Stephanie Thum Interview

Stephanie Thum CX Interview

Written by Diana Serrano

Stephanie Thum founded “Practical CX” management consulting group based in Washington DC. She has worked at both SAP and Qualtrics advising on CX. Additionally, Stephanie was one of the first agency-level heads of customer experience for the federal government. 

She gave our team perspective into customer experience strategy across both the private and public sectors. Stephanie also brought up some important business quandaries that aren’t widely discussed right now. 

Read to the end to get Stephanie’s recommendations for learning resources!

Q: Should separate strategies be developed for in-person vs. digital customer interactions?

“When you set up a strategy as an organization, that applies across the board,” Stephanie said. 

No matter the kind of customer interaction, company leadership should always be asking whether what they’re doing is cohesive. A piecemeal approach can have disastrous – and familiar – consequences. 

“Suppose your family was really hungry and you ordered a pizza from the Domino’s app but the pizza never shows up,” Stephanie prompted. “ [The app] was super easy, three clicks … but your end goal had to do with filling your belly. Your end goal as a customer didn’t have anything to do with that app.” 

Companies have to think about the customer’s life stream, instead of focusing only on their product or service.

Q: Due to the global health crisis, many companies can’t interact with their customers as before. How should companies adapt CX strategy?

Stephanie emphasized the importance of adapting based on fresh customer feedback. 

“One of the things rising to the surface right now which also pertains to the post-COVID world is about customer feedback, she responded. “[Companies are] going to have to think beyond customer surveys. We know e-commerce numbers are way up right now. With that, inevitably, we’ll see more online customer reviews.”

Stephanie also had this advice for business leaders: “You’re going to need to make sure you have AI-enabled tech to streamline all of the insights you can glean from all of the unstructured feedback that lives in those online reviews. Not just your reviews, but your competitors’, too.”

Q: As many people are barred from going outside, how can companies take advantage of social media to boost CX?

Stephanie highlighted that companies need to be mindful of both listening to and sending messages. Businesses have to pay attention as customers are talking more, whether that’s comments on social media, online reviews or even Yelp. 

“You need to be listening to your customers through these channels, because they’re talking about things in ways and in volumes that they weren’t before,” she said. 

On the other hand, many businesses are ramping up production of webinars or digital events now. Unfortunately, not all companies know how to produce good content. 

“It’s not just a matter of putting on more content, it’s a matter of ensuring that content is high-quality and that you’re giving your customers the experience you would want them to have,” Stephanie stressed. 

She told me that she and her husband have both been trying to use their free time to “skill up” but sadly they’re all “webinared out” on mediocre content that diminished their opinions of the brands in question. To create truly engaging, dynamic content, she advised companies to collaborate with influencers as part of their content strategy.

“When it comes to webinars, working with influencers in this context, it can be a huge differentiator and it can add dimension and personality and bring new interest into what you’re doing through the followership of those influencers …”

Q: What makes companies that are well-prepared to adapt CX strategy stand out?

“This is going to be a really short answer, my friend,” Stephanie said. “Leadership is everything.” 

Everyone in a company looks to the leader to set an example, she explained. The leader has to genuinely care about the customer and illustrate that with clear actions and clear communication.

Next, Stephanie and I explored some CX business questions that no one is asking right now. Here they are:

Q: What to do about fake customer reviews?

“One of these questions no one is asking is what do we do about [fake reviews] because you can’t fairly evaluate customer experience when fake reviews are in the mix,” Stephanie said.

There are some technologies that can spot fake reviews and factor them in or out. However, it’s not clear whether businesses apply these tools to themselves. 

“Fake reviews are just part of things now,” Stephanie highlighted. 

Sometimes companies will pay for favorable fake reviews or incentivize customers to write positive comments. The fallout of these practices is ambiguous, since we don’t know if businesses keep track of what is real and what is genuine.

“This is a point where we haven’t differentiated between CX and marketing.”

Q: How can we partner with academia to better understand experience management, leadership, and business performance?

Stephanie explained that academia can be a huge help to businesses as a filter for the endless advice and “best practices” on offer. She encouraged companies to partner with academia to answer business questions methodically and honestly. 

From the perspective of a consultant, she stressed: “There’s a lot of good advice out there, and there’s a lot of not-so-good advice. Academia can help us back up the things that we say.”

Q: How do we measure the truth around inclusivity in customer, employee, and candidate experience?

Stephanie used the example of disabled individuals when talking about inclusivity. It’s challenging to accurately measure whether someone in a wheelchair had the same positive experience as other customers. 

“We can’t really measure our success based on the number of lawsuits that we have,” she said.

From an academic standpoint, companies can survey customers to answer this question. However, if an individual chooses not to engage because they can’t get good service, it’s nearly impossible to get that insight. 

“Suppose someone leaves and you never knew that they’d even been in your store or ever even been on your website,” Stephanie highlighted. 

Post-COVID, businesses have to think in a different way, Stephanie urged. They have to be more diligent about creating a cohesive CX strategy that is always inclusive. The law also demands this approach, as in the court case of the blind Domino’s customer who couldn’t get service online.

“When the Supreme Court said ‘we’re not going to hear this case,’ the customer won and that sent a huge message to companies that they must think about designing their digital experiences to match those that customers would have in physical stores.”

Q: How do we combine law and risk management more fully into CX practice?

In certain situations, communication to customers has to go through lawyers. Stephanie noted that this can be a bottleneck for customer experience. For example, during the mortgage crisis of 2008, customers often threw out crucial yet incomprehensible documents. 

Risk management is another area Stephanie brought up as potentially at odds with CX. There can sometimes be a tension between companies’ risk management processes and the end customer experience. 

“In some industries like financial services and in some government agencies, risk management processes, policies, and standards can be so complex that they ripple negatively to customers’ experiences,” Stephanie said. “If the process of doing business places huge demands on customers to fill out endless, confusing paperwork or submit stacks of financial documentation because that is what the policy and process calls for, it can be a huge barrier for the customer. This results in poor experiences with and perceptions of that brand.”

Additionally, when there’s a disagreement of whether the customer meets the critical criteria, the entire process slows down. 

“If the transaction cannot go through based on cumbersome, long processes or because of confusing, complicated language on websites or application forms, then the whole process slows down and the customer can’t get the outcome they’re looking for,” Stephanie noted. 

When it comes to both law and risk management, there’s room for greater customer consideration. You cannot expect a company to immediately change its processes, but there can be greater consideration for the customer’s lifestream and their perspectives about your processes. 

Q: In closing, what learning resources would you recommend?

Julia Ahlfeldt’s mini master class podcast is my number one choice for learning the technical competencies and principles of practicing customer experience as a business discipline. If you want to learn how to practice the competencies associated with the CX discipline, that one needs to be at the top of your list,” Stephanie responded. 

She also went on to say: “You need books from the pioneers like Jeanne Bliss and Dennis Snow but you also need books that don’t have the word ‘customer’ in the title. My favorites: Edge Strategy, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Outward Mindset, Political Risk, and Damned Lies and Statistics.” 

Also, be sure to check out Stephanie Thum’s step-by-step guide on how to develop a customer experience strategy. If you enjoy thought-leadership CX content, take a look at our latest webinar below!