Mark Atterby interviews Rik Johnson, Head of Solutions at Curious Thing, about the importance of challenging assumptions when it comes to designing customer experiences and conversational AI.
Mark Atterby (MA): Please explain your current position and provide a background to your career?
Rik Johnson (RJ): I have the best job in the world! As Head of Solutions, I get to work with our customers and partners, to uncover their customer engagement problems and design conversational AI solutions that fit.
It was a pretty haphazard journey to get to this role. I started my working life as a front line call centre agent, handling billing enquiries for an energy company. This was going to be a temporary job, but as it turned out I’d accidentally joined a truly phenomenal BPO that gave me opportunities to try every facet of CX support.
I’ve built quality management departments and run real-time and forecasting processes. I got to lead PMOs and even tried marketing (and discovered that you can’t be good at everything!).
Over about 20 years there, in all these incredible opportunities, I always had a really strong pull toward CX. Even in non-customer focussed roles I still always had an eye on the customer impact, because if we don’t have customers, none of us have anything else to work on.
The last stint in the BPO world, I was leading digital transformation, bringing tech in to help create great customer experiences as well as great business efficiencies.
I think that’s a long way of saying that my background is customer experience, and I think that’s absolutely essential in what I’m doing now. It can be easy to get wowed by the technology (and what we can do still amazes me), but it only really shines when you deploy it in a way that is truly connected to what the customer needs.
MA: What do you like most about your current role?
RJ: I get really excited by the challenges our partners bring to us, sometimes with really small, niche problems and sometimes with huge scale issues. Most often, the common fear we’re supporting our partners with is the question of how you bring voice AI in to solve this problem, without losing the value of human connection, and being able to help guide people to where that sweet spot is really satisfying.
I also love being the translator between customer and tech, ensuring that what we build is as smart as it needs to be to provide great CX, and giving the customer view to our brilliant tech team so they have a connection with why particular functions or experiences matter so much.
MA: What is the most important thing that you have learnt over your career that has really helped you in your various roles and projects you have worked on?
RJ: Ooh, how do I pick just one…
One of the most important things is “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”.
In conversational AI experiences, this plays out in a lot of different ways: just because the AI can ask a question, doesn’t mean it’s of value to the customer to answer it. Just because we can handle more of a process, doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for that business. I spend a lot of time asking questions and trying to understand the bigger picture of processes, environments, customer expectations and relationships with the business, and so on.
I feel like this was key in both transformation design and change management in general; challenging assumptions to make sure we really understand what the best solution is, without slowing things down too much.
MA: How did you learn this lesson? Was it gradually, over time? An event that brought about an epiphany? Or was it a lesson learnt from making a mistake?
RJ: It’s definitely been gradual, and I don’t think it’s even been conscious. It’s a bit hard to pinpoint a specific moment, but
I do remember having conversations when we were looking at implementing RPA across various processes, and I had a stakeholder who just wanted it done as fast as possible, to make the savings. Talking with the team and digging in though, I could see that there would be downsides of automating straight away – and ironing out other issues first would eliminate those downsides. Sure it delays the savings, but it means a better experience for the agents working with the end solution, and happier people leads to happier customers, always.
Learning how to communicate the “why” of decisions is something that I learned early in my career, when I was fortunate to have leaders who believed in sharing practically everything. I’m still a staunch believer in that today; people buy in more when they know why something is happening. I think it’s essential when our partners are introducing voice AI to their teams – your frontline teams and your customers need to know why you’re doing it, and honesty matters.
MA: How have you applied that lesson in your career? Can you provide an anecdote or a story?
RJ: Testing why we’re doing something, and testing out whether we’ve considered the various audiences and options, is second nature now. Being on the tech side of the conversation, I think it can seem a little odd for some stakeholders that we’re willing to challenge what’s a good fit, but ultimately if we’re not solving things that are of value to the customer as well as the business, they won’t succeed – and those can be harmful to the relationship between the customer and the brand, and the teams working on them.
I was once brought into help with an automation project that was running behind, where the project and ops teams were at a standoff.
The team who were working on the project were focussed on getting the technology in, and kept butting heads with the operational team who were throwing up objections and issues at every turn. Resources were being deprioritised, and the project team kept escalating and having to adjust timeframes.
When we sat down to look at what the issues were, they were on two angles.
Firstly, the ops team didn’t understand WHY the project was so important, how it would benefit them, and what opportunity they had to shape how it worked. Instead of asking, they were finding excuses and hoping it would go away.
Secondly, when we got down to the problem the project team thought they were solving – it wasn’t actually the best way to solve it. Better understanding the business problem, the project would have been shaped differently. Basically, there was a desire to have the technology for the tech’s sake, because everyone else was bringing it in. Rather than starting with the problem, we started with the tech.
Just because we could implement it, didn’t mean we should have…or at least, not for that particular problem.
MA: What advice do you offer other CX leaders when it comes to evaluating and using CX technology?
RJ: Different tech solves different problems, and your problems might not be the same as everyone else’s. Knowing what other people are doing is great as it provides inspiration, but start with understanding your challenge.
Once you understand your pain point – capacity, inefficiency, accuracy, whatever it may be – then be curious to explore what’s out there, and plan to pilot. Stand it up fast, and fail fast if you have to.
Actually using the tech is the only way to see what will work, because your business, your customers, and your team are a unique combination. Be curious and go discover what will work for you.