Journalist, Internet Pioneer, and CX Champion: Finland's Sirte Pihlaja, CCXP and Her Path to CX Success

By Gabe Smith,CCXP posted 05-13-2020 09:00 AM




Sirte Pihlaja, CCXP, began her immersion into customer experience over 25 years ago when she journeyed from working in the media, to pioneering digital media at the dawn of the internet, and into CX.

 Originally, she went to the University of Helsinki to study journalism and political science with aspirations of becoming a successful foreign news correspondent, but eventually decided that wasn’t for her. “I wanted to do something different, and then my hobby turned into my profession, basically,” Sirte says.

 Sirte worked in different roles in the media business, first as an EU press officer and internet producer at the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and then as a journalist and intranet producer at the Finish Broadcasting Company and various other media.

 “I had a forward-thinking boss who wanted to create the first intranet in Finland,” she explained, “Nobody knew what the internet was at that time. They just came to ask me because, as a hobby, I was doing stuff on the internet. So they decided ‘she must know what this is all about, she can do it, she can develop this for us.’” Sirte Pihlaja, CCXP

That was the early ‘90s, and by the time the year 2000 rolled around, Sirte moved into the private sector where she worked in digital media and business development for a variety of different companies, including Accenture, Tieto and Fjord. Sirte says her work centered on creating “user-centric and user-driven design methodologies and customer interaction management, gradually moving into user experience and finally customer experience.”

 In 2010, Sirte branched out on her own and decided to base her company, Shirute Ltd., on customer experiences, customer loyalty, and customer dialogue – mixing the best of Japanese and Finnish business and service cultures.

 About a year later, she became a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) and in 2013 was the head of the CXPA Finland team, organizing events and creating an awareness of the profession in her country, but also around the world. Today, she is a familiar figure in international CX/EX awards juries and as a keynote speaker. An important part of her work is done for global companies.

 Sirte attributes her growth as a CX professional to her work as a journalist, where the job centered on thinking about what audiences and target groups want to know. “What I did back then, and also today, still, is listening to customers or employees and understanding their needs and wants,” she says.




“Finland is the happiest country on Earth,” Sirte says. A characteristic of Finnish culture is an affinity for self-service, and Sirte notes that Finland has long embraced automation and other self-service practices not for the sole purpose of cutting service jobs, but for giving people more meaningful work—a practice very much aligned with the country’s ideals.

 Those cultural values were helpful when Sirte launched Shirute Ltd. In the early days of her company, Sirte served as a CX evangelist for a variety of clients. “I specifically decided to seek out certain industries,” she says. Those clients included retail, media and gaming, and travel and hospitality companies—industries that Sirte says were “more responsive” to CX concepts like experience design. Nowadays, her clients come from all industries.

 Almost a decade later, Sirte says the state of CX in Finland is strong, but there’s more work to do. “We’re in the eighth year of our customer experience management study--CEM Benchmark--, and we see that almost 100% of Finnish organizations who respond say they are putting customers or customer experience into their strategy,” she says. But there’s a disconnect—only half say they have a CX budget or are thinking of creating a CX budget. “This year, we have started global benchmarking, as the more advanced companies are looking abroad for inspiration.”




Sirte continues to try to advance CX and break down barriers, sometimes using non-traditional means to achieve real results. Her search for a creative problem-solving approach led her to LEGO® Serious Play®. Sirte says she’d heard about the program and decided to sign up for a workshop after stumbling on the methodology on the internet. It turned out to be a wise decision, as Sirte describes the training as “five days of the most brain-blowing time I’ve ever had.”

 The original, open-source applications are all about doing strategy work – focused on team culture, not team building, Sirte explains, and there are other more involved applications for big mergers and acquisitions, digital transformation, and other complex topics.

 “It is quite interesting and versatile as a methodology, because you can build anything and start conversations on ways to improve CX and grow your business,” she says. It's really about giving a new language to business people because they’re not thinking with English or Finnish or French--it's coming from a different, creative and instinctive place. You are quite literally giving your brain a hand when working with LEGOs.”

 CX professionals do not have to have an interest in LEGOS to benefit from LEGO® Serious Play®, either. Sirte says it’s not about what is built, it’s about the stories that are created around the build.

 Each participant shares their models and the stories behind them, and then the group builds upon those experiences to develop a common story for the group. “They need to work all of the different angles into the common model so that everyone’s view is part of the shared landscape,” she explains.

 By the end of the exercise, the group creates the design, and simple guiding principles to define what the customer or employee experience will be in a given situation - or even what your organizational purpose is to start with – depending on the objectives of the workshop.




Sirte says that, in the early days of her work building a network of Finnish CX pros, it was a struggle to find volunteers. Now, she says, members of the community regularly share best practices and case studies.

 “CX leaders are sometimes fighting a fight by themselves. CXPA is a great avenue for these people so that we can come together and share ideas on what to do. And if you’re in a tough spot, you can find a way out with help from others.”