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CX expert Annette Franz on putting the ‘customer’ in ‘customer experience’

We can’t seem to get enough of CX — every year, there’s a growing list of articles, conferences, and best practices on the subject. So, how come so many companies still get it wrong?

Most businesses design customer experiences from the inside out, based on what is best for the company, when they should be doing the exact opposite. At least, that’s Annette Franzs two cents on the matter. Few people are as passionate about customer experience as Annette, the founder and CEO of consulting firm CX Journey Inc. With three decades of experience under her belt, she has learned a thing or two about helping companies build customer-centric businesses.

In fact, in 2019, she literally wrote the book on it – Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business). In this guide, Annette writes about the best way to get inside the mind of your customer, and how to use those insights to create better customer experiences.

Bobby Stapleton, our Senior Manager of Customer Support for North America, recently caught up with Annette to chat about getting to know the customer and why personas and journey mapping are the perfect tools to do it.

Here are some of our favourite takeaways from the conversation:

1. How to put the “customer” in “customer experience”

Annette believes the key to understanding your customers is to listen, characterize, and empathize with them. This means you first need to engage with your customers to listen to what they (and the data points) are saying. Then, you need to arrange your customers into groups or personas according to their pain points, their needs, the ways they interact with your brand. Finally, and only when you have those two systems in place, you can (and must) start empathizing with them.

“You can’t know what’s in the best interest without listening, without really taking the time to get to know your customers and the experience they’re having and what their pain points are and what problems they’re trying to solve”

2. Customer mapping is the backbone of the customer experience

Annette is very clear on what customer mapping is, and what it’s not. It’s not a sales funnel or buyer’s lifecycle; it’s a process in which you illustrate the steps customers take in each interaction with your company until their problem is solved. Out of this process, you get valuable information about gaps in your journey, and about which steps might need improving. And the most important part, claims Annette, is doing this process with your customer, and through their perspective. There’s no room for wild guesses and hunches in the customer mapping process.

“We have to talk to customers. I know a lot of folks will gather stakeholders in a room and say, ‘Who do we think our customers are?’ That’s not developing personas. That’s very much perpetuating the problem. We need to go talk to customers, so we can say, ‘We know who our customers are’”

3. To be customer-centric, be employee-centric first

CX teams wear a lot of different hats – they have to be problem-solvers, project managers, good listeners, and excellent communicators. And so, it’s crucial that companies design employee experiences that support and empower them. That doesn’t mean Friday beers, ping-pong tables, or free snacks. Instead, Annette argues, it’s about giving them the right tools and resources to do their job properly, whether that’s setting up training sessions, recognizing their contributions, or just making sure there’s a quiet place at the office for them to work.

“When I first start working with clients, I’ll interview executives, employees, customers, and the employees. And they’ll say, ‘I don’t have” or ’I have the tools and the resources to serve my customers the way that they deserve to be served.’ So employees know. Provide them with what they need to do their jobs well, and in turn, they’re going to serve your customers well”

Caught your interest? We’ve gathered a list of articles, videos and podcasts you can check out:

This is Scale, Intercom’s podcast series on driving business growth through customer relationships. If you enjoy the conversation and don’t want to miss future episodes, just hit
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You can also read the full transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity, below.

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Writing the book on customer experience

Bobby: Annette, we are so excited to have you on the podcast today. To kick us off, would you mind giving us just a bit of background about yourself?

Annette: Absolutely. Thank you again for having me, I really appreciate it. Anytime that we can talk customer experience, I’m there. So, I am currently CEO of CX Journey, Inc, which is a customer experience consultancy. I’ve spent about 30 years in this customer experience profession, starting back in the early nineties at JD Power and Associates, and spent much of the last 25 to 30 years on the corporate side, either working for the voice of the customer platform vendors or running their consulting services organizations.

Plus I’ve had three stints on the client-side, working on customer experience strategy, or running the CX group there. So, it’s been a full and fun ride. I just finished a stint as chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association, the CXPA, and I am now in my last year, this is my sixth year on the board. And then, I wrote a book about a year and a half ago called Customer Understanding: Three Ways to put the Customer in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of your Business), and yeah, excited to have everything that’s in my head on paper.

Bobby: I imagine it’s one thing to lead customer support or to offer that leadership and consulting, and another thing, as you said, is to put it on paper. And what a great time to write a book about customer experience. Who knew a little over a year later, it would be such an important focus for companies as we move into our digital world. I see that you do quite a bit of work with Forbes as part of their Coaches Council. Can you tell us a little bit about what that work involves?

Annette: Sure. It’s less about work and more about community. The Forbes Coaches Council is really a coaches community where we support and help each other behind the scenes: “Hey, do you know somebody who…?” “Hey, can you refer me to…?” Or those kinds of things. But it’s also a publication platform, so I do write for Forbes, and I also contribute to some of their thought leadership content. Pretty much every week, they ask the coaches for advice on a load of topics, we can pick the topics we want to weigh in on, and they put together a panel of responses. So, it’s a great support community for coaches. And it also gives us an opportunity and a vehicle to share our expertise.

We’re coaches from all walks of life. It’s not just business coaches, it’s life coaches, it’s coaches’ coaches. And that’s part of the intrigue and the interest because people come at it from different perspectives”

Bobby: Do you find a lot of different styles and approaches across the different coaches?

Annette: Oh yeah, because we’re coaches from all walks of life. It’s not just business coaches, it’s life coaches, it’s coaches’ coaches. And that’s part of the intrigue and the interest because people come at it from different perspectives. So, it’s been a great learning platform as well for me.

Bobby: Touching back on your book, you released this book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to put the Customer in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of your Business). How’s the response been?

Annette: It’s been amazing. Some of the feedback that I’ve gotten is really the feedback I hoped for, that it’s become a handbook, a guide. I’ve got it sitting here by my desk, dog-eared and highlighted, and I pull it up when I’m going to do journey mapping work or persona work, or I’m looking for ways to operationalize my customer feedback. It’s been pretty awesome. I love that people are using it as I intended them to use it.

And, the way that I wrote it too, I tried to write it in very, I don’t want to say very simple terms, but in less of an academic approach, and more of a practical and conversational approach. And, I’ve gotten some great feedback about that as well. A lot of times they’ll say, “I’ve heard you on podcasts, I read your book, and I can hear your voice saying what the book is saying.” So, that’s pretty cool.

Bobby: It’s such an important blend to have those specific details but not over-index on that. And, on the other side, you don’t want just platitudes. So, to have that full scope from you is super helpful.

Annette: It’s very actionable for sure. And that’s what I wanted it to be.

A team of many hats

Bobby: Let’s take a look at the team side of things. So, you’ve written before about injecting humanity back into CX. What’s your advice to CX leaders on how to develop a strong team culture, especially when teams are likely separated by time and space, working remotely, these days?

Annette: I think it starts with the company culture to begin with. That company culture will feed into that team culture, and it should always be a part of the team culture. But the company culture has to be deliberately designed to be customer-centric. It has to put the customer into everything that we do, to always have the best interest of our customers at heart. Teams are always going to develop their own ways to do things. They’re going to develop how they work and their own language and ways to communicate. But, hopefully, that’s always within the boundaries of that larger corporate culture.

TThere are so many things the CX team has to be. They’ve got to be analysts, they’ve got to be researchers, they’ve got to be project managers, they’ve got to be good communicators.he other thing that I would call out here is that I’m a big believer in employees first. We’ve got to make sure that we focus on the employee experience and make sure that our teams and our employees have the tools, the resources, the training, the workspace, the workplace, the policies, and the processes in place to do the job that they were hired to do. When I first start working with clients, I’ll interview executives, employees, customers, and the employees. And they’ll say, “I don’t have” or “I do have the tools and the resources to serve my customers the way that they deserve to be served.” So employees know. Provide them with what they need to do their jobs well, and in turn, they’re going to serve your customers well.

Bobby: I’ve faced this challenge at times, to move out of that reactive space as a customer support leader. And to hear that advice of taking the time to talk to your teams and see what they need, it’s going to pay off there in the long run. I’ve heard you speak about the need to foster a multi-skilled and multi-faceted team. We wear a lot of different hats in customer support, and in your piece, you outlined a really wide range of skills that the team needs to embody. Things like being a trainer, being an educator, being a problem solver, analyzer, auditors, there’s so much there. Tell me more about that.
There are so many things the CX team has to be. They’ve got to be analysts, they’ve got to be researchers, they’ve got to be project managers, they’ve got to be good communicators.

“There are so many things the CX team has to be. They’ve got to be analysts, they’ve got to be researchers, they’ve got to be project managers, they’ve got to be good communicators”

Annette: Oh yeah. I’ve talked about that regarding the customer experience team: how to get this grassroots groundswell of involvement in the customer experience work that needs to be done and the customer experience strategy, and how to get everybody marching to the same tune. The customer experience team that you establish has a lot of different things that they need to do. They’re going to need to be trainers and educators, so they can teach the rest of the organization why customer experience is so important and what needs to be done to deliver a great customer experience. And they need to be influencers too.

They’ve got to be the problem-solvers because that’s what we’re trying to do for customers. We’re trying to help them solve the problems they tell us they’re trying to solve. They’ve got to be good listeners. We can’t understand our customers and their needs and expectations without really listening and hearing what they’re saying. They’ve got to be champions for the customer throughout the organization. There are so many things that the CX team has to do. They’ve got to be analysts, they’ve got to be researchers, they’ve got to be project managers, they’ve got to be good communicators. There are so many different skills that we need. If you had all of those things in one person, you’d have a unicorn. But to have them across the team, whether that’s in your core customer experience team, or it’s through your governance structure where you’re bringing in cross-functional folks with many different skills and talents that can help out, that’s how you’re going to achieve what you need to achieve.

Bobby: Do you find that, by giving the employees the space to put on those different hats, that drives their engagement?

Annette: Well, I’m going to say yes and no. My knee-jerk reaction is “absolutely,” because we want to involve employees. Anytime there’s a change, we don’t want to just force it on them. We want to involve them. We do want that grassroots groundswell. But I have seen employees push back and say, “I don’t have time for that.” And my answer to that is we’re talking about the customer, and we’re talking about delivering on the customer’s needs and expectations, and it’s not about creating more work. It’s about doing things more efficiently and more effectively, and doing things that are meaningful and impactful for your customers. And that should help to increase your productivity as well because you’re doing the work that matters.

The key to customer understanding

Bobby: Switching gears, I would love to talk a little bit about just the customer side of things. You’ve said that the key to putting the customer first is by listening, characterizing, and empathizing. In practical terms, how do you think customer support leaders can approach these goals?

Annette: It’s about putting the customer first, and it’s also about customer understanding. Doing those three things, listening, characterizing, and empathizing. How do we really get to know the customer and their needs and expectations, the problem they’re trying to solve, the value they expect to receive from your brand? So that’s all-important work, that listening, characterizing, empathizing.

Practically, I think that all has to be part of your overall customer experience strategy and part of the customer-centric culture. It has to be part of the overall approach to how you do business. And that means that everything you do is in the best interest of the customer. And you can’t know what’s in the best interest without listening, without really taking the time to get to know your customers and the experience they’re having and what their pain points are and what problems they’re trying to solve. I think the practical and operational part of it is that you have to infuse that into everything you’re doing.

“Right now, it’s not about automating people, it’s about automating processes”

Bobby: And this is a leading question, but for us, at Intercom, having software for customer support is very important. But using technology or embracing something like automation doesn’t mean you’re taking away from listening. It doesn’t mean you’re putting up walls for customers. These aren’t mutually exclusive things. We can use technology to make things better to give us more time and space to listen to the right things and empathize in the right way. Any thoughts about balancing some of these soft skills with the technical side of things?

Annette: Absolutely agree with you. The blog post that I wrote last week was all about automation and how, right now, it’s not about automating people, it’s about automating processes. And what that means is that we’re trying to take those menial, mundane, repetitive tasks away from our employees. Away from the customer success folks, away from the customer service folks, away from the rest of the organization. To automate those things that are repetitive, that can be taken off of somebody’s plate so that they can spend more time doing impactful work, building relationships with customers, focusing on the customer in front of you, rather than thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get off the phone in three minutes or less, otherwise my backlog is what it is.” Automation is a hot topic this year, and I don’t think it’s going away. I think it will continue to be a huge piece of the employee experience.

Bobby: At Intercom, we use what we call the Conversational Support Funnel. And there’s a layer of proactive support, a layer beneath that automation and that bottom piece, the tip of the funnel is human support. And we need to be spending time strategizing and thinking about the customer experience and journey in each part of that funnel, especially that human component. Because that’s where our teams can come in and work their magic.

Annette: Right, exactly.

Mapping with your customers

Bobby: You’re a big advocate for journey mapping and its role in creating a customer-centric culture. Why do you think that this is so important, and where can businesses start?

Annette: I like to refer to journey mapping as the backbone of customer experience management. The information that we learn when we’re doing the journey mapping process has to be used to inform your customer experience strategy. I view journey mapping as both a powerful tool and a process. The tool is the map itself; the process is not just about the picture, it’s about what you do, and the next steps, and how you ultimately implement what you learn.

The important thing is that out of this process, we get a wealth of information, right? An understanding of the customer, the experience that the customer’s having, the experience the customer wants and desires. We learn about the business, where things are breaking down behind the scenes, and how that impacts the experience. I think, for the business, you just have to start, right? The important thing to do is map with your customers from the customer’s perspective, and make sure you capture what the customer is doing, thinking, and feeling.

“What were the steps that the customer took? Did they go web, then chat, then that didn’t work, so they called? Step by step, what’s the experience of the customer until the interaction is closed and their problem is solved?”

We have to think about journey maps differently from the buyer journey, the buyer funnel, the life cycle stages, all of that. What we’re doing is we’ve selected some point A to point B, and let’s say it’s a customer support interaction. What was the need or the issue that the customer had that caused them to contact customer support? What were the steps that the customer took? What channels did they go to? Did they go web, then chat, then that didn’t work, so they called? Step by step, what’s the experience of the customer until that interaction is closed and their problem is solved? We have to think about that level of detail when we’re journey mapping, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do that. But you do have to bring your customers in and do it with them.

The other part of that, and this is part of the process, is service blueprinting. That’s when we gathered the employees who are behind the scenes delivering the experience, and we map out the people, the tools, and the systems, the processes that support and facilitate the experience that customers are having because we want to fix what’s happening on the inside so that we can fix what’s happening for the customer on the outside. All of that is quite eye-opening. It sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to boil the ocean to begin with. Pick something that you know is a pain point for the customer. Map that, and then move on to something else. Map that, make your changes, show your improvements, communicate with customers, close the loop, and baby steps. Baby steps, for sure.

Bobby: I mean, that’s such a good shout because your brain starts running, and you start thinking about all those little details along the way. I took a note, jotted that down, pick something that you know is a pain point, and don’t feel like you have to take it all on at once. It’s just really helpful advice for support leaders out there.

I want to ask, you mentioned bringing customers along with this. That can be scary. It’s a vulnerable moment, asking your customers, “What do you think is the biggest pain point in our experience?” Any advice for overcoming that hurdle, or a good way to get started with bringing customers into the conversation?

“You have to get over the fact that customers will say things that may hurt. You have to not take those things personally. It’s not about you. It’s about your business”

Annette: Well, you have to get over that. That’s the best piece of advice. If you want to improve the business, if you’re going to focus on the customer and design an experience that’s great for the customer, you have to talk to the customer, and you have to get over the fact that customers will say things that may hurt. You have to not take those things personally. It’s not about you. It’s about your business, and you know what? When customers give you that feedback, they’re doing it because they want your brand to succeed. It’s not for anything other than that, right? They want the brand to succeed. If they don’t, they’re not going to participate. If they don’t care, they’re not going to give you feedback. But when customers do, we need to listen and we need to not take offense. We need to hear what’s being said and use it to design and deliver a better experience.

Bobby: That makes sense. Are there any parts of the journey mapping that you would maybe recommend as a starting point? Is there a particular part of the journey that you think would be just a good starting point for customer support leaders to start that research?

Annette: I think it is what I mentioned earlier about known pain points. Known pain points for the customer first, and then known pain points for the brand. Most likely, the two will and should align, right? Where are you seeing sort of those leakage points? Why are customers abandoning their shopping carts? Why are customers leaving the site at this point? Why are they bailing on the IVR tree when they’re holding on a call? Why did they not stay on the chat when they should’ve stayed on the chat? You know those pain points because your customers will tell you through feedback, or you’ll see it in the data that you’re already collecting behind the scenes. That’s where I would start. That’s the best advice I can give, that’s where you’ll want to start.

Bobby: You’ve stated before that some companies think that they’re journey mapping, but in reality, they’re not really there. We’d love to understand, where is that gap and how can they get better?

“Known pain points for the customer first, and then known pain points for the brand. Most likely, the two will and should align”

Annette: Well, the reason I say that is because what they’re doing is they’re either process mapping – they haven’t brought customers in, so they’re gathering a bunch of internal stakeholders – so, they’re talking about what’s happening internally; or they’re at a high level, talking about the life cycle stages, the buyer funnel, those kinds of things. Again, journey mapping is done with the customer, from the customer’s perspective, and you have to capture, within that, what the customer is doing, thinking, and feeling. And if you’re not capturing at least those three things, then you’re not journey mapping.

Bobby: How would you differentiate journey mapping versus personas? I know that can be a familiar model for leaders.

Annette: Well, they’re two very different things, both in terms of what they are and how they’re used, but they are used together. Personas are research-based. You have to talk to customers, you’ve got to interview customers, research-based personifications or groupings of customers like customers. Customers with the same pain points, problems to solve, jobs to be done, needs, preferences. There’s a bit of research and analysis that goes into developing those personas, but they sort of cluster into those light groupings of customers. Again, we have to talk to customers. I know a lot of folks will gather stakeholders in a room and say, “Who do we think our customers are?” That’s not developing personas. That’s very much perpetuating the problem. We need to go talk to customers, so we can say, “We know who our customers are.”

Whereas journey mapping, again, we talked about what journey mapping is. Personas is, “Who are my customers?”, and getting that deep understanding of who the customers are. Then, we start journey mapping with personas because different personas have different paths, different ways that they interact with the brand, different needs. And so, the two work together. Journey mapping is about the experience and what experience the different personas have had.

Knowing your own strengths

Bobby: Yeah, that’s super helpful. As we wrap up here, we’d love to know: what’s next? Do you have any big plans or projects that you’re excited about or working on for 2021?

Annette: Right now, the year has started quite busy, so that’s a good thing. But I do plan to write my second book before the end of the year. That’s the big one for this year.

Bobby: Any sneak peek on the topic? Should we expect more great customer experience and advice from you?

Annette: Well, this one is going to focus more on the employee side of things. So employee experience and culture.

Bobby: Awesome. It goes back to the start of our conversation. That’ll be a very exciting read. Best of luck there!

Annette: Thank you.

“The interesting thing about consulting work is that it’s very much one-on-one, people come to me for what’s inside of my head”

Bobby: And this series for us here at Intercom, it’s all about hearing how companies scale their growth. But before you go, I’d love to know what was a key event in your career that helped you scale professionally?

Annette: Well, I don’t know that I’ve necessarily scaled.

Bobby: You have a book out. So you’ve got to give yourself some credit.

Annette: I will say this, the interesting thing about consulting work and coaching work is that it’s very much one-on-one, and people come to me, brands come to me for me, for what’s inside of my head. The work that I do is very customized to the individual and their needs. But, I will say that if the workload is not in my wheelhouse or the workload is too much, I will partner with and have in the past partnered with other consultants to share the work and help each other out. And we do that across the board here quite frequently. So, there are plenty of us, one-woman, one-man shows out there who don’t have plans to add employees.

And again, companies come to us because of who we are and what we’ve done. And so it is hard to scale that, but there are some of those smaller tasks and administrative things, and I have an accountant, I have a lawyer, all those kinds of things that get handled by other people who are much better suited to do those things.

Bobby: And if I’m hearing you, it does sound like it is a little bit of an exercise of knowing your strengths and knowing when to say no, and instead, being intentional with that focus. Would you agree there?

Annette: That’s a great way of putting it. Yeah, absolutely.

Bobby: Well, lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your fantastic work?

Annette: I always love to connect with people on LinkedIn, or you can go to my site, cx-journey.com, and sign up for my newsletter. I’m blogging every week and I’m in touch with my readers every week or so, whether it’s the blog or my monthly newsletter. So sign up for that, and I’m happy to connect, I’m always happy to talk CX. So thank you for that.

Bobby: Annette, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you again for taking the time to hang out with us here at Intercom. I know I’m supposed to be interviewing you, but I have a bunch of notes for myself and my team. So thank you, again. I know our listeners are really going to find this valuable. Take care.

Annette: Thanks again for having me. Take care as well.

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