort of beneath them. I think one of the key things that we need to start thinking about here is fixing underlying processes so we get better data. It's all about data, ultimately, understanding the customer, and predicting the customer. A lot of customers are really struggling with that right now.

I think that's where firms like Concentrix can really get ahead. Building some type of uniform platforms, customer data platforms, for example, that's a really hot topic right now in the industry. There are a lot of little startups, a lot of players in that space. You've got your bigger players like the Omegas and your Salesforces. Then you've got little startups coming in.

Getting that customer data platform right, having some type of uniformity, having an underbed, having a real capability and backbone is where this has to go. I now feel, until enterprises actually fix those underlying processes, they're going to struggle to see real progress.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, I would agree with Phil. It's interesting. We have a little over 50 unicorns that we deal with. Whether they built the application and they built the experience from the ground up, their data is fantastic. Frankly, they're the first to drive more machine learning. They're the first not to have sort of bad processes, for the most part. They're the first to look at AI and some of these newer advanced tools and be able to actually get some use out of them, even in small scale.

To Phil's point on the enterprise, not only marketing processes and data points are broken. We've got disparate financial systems; disparate pick, pack, and ship systems; disparate customer systems. We have a large client that has, I think, 11 or 12 Salesforce instances for their customer base.

When you get those types of challenges, to Phil's point, there is a lot of work that needs to be put into place to get that uniformity on the data side to then say, "Okay. Now we can actually speak intelligently to our customers and have one voice." That is a long trek to go and a lot of work needs to go down that path before you start to see big improvements.

I think, from an AI perspective, overall, we've played around. We have a client who play around with it. There are definitely some great use cases.

Is it taking out vast amounts of work out of the systems? We're not necessarily seeing that, to Phil's point, just because some of the data is just not there to connect all the different points.

I always remember the best technology I've had is sometimes like talking to a six-year-old. One statement is great. It can respond to it. When you start to layer on context and you start to layer on the whole experience, it kind of falls flat and, frankly, detracts. We've seen this. Some technology deployed in this area detracts from customer sentiment and actually gives you a lower CSAT score. It may be at a lower cost, but a lower CSAT score. I don't know anyone who is trying to drive to that area.

How do you keep a vocal minority of customers from having too much impact on your decisions around customer experience and your product roadmap?

Phil Fersht: It's true. A vocal minority can swamp what your customers really want. Having a very strong ability to understand customer sentiment across the board is absolutely critical. It depends on what business you're in. It depends on how you interact with your customers, how you get data from your customers, especially during calls and that sort of thing as well.

Firstly, it's understanding that there is a vocal minority because sometimes many companies don't. They just hear noise come in. They see public complaints on social media and things like that.

They've really got to understand the core issues. They really have to set up a data platform in a way that they have that information. They really understand what the key issues are and how to get ahead of them. I think, again, it all boils back to the intelligence of your capabilities, the smartness of the people running your customer operations, so they actually know this is just maybe 10% of our customer base and the other 90% is actually perfectly happy with this issue, to get ahead of that.

Chris Caldwell: To me, it's a combination of things. First of all, it is making sure that the tail isn't wagging the dog by understanding the data, having the right data, and capturing the right data properly and using it. I think the second thing is, that's why I'm a huge, huge proponent of sentiment analysis where you're not sending out a survey and saying, "Hey, fill this out," because that only gets 10% to 15% of the people who respond and you either get the highs and the lows on those surveys versus sort of the masses.

In that sentiment analysis, it's really understanding, okay, what moves the needle and what's important? I think it's also important because what it brings out is we have this common debate that says, if you have someone who contacts you who is extremely loyal to your brand, they have an okay engagement, and they still like your brand but they're just not as fanatical about it, is that better or worse than someone who is really contacting you because they're incredibly, incredibly frustrated with your brand and you get them to be neutral where they're not going on Twitter and saying, "I hate this company"?

The reality is that, right now, there's a lot of debate around that because all the systems, generally, are saying, "Oh, focus on either the bottom quartile or the top, but not, how do you actually move everyone up across the whole spectrum of engagement. It's really, really, really fascinating stuff, and I think that also will help drive better subjective engagement with customers versus kind of running around.

We have one interesting customer who actually grades their customers internally with a customer score. Depending on what that customer score is--which they link to influence, share of wallet, and a whole host of other things--they will react to a comment that comes in. If comments come in from this sort of quadrant of people, they take it very, very seriously. If comments come in from this quadrant of people, they go, "Hmm, okay, interesting, but let's see where it goes before we take action." You're seeing that going back to the data and just being a lot more versed and having a lot more ability to articulate what's coming out from the data.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, it sounded like you were agreeing. I don't know if you had another comment on that as well.

Phil Fersht: It's getting me thinking a bit. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Clinton a few weeks ago. He said one thing which resonates with me, which was, he thought social media was great when it first hit the scene because he thought no one could control it. [Laughter] Now it's become a real issue for obviously not just politicians but businesses in general.

You can get minorities of people making a lot of noise on social media, which you need to control if you're running a business. It could be you're running an airline and there are two or three companies and clients who really hate you. They're going out and attacking your brand all the time. You've got to figure out, how do you manage that minority to keep the majority away from that as well?

I do think that there are shifts happening in society that is having a big impact on how we actually manage this moving forward. There's no hard and fast answer to this beyond, you've got to be really smart about this. You need to have people managing your social media sites as well as your own data platforms and your own call centers to really get ahead of this.

There isn't a set way of doing this. You've got to be really smart. You've got to understand your customers. You've got to really focus on controlling the noise as much as you can.

Chris Caldwell: Yeah, and it's also the speed of response because sometimes people thought of social media as an afterthought. Still, to this day, there are some big brands that, if you tweet at them, if you get a response back in two or three days, you're doing well. Yet, there are others that you tweet and, within a minute, you'll get a response back. Clearly, we're seeing more and more companies going, "Okay, even if they're a minority, even if they've got something," to Phil's point, "before it starts roller-coasting, let's figure out how to deal with it," and address it in almost real-time.

Why do some companies offer excellent service while others don’t?

Chris Caldwell: Yeah. That's a great question. Look, I'll tell you. My experience, personal experience, always comes from the top of our clients. If the client's executive team strongly, strongly believe in customer experience and they focus on things like that, they procure, which is really critically important to procure around customer experience and they have collaboration around the different groups around customer experience, then that's when you get that incredible customer experience. Those are the companies that you read about and hear about all the time going, "Wow, this incredible experience happened." People share on social media and they drive great brand loyalty.

Where you get fractured ownership of the experience, where you get, I'll call it, lip service to customer experience, and then it goes to a procurement team--Phil jokes about this because I hate to say it but I call the procurement team one of the great devaluers of business--is where they solely buy on certain things. It's not on customer experience. It's not on the total cost of ownership. It's simply driving down to the lowest cost of transaction.

Then you will get these very, very different types of customer experiences. They can be frustrating. They tend to be driven by monopolies in certain markets because they don't necessarily need to improve.

Those times are changing. As Phil pointed out with new insurance companies, new banking companies, there is a new, disruptive model coming out in almost every segment of our business that have kind of thrown out the old and said, "Hey, we're going to compete on customer experience." I think that's why it's one of the really exciting times right now.

Phil Fersht: It's interesting. I met with the head of operations for HSBC Bank a few months ago. They had a real issue with their customer experience. They were like number seven in the banking league for Europe, I think it was, in terms of customer sat. First Direct was number one.

What did they do? They went and acquired First Direct. A lot of it was because they really couldn't shift the culture and how to improve their own customer intimacy and customer experiences. They wanted to learn from another company. They wanted to bring that culture into the business as well.

In some instances, it's very cultural. It's something that's been in the company for a long time. You need to figure out maybe a game-changing initiative that can shift things.

Sometimes it's outsourcing. It could quite simply be, "Hey, let's go to Concentrix or Teleperformance or Sitel or one of these firms to see if they can shift our culture and do this differently as well." That's often what has to happen to change the game.

Are contact centers the same as call centers?

Chris Caldwell: Gosh. I think it comes up with a new name; everyone comes up with a new name every couple of months. As I mentioned, we have clients who call it brand engagement centers because the reality is, in our centers, probably 30%, 40%, even 50%, 60% of the volume can be nonvoice and have other things and other types of engagement.

Contact center is sort of the term of the day. The reality is, it's really about customer engagement centers that are probably the most prevalent and properly articulate what we actually do.

Phil Fersht: I think the contact center is a fairly meaningless term. You can call up your IT support line and you'll get put through to a contact center in Bangalore or whatever to fix your IT problem, but it's not called a contact center because it's an IT services shop. The same with finance and accounting. You could even call your doctor helpline and you get put through to an offshore doctor in Manilla and that sort of thing.

A contact center, really, is a housed building where you have service staff who are delivering needs for you, whether it's customer engagement, whether it's something purely fulfillment focused, whatever. I think it's a fairly broad term and I think Chris has a very good point that there needs to be a better shift in how we talk about these things because it's more of an engagement center. It's like, how do you get service?

I called my mobile phone provider the other day. I had no idea who was servicing me and where he was from. He could have been in Manilla. He could have been in Mexico. I was tempted to ask him after a while.

It just gets to the point of engaging with this customer. What type of service am I getting? Is there any follow up afterward and that sort of thing?

Chris Caldwell: Frankly, the physical idea of everyone sitting in the same space is no longer valid. Frankly, we have some customers that their engagement center wraps around 20, 30 different centers around the world and follows the sun. It's very, very seamless.

We have thousands of people who work at home as individuals who will support brands and do amazing jobs of customer engagement. Then we have gig workers who are sort of independent and will spend a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there over a course of a month supporting a client or supporting a customer. The whole premise of everyone sitting in one space is also somewhat old school and not necessarily reflective of what this new business looks like and how people service their customers.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, you are a consumer. You buy things. You have to get tech support, I'm sure, at various times. When you're calling up some company, whoever it is--bank, phone company, whatever--asking for support, what goes through your mind?

Chris Caldwell: Well, you know what? I have a very, very high bar. [Laughter] I talk about it in staff meetings all the time. I always give a great customer example and a bad customer example of brands that I interact with.

I look at everything from, is it a scripted experience, is it not? Is it technology for the sake of technology or is technology really helping? Is it a bot that I have to get out of because I can't get something solved or not?

I intentionally, because of the business I'm in, go out and look for these experiences. I also look at the company culture.

A great example is, I have a very favorite airline. I'll call them out because I love them so much. Cathay, they're not a client of ours, but I had a problem, I tweeted and got an instant response, instant engagement. Just fantastic. It was a great experience.

I have another airline that I had an issue with and talked to them. They said, "Well, we can't tell you who runs customer service for privacy information and we can't really help you. Sorry. Hope you have a nice day," as they left me stranded in an airport in a foreign country. [Laughter]

The reality is that it's all about that, do you feel engaged? Are you emotionally connected to the experience? Did they resolve your problem? You walk away going, "Wow, I would spend money with that company again." If you spend money with that company again, they've done their job.

What's your advice to the contact center or engagement center industry? 

Phil Fersht: That's a very good question. I was thinking you were going to ask me about the people who buy services, so it's sometimes more fun to talk about the people who sell services.

The first thing is, stop trying to sell services the way that you're structured to sell them and start thinking about selling them the way your customers want to buy them because that's the big difference now. It's really understanding what your customers want and being able to come up with almost like a portfolio approach of servicing their needs, making sure you've got the right startups, relationships, and expertise around you to deliver many of the things they need. Stop trying to maybe sound the same as everybody else and just really listen to what they want and really get people in who understand the nuances of AI, automation, machine learning, all the things that are really changing the industry right now.

If you don't do that and you're just focusing on saying, "We do better customer service," at some point, you're going to see a downscale in your business. When we look at the contact center industry right now, it's pretty much the same established set of players, the same 500 logos. It's a shuffling of the pack that's going on all the time. It's a bit of a race to the bottom in terms of who is going to win this war.

You've got to focus on rising to the top. You've got to focus on analytics, automation, and AI, and have that conversation. If your company isn't doing that, you're worried about that, and you want to be a real leader in this industry, then go and work for a contact center provider who does because you have a choice.

Michael Krigsman: Phil, let me just very quickly because we are going to run out of time, what advice do you have for companies that are buying contact center services? Really fast, please.

Phil Fersht: Look at your customer processes. Figure out exactly how you want to wire them, configure them, and the outcomes you want. Then look at who can deliver on them. Don't try and buy new kits, new tech for the sake of it. Figure out exactly what you want and then figure out how best to get it.

What advice do you have for companies that want to provide a better experience to their customers?

Chris Caldwell: Don't buy technology or kits for the sake of being new. Make sure that there's a clear direction and decision of what your brand is. Do you know your brand strategy? Most clients cannot articulate that clearly. Make sure you work with a company that's you're culturally aligned to, that you are going to be transparent with, and have those conversations so that you can actually move forward versus trying to figure out via this offense/defense thing that keeps going along.

I'd also say that the companies that really create wow experiences for their customers are ones that enable their frontline staff, whether it be their partner or their own, to do wow experiences. They're not measured on the clock. If they get two seconds over on a call, a chat, or a tweet, that they're penalized. That they are actually able, engaged, and empowered to make sure that there are wow experiences.

If you get those three out of the way, frankly, the rest is a lot easier.

Michael Krigsman: Chris, again, very, very fast, I need to follow up with one last question, which is, you mentioned brand strategy. From your perspective, what is the link between a company's brand strategy and the customer experience, including the contact center?

Chris Caldwell: Very simple. If you have your brand strategy, you know how you want to treat the clients or customers. You know what the experience they want to walk away from every engagement is. You know what your cost model is to provide that level of experience.

You know what you're expecting from that experience so that if you go to a customer and say, "How was your experience with my brand?" they will tell you exactly what you want to hear. If there's a disconnect anywhere along there, that's where you get, frankly, the back and forth and the mismatched expectations with your customers.