The desire to make a difference in creating a customer-oriented culture – an interview with Kathy van de Laar

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This year, Ian Golding (that’s me), will officially become the author of a book. A lifetimes ambition, I am beyond excited!! However, I would never have got to the point of being on the brink of achieving my ambition without the support of many people. A significant amount of support came via my crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. I feel genuinely blessed that so many people believed in what I am doing enough to pledge their support to make my dream come true.

In pledging to my campaign, five wonderful people were rewarded with an interview feature on my blog – what you are reading is the third of the five (you can read the first – an interview with James Dodkins – here; and the second with Chris Brown – here). Today I am absolutely delighted to share my interview with passionate Customer Experience Professional, Kathy van de Laar – enjoy…

Ian. Tell me about your background

Kathy. I was born in Iowa in the US – farm country. I grew up there and eventually ended up on the east coast working in Boston for one of the first multichannel ad agencies. My background was call centers and phone-based customer contact and I was one of a small team of people working with clients like AT&T, FedEx, IBM to improve their phone-based customer services. While I was there, the agency started working with something called experience-based branding. When I look back on it, this was for me the start of customer experience. I found it fascinating to think about how you could build your brand by how you served and communicated with your customers.

I went on to work for IBM in the US and Europe and have had the pleasure of seeing a lot of the world as a result, though I still have a lot of places I’d like to visit. I’ve been in the Netherlands now for 20 years. Married to a Dutch guy with two teenage daughters. One of the first things I was warned about was ‘don’t expect service comparable with what you’re used to in the States’. And they were right. It’s shocking to me still sometimes how far removed we are from being able to look through the eyes of our customers. I still hear things like: ‘I treat my customers how I want to be treated’ instead of how they want to be treated.

I started EarlyBridge in 2004. We’re a small company specialised in customer insights, CX consulting and training/change management. We work with organisations large and small to help them be more customer-centric. We build customer strategies, work regularly with customer journey mapping, conduct qualitative customer research and help companies organise and implement change projects by mobilizing the organisation.

We’ve won several awards for our work. In fact, I just heard last night that we won a global award with our client KPN for Change Management from the Association for Talent Development. It’s a fantastic example of how you can use the customer perspective to create real business value. I love the challenge of how to help organisations move from A to B.

Ian. How did you become involved with customer experience?

Kathy. My fascination with customer experience started at the agency and grew from there. I worked for a time for IBM as the program director for the North American contact center organisation, and in Paris as the head of direct channels. Then I was with KPMG for a few years in the Netherlands before I started my own company in 2004. Then I began focussing more on the experience aspects of customer management and change: how do you translate your brand values into practice, how do you design the right value propositions marrying/matching product values to customer needs? How do you align channels to deliver the right customer experience? How can you influence customer behaviour and how can you mobilize your organisation to be customer centric? It grew from there.

Ian. What is it that motivated you to advance your career in the customer experience profession?

Kathy. The challenge and the desire to make a difference in creating a customer-oriented culture. The challenge of turning words into deeds and thought into action. I recently did a customer journey mapping project with a Dutch retailer. At the end they were so surprised at the insights and the fact that we could turn the insights into actionable intelligence for the business. I love surprising clients like this. It’s rewarding to me when you take them out of their comfort zone to see things in a different light. I love being able to put a different perspective in play to see where that leads.

Ian. What have you observed about the advancement of CX in the markets you operate in?

Kathy. I see several things:

  • There’s a lot of focus on digital experience and customer journeys, user design. Unfortunately, not enough focus on omnichannel. I’ve seen a few situations where the digital change got too far out in front of the omnichannel and the effect was that online data was not available in other channels like the contact center. You need to be careful about how you tackle things and keep the big picture in mind.
  • For a lot of companies, it’s still just lip service. Visions and mission statements talk about customer centricity or customer experience, but it feels like it’s mainly the powerpoints that are changing. Not much seems to reach the frontline. I see this more in B2B. The good news is that they are trying to turn the ship but many B2B companies are still struggling to get a grip on things partly due to the complexity of their channel mix and (often) the role of third parties.
  • Customer Journey Mapping is underutilized. Maybe it sounds strange because I think that everybody is using it nowadays but what I mean is that it’s not used creatively. There’s still a lot of untapped value in the method.
  • I see a lot of CX people struggling to make business cases, to find internal champions, to start a movement. As a result, I have a lot of requests for business coaching, sharing my experience and helping internal CX people weigh options and make choices in how to move forward.

Ian. What advice would you give to someone starting out on their CX career?

Kathy. A role in customer experience sounds sexy but it’s hard work to prove value. Be aware that you’ll have to tackle the hard part (the financial side of customer centricity) as much as you’ll have fun designing customer experiences and working on other aspects that fall more to the soft side of the profession. One of the things I learned to do early is to quantify and qualify value to the business. There’s always a come to Jesus moment when someone asks what your results are.

And for young people, be prepared to start at the bottom and learn. I speak to a lot of young people starting out who want to be strategy advisors or service designers, but who want to skip earning their stripes. I understand that they want to do compelling and interesting work, but you need to learn the reality of the business. It’s different than reading and learning about it.

Ian. What advice would you give to any CX Professional?

Kathy. Hmmm. I find this a tough one. I don’t presume to know more than anyone else on the subject, but I would say what has helped me in my career is focusing on quantifying and qualifying value for the customer and the business. Learning to search for the root cause effect of what you’re doing (or proposing) and drilling down to uncover the value. I get great satisfaction from being able to take something from an idea to something tangible. Uncovering the value is a big part of getting people onboard so you can do your best work.

Ian. What would you do differently if you could start your career again?

Kathy. I probably wouldn’t do much differently. I’m quite happy with where I am and believe that everything happens for a reason; all the ups and downs in my journey have brought me here. But if you pressed me to name something, I would say that I wish I had started my own company sooner. The freedom to work from a shared purpose with like-minded others has been very rewarding. And maybe I could have toned down the partying when I was in my 20’s 😊. I might have had a bit too much fun at the expense of my career advancement at the time.

You can find out more about Kathy and her company, earlybridge, here… 

My book, Customer What – the honest and practical guide to Customer Experience – will be available to purchase in April 2018. I look forward to publishing the final interviews in the next few weeks.

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