Hearing about Brad Smith’s career is like watching a Boy Scout collect merit badges—methodical, diverse, and determined. He started young with his first patch: an entrepreneurism badge, working at an aviation flight school in college and, by age 22, running the place with oversight of 17 employees.
“That's when I recognized that every “Inside-out” action of a business has an equal and opposite reaction in your customers, because you teach your customers how to treat you,” Brad says. “It's more about the culture and the experience, being real and authentic to who your customers are and what their passions are and making sure your employees meet and resonate that passion.”
The job rocketed him to another merit-earning opportunity—a position at the Kennedy Space Center that led to the title of “global launch sequence programmer.” As part of the team managing the math model that runs the shuttle countdown from T-minus 40 minutes through liftoff, Brad tweaked and monitored the program’s 75,000 ever-sensing functional designators. The role taught him risk management, knowing when it’s safe to move ahead and when to metaphorically “save the vehicle, figure it out, and go from there.”
“What dawned on me later in life is that because I grew up with this complex, very analytical approach, I consider launching space shuttles and customer experience ecosystem management systems as almost identical,” says Brad. “A company has a mission of purpose. They want to serve their customers better than the competition, while running a profitable, growing business that rewards all stakeholders. For that business, each and every touchpoint across the entire customer lifecycle--marketing, sales, service, renewal, recommitment – allows or holds back their customers from having a great experience. Any customer friction you can sense across those touchpoints that's a deviation against your brand and your brand promises ought to be listened to, addressed, and eradicated.”
After the Space Badge
In 1996, he was working on upgrading the center’s launch processing control room when a buddy convinced him to interview for a new customer contact service center job in Orlando at Oracle. He left with a salary hike, a title as team leader and an invitation by his Kennedy Center boss to return in a year at what seemed to Brad an unimaginable pay grade of $62,000. It took eight years at the Kennedy Center to walk away with his space badge--a mastery of managing high complexity at high speed with high stakes—and he was barely 30.
As Brad tells it, the year at Oracle “was almost like a Seinfeld episode” with himself as George Costanza, a character who could do no wrong because he was a made man with his next job already assured. “So I just started calling things how I saw them,” says Brad, pointing out “silly” practices, questioning processes, and “stirring stuff up. It really endeared me to the Oracle culture.”
He never returned to the Space Center, staying at Oracle six years and ultimately overseeing the entire Y2K program as a direct report to CEO Larry Ellison and the board of directors.
It was an exciting time, he admits, but the Y2K survivalist badge became his launch pad into other endeavors.
Some Badges Don’t Stick
After more than five years at Verisign as Global VP of Customer Support, Brad was eager to earn his sales and marketing merit badges. He headed to InQuira, a tech firm that sent him out as director of business development to manage the southeast territory sales pipeline, speak at conferences, and hold thought leadership webinars. The adjustment was short-lived.
Within eight months, Brad had “found I’m a better service guy than a sales guy…. I'm more of a ‘Let's get into this. Let's fix this thing. Let's make you whole’ guy.” He doesn’t regret the eight months, though, saying, “Now I understand what sales is all about--the psychology and stressors.”
He snatched his sales badge and headed to Symantec as its global service experience architect. Here, Brad could focus on what he really wanted: improving not just customer service but the entire customer experience. The company wanted to disrupt and reinvent its business-to-business and business-to-consumer support and service models while simultaneously cutting costs.
Core to the effort was setting up customer self-help capabilities, in part by harvesting knowledge sitting in the heads of their service agents for a new knowledge database that could be reused by employees, channel partners, and even customers. The initiative would be Brad’s toughest but most exciting merit badge goal yet—learning to think horizontally and getting the company to follow.
“Suddenly, I wanted to declare customer experience my major, because for the first time, instead of being the service guy who's stuck at the tail end of that customer lifecycle--forced to keep everyone else's promises--I could push up to the front of the table and help us make better brand promises,” he says. It seemed to be the perfect marriage of my passion, experiences, and expertise.”
He executed the dream for 18 months, then left to become VP of customer experience at Yahoo for three years. The personal and professional growth were “life-changing” due to the sheer scale, complexity, and volatility of Yahoo’s growth, culture, and leadership, recalls Brad. Among his lessons were greater ability to develop journey mapping, personas, net promoter scores, and VoC listening.
By 2012, Brad was ready to take his “carousel of fun” badge and work in CX elsewhere. He landed at the UK-based accounting software company, Sage, and join the leadership team for Sage-North America which had 11 companies in need of a cohesive reorganization.
From Boy Scout Manual to Rough-and-Tumble Playbook
Two weeks after starting, the company announced a major reorganization. With 800 staff reporting to him, Brad cherrypicked the new CX team needed to shrink 11 siloed companies into three customer-focused segments: startups, SMB (server message blocks), and enterprises.
Pressure was intense, with strict revenue growth and expense-cutting goals and the requirement of proving your right to exist every six months.
Brad’s team executed its three-year roadmap six months early, dramatically changing the profile of the interactions coming into the support center. Initially, Sage had 700 agents servicing 800,000 calls a year, but by 2015, through self-selected attrition, the workforce slimmed to just over 400 managing 6.8 million service interactions a year through self-help, knowledge management, online communities, and e-learning training programs.
An RV Road Trip Leads to CX Revolution
Then things got crazy. Brad pitched an idea to bring execs back in touch with their U.S. customers. The tactics: an RV, a “Mission Specialist” (driver), and a map to drive for 45 days from the annual Sage Summit back to their California headquarters, stopping along the way to talk to their small-business customers. This would put real faces and the daily challenges of small business in front of executives unused to in-person client interaction.
His boss agreed. At first, Brad’s colleagues were not thrilled with the road trip, but as groups of four to five executives traveled to meet three to four customers a day, their understanding grew, and they even began requesting extensions of their four-day trips. The walls between execs from Sage’s various business segments dissolved during the 12 legs spent driving and sharing customer experiences.
“I finally broke the dam with my key stakeholders,” Brad says. “People felt first-point accountability and empathy for real customers they had met on the road. These small businesses were absolutely beyond inspirational, and the company leadership could see we're not just making technology--we're changing how small businesses operate here.”
Brad calls the RV tour “a cornerstone” of his career success at Sage, winning over the culture and leadership team and “getting people to understand what our brand means and what it means to live true to it.”
Now it’s a lasting tradition. Any supervisor or managing director and above who reports to Brad’s former position must visit one customer face to face a month and share a trip report. By 2015, Sage had added a Sage Listens smartphone app, so employees could go to any local business in their zip code to visit, post a customer selfie, log a support service ticket, and earn “CX Champion” tchotchkes.
Meanwhile, the Sage mothership was so impressed that it “decided to reorganize the globe” and promoted Brad to EVP of CX worldwide. The hours and travel were brutal, though, and Brad left for a one-year sabbatical to “reacquaint myself with my wife, 3 grade-school age daughters and our lonely golden retriever Lady Cooper.”
The so-called break was interrupted by calls from past colleagues, who revealed another merit badge may be in the making: start-up CEO. Brad was ready for a more palatable life-work balance. He launched Vector Business Navigation Inc. in September 2015 with the commitment of mentoring inspired leaders to successfully navigate their CX ecosystems – serving more than 30 clients over the past 4.5 years. He later co-founded another a new organization to support CX employees TribeCX.co, launching it in 2016. He is currently the President & Chairman of the Board for the Consortium for Service Innovation and is one of their recognized Innovators. He was a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association, receiving it’s CX innovator award in 2013 and currently serves on its Board of Directors.
“Culture is the everything play,” Brad concludes with Scout’s Honor. “I've never met a customer happier than the employee that serves them, so all the things we want to do for our customers, we have to do for our employees as well. And we have to run a company in such a highly adaptive way that we don't stop to reorganize because we're always reorganizing the more, we learn about what the customers value and how best to delivery that. When we get that right, everyone wins.”