Mary Brodie is an experienced strategist who has been helping companies create memorable customer experiences for more than 20 years. Throughout her career and while at her company, Gearmark, she led teams in enterprises and startups that contributed to the bottom line. She worked on apps, websites, content strategy, and lead gen programs. Mary attended MIT and graduated from Simmons University (BA and MA) and IE University in Madrid (executive master’s in corporate communication).
Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Mary shared her professional trajectory, her roles and responsibilities as VP Product Development at revshop inc, the major takeaways from her book, personal sources of inspiration, her secret to striking a work-life balance, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Hi Mary, tell us the story of how you got involved in customer experience. How did your career lead you here? And in which industries, verticals or sectors have you focused your CX career?
After I graduated with a master’s degree, I was confused about what I wanted to do for work or if I wanted to get a PhD and stay in school. One of my professors told me that once I got a job it would come to me. So, I did that. In my first “real” job at 24, I worked in a technical support center as a receptionist, ensuring the engineers answered the phones and customers got the help they needed. I also worked on their new customer support Web site. But most of the time, I was answering the phone.
The engineer’s availability to answer calls and talk to customers right away was key to our success. Three engineers were scheduled to answer the phones at any given time, which was more than enough staffing based on typical call volumes. Our department’s goal was to answer about 90 percent of the calls upon first contact, fix problems in a specific time frame based on complexity and priority, and meet other industry standard metrics for a call center. And the team generally met those goals.
However, the engineers were often so focused on resolving customer problems that they would sometimes leave their posts for hours to talk to the developers. During a rush of calls, if there was only one engineer available for three to four hours, that soon became a disastrous customer experience for any caller.
Customers who couldn’t reach an engineer on the first try were forced to leave a message with me. At the time, leaving a message at a call center was the equivalent of submitting an email form with no confirmation message. Customers were often frustrated that they weren’t seen or heard by the company and felt hopeless that their problem would be lost and not resolved.
One day, an engineer got 19 complex support calls during a four-hour shift while the other two engineers were fixing issues in their queue with developers. There was a huge argument that night about it among the staff.
To fix this, we did some research with the team. I interviewed every engineer about their jobs to understand their perspective and their motivations for work. I wanted to learn how they wanted to work, their challenges and frustrations, and what made them happy doing their jobs. We already knew that customers were frustrated because they couldn’t talk to an engineer. We needed to hear the other side of the story.
After the interviews, I organized the interview results and recommendations, and distributed them to the team for review. Everyone had the opportunity to share feedback and validate that the proposed changes were in the right direction. After all, this was a collaborative effort to help everyone on the team work better together.
Note that management, from the managers to the vice president, was included, too.
Everyone agreed to the new way of working and the changes started right away. Not only did customers feel relieved to hear an engineer answer the phone right away, but there were some other great side effects:
- Respect among team members increased. No one left anyone alone on a shift, making them feel “punished.” Everyone felt that their contributions and shift time were important.
- There was greater collaboration among the engineers, talking to each other more often.
- There was a sense of stronger teamwork to achieve a new goal. The team had a renewed passion to exceed expectations for metrics and set new standards.
And after a few more months, the team far exceeded their goals and set new records with happier customers. In the end, the team won an award for Best Complex Support.
I originally thought I was helping the team answer more customer calls and do a better job, when in fact I was really helping the team improve the customer experience. In the end, it was the customers who benefitted from the team’s work. They got better service and a happier voice at the other end of the phone.
In the meantime, while this call center improvement work was happening, I worked with the call center engineers to create content for the website. We created various libraries with FAQs and guidance to reduce the number of calls we received. That, too, made happier customers.
From there, I moved on to work on the organization’s corporate site and continued working on digital experiences in various companies, agencies, and consulting firms. I now work on websites and apps, content strategies and lead generation programs in IT, consumer apps, travel, print, financial and insurance, and healthcare in large and small companies. I most enjoy helping startups or large enterprises launch new programs or initiatives.
You are also a VP Product Development at revshop inc. Brief us about this company and your role in it.
Revshop is a marketplace for B2B print purchasing. By “simplifying every option,” they make it easier for professionals with little print knowledge to buy what they need. Customers are guided step-by-step to create print specifications. Options are easy to understand; everything is in plain language with no print jargon. During the journey, the system determines the most effective method to produce what the customer needs—from paper to press to services to arrival date. That may sound simple, but there are many details involved in producing print pieces. I often tell people that there is a reason why this product took years to build and why few have automated pricing for print manufacturing. It’s highly complex.
My role has been fairly broad and shifted over time, depending on the team’s needs. From the start, I defined the user experience and directed teams to bring it to life. This includes defining more than the UI to explain how features should work (Agile story writing) and providing direction and guidance for development processes. I am a fan of Agile and would sometimes step in as an Agile coach to help the team in that way. In the past I was more active leading daily scrums, managing the roadmap, and researching technology approaches to implement (e.g., recommending that the product support microservices to support a future external development community, or provide input regarding how to support complex data structures with a NoSQL approach like MongoDB, or consider how we approach the data to include AI bots in the future when we have more historic data to make predictions). I have also participated in discussions with prospective partners regarding how they could be part of the larger revshop technical community.
Please share the major takeaways from your book, Revenue or Relationships? Win Both.
From my experience, many companies don’t really understand what happened with the rise of digital companies and automation. They sometimes claim that trends like the latest social media platform or marketplaces or some nuances of a generational outlook have been driving the emergence of digital businesses. But that’s not really what happened.
The digital world allowed customers to come inside an organization and be part of its community. The filters of sales, marketing, and customer service teams were shattered. Customers could see how a company operated by interacting with it directly online. Companies were exposed.
But how business generally worked didn’t change. Every business still needed a brand, vision and mission statements, and operating plans. In fact, its success rested more on building customer relationships and loyalty than ever before. Customer relationship and trust became the brand differentiator.
Businesses are about people, conversations, solving problems, and experiences. They survive and thrive through these relationships. Relationship success could be measured using a combination of revenue, loyalty, accountability, engagement, and responses to the brand.
Today, businesses communicate with customers through their online stores, their apps, social media, chat, and websites. Employees analyze mountains of data daily to understand who these customers are and determine the best way to connect with them. This book dives into how an organization can develop customer experiences that improve those relationships and the mindset a team needs to have when creating these experiences.
Why do you feel so many companies struggle with making CX a priority? What are some common mistakes companies make?
There are three ways companies struggle.
The first: companies forget who their customers are. It’s so easy to automate parts of sales and marketing programs and, while doing so, look past customers and their motivations and passions to see them as conversions and revenue generators. That’s the moment when customers get dehumanized and turn into KPIs, or worse, wallets to buy.
I saw this happen to a client and it made customer engagement and connection close to impossible to achieve. How can you communicate to a group of people you don’t know or understand?
To me, companies need to always keep in mind that customers are people with problems to solve. That will help employees feel compassion for their customers and spark that desire to help customers achieve their goals.
When employees feel that compassion for their customers and each other, they all adopt a mindset that builds trust, and the company transforms into a community of problem solvers. Companies like Warby Parker, Airbnb, Apple, and Amazon roughly fall into this category. And in that community, customers discover ways to use their products more frequently and in more productive ways, engage with each other, and connect to the brand. Loyalty is at its root a type of relationship. When loyal customers share their stories with others in their communities, prospects connect emotionally to those stories, seeing themselves in those situations, and understand better how the solution can help them.
When companies lose that connection with their customers, where they become the champions and spokespeople of the company, the company loses people’s hearts. And that’s hard to rebuild. No one wants to feel like a wallet that buys.
The second way companies struggle: they don’t provide ways for their customers to share their experiences. Your customers won’t share their stories on their own beyond their own friends and relatives. They need guidance and a platform to scale their storytelling. Provide that to them through social media posts, forums, classes, and speaking opportunities. Engage with your customers and encourage them to advocate for your brand.
The third way companies struggle: not investing in awareness to help customers understand the problems they solve. One organization I worked with had an amazing product that sales sold directly to customers. It was reasonably priced, so people purchased quickly. But after a year of paying for it, customers realized they never used the product and cancelled. What we noticed was that because customers never identified for themselves that they had a problem that they needed to solve, they weren’t really sold on why they needed they product. Customers never invested in implementing it properly and learning how to use it. In the end, if someone doesn’t know that they have a problem that they need to solve, why would they need a solution for that problem?
Have you seen, firsthand, any AI impacts on the practice of CX? What impacts are you expecting in the next few years?
Being able to put live conversations into transcripts and analyze conversational aspects like the tone, sentiments, and the words used to know what resonates best with customers can be game changing. The results can go beyond scripted interactions to help salespeople and customer service representatives have better conversations with customers and include that spark of empathy and compassion to help solve their problems. Sure, we all use scripts. But creating scripts and guidance based on data from real-time successful conversations and live customer reactions not only improves engagement and overall sentiment, but it can train employees to respond to customers in a more compassionate way. It truly is a game changer for experiences. I suspect that it will allow companies to connect better with customers and build stronger customer and brand relationships.
What skills have served you best in your CX career?
Listening. It’s something that I talk about often and work on all the time. I will listen to what employees and customer say and observe or listen to data from digital experiences. Listening helps me understand people so I can identify the problems they have and eventually define better solutions for them.
Critical thinking and problem solving. I combine that with listening to identify those problems and solutions.
Writing. Clear communication is so important and often underrated. I work with a software development firm that requires its developers to write and publish. When I coach the developers on how to write better, at first, they bristle. But then they see the value of storytelling and how to make a complex thought simple. I see how they bring that to their daily work, and it helps them succeed. You can’t talk about code to a businessperson; but you can explain the value that a coding approach will bring to their business and the bottom line.
What trend do you think will be most impactful in (your niche of) the CX space over the next three years?
The more data we gather from customer conversations to know what resonates with them to build better relationships and their choices and preferences, we’ll create more meaningful and impactful experiences. We can already see how site and application user data can improve experiences. Involving customers more in the feedback loop will allow companies to provide more useful content pre- and post-sales, as well as a more robust useful feature set that answers their questions and gives them the support, they need to make the right decision at any time.
Further, this data will help us develop compassion for our customers by understanding their issues and challenges more clearly. It’s hard to have that spark of empathy for someone and truly connect with them when you can’t fully understand their daily challenges.
Where or whom do you seek motivation and inspiration from? How?
I’m fascinated by emotional connection and how we engage with each other. That’s what got me interested in learning more about empathy and that led me to learning more about compassion. I took quite a few training classes in it at the Compassion Institute and at the Center for Compassionate Leadership. That interest in compassion led me to Buddhism. Buddhism has sparked a profound transformation in my life. Yes, I practice meditation and listen to instruction every day and do have my failings, but it inspires me to listen and remove my judgements, biases, and allow people to be themselves and share that with me. I’m more aware of what’s happening around me, who I am, and how I react. It’s invaluable.
I also spend time in the local arboretum every Saturday morning. I watch birds, small animals like squirrels and bunnies, and admire the plants. I sometimes do some of my best problem solving then.
I read a lot about psychology and neurosciences and how our brain and biology together help us make decisions. Understanding how our body chemistry impacts our emotions and feelings to cause a reaction in our somatic markers provides a twist on traditional thinking. I use this information in my work all the time. On of my favorite books was about dopamine (The Molecule of More), about emotions (How Emotions are Made) another about how lizard brain isn’t really a thing (7 ½ Lessons About the Brain), how overtalking is problematic and we need to listen more (The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World), how social networks work (Social Chemistry), and now I’m reading how we don’t really have free will between our body chemistry, heredity, and how we are raised (Determined). It’s fascinating to learn how biology impacts our consciousness and witness it in real-life.
What is your secret to striking a work-life balance?
Starting Friday night through Sunday morning, I walk away from the computer and get proper rest. Well, except for working on my own writing and projects. To me, that’s relaxing. I also try to eat healthy (I’m vegan), work out daily (thank you, Heather Robertson! Free workouts on YouTube) and keep myself emotionally healthy by meditating and reflecting often.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I’m not sure. Every time I answer questions like this, I’m completely wrong. I just keep moving forward with my journey and work on projects that seem interesting at the time. And I keep writing. It’s more fun that way to let the path unfold before me.
What’s the best advice you’d give someone just starting out in their CX career, or just starting to transition from a related discipline like call-center or customer service management?
Practice listening and clear communication every day. Try to understand the challenges your co-workers and customers face and look for opportunities to improve life for them at work. Even the smallest change like modifying a step in a process or working in a different order or collaborating differently could make a huge difference. Try to be the person who makes people’s day better and reduces their day-to-day challenges.