During the Covid19 crisis, many organisations have accelerated their digital transformation programs as they rush to meet the growing demands of their customer engagement services. In this episode, we chat with James Staltari, who has led significant transformation projects in both the banking and travel sectors, to get his thoughts and advice on successful strategies and common pitfalls.
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Martyn Riddle: Hello, and welcome to In Conversation With, a series of podcasts from Verint, featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX and customer engagement industry in the Asia Pacific region. During this series, we want to find out what customer service organisations are doing during these challenging times and try and discover what it is that drives the leaders in this space and what makes them tick. My name is Martyn Riddle. As well as being your host for the series, I’m also Verint’s Vice-President of marketing for the region.
In most of the episodes in this series so far, customer leaders right around the region have expressed how the COVID situation has forced them to pivot very quickly and accelerate their plans for some form of digital transformation. I thought it could be a great idea to hear from a leader who has already been through a couple of significant transformation projects, one with a large retail bank, and one with a major airline. For more than 20 years, James Staltari has worked with major organisations, leading a number of customer initiatives in a digital space. It’s my pleasure to welcome him to the Verint podcast today. James, hello?
James Staltari: Hi, Martyn. Thanks for having me.
Martyn Riddle: It’s great to have you on board. James, the phrase “digital transformation” is thrown around at least today and it appears as though a project can’t go by without the words being uttered as some magical panacea. I suspect my professional in marketing has to take a lot of blame for that, but if somebody has lived and breathed digital transformation for a number of years, what does it actually mean to you?
James Staltari: Absolutely. I think you’re right. It is an often overused term and it means many things to many organisations. To me, digital transformation is the effective use of customer experience, data, and technology to solve a problem. It’s about transforming experiences and processes that were non-digital or manual to digital experiences, or in some cases, a complete re-engineering of an existing digital experience to remove any friction or make it more intuitive. If it’s done correctly, you always will improve that end-to-end experience. In a good digital transformation initiative, it will improve the financial performance of the organisation.
Martyn Riddle: In your experience, how does digital transformation apply to the customer engagement sector?
James Staltari: First and foremost, it’s about improving the end-to-end customer experience, so removing friction, providing a more seamless and enjoyable experience for the customer. It’s not about just putting a nice UI on top of your current process because a lot of times organisations’ processes were designed for human intervention or have even existed prior to digital existing. You need to ensure you’ve got a customer-centric approach in your design. You need to be able to cater for all scenarios, not just that happy path and then send exceptions to the call centre or have 20% of your customers still following that old process.
Martyn Riddle: Now, obviously, most of the major corporates and government organisations have embarked upon their digital transformation journey quite a while back, but as I mentioned in the intro, the COVID situation has perhaps forced many of them to accelerate their plans. In your experience, James, what are some of the challenges these organisations need to be mindful of as they up their pace, particularly with respect to that customer journey?
James Staltari: Again, you’re right here. Martyn, there’s some industries, banking, telcos, media have embarked on the journey much earlier than other industries, certainly in Australia. The government industries or agencies have been a little late to the game, but if you look at Service NSW, it’s a great example where they’ve delivered a remarkable digital transformation program and delivered some great experiences for New South Wales residents.
Some of the challenges though, often organisations have is not having the right level of strategic focus or even investment into the digital channels or digital transformation. A good measure is looking at what the investment looks like across digital transformation relative to some of the other traditional parts of the organisation or other platforms and channels. That will really call out to whether there’s a serious commitment and focus to digital transformation.
I often see some key challenges which are called the digital trilogy, and that is technology, people, and process are often the key challenges. Having the right technology and platforms in place is absolutely critical. It could be related to your content management, or your marketing automation, or your data platforms, but having the right technology in places too. Second to that, you need the right people who are empowered to drive those platforms and create those content and digital experiences.
Then thirdly, you need the operating model design to accelerate your digital transformation or your digital line of business moving away from those traditional departmental structures to more customer-centric or customer journey structures.
What I find is often, organisations will be heavy in one or two of those, but you really need all three in order to be able to progress. The analogy I use is is a bit like a racing car time. You could have the best car with the best technology, but unless you’ve got the pit crew, the engineers, and the support team, you’re not going to break any lap time or any record lap times without those three in place.
Martyn Riddle: In an early answer, you talked about the investment. Digital transformation in the customer engagement sector is often cited as a way of reducing costs perhaps by replacing expensive headcount. However, I’ve seen that if cost is the major driver of such projects, the implications down the line can actually be very negative. What do you think are the pitfalls perhaps of cost-driven strategies?
James Staltari: Cost is a motivating driver. It’s often these projects that will fail or don’t achieve those outcomes, partly because you’re starting in the wrong place. You really need to start or consider that customer experience first. That is if that customer experience is intuitive, frictionless, and enjoyable, you will achieve those financial outcomes, be it cost or revenue. If you don’t nail that customer experience, you actually end up with a higher cost or customers continuing to use those higher-cost options or go to a competitor. You really need to start with the customer experience, and then you will see those commercial outcomes be derived from that.
Martyn Riddle: We’ve often seen strategies where organisations try and reduce the level of salary for their contact centre operators to an automated service as an example when in reality, sometimes they may actually need to increase the salaries of certainly the level of experience of those contact centre operators because the calls that would get escalated to them now need another level of empathy, another level of knowledge, and those typically come with high-level salaries. Have you come across similar situations?
James Staltari: Yes. I’ve seen something very similar in a call centre scenario where there’s been a strong focus on the average handling time to reduce the average handling time. In achieving that goal, what it’s actually resulted in is customers, their needs not being satisfactorily met and then causing additional call volume. Whilst the average handling time was successfully reduced, call volumes were actually increased, and as a result of that, the cost to the organisation was adverse. You need to be clear on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s another point of just coming back to that customer experience, first and foremost.
Martyn Riddle: Perhaps, that also highlights the need to look at a project such as this or a big transformation project with very wide holistic eyes. The overall cost of service may increase, but if in doing that, you’re able to reduce return rate or bring on more customers and increase sales revenue, then, of course, perhaps that’s an investment worth making.
James Staltari: Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.
Martyn Riddle: James, we’ve covered this in a couple of times in past episodes, but in many organisations, there is still quite a chasm between the operations of the contact centre and those of the digital engagement team. This type of structure can often cause its own set of internal problems, let alone a potentially damaging impact on the customer. Do you have any recommendations on new ways of working that can perhaps overcome these challenges?
James Staltari: Absolutely. It’s a good old chestnut of teams working in silos and it’s very common in many organisations. This is the process or operating model component that I mentioned earlier about the digital trilogy. It’s an area of my expertise, but also something that I’m incredibly passionate about. If you break down those silos and adopt new ways of working or cross-functional teams, you will immediately see a substantial uplift in the success of the organisation.
Most times than not, you have multiple teams contributing to part of the customer journey, and they’re doing that independently of one another.
What often happens, as a result, is you have leakage through that customer journey. That’s resulting in sales or acquisition leakage, or repeat visits from a customer who’s trying to complete a service interaction. Building cross-functional teams is critical. First and foremost, you need to identify the customer journey or must-win battle. I’ll specifically call or refer to it as a battle as it’s something that you’ve got to go to win or you’ve got to win in. It’s a make-or-break scenario for the organisation. Choosing to join or an acquisition journey could be choose-to-join or retention journey could be choose-to-stay, but identifying key strategic journeys is key.
Secondly, they need to identify all the required resource and expertise that you need in order to take something from ideation to customer-facing in that journey, everything from design, to build, to delivery. Not just the code elements, it’s the operations team, it’s the contact centre. Even legal and compliance to sign off those experiences if you are working in a regulated industry. The team needs to be genuinely cross-functional.
Third component is ensuring that cross-functional team is co-located. Makes a significant difference if the people are sitting together physically. I know that’s even less likely in the days of COVID, but the team needs to collaborate with one another. In a world where we are physically located, that’s imperative. If we’re using digital channels you can obviously achieve that collaboration through other tools.
Then fourthly, ensuring that that cross-functional team has an aligned goal. You can’t afford to have different teams contributing to that customer journey each measuring success differently. Lastly, is ensuring the team is supported by the executive because the executive need to ensure that that team is empowered and accountable for that journey, but equally, that team would need to be able to call on the executive to help remove any blockers so that team can be as efficient and as effective as possible.
I’m confident and have seen this many times across different organisations that, with a well-run cross-functional team, I’ll guarantee that you often see three outcomes, one of which is an improved customer experience. Secondly, you’ll see a significant improvement to the organisation’s speed to market. Then thirdly, an uplifting team engagement.
Martyn Riddle: Now, in one of those answers, James, you mentioned the wonderful world of compliance and privacy and regulation. We’ve seemed sickly in the last few months during this accelerated transformation period. Perhaps there are three phrases or three areas that may not always receive the amount of attention they deserve.
James Staltari: If I put myself in the shoes of the compliance or legal team, they’re often brought in quite late in the process to sign off a particular campaign or copy or initiative.
I specifically talked about the required resources to take something from ideation to customer-facing. If you get that earlier engagement, rather than the legal and compliance being this final sign-off before you hit “go live” it makes a meaningful difference. You will actually re-shape that idea upfront, which will again, increase your velocity or speed to market because you’re preventing any rework further down the track.
I’m very big on having all the required resources and expertise in those cross-functional teams as part of new ways of working. I’m saying the firsthand benefits of that because you’re only as good as your weakest link. If there’s one link that’s missing, be it compliance or legal or even the operations team, it’s going to impact your speed to market.
Martyn Riddle: That’s a great segue to the next question. We talked about areas of success and how you can get great benefits from such a transformation process. In your experience, what are the key reasons for failure? Where do projects fall down?
James Staltari: First and foremost, not understanding the problem that you trying to solve. You do need to know what is the problem, and then start with that customer experience. What does the end state actually look like? Then work back from that end state and ensuring that you’ve got all the rights expertise to deliver that insight. New ways of working is absolutely a submittable way to operate both when you’re transforming an experience, but it’s also equally important when you’re just optimizing an experience. That could be a website experience or an experience for a marketing campaign, having all the required resources and expertise present and committed and aligned to that goal for that change.
Martyn Riddle: From that comes the great new micro-segment of our organisational change management, which I’m sure is keeping lots of people very busy at the moment as well.
James Staltari: Yes, it’s interesting because having worked in some large corporates, one of the things that always fascinated me is in the time of a crisis is when organisations come together and work really well together because you’ve got all different parts of the organisation coming together to solve a crisis. What that does is the crisis, there is often a common goal. It’s how do you take that crisis scenario which is effectively a cross-functional team with an aligned goal and embed that into your regular operating rhythm.
Martyn Riddle: It’s been interesting during a number of these recording sessions that organisations have had these grandiose plans around BCP or business continuity planning, but when it came to such a crisis, they found those BCP plans were woefully inadequate. A lot of them needed to be adapted very, very quickly on the fly, therefore, perhaps paying homage to agile thinking and nimble activities.
James Staltari: Indeed. Just because a policy or a process is written on paper, it doesn’t actually necessarily mean it will work effectively in the real world. Does it?
Martyn Riddle: Indeed. That gives a good segue the final point I want to make here. The difference is with an established organisation trying to put in a transformation process to bring in more digital engagement versus a digitally native organisation that’s done this from the ground up and how those two different organisations can really help each other.
James Staltari: I think you’ll find that digitally native organisations have typically got that technology, the people in the process already embedded, already in place. It’s those more traditional organisations that have got part of their organisational design as more departmental structures rather than customer-centric structures. That’s the key difference between digitally native organisations and traditional organisations. It comes back to that digital trilogy of technology, the right technology, the right people, expertise, and then the right operating model that supports the delivery of those experiences.
Martyn Riddle: That’s great. Thanks, James. It’s been great to get your thoughts and advice on digital transformation, but as it’s traditional on the Verint podcast, let’s see if we can now find out a little bit more about James as a person. Has there been a particular piece of music that should go through a tune during these crazy times? A tune or a piece of music that puts you in a happy place?
James Staltari: I’ve had some fun memories of gigs that I attended pre-COVID. On a recent trip to the Sunshine Coast, I immersed myself in some homegrown alternative rock from The Ruebens which I really enjoyed and it brought back some fun memories of a live event which seems to be so distant these days.
Martyn Riddle: I think we’re in this for the long haul, James. How about a book, film, or TV show? Is there any one title that’s keeping you entertained?
James Staltari: A friend gave me a book recently called Barbarian Days: The Surfing Life. It’s written by William Finnegan and the irony is that William Finnegan was a writer for the New York Times and has written many great titles, but he won a Pulitzer Prize for this book. It’s about his memoirs of a life spent traveling the world chasing waves and it’s got a great history of surfing. I’ve been immersed in that over recent weeks and months.
Martyn Riddle: That sounds like a great read. Finally, how about a material object or a gadget that makes you happy, something that you just couldn’t be without at the moment?
James Staltari: Very easy. That’s my coffee machine, a big lifesaver during lockdown and still is.
Martyn Riddle: [laughs] I’m with you. My little Nespresso is going through capsule after capsule after capsule at the moment and I appreciate it. Nespresso may not be, excuse the pun, the creme de la creme of coffee machines, but I went to order some more pods last week and found that a lot of them are out of stock these days. I’m guessing people are piling through them especially pods at the moment.
James Staltari: Is that right? Yes. I’ve got to say for a few martinis, espresso martinis, to tell the truth, during COVID, so it’s getting used day and night.
Martyn Riddle: With especially a martini, that’s a great way to finish up the pod. James Staltari, customer engagement and digital transformation guru, thank you for joining us on the Verint Podcast. It’s been a great chat and been very valuable to get your insights today. I wish you, your loved ones all the very best for a safe and happy future.
James Staltari: Thanks, man. Thank you.
In conversation with . . . is a series of podcasts from Verint featuring chats and discussions with leading figures from the contact centre, CX and customer engagement industry across the Asia Pacific region.