Faran Niaz is an accomplished Customer Experience, Digital Transformation & Change Management Expert with over 25 years of extensive global experience in establishing and running CX Digital and Social media channels, Complaint Resolution units and end-to-end Quality setups. He is a CX Judge, Trainer and speaker on various CX platforms as subject matter expert.

Faran is a longtime judge, having judged 5 times so far at the awards hosted by Awards International, including International Business Excellence Awards, International Customer Experience Awards, Gulf Customer Experience Awards and South East Europe Customer Experience Awards.

In an exclusive interview with CXM World, Faran discussed various aspect of his expertise, his experience at the awards so far and what the future holds for CX…

Faran, tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to a position you are right now at, as a Customer Experience specialist and Change Expert.

With over 25 years of extensive experience as an accomplished and experienced Customer Experience, Digital Transformation & Change Management Expert, I specialise in establishing and managing CX Units, front end and alternate channels, providing consultations and leading teams.

I started my career with Citibank Pakistan managing their service quality unit. In 2003, I moved to Citibank Russia as Head of Customer Service managing their service and alternate channels. After spending 10 illustrious years with Citibank, in 2006, I was headhunted by Mashreq Bank and moved to Dubai where I established Bank’s state of the art Call Center in Dubai Outsource zone, Retention unit, Complaint Resolution Unit and Quality setup.

In 2009, I was approached directly by then-CEO of Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB) where I worked for 10 years till recently as Global Head of ‘Service Quality & Customer Experience’ managing the entire ‘Customer Experience’ preposition for ADIB within UAE and globally. I am proud of being the architect that moved ADIB from 23rd place to being awarded as the Best Bank in ‘Service & Customer Experience’ in UAE for the last 8 consecutive years including awards for Best Call Center & most responsive on social media and with winning multiple other awards including prestigious ‘SKEA’ (Sheikh Khalifa Excellence Awards) for 3 consecutive years.

What, in your opinion, are the most common mistakes companies make when it comes to CX?

To me CX is an ART, and not just a strategy. Just like artists have a vision and a story in their mind before they draw, companies should also consider CX strategy as a complete design that touch bases on each and every component of experience across each channel.

There are some very important factors that each company devising or panning to enhance their CX strategy should remember. Most importantly, the plan needs to be devised at the top with a clear vision and purpose and then cascaded to levels below. I feel that companies now are under stress and feel anxious that they need to get on the digital CX bandwagon as quickly as possible, and this haste and lack of preparation can spell disaster if the plan is not backed by proper infrastructure and a complete buy-in from all the stakeholders.

A complete disaster is a CX strategy that is simply handed over to the front end for execution without their input. I have personally experienced front end staff struggling to execute and provide satisfactory service to the customers due to lack of understanding the complexities of the strategy including the equipment and the enhanced system.

And it is not a secret yet failed over and over again that that success of any CX strategy depends on ‘Cultural Change’ and adaptation. Customer Experience has to be recognised across the board and executed by each and every member consistently. Something that we witness and experience at the likes of McDonald’s, or Starbucks, where serving with a smile is not a job but part of their personality, where consistent experience is delivered across hundreds of outlets across the Globe.  

For me, the biggest mistake most companies are making now is eliminating the human factor from CX. Digital revolution, Digital CX which is very much cost-driven, does not in any way imply that customers should only be served by hi-tech machines alone.

There is no alternative to someone simply listening and empathising with customers. Companies have to be careful, not to take the human factor away. A good CX strategy has to be a blend of both – modern technology backed by service with a smile.

According to our records, you have judged 5 times at the various awards hosted by Awards International. How have things changed in regards to the quality of initiatives over the years?

Yes, I am extremely honoured to be part of the very prestigious ‘Awards International’ events. My first participation was as subject matter expert Judge. Since then I have had the privilege of being invited as Chair of Judges each time. I am joined by remarkable and highly recognised professional CX experts from all over the World as fellow Judges which makes Awards International events globally recognised as the most prestigious CX Awards that every organisation today aims to win.

Five experiences of judging across the globe and each time, the quality of submission and the level of presentation along with contents go up multiple notches. It’s easy to sense and feel how competitive and fierce it gets each time where every shortlisted organisation comes in with blazing force showcasing their amazing and at times unique achievements in the field of CX.

I have Judged a variety of topics, from ‘Best CX strategy’ to ‘Best Digital CX’ to ‘Most Innovative CX Strategy’. Companies represented by their top professional CX experts leave a lasting impression with their powerful contents, innovative strategies and I must say on certain occasions very unique and exciting presentations styles too. All in all, the events are getting extremely competitive and it is getting harder each time as judges for us to choose the best amongst the best. I personally learn a lot and similarly, the networking opportunities are unparallel to any as well.

What aspects of CX are most prominent in the Gulf region?

CX is evolving towards Digital transformation and it is a global phenomenon. This is true for every region including the Gulf. The dynamics are the same yet there are specific elements that make this region unique and the most prominent amongst them is the dynamic vision of the leaders of UAE who are at the forefront of digital transformation in every sector.

In this region, the government leads the future trends with CX at the core. Perhaps the only country in the world that has a Minister of Happiness in the cabinet. Given the importance of customer service centres being the real face of the government, last year the federal government launched the Global Star Rating Program, where centres are classified from two-star to seven-star based on the outcome of the assessment to redefine the concept of service delivery in federal agencies.

You were recently a chair judge at the South East Europe Customer Experience Awards. Tell us about your experience at the first live online awards event.

A historical and memorable event indeed. As a Chair Judge, it was even more exciting and special for me since I enjoyed not only listening to the presentation online but to manage the floor with other esteemed Judges and interaction with all the participants, keeping track of time and managing one presentation after another throughout the day was one of a kind experience.

So many events, so many interactions and activities, moving between multiple rooms throughout the day and everything worked like a well-oiled machine.

Scoring online, sharing feedback, discussions on various topics with other expert CX Judges and the presenters representing various companies created such a lasting bond. I ended up getting to know so many exacting personalities, even making a few friends.

The quality of CX presentations was of very high standards, extremely competitive and well articulated. To me all of them were winners! Each presentation had something unique that had our attention.

I never felt for a minute that the event was online. It felt as if we were all there. I can proudly say that the first ever online Award winners were announced by me for the category ‘Digital Customer Experience’. For me, that’s an achievement on its own.

Based on your extensive experience, what are the predictions for the future of CX?

There has been a talk of the New norm since COVID-19 surfaced and companies had to adopt all their functions accordingly ensuring that it is done without compromising the quality of CX.

I feel the future of CX is a mix of both pre and post Covid-19 era. A good CX strategy will have to adapt to both situations. The pandemic has had its harsh impact on society and organisations alike but at the same time, it opened up new ways of doing business. Ways that before were not extensively experimented yet during the current situation they became the norm as we called it WFH (Working from Home) or ‘Remote Working’.

The future of CX has started, it is happening already. The future of CX is Agile where customer journeys will be more dynamic and processes automated, smart and AI-powered. Future CX certainly will have more applications, software base activities, more mobile, more digital.  

CX communication channels will have to be available around the clock, where customers can access them as and when desired and their queries and questions acknowledged and answered in real time.

At the same time, I feel that customer engagement with organisations will be less through conventional channels and the shift will be more towards social media interactions. New products offering, Queries, questions, complaints, solutions & feedback will be media-driven and execution through electronic channels. Virtual reality will take its place in marketing world too where customers will be able to walk into a virtual world and look and feel the product from all angles, literally experiencing it before they would decide to buy.

However, a word of caution – success of CX is not entirely technology and digital channel driven but in fact these are support systems for Brands, to build their CX on the pillars of personalised relationship based on emotional connections. Brands will have to adapt to collaboration of both human factor and machines. Machines make coffee, yet it’s the ever-smiling Café’ server who calls us by name to deliver our hot cup of coffee with a wish for the day.

My passion for CX will always be driven and fueled by the special human touch no matter how digital or automated the world gets.