Mark Smith of Kitewheel: “Bringing it back to the very beginning”

In March 2020, due to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of our utility customers had to temporarily close its (in-person) call center. We helped this customer make a short-term switch to fully digital customer support operations in a once-impossible timeframe. Because it was so time-sensitive, our team stayed up for two nights straight […]

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In March 2020, due to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of our utility customers had to temporarily close its (in-person) call center. We helped this customer make a short-term switch to fully digital customer support operations in a once-impossible timeframe. Because it was so time-sensitive, our team stayed up for two nights straight building a view of what new customers were doing when visiting the online customer support and identifying where customers were getting stuck. The business was wowed, especially since we were their only partner that stepped up and helped them right when they needed it, and so were customers.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Smith, President, Kitewheel.

With more than 20 years of global experience in Marketing Applications and Analytical CRM, Mark Smith is a leader in building, growing and managing successful companies. Currently in “innovation mode” as the president of Kitewheel, Mark is focused on helping marketing agencies deliver better consumer engagement through solutions that unify the “logic” layer of today’s customer-facing technology for large brand clients.

Mark’s journey into customer behavior and experience started early in his career. Shortly after achieving his Ph.D. in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Edinburgh, Mark founded Quadstone — the first data mining company to focus explicitly on the analytics of customer behavior. In the years that followed, Mark moved to Boston to build the US business and oversaw revolutionary analytic progress at clients including T-Mobile, Dell, Merrill Lynch, and Fidelity. His leadership role expanded to global sales, marketing and product teams that lead to a series of three successful M&A transactions over the last 10 years.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Bringing it back to the very beginning… I got involved with data and computers in the late ’80s, before the internet and at the very start of email. It was the very early days of collecting and organizing data.

My first focus was on banks: banks stored data and archives in microfilm. At the time, they were only starting to build databases and collect data. In Edinburgh, where I lived at the time, the university brought in supercomputers to work on commercial projects collecting data. With that technology, they started to bring together the first ever comprehensive data set… and I soon realized we could use this massive collection of data to find patterns. From there, the computers got faster and there was more data, but the idea remained the same. How can you use data to do the best job?

The bank we worked with refused to buy software from the university due to liability. From there, we saw an opportunity, left the university to work with the bank… and thus my first business — Quadstone — was founded.

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?

One of our first projects (25 years ago, mind you) was helping a telephone service company retain customers. This was a big problem in the phone service space: every few years, customers would switch to another provider. To tackle this issue, the phone company initiated a program with us to identify customers who were at a high risk of leaving (either nearing the end of a contract or making fewer calls) and try to stop them from changing providers.

Our strategy, then, was to have our client reach out and contact every customer deemed a flight risk. In fact, this often resulted in the loss rate actually increasing. Why? Customers who hadn’t even realized they could leave and exit the contract were inadvertently being told they had a way out. It turned out, we were chasing clients away very effectively…

On the bright side, that discovery led to a whole new area of analytics. We proved that just because you know a customer can do something, doesn’t mean you should contact them about it. We refined our program and increased our level of analysis to figure out whose behavior you can change by making contact. A whole new analytic approach was invented called Uplift Analytics — and it all came from this big mistake.

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?

I have to thank a banker named David Barton. He knew absolutely nothing about computers, but everything about the banking system. He had worked 15 years as a banker all across Europe, and we hired him as a consultant to help us understand the banking customer.

David helped us understand the impact that computers have on a bank, which was essential for our business. Through him, we understood that pre-computers banks kept a book on each customer and would read ledgers to understand patterns, person by person. When you went into the branch, the teller would know who you were, your history, and what needed to happen. It was a labor-intensive process, but it worked — and good bankers could even make predictions based on the customer.

That all changed when banks brought in ATMs and computerized accounting. It was supposed to increase efficiency and boost the customer experience, but it actually depersonalized the whole transaction. Now, bankers could not see the information they once had on each customer and could not connect on a personal level.

David truly helped us usher in the next wave of banking customer experience. We gave banks the tools to regain that knowledge of each customer as well as analytics to more accurately identify patterns and make predictions.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Customer experience (CX) has become the number one differentiator for businesses. Brands — and consumers — used to be laser-focused on product and price, but CX has surpassed both in importance at this point. Now, thanks to the Internet, customers can get information on any product in seconds. Because everything has become so commoditized, the choice comes down to what the experience was like. CX determines whether you stay on a site and buy more, or defect to the competitor.

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?

Great question. That’s because of the way businesses measure their performance: they don’t measure their performance in terms of overall customer satisfaction, even though they should. And even when measuring customer satisfaction, they do so based on either the website, or the telephone agents, or email. They measure bit by bit, product by product.

In fact, customers are not like that. The real perception of a brand comes from an accumulation from every touchpoint. For instance, one contact center agent can do an excellent job and provide top-notch customer service, but the customer might remain unhappy because of the reason they called.

A bank we work with actually perfectly illustrated this siloed thought process. We worked with a team that needed to reduce the number of customers who failed to pay their bills — but there was a major disconnect. The bankers would get a maximal bonus when nobody missed a bill, so they were incentivized to have no customers at all. On the other hand, the marketing team was paid based on the number of customers they attracted, incentivizing them to sell to anyone. When we came in, we helped them understand the disconnect and showed them that the solution was to market only to reliable, trustworthy people, and they used our software to identify ideal candidates.

To solve CX gaps like this, businesses should create a chief experience officer role to centralize and create a strategy that flows from the top down.

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?

Yes, competition is the primary motivator. Getting CX right should be efficient, quick, and common. The more competition out there that could be doing better, the more important it becomes to keep up with CX.

It’s also important to consider what channel the customer is using to choose their brand. It could be indirect, going off what others have said, or it could be based on their own experience with the brand.

Beyond competition, companies need to grapple with the dynamics of the market and the fact that the world is changing and so are customers.

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

In March 2020, due to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of our utility customers had to temporarily close its (in-person) call center. We helped this customer make a short-term switch to fully digital customer support operations in a once-impossible timeframe. Because it was so time-sensitive, our team stayed up for two nights straight building a view of what new customers were doing when visiting the online customer support and identifying where customers were getting stuck. The business was wowed, especially since we were their only partner that stepped up and helped them right when they needed it, and so were customers.

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

Yes, the change to an all-digital customer experience was a roaring success. Our client gained customer satisfaction along with deeper insights into how customers are behaving. In fact, now that call centers are back online, some customers who had never phoned in before March have now stuck to the digital channel as their primary form of contact.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! customer experience? Please share a story or an example for each.

Your business needs to be customer centric. Organize your business around the customer rather than internal metrics and sales and meet the customer where they are.

As an example, we worked with a Japanese consumer packaged goods company that was launching a new, reusable version of its legacy, one-use product. The client needed to attract new customers while encouraging current customers to make the switch. So we used intricate decisioning and automation to determine customers’ preferred channels (email or social media) and the most effective calls to action, maximizing the messaging’s relevance to each individual. We actually ended up boosting its market share from 15.5% to 17% with that campaign.

Understand that the customer experience is a long-term journey, not just one phone call or conversation.

We worked with a major baby food company to help them create a 30-month journey for new parents to get educated on how best to feed and nurture new babies from pre-birth to toddler status, through seven key stages of development. This campaign was a great success in providing education to parents, and the program also delivered a 27% increase in sales for the brand.

Consider employee experience as well. Staff needs to have motivation, or customers will be able to perceive the lack of enthusiasm. Create branded experiences for your employees and make sure the way they interact is on-brand with your business. With employees who believe in your mission, you’ll be able to better trust them to drive the right customer behavior.

We worked with a major insurance provider who was getting a ton of new leads (great) but had overwhelmed agents who couldn’t give each customer the attention and care they needed (not so great). So we stepped in and helped the insurance company tweak its lead allocation and distribution processes — this allowed prompt, one-on-one customer service without overwhelming its team of agents. By assigning customers to agents based on availability and bandwidth, our client was able to alleviate agents’ heavy workloads and allow them to engage authentically with each customer: a win-win.

Take a centralized, top-down approach to CX by creating a chief experience officer position.

Many of our largest CX projects right now are with Fortune 100 companies on initiatives driven by the CEO or the board. These are the fastest moving projects that are most likely to deliver success.

Perfect your digital strategy — and data. Nowadays, there is no room for error when it comes to digital marketing and experiences. Customers expect a seamless, personalized experience when visiting a website, and this can only be achieved with reliable data. To ensure you have good data, track customers and map out their behavior. Analyze what they are doing, where they are falling off, and how their actual behavior compares to their survey responses.

In light of the pandemic, we’ve been working with companies (like the utility provider I mentioned before) who needed to perfect their digital customer service, ASAP. In that case, by eliminating the traditional call center and creating an all-digital experience, our client was able to boost brand satisfaction and gain deeper insights into the full customer journey, rather than singular touchpoints.

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?

Positive (and ample) reviews are essential for any business these days, especially to attract and motivate new customers. In order to help our customers further, we link their product reviews on a system called Trustpilot. This system encourages customers to leave reviews and gathers data on the customers that do. Even more importantly, the system identifies negative reviews and helps the business leave a comment on the reviews to address concerns. This has been hugely beneficial for our clients.

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 always admired shared giving campaigns, where a company will donate one product for every product sold. Not only is it important for corporate citizenship and social betterment, but it’s also a good way of appealing to new customers. If we were to implement such a thing at Kitewheel, I would focus the effort on health and education initiatives.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can reach me on LinkedIn here. To learn more about my customer journey orchestration business, Kitewheel, you can visit our Twitter or LinkedIn pages.

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