The inaugural International Customer Experience Awards is taking place this November 20 in the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam.

The gala event will reward the world’s most customer-centric businesses and organisations, that will be judged by an expert panel of key global CX industry figures.

Among these judges are the 2018 International Customer Experience Awards Ambassadors, each representing his or her country at what will be the planet’s biggest ever celebration of CX. In a new series, CXM World is publishing exclusive interviews with – and opinion articles from – the Ambassadors, as the event approaches.

For more information on entering the awards, click here.

Ambassador: Sirte Pihlaja

Country: Finland

Occupation: CEO and Customer Experience Optimiser at Shirute Ltd

Hi Sirte, tell us a little about your professional background, and what drew you towards the concept of Customer Experience

I have worked with various aspects of strategy and experience design for over 20 years. This practice has been called many terms during this time, but the focus has always been on customer interaction and management. Nowadays, the current dialogue is around design thinking, co-creation, and Customer Experience (CX).

I am passionate about CX, and would love everyone to get as enthusiastic about it! I was one of the founding members of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), and am still today part of its international advisory board. I have run the activities of the CXPA in Finland since we launched.

You’re a judge and Ambassador at the ICXAs – what themes do you hope to see in this year’s presentations?

I would like to see the driving force behind organisations. What is their purpose? Why do they exist?

Do they actually have a ‘north star’ that they are following? Because everything that comes after that is just a translation of that purpose. It translates to leadership, cultural transformation, Employee Experience, empowering employees – all of that. It has such an important role.

I am also looking forward to seeing great case examples across industries that everyone can learn from. Although the ICXAs is a competition, it should be all about sharing because we can only move forward in this domain and gain new ideas through working together.

What aspects of Customer Experience are popular among businesses/organisations in Finland?

In Finland, many organisations are still talking about basic things like CX measurement and CX journey mapping. Naturally, there are also some more advanced leaders in CX management who are using data and knowledge about their customers to its full potential, and who work from there to deliver more personalised services.

The reason we don’t see it so much is that these tend to be massive projects that span over many years, usually platform-centred.

I believe that there is room for a leaner and more agile approach to Customer Experience development. People experiences should not lean so much on technology; IT should help in terms of being an enabler, but CX should really be all about people.

What areas of CX could be improved in your home country?

Finland is known to be a beautiful, happy country, with the best schools and the home of innovation – easily the happiest place on Earth. However, I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about how to benefit from these expectations. We also need to be consistent about quality to entice people to consume and do business with us.

At Shirute, we have studied the State of Customer Experience Management in Finland now for six years and running. Based on this research, the biggest challenge has every year been the lack of a clear CX strategy.

Most companies say that they have CX in their strategy, or even that it is the number one goal at leadership/strategy level, yet this does not translate to strategic goals and initiatives for people experience improvement. When it comes to acting at CX strategy level, it becomes so much harder without clear guiding principles. You easily fall back to putting out fires instead of finding ways to prevent them.

We have nine out of ten organisations already doing CX related activities. However, only 56 percent have a budget for it, and 42 percent are missing a CX strategy to work from. It’s difficult to say how these organisations survive in a highly competitive home market where every audience is typically very small.

Everyone says they need to have better customer experiences than the company next door, but they all employ the same methodologies for innovating CX and re-inventing themselves.

This is not happening only in Finland – it’s a worldwide problem. We need to see more creative thinking and companies involving real people in co-creation exercises to deliver better CX.

What does the future hold in terms of CX? Can you offer any predictions, based on your experience, for the coming years?

Everyone is currently talking about making digital work, but to me that’s yesterday’s news. I have lived digitalisation – I was one of the first people online during Web 0.1.

Today, technology is a commodity. It can only distinguish you in a bad way – when it doesn’t work. Truly great customer experiences are created at live customer touchpoints, in human encounters. Instead of talking only of customer experiences, I like to talk about people experiences. That encompasses encounters with customers, employees, candidates, and partners alike and highlights the human element.

CX needs to become more of an integrated part of the DNA of organisations so that they can become truly customer-centric. I want to see organisations live and breathe customer understanding.

We need more proactivity and should strive to deliver experiences that transform people. Today, the ‘wow factor’ just doesn’t cut it any more. We need to offer experiences that really change people, in ways they could not imagine before. Things that make a lasting change in their lives.

These moments of magic can come to life only by using more untraditional and creative design methods. We need to create a little magic around creating magical CX. That is going to fundamentally change how the best of the best plan and manage their people experiences in the not-so-distant future.

Data plays an ever bigger role in creating more personalised experiences. Big data is not enough, we need smart data to create top encounters and make a lasting impression that make your customers into raving fans.

Artificial intelligence in CX is still an untapped source that also interests me. We are only just beginning to realise the possibilities in this area, but we have to be aware of the ethical side.

One thing is sure in this technology-driven world though: we need more emotional intelligence and that is something machines are only beginning to learn.

At the end of the day, a personal touch here and there is what makes memories. It’s the little things that people are most impressed with more often than not. Micro-experiences truly matter,  so it’s vital we make every exchange count!