MYC'D UP WITH CX LEADERS episode 8: Tabitha Dunn, Customer Experience Executive
In the latest episode of MyCustomer's regular podcast, we speak to Tabitha Dunn about what she has learned from over 20 years in the CX sector - explaining why CX leaders often have such short tenures and providing advice for those looking to carve out a career in customer experience management.
In this edition of MYC'D UP, we speak to Tabitha Dunn, a CX Executive with a wealth of experience across a range of organisations.
Tabitha has held senior CX positions across a diverse mix of global companies, including Philips, Citrix and SAP. More recently, she was chief customer officer at tech giant Ericsson, where her CX initiative led to her being included amongst the finalists in our 2021 CX Leader of the Year.
Tabitha's unique combination of experiences has provided her with fascinating insights into the CX sector, with her first-hand account of striking the right balance between CX and executive leadership skills particularly illuminating.
CX leaders become frustrated because they have a clear vision of how they could evolve and improve the customer experience, and it would address these key significant pain points... but they really struggle to get any traction inside their company, because they haven't figured out what matters most to their internal stakeholders.
So we're joined today by Tabitha Dunn. It's really exciting to have you here with us for the latest episode of MyCD Up, Tabitha. And I just want to start by having a little chat about your background. So you've had extensive experience in senior CX positions at software development companies like SAP and Citrix, as well as within the medical sector with Philips, before your most recent position as Chief Customer Officer and Head of Customer Experience at Ericsson. Could you just tell us a little bit about your CX leadership experience and your journey from these solely CX positions to the most recent CCO role?
So, for me, I have been in customer experience for about 20 plus years now, and I actually started my journey when I went to work for Xerox, and I came in learning a lot about the course, the industry and our customers. But I also had three roles or three teams, and one was all major accounts for services, one was all about what we called customer advocacy – which is really handling very difficult customer situations and issues – and the third was this little team called customer satisfaction. And that was my first introduction into the customer experience world.
And I just fell in love with the idea of being able to listen to customers, both qualitatively – which I often did in the other parts of my roles – but both quantitatively and qualitatively together really painted an interesting picture about what our customer needs were, and where we had big opportunities to improve. And we did a lot of integration of that into our Lean Six Sigma improvement efforts. And you might say that I caught the bug, and that led to me going into my first CX leadership role in the healthcare division of Philips.
For many people who are looking to start their journey in CX, you come into it through a specialist area that might be in design, or it might be coming through in insights and so forth. But you know, one of the biggest things I think that's important for those who really want to reach an overall head of CX or Chief Customer Officer role is that you have to have both the depth and breadth of experience, and you have to have been able to do hands on, not only training and design thinking, but really what have you done to apply that and really change the experience for customers, for partners for employees. You should be able to do journey mapping; you should be able to do improvement and transformation initiatives; you should work on culture change; and you should be able to do communication, strategy and vision development.
Of course, insights are sort of the bedrock of what you learn from customers and how you identify not just how to improve but measuring their progress along the way for those improvements. And what was really core to me is that as I took on each new CX role, I was looking for the opportunity to be able to say what new thing in customer experience, or within the company, can I learn that adds to my experience to take on a more senior role or a broader role. And that can be challenging sometimes where people feel that they're very limited in their current CX role. But I encourage people to get creative and say you know, even if you're doing it in a small way, how can you really learn and then apply what you learn in different ways within your company?
So, you’ve recently finished at Ericsson. And you're currently I believe, looking for a global position instead. These shorter tenures are something that we frequently see in the CX space – why do you think that is? And is there any advice that you could pass on to people looking for CX roles, to make sure that they find a position that's right for them?
I think that part of the reason you might see shorter tenures in customer experience has to do with how much the company is able to invest in focusing on customer experience at the time. And that then becomes an important part about the scope of the role as well. So if you consider that there are philosophies of CX, where I've heard people say, ‘Well, my job is actually to work myself out of a role where customer experience is needed, and it's just embedded in every role and function across the business and you don't really need a leader’.
Whereas other people come with a philosophy and an understanding that customer experience has a set of skills and disciplines that gets applied to solving problems. But whichever of those directions you come from – and I tend towards the latter – it has to do with what the company is doing at the time, and how much investment they're putting in.
So for many of our audience who might be in a CX role today, some of you are actually actively engaged in driving change in your company, but some of you might be frustrated, because you can see that there's significant pain points that customers are experiencing, but you're really struggling with getting the company to invest in any of those in order to drive change. And it's really often that difficulty to convince people that this is the right focus and this is the right investment now, versus it might be better for the company later. Because often a company will have too much on their plate and there are other areas where they're changing, or it's not really the primary focus and therefore they don’t want a larger CX role in investment as a result.
I think that's why you see those short tenures – it's both on the company side but it's also on the CX individual side where they're like, ‘Well, I came here to do good and to bring about change and make an impact is part of my role’. And if they feel like they can't achieve that, then they go looking for another CX role that will empower them and enable them to drive change.
It's interesting that you mentioned the idea that sometimes a role perhaps isn't what the individual expects it to be when they first start a new position.
I recently spoke to Tom DeWitt, who's part of the team at Michigan State University who are running the first CX university course in North America. And he was telling me stories about speaking to professionals while he was doing his industry research. And he mentioned that a lot of supposed CX roles aren't really dealing with CX – the specific example he used was a head of CX position at a telecoms company, which was essentially just managing call centre complaints. So in that instance, the majority of the CX process has already occurred. So I suppose the question I'm trying to get to, in a very roundabout fashion, is regarding these positions – they're almost masquerading as CX roles. Are there any red flags that can help people spot these sorts of roles?
There is actually, and I do see sort of a proliferation of that, either where people are including customer service or customer success alongside CX, or maybe marketing and CX. There's also those where they've just sort of rebranded customer service, as ‘Oh, well, this is customer experience’.
I usually point people back to CX as the entirety of what your customer experiences with you from the point where they become aware of the brand, to where if you do all interactions well with them, that they become advocates on behalf of any of the solutions and services or items that they purchase from you. And with that, if you’re only responsible for customer service, then you’re really only responsible for a portion of the customer experience. And in particular, only the portion where something went wrong, as opposed to customer experience, which is also about identifying where things go really well – it's called 'bright spot analysis'.
For those who have done bright spot analysis. It's actually a really great way of looking at how these teams function or where they’re doing a really great job. And how can you actually learn from that, and really take those and cascade that capability across to other parts of the business that are doing similar tasks or functions. And that means that when you have these types of roles that are rebranded, but not really customer experience, it's good to not only have a deep dive into the job description; but when you're talking to the interviewer if you're capable of really talking through what are traditionally the six disciplines of CX – which is around strategy, culture, insights, journey mapping, governance and design – you can really speak knowledgeably to those in a short period with the interviewer and say, how did those things play into this role from an expectations and a scope perspective? And also, what's my enablement to really work beyond the function that I would be responsible for, such as marketing or support, or the account management side of the business. So that then helps you understand during the interview process, whether the company genuinely is investing in customer experience initiative programmes or change, or whether they've just done a rebranding effort for the job.
And on the flip side of that, is there anything that you would suggest people should specifically look for when applying for new CX roles?
It's important to do your research on the company. It's important to do your research on the individuals that you're going to be meeting with, those are very normal, typical interview strategies. But I think it's also really important to make sure that you have a set of questions that don't just talk about the scope of the role and how it pertains to those different disciplines of CX, but also digs into the culture of the company – not just your particular preferences and how you like to work in that culture, but how the customer is represented in the culture. You should also dig into leadership, and look at how the leaders tend to lead from a culture perspective, but also, is it a collaborative approach?
I would also say you need to really get into how the company is making investments in change, and getting examples from them on what are some of the most recent large improvement projects that have been running in the company – looking at where they came from and what the impact and results have been so far. If none of them are inclusive of customers, a good question to ask is, were customers considered as part of this? Were you intending to improve the customer experience with these initiatives? Or, within that environment, how would you go about getting investment into improving? Because if all you do as a company is just listen to your customers – which often takes the form of surveys – but you don't really listen, learn and then act on that, then it really becomes a breaking trust issue with customers, because you've asked for their feedback, but you're really doing nothing with it other than perhaps reporting it on a graph or a chart somewhere.
And that way, if you really ask questions in those four areas I just shared, you get a much better understanding of whether the company has an intention to change and be more customer-centric, and how customer-centric they are today.
Yea that really makes a lot of sense, I’m sure that’s going to be really helpful for our listeners. I just wanted to change direction slightly and discuss your CCO experience. We touched on earlier that your most recent role was as a CCO and that's what you're currently looking at going forward. Do you think having more people in CCO positions who come from customer experience backgrounds will help what we just discussed about having that customer-centric sort of ethos within the company?
It does. You know, companies tend to hire more executive roles like mine, in two different directions. So one of them is where they take a current executive in the company who is passionate about the customers, and believes that they can make things better for their customers and asks them to either add it to their current responsibilities, or ask them to step out and become their new chief customer officer. And then the other way is where companies are saying, we really want to do an outside-in approach, and we're gonna hire someone who has the depth and breadth of experience and also had that executive presence and capabilities. In either of those situations, you have to have a balance, right? So in that first situation, if you have someone internal, they'll become a great advocate, and they already have a great network and relationships inside the company. But, they're going to need to hire CX experts across those capabilities we talked about earlier, to be able to say, yes, these people have the knowledge and expertise in building an insights programme, or in journey mapping, or in experience design, because then that offsets the lack of knowledge that the chief customer officer that comes from internal has.
On the flip side, if you hire someone external, which is, of course, the roles that typically I get hired for – when you do that, I'm going to need people in my leadership team that are a balance of people I brought in for their expertise versus people that I'm really growing from within the company, who have that depth of knowledge, but also the capabilities to learn and grow into a CX role. So I always try to balance and make sure that I'm not coming in from the outside and just saying yes, and I'm going to bring in a bunch of people from the outside as well. I really want to take some of those people who are passionate about the customers and have great change capabilities, and bring them into my team and help them grow into CX roles, in addition to where we need that expertise. And that helps a lot of people grow into new CX roles as well. Because then we get to add more people with that knowledge, that passion and that capability to the CX profession.
So you've just talked about how you came into your CX roles – can you just give us a little bit more information about the sort of the steps that you took to grow your career from the CX positions into the CCO position?
Yeah, for anyone who's looking to do this, it’s going to be a mix of the advice I gave earlier about how in most cases, when you're hiring someone who is heading up a CX programme, they have to have hands on knowledge across all of the capabilities or disciplines of a CX best practice programme. So you really do need to take the time to learn and apply those skills, and have successful stories about where you've really been able to deliver. But the other half of that, that I think often gets neglected, is that people might say: ‘Great, well I came from experience design, and I spent some time learning and applying new knowledge in insights and designing research programmes and so forth.’ So they’re starting to grow those capabilities, but they neglect the fact that if you want to be an executive, you really also have to develop those executive leadership skills. You have to be very good at persuasion, you have to be good at storytelling, you have to be really good at building a business case. In order to be able to drive what's the most effective view of the change that you want to enact, you need to be able to be very good at change management, collaboration and building internal networks and relationships at your company. Those are things that no matter what type of senior leadership role you have, you should be good at those things. And if you're not, you're only good at the CX side.
Many times, that's where I see a lot of really great CX leaders become frustrated, because they might have a clear vision of how they could really evolve and improve the customer experience, and it would address these key significant pain points. But they really struggle for a long period of time to get any traction inside their company, because they haven't figured out what matters most to their internal stakeholders, and how to build a case for change that is appealing to them, to get their buy-in and support, and bring them along that journey with them and get the right investment and resources they need to be successful. And so if you really want that CX executive role, you need to be able to develop skills on both sides of that equation.
And just finally, this is the question we ask all of our guests, but we're going to adapt it slightly for you, and it does tie into much of what you were just saying. But if you could give one piece of advice to fellow CX professionals whose end goals were CCO positions, what would it be?
Always be hungry to learn more. That is one of the primary requirements that I have when it comes to new roles: what is something new, that I will be challenged by and have the opportunity to really learn and thrive in that role. It's not just the thing that helps you get that depth and breadth of experience and that hands on knowledge, but it's also a key part of what makes me interested in this job still 20 years later – because there's always an opportunity to learn and to grow. And if you have that hunger to learn and grow and really apply that knowledge, then you will be successful.