“The only qualification you need in CX is a real passion for people”
Nicola Millard shares her journey and experiences as a customer experience expert in this interview.
Nicola Millard is the principal innovation partner at BT. She leads a team of highly experienced CX professionals and has contributed greatly to the field of Customer Experience through her in-depth research on innovation in customer experience and the future of work.
Did you pick your career or did the career pick you? Share an anecdote or two on how you ended up in Customer Service/ Experience.
I’ve always been fascinated by the places where people and technology come together -- my first degree was in applied psychology and computing -- and my first job when I joined BT in 1990 was the ideal place to start. I was lucky enough to be part of a pioneering project applying artificial intelligence to call centres – places where people and technologies come together in many ways.
The system was designed to help non-technical agents diagnose faults on international business networks. Having just moved from Somerset to Suffolk (where Adastral Park, BT’s main research centre, is in the UK), I found myself going back to Somerset to capture engineering knowledge for the underlying expert system, writing scripts and testing the system with agents. That’s when I became fascinated by the dynamics of the call centre – agents talking to customers, with technologies mediating the conversation. A very human connection made with technologies in the mix.
From that point, I spent over 20 years trialling and deploying various new technologies into contact centres – including ‘The Inverness Experiment’, BT’s first ‘homeworking’ trial with Scottish contact centre agents in 1992 (homeworking definitely isn’t new).
My big fascination, though, was why people embraced or rejected these technologies – and many of the reasons lay beyond the hardware and software and into culture and measures. Technology acceptance in contact centres became the subject of both my job and my PhD studies as we developed ‘motivational user interfaces’ – combining the psychology behind motivation and the adoption of new knowledge systems with contact centre agents. We inadvertently invented something that functioned a bit like Facebook, for agents to share what was on their mind, as well as a stress management tool to provide agents with support if they were having a bad day.
Since then, I’ve moved around from research, to operations, to consulting, to marketing and now I’m part of BT’s innovation team, using research to help UK corporate and public sector customers to be innovative in the ways that they design both their customer and employee experiences.
“We inadvertently invented something that functioned a bit like Facebook, for agents to share what was on their mind, as well as a stress management tool.”
What were the challenges you personally faced as you progressed through the ranks in your career in CS/CX?
Being in innovation can be somewhat frustrating – because a lot of really great innovations that you get very excited about fail. Both examples of the pioneering work I gave earlier succeeded in some aspects, but failed overall. The knowledge base that the AI needed to work with was unwieldy to maintain and proved to be too expensive. ‘Homeworking’ worked on one level – both customer and employee experiences improved – but, without tools like cloud and connectivity (not available in the 1990s), we had to bulldoze people’s front gardens in order to put a big enough pipe in to carry voice and data and that came with a large price tag.
Both laid the foundations for the work that we are doing today – both with AI and chatbots and with agents working from home.
The one thing that we rapidly learn in innovation is that failure is only really a ‘fail’ if you don’t learn lessons from your experiences - doing that often paves the path to success.
What are some lessons you learned leading to where you are today?
Aside from learning from failure – the only other thing I use as a guiding philosophy for my working life is “be yourself”.
What advice do you have for women who want to pursue leadership roles in CS/CX or who may be considering it, but are unsure if it’s for them? What skills and experiences should they equip themselves with to give themselves their best chance at career progression?
I think the only qualification you need for a career in CX is a real passion for people. You are the representative of the customer in the organisation and you need to fight to make sure that the customer is kept front and centre in any discussions. If initiatives don’t make things easier for customers, they are probably not the right thing to do.
Understanding data is also useful, so you know the right questions to ask, e.g. if average call handling times go up, is that necessarily a bad thing? One potential hypothesis here is that self-service strategies are working, leaving human agents to do the value-add contact (which might take longer).
Tell us about a time when you used your unique combination of data and provocative stories to get a boardroom to adopt an innovative solution to a particular CS/CX problem? (bonus points if the story incorporates AI tech too!)
As I said, much innovation fails, so most of my experiences – particularly with chatbots – has been about proving what approaches don’t work, as much as proving what does.
We tried a proof of concept with customer complaints with local government and proved definitively that complaints really weren’t part of the customer journey that a ‘bot should be involved with! Firstly, complaints can be very long and much of human language is redundant, so parsing the text down to something meaningful was difficult. Secondly, people often deploy sarcasm to complain and that tends to completely bypass algorithms (and some humans too, to be honest!) Thirdly, complaints are often very emotive and, again, machines can recognise emotions by looking at metadata such as language usage, tone of voice, facial expressions etc but teaching them to react appropriately as a result is much harder. Humans are better at all of this.
More fruitful chatbot solutions tend to lie in the proactive CX area – e.g. using AI to tell people things that they need to know, over the right channel and at the right time. For functions like appointment confirmation, a ‘bot can function effectively because it’s a constrained conversation (i.e. it’s not “ask me anything”) and can deal with a lot of the common responses that are likely to occur (e.g. “I need to change my appointment”). Of course, looping the ‘bot into a human agent is very desirable if things get complicated, but that agent needs to have the right skills and a view of the previous conversation so that they can seamlessly take over. We’ve learned from the data that standalone ‘bots that don’t integrate with the contact centre can create very fragmented and frustrating customer experiences.
What would you say is the biggest accomplishment of your CS/AI career to date? Or if easier, the top 3?
From a research perspective, it was probably completing my PhD in just 2 years whilst working full time – which nearly killed me but was a mountain worth climbing!
From an operational perspective, one of the moments I felt proud of was helping to rapidly turn around the culture of an insurance customer’s contact centre. We’d been called in because they had just implemented a new switch and they said that it wasn’t working properly. When we got onto the contact centre floor two people were in floods of tears, so it was very clear that things were going horribly wrong.
My colleague and I looked at the switch data and realised that many of the staff had turned their phones off. This meant that calls were coming into the right department through call steering but, because most phones were off, they either went to the one unfortunate person who still had theirs on, or it pinballed around until it found someone available in another department. This meant that certain people were being overwhelmed, others simply didn’t have the right skillset to answer the call, and customer hold times were getting longer and longer – hence the tears because customers are rarely kind in this type of situation.
Digging deeper, we discovered that employees were being rewarded for getting policy documentation completed on time. To get documentation done on time, they switched their phones off (because calls interrupted them). This was creating a pressure cooker situation that had nothing to do with the functioning of the switch, and everything to do with the way that they were being measured and managed. Once we discovered this all we had to do was to help to reprioritise work stacks and ensure that each team had a rota of people who were always available to take calls, whilst others concentrated on policy documentation.
Two weeks later, we walked into a very different centre – mercifully, no tears this time!
Nicola Millard will be speaking at our upcoming Customer Experience Webinar titled “Women Leading the Way: Customer Service Trends 2021” on 24 March 2021, 17:15 CET, alongside a panel of accomplished women leaders in the industry. Register for this FREE webinar to hear her talk on “The Autonomous Customer 2021: Cloudy with a chance of AI”.
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