Dr Catriona Wallace, customer experience futurist and entrepreneur, is one of the funniest and most intelligent women I have met and quite literally exudes the sexy-swagger of a rock star — I mean it.
It is impossible to be in a room with her and not laugh at her (sometimes) outrageous comments. She makes serious topics light without dissolving their importance and knows how to balance wit with business-smarts.
If you ask Catriona to tell you what she does in her own words, she will tell you, “I’m an entrepreneur”.
“I listen to markets, identify gaps then build companies that solve problems that businesses or people have," she says. “I then take the money and fund social causes, such as women and children who are at risk, as well as Indigenous communities.”
Her bio will tell you this:
“Dr Catriona Wallace is one of the world’s most cited expert on the future of Customer Experience as well as being the CEO of three businesses, a customer experience design firm, Fifth Quadrant, a market research firm, ACA Research and a celebrated software start-up, Flamingo. Catriona also has a PhD in Organisational Behaviour, is a well published author and data analyst.”
Her achievements include being inducted into the Australian Business Woman’s Hall of Fame, being involved with Springboard Enterprises Women Entrepreneur’s program and EY Entrepreneur of the Year programs as well as being a winner in the recent Pearcey Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
The working rock star
Her accomplishments portray her as a force to be reckoned with - and I would agree, however what I love about this woman is that she is honest about it.
“I want to make the world more equal for women and girls.”
“Business is hard and being commercially successful in business is even harder. Plus, business is still very masculine,” Catriona says.
And this is where she draws her inspiration for business from.
“I am inspired by women who are outrageously successful yet maintain their woman-ness. What does that mean? That they are true to themselves as women first and foremost.”
Her passion projects her deep desire to “demonstrate to women, especially Australian mothers, that we can build global businesses”.
“I run my technology firm out of Silicon Valley and spend two-thirds of my time there. And I have five kids, two whom are still at home with me,” she says.
“I want to deconstruct the typical, traditional models of being a working mother and let women know that we too can found and run global businesses as well as being awesome mothers. And I want to make the world more equal for women and girls.”
So how has she honestly managed to raise a family and build her entrepreneurial empires?
“Yes, well I have to say I can do all these things because I have people,” she says.
I love that she does not sell the super-woman mum image, which sugar coats ‘having it all’ effortlessly without support.
“I have an awesome Nanny, Janet Roxburgh who helps me raise the kids, an awesome ex-husband, Mark, who is very supportive because he understands what I am trying to build for the whole family, despite us being a separated family and I have incredible staff,” says Catriona.
“I have built these long term relationships where these people know I will go to the end of the earth for them as
they will for me.
“The key to building a successful business is understanding what problem you are solving."
“They understand my vision for the business is more than making money, it is to make a significant difference to the well-being of people – and they get this and want to be part of it.
“[It’s also] that I’m funny. Seriously – it helps. My staff know that every day will [be] work plus belly-aching laughter. Plus, pretty much they can do, wear, say whatever they want in my businesses. They are very free. And they know I love them. And I’m really hot.”
Yes, you read that right. That is what I mean about Catriona’s much loved, raw humour. She says what she thinks and she is also prepared to back herself if you have a mud ball to throw her way.
So what does Catriona have to say about success?
“I am not going to say ‘Success is whatever makes you happy’ or, ‘Having a balanced life’ or any of that bollocks,” she says.
“No, to an entrepreneur, success is setting goals that most other people will not ever achieve and then kicking them out of the park.
“For business, for me, success will be building a global software company that I exit within five to seven years then make enough money for me to fund young social entrepreneurs who are trying to change the world.
“And that my kids are happy and healthy. That would constitute outrageous success for me. And maybe that I get laid occasionally… OMG, did I just say that? Yes.”
Did your mouth just drop? This just reaffirms the certainty that Catriona holds within herself, with-out needing to look over her shoulder to see if you approve.
Flamingo and the Fifth Quadrant
Catriona owns a market research company, ACA Research.
They were doing a lot of customer research when she started looking at the data, and realised that “most big businesses were very poor at understanding their customers” and that was how and why she set up Fifth Quadrant.
It was giving birth to a product that could “provide customer experience design, strategy and research consulting”.
And the business name?
“The name Fifth Quadrant refers to the fact that customer experience needs to be the fifth strategy in the board room, alongside, in fact leading the other traditional four business strategies: sales & marketing; operations & IT; finance and HR,” Catriona says.
“Our purpose is to work with boards and executive teams to design and implement customer experience strategy across the enterprise.”
Fifth Quadrant is a first choice for small business owners because they work with all sizes of companies from large corporates to government to SMEs.
“We are able to adapt our services to fit all business sizes and because we are an [SME] ourselves, we deeply understand how [SMEs] think and operate.
We believe there is great opportunity for [SME] and mid-market companies to differentiate on customer experience. Because the big guys are just so slow and crap at it.”
Then out of Fifth Quadrant, Catriona conceived the idea that a software platform could help customers design the experience they want, within the parameters that business could deliver.
So, she founded Flamingo Customer Experience Inc., a cloud solution company, which launched in Australia in 2014 then the US in 2015. The company is now based out of Silicon Valley and is one of Australia’s highest profile start-ups.
I asked Catriona to divulge some behind the scenes of building such a successful business.
“The key to building a successful business is understanding what problem you are solving, she says.
“This was a little easier for me as I owned a research company so I was across many of the concerns and problems businesses in Australia have.
“I would listen to the market, read everything I could and constantly talk to customers and network, figuring out what the consistent problems were. Then I would create a product or service to meet this need and take it to market quickly.
“Near enough was good enough. You need to be quick and figure it out once you have won the business.
“Then of course it is about hiring a high performing team. That’s hard to do as they are hard to find. So then it becomes about building a brand with a strong reputation. Interestingly we did this also through being very philanthropically involved.
“This was not a purposeful PR strategy, we just wanted to do good things as we went along. Soon, we became known for many of our programs, including working with Indigenous communities and hiring women prisoners and people just out of detention.
“People then wanted to work for us because we had deep purpose.”
As you read earlier, ‘business is hard’ and the school of hard knocks will either make you or break you.
Catriona tells me that she has had to work “150 per cent as hard” as her male counterparts in her same role.
“I have had to overcome some significant hurdles when dealing with board and senior executives who seemed sceptical that they could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with my company and get results, she says.
“So I worked 150 per cent harder to make sure they realised they got tremendous value.”
“Now that I work in America, I do not find this as pronounced as in Australia. In fact, I have not found that being a woman CEO is an issue at all in the US. In fact, it’s embraced.”
Other challenges she has faced are a little closer to home; “I am a mother and I travel a lot. I am away from my kids a great deal and that is hard,” says Catriona.
However, Catriona has brought up her children to know that “it is a natural state for women to work and to mother at the same time. So they buy into the bigger picture and are with me on the journey.”
The customer mosh pit
Today, “business has moved beyond just having products and customer service”. Catriona believes that business should be about the whole of customer experience.
“This means customers will judge a business based on: how you communicate with me; how tailored the product/service is to my individual needs; how easy your processes are to undertake; what channels do you make available for me to interact with you; how do your people treat me and what value do I get for the price I pay and effort I put into the relationship,” she says.
According to Catriona, 60 per cent percent of a customer’s rating of a business will be an emotional response, how they feel about a company. The rest, she says will be a rational assessment; did they get what they expected?
“Businesses should actually have customers involved in their businesses, in helping them design better experiences.”
And that is the shift we are seeing.
“Businesses must now be moving towards personalisation and individualisation of customer experience,” for if they don’t, they will fall behind. I asked Catriona if she felt a lot of companies neglect the customer service aspect of their business.
“Yes, I think most businesses are still stuck in traditional models of mass segmentation of customers,” she says.
“Think about the language used when referring to customers. Usually customers are in pipelines, are segmented, tagged, flagged, made sticky, made captive, branded and given terms and conditions. This is how we treat prisoners…or… cattle…These models will not be relevant in the age of individualisation; which is now.”
We have all heard, heck, we may have even uttered these five little words to our own staff before: The customer is always right.
I figured the customer experience rockstar could shed light upon this.
“Yes, I agree. The customer is always right. Even if they’re not, they are,” Catriona says. Boom! Plain and simple.
I know in my own personal experience there have been times when I have dealt with a variety of organisations whereby the staff almost make you feel as though you are a burden - you are disrupting their social media browsing through office times, because you pull them away to answer the phone.
“Businesses should be of service to their customers. Customers actually have the power in the relationship as they own the ‘capital’ or have the money that businesses want. Hence customers are powerful and they are just starting to realise this,” she says.
“Businesses should actually have customers involved in their businesses, in helping them design better experiences. For this to happen, customers must trust businesses and trust will be built on companies showing three key traits: competence, character and being in service.”
Being immersed in the realm of customers and research, it is to no dismay that Catriona sees companies disregarding customer service.
“Our research (study we conducted in partnership with IBM) showed that organisations with a mature customer experience strategy will perform 15 to 20 per cent higher on revenue and profit,” she says.
“So why are organisations so bad at customer experience? It’s because business was designed based on industrial models and military models by Business Schools in the post-war eras.”
“We still have the legacy industrial models where a typical customer experience from quote to payment is 14 sub-processes, a third of which are usually in the call centre, a third with marketing and sales and a third in some other part of the business.
“Customers however are based on behavioural models. The two things were never designed to function together. Hence why the majority of consumers – 60 per cent rate that they have an average to poor experience with most organisations they are customers of.”
The upside is that poor customer relationships can be salvaged.
“If issues are resolved for a customer then they can become raving fans,” Catriona says.
“So never dismiss a customer or ignore a customer who has had a bad experience. You take responsibility for it, even if it was not directly your organisation’s fault. Own it, fix it, be apologetic and give the customer something for free or of value to them. They should become loyal advocates and this is invaluable.”
It is easy to understand what advice to dish up in business around customers, interaction and engagements, so I wondered what Catriona has taught her kids in this area?
“My children have been brought up with the concept that they need to be of service to everyone, regardless of who the person is,” she says.
“My children are middle class white kids who are born into privilege. With that comes tremendous obligation to serve others.
“For example, my kids will not walk past a homeless person without giving some money, shaking hands, looking into the eyes of the person and acknowledging them.
“My kids each have their own philanthropic funds that they raise money for. If I give them nothing else but this skill, then I will be happy.”
Social groupies and limelight etiquette
Today’s technology has undoubtedly influenced and changed the way we communicate with our consumer.
“There are about 23 possible channels that customers can interact with companies, with most of these being enabled through technology,” Catriona says.
Five of the six categories of communication channels for consumers are technology enabled:
1. Voice – call and contact centre
2. Social media
6. Face to face
If you want to use technology to build strong customer relationships, remember “it’s about creating value”.
Relationships are built on “value for money and value for the effort the customer puts in”.
“Design and deliver high quality products and services then make it easy for the customer to deal with you, says Catriona.
What about social media?
“Social media is an essential channel for business, however still most sales and service are done through voice, or call centre channels,” Catriona says.
Catriona encourages businesses to use social media to provide useful content and build their brand, and believes in allowing customers to use social media channels to communicate whatever, whenever they want, “good or bad,” to your organisation.
“All communication is good. However, if a customer posts on social media you must respond, ideally in less than 30 minutes, best practice would be to respond in less than five minutes,” she says.
Whether your brand is doing a good or bad job, social media platforms are a reasonable estimate of customer sentiment, according to Catriona.
“If an organisation has a social media channel then it should also conduct sentiment analysis of the postings so as to measure how customers feel,” she says.
“It is also a good way to detect problems with the business. As long as you respond and fix any problems, customers and observers of your brand will be respectful.”
If you are looking for some inspiration around some brands who have nailed building their business and consumer relationship with social media be sure to check out: Salesforce, Boston Consulting Group, Autodesk, Klimpton Hotels, American Express and Intuit.
These companies are active, responsive, and use multiple social channels.
While customers are at the heart of what Catriona does, this customer service rockstar is not limiting her stage time. She has just sold The Ventura women’s co-working space (which she founded) to another women’s co-working business called One Roof, based out of LA and Melbourne.
Catriona will chair the business and support two amazing social entrepreneurs, Sheree Rubinstein and Gianna Wurzl, which she is very excited about, and is also focused on taking Flamingo out of the US by raising $10 million.
In other words: “she’s hustling” all while “just trying to maintain” her “hotness”! Of course!
5 ways to manage and provide knock-out customer service
1. Focus on delivery of the whole of customer experience - communication, tailored product, process, channel, people & price
2. Ask customers what they actually want, even if you cannot deliver it right now
3. Develop both your digital channels and human channels and let customers choose how they want to interact
4. Be highly, highly responsive
5. Develop social media channels for customers to communicate with you
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