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Hunter Croft Of Advanced Call Center Technologies On 5 Ways To Create a Wow! Customer Experience

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

As a part of our series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hunter Croft.

Hunter Croft is President, Chief Executive Officer, and Member of the Board for ACT (Advanced Call Center Technologies, LLC). Hunter joined ACT in 2003 as SVP of Sales and Operations, and played a primary role in propelling the business from $20M in revenue and 300 employees, to more than $400M and 12,000 employees. He was instrumental in transforming the company from a PE-funded entity to 100% employee owned as a strategic decision to differentiate on employee experience and create even greater value for ACT’s clients. Prior to joining ACT, Hunter led operations for Penncro Associates, leading growth from 100 to more than 2,000 employees through organic expansion and new client acquisition. Before that, he held various leadership roles in financial services and lending firms, driving operational transformation and excellence for his clients. He is passionate about creating outstanding customer experiences by employing a “total experience” approach to service delivery.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I have to be honest, I’m not especially funny when I make a mistake. Don’t get me wrong — I believe a sense of humor is one of the most important things in life and the secret sauce to happiness. And believe me, I’m the first person to laugh at myself. I guess I just look at “mistakes” as a natural part of continuous improvement and personal growth.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My wife. Period. We have a true partnership that has enabled each of us to contribute to our family and professional growth while raising four daughters. Over the course of my career I have worked many long nights and spent years traveling 50–75% of the time. Through her strength and dedication, we have been able to provide a loving home environment that has endured through thick and thin, while she also advanced in her own career as professor. She is a constant source of inspiration.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I don’t think it’s so much a matter of prioritization as execution. I think many companies want to deliver a great customer experience but don’t take into consideration the full spectrum of “total experience” — the many facets of experience that contribute to positive customer interactions. To excel in customer experience, you have to optimize the user experience for every touchpoint; you have to provide multi-channel experiences so customers can engage with you in the way they want to, and of course you must deliver best-in-class digital experiences. But most importantly, you have to prioritize the employee experience. I think that the employee experience component is what many companies overlook, because they don’t make the connection that happy employees ensure the best customer experience across the board.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

To a certain extent, of course. Competition imposes a level of accountability and a “do better” mindset. But I think focusing on your competition is not setting the bar high enough. When companies spend their time simply reacting to their competitors, all they end up doing is reinventing old ideas. What we have seen for ourselves and our clients, is that real innovation occurs when you listen to your customers and listen to your employees about what their experience is and what they would like it to be. Harnessing the voice of the customer and “employee customer” opens up a world of new ideas that significantly elevate how we define and deliver outstanding experiences.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

One of our clients is among the nation’s top 3 largest student lending organizations. They came to us as a start-up organization, with complex requirements for a very small project of 3 full-time employees. They were seeking a customer experience delivery partner that could provide highly skilled employees and a high-touch relationship. Unfortunately, they had been unsuccessful sourcing a partner who was willing to provide the attention they deserved given the small size of the project. We’ve always operated under the philosophy that no deal is too small — we’re confident in our ability to help our customers grow and prove our value. Taking on this project was an investment in our own growth as well as the client. We met with the client team to understand the needs and define key performance indicators. We then sourced the talent to support the project and placed them in our own corporate headquarters. Mind you, the corporate HQ had never served as a contact center before, but we were able to pull together the necessary resources for the project. To this day we are still the top service delivery partner for this client and continue to expand our scope and footprint with them as they have grown exponentially over the past several years. I think the story really underscores the importance of investing in your customers as much as they invest in you.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

We were there when they were a tiny start-up of a dozen or so people. They were a legal entity and that’s pretty much it. Since then they’ve become a top US lending institution servicing more than a billion dollars in student loans. They’ve also made a huge impact on the student lending market as a whole, as a major disruptor with an innovative business model also predicated on the importance of delivering the best experience. They’ve forced their competitors to do better in meeting their clients’ needs as well. Throughout the years, we’ve ramped our services alongside them to continue meeting their needs, and we take pride in the fact that we’ve been able to support them and play a role in their continued success and expansion.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

I can make it even simpler than that. It’s really one thing — and that’s total experience. But to be fair there are 5 parts:

  1. Customer Experience. Listen to your customers, solve their problems, probe for opportunities to heighten loyalty, and make it easy to do business. And always remember you’re dealing with human beings — it’s essential to have empathy for their situations and perspectives.
  2. Employee Experience. Happy employees mean happy customers. The people who interface with your customers every day have their own needs and challenges — they want to be successful at their job, they want to be valued, and they want to make a difference. We have mapped every touchpoint of our employees’ experience with our company and placed feedback mechanisms to ensure we’re delivering the best experience as an employer — that their equipment works, that they have the tools to get their jobs done, that they know who — and how — to ask for support. It may seem basic but it is absolutely essential to their success and engagement.
  3. Multi-Channel Experience. Meet people on their terms on their favored turf. In today’s digital world, there are so many vehicles for engagement, and everyone has their own preferences. In our business it ranges from delivering customer support across SMS, chat, email, social media and voice, to offering the option for our clients to either bring their own platforms to us, or leverage our own technology platforms for their programs.
  4. Digital Experience. We’ve talked about the importance of optimizing digital experience across many channels. But there’s more to it than offering your service across different digital channels and technology platforms — you need to ensure that those platforms work, that they offer a seamless experience, and that they don’t create disruption. As a case in point, part of our employee experience mapping uncovered challenges employees faced in accessing online resources for technical reasons, and we promptly addressed those to improve efficiency and relieve employee frustration. These types of disruptions can have a substantial cumulative impact on experience and must be given consideration as a critical element.
  5. User Experience. It goes hand in hand with all the others but boils down to the question of what we want the experience to be for any given stakeholder in any given channel, and how do we create a consistent experience across the entire constellation of user touchpoints and interactions? From customer–employee interactions, to an employee engaging with our website or social media properties, to a customer accessing an AI-powered database of our client, we must consider the entire spectrum of experience as a whole entity that is bigger than the sum of its parts. And that leads us back to the concept of Total Experience.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

The most important thing is execution. If you have experience, common sense and a strong team around you, you’ll always be able to come up with great ideas and plans to get there. True differentiation, however, always comes down to doing what you say you’re going to do. Execution has to be flawless, or the best plans mean nothing. Commitment and follow-through are how you drive reputation and motivate customers to be your advocates. When people trust you to deliver, they will trust you to recommend to their peers and colleagues. As a company who has grown from 300 to 12,000 employees entirely organically, we have learned that the best customer loyalty program and word of mouth strategy is reliable, consistent performance.

My particular expertise is in retail, so I’d like to ask a question about that. Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

First and foremost, never let yourself get dragged into a price war. “Always sell value” is over-used for a reason — it’s true. Retail businesses have more opportunity than ever to differentiate based on experience and to set themselves apart by listening to their customers and addressing their needs. And don’t just do it quietly, shout about it! Define what makes your experience superior to the alternatives and then embrace it, promote it, live it. In the business process outsourcing industry, there is tremendous price pressure that can often result in a race to the bottom. At the same time, many of our competitors have figured out that they should be trying to differentiate on quality customer experience. Those claims are just marketing fluff if they don’t have proof points to back it up. In our case, we have made a conscious decision to prioritize outstanding employee experience at the center of our total experience strategy, because we know that positive employee experience leads to better customer interactions and better business outcomes. We believe this so profoundly that we became 100% employee owned in 2021. This means our employees’ motivations are aligned to our clients’ success because they will benefit personally from creating value and driving business growth. Not every company has the privilege of being employee owned, but every company can commit to investing in delivering the best experience for their customers and their own people.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would call on everyone to place a higher value on experience in a very literal sense. I would challenge people to concentrate on creating as many authentic interactions as possible. Sign out of social media, put away their phones, turn off the television, get out into nature, sit down and have a talk with someone they care about. In today’s world of so many choices and so much constant stimulation, it’s easy to overlook that there are many extraordinary experiences to be found in ordinary life.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow us on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/139110/ or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ACTJohnsonCity

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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