Catherine Gauthier, CCXP, has always had a line on what makes call center workers click, and her penchant for innovation and listening to the customer voice has led her to adapt to ever-changing customer experiences and expectations quickly. Now the leader of customer experience (CX) at Valtech Canada, her empathy for these frontline employees has been a driving factor in the evolution of her career.
Gauthier has been on the receiving end of thousands of customer calls herself and has heard—and seen—it all. As a call center worker in her early-career days, she watched “a lot of person doing stuff to avoid taking calls, so I was confused,” she says. “Why do people do that? The role of customer service agent was interesting to me because I felt it had so much impact on the company, but it wasn’t a role that was valued.”
Regardless, organizations are being short-sighted if they don’t turn up the volume on what customer service agents might hear directly from customers. They “are what is between the company and the customer. They are there to represent the company, but … it can be a very hard job when a customer is yelling at you,” Gauthier says. “If you call a customer service agent, for you, it might be only a voice on the other end, so you can complain and say things that are not very nice because you're never going to meet that person on the street. There's that distance that customers create with those employees.”
She wondered how she could create more support and attention for these vital employees to improve the work experience. “In marketing, we are creating expectations about customer experience, but who is delivering it? The employees in the field. They are the most important part of the customer experience, but they are not always considered that way. In fact, they are the only employees within the organization for whom their performance is monitored by the second. The pressure on them is high, and the working conditions aren’t the best.”
Gauthier realized that “we could simplify their lives” by developing tools to help the customer and employee, potentially avoiding confrontations. The insight sparked her commitment to improve conditions for frontline employees and develop a CX career, although the latter hadn’t yet emerged as a recognized profession.
She had already laid the groundwork while in college at the University of Montréal-HEC Montréal, where she learned to “talk with the customer” while working in the call center of a major retailer for five years. That grew her interest in service marketing, specifically the behavior, productivity, loyalty, and engagement of employees in call centers in response to corporate human resource practices. It was a perfect focus for her master’s degree thesis at Université de Montréal. Indeed, her research revealed that when a company applies poor HR practices, CX suffers.
Gauthier had been volunteering in her spare time for the Young Chamber of Commerce of Montreal as its vice president of customer member experience and sales. A conversation by several friends who were discussing customer journeys and how they might help retain and recruit chamber members alerted Gauthier to the connection to CX.
Using Design Thinking to Change Stakeholder CX Perspectives
She took that knowledge and her thesis conclusions with her when she began an HR position for a call center, because “I was really passionate about call centers, although everybody was going digital. I felt it was a big chunk of the customer experience.”
At SSA Solutions, she became a customer experience manager and was recruited to consult, helping companies improve CX through their call centers and to develop a wider global vision.
Although she enjoyed the agency, her projects focused mainly on call centers, and Gauthier “wanted to go larger.” In 2017, she launched her own business, CX4 Lab, mastering new competencies by leading CX projects unrelated to call centers and demonstrating to clients that “the customer experience was larger than just one touchpoint.”
In March 2018, Gauthier got a ring from Valtech, a digital agency with 3,000 employees worldwide. It wanted to hire a CX leader willing to go back to basics, someone who could look at CX both from a highly strategic perch and from ground-floor levels at every customer touchpoint, both digital and analog.
“I was the perfect person for that role because I was just thinking only about CX and whatever the touchpoint was,” she says. Instead of nitty-gritty website technologies, for instance, she dialed in on the simplest, most important question of all: What does the customer want?
Her Valtech work has included adapting CX for companies from different industries (retailor, consumer goods, financial services, and manufacturing) based in Canada but also worldwide. While many projects related to traditional CX improvement, she also has led disruptive innovation using a design thinking methodology.
“The design thinking methodology is a key method for me because it's human-centered and collaborative,” she explains.
The technique is one reason why Gauthier is so successful at training colleagues internationally, traveling to Argentina in 2019 to teach 30 clients and Valtech colleagues about CX and, in 2020, serving as one of six CX experts on Valtech’s “teacher team” during the pandemic. The latter initiative—called CX Learning program—has upskilled nearly 80 user experience employees and creatives to enable them to give more and better input on CX elements of projects.
Talk to Me
Customer or company, CX professionals can bring value to both sides of the business, according to Gauthier. In one case, she was assigned to help a bank that wanted to understand why it wasn’t converting better via its website. The website user experience (UX) appeared great to Gauthier—except the customer wanted nothing to do with the website. The customer wanted to talk to a human, either through a phone call or chat session, or by walking into a bricks-and-mortar bank.
“It was very important to them,” says Gauthier. “They wanted to be sure they were making the right decision, that they were selecting the right products, so the bank needed to stop focusing primarily on optimizing the website. The UX team, which does a good job, and CX team were working together. I could bring another level of perspective to such projects.”
Gauthier excels at bringing people and departments around to the customer’s perspective. For instance, after giving workshops at one insurance company, she pulled its workers from other departments to answer call center phones themselves and observe operations firsthand. The exercise enabled them to personally see the impacts of their practices on CX, as well as to witness roadblocks preventing high-quality service.
“They realized they can do things to help deliver a great experience,” and they shared that with others in different functions of the company, she says. Her skill with such design thinking—finding creative ways to solve problems and build greater understanding among diverse decision-makers—has been core to her rise to the top leadership rungs.
“Customer-facing service is always part of stakeholder interviews. I want to grab their vision because it’s a gold mine of information,” Gauthier concludes.