11 min read
Customer Experience Executive Search: An Interview with Christopher Rios
By: Justine Lambros August 16, 2018
We recently chatted with Christopher Rios, CX Practice Leader at Blue Rock Search which is an executive search firm based in Sarasota, FL. We learned about the importance of customer experience (CX) in the executive search industry and how he leverages CX to differentiate their practice, build customer loyalty, and drive business growth.
In this interview, Christopher Rios candidly answers many of our questions and discusses several topics around his early career and current role as a CX Practice Leader, including:
- What it means to be a CX Practice Leader
- Parallels between his previous career as an Executive Chef and current role
- Main takeaway from the 2018 CXPA Insight Exchange
- Biggest CX challenge in the executive search industry
- Successes from focusing on the client and candidate experience
- The importance of Voice of the Employee (VoE)
Can you tell us about your role as CX Practice Leader?
As CX Practice Leader at Blue Rock Search, I specialize in the recruitment of c-suite customer experience executives. My goals are threefold:
Develop a CX platform
I want to ensure that my clients and candidates have an amazing experience. This requires a more deliberate and proactive engagement by knowing what they're looking for and then creating that experience. I want clients and candidates to leave my company going, “By God, that was the best experience ever.”
Be the recruiting firm of choice for CX practitioners
Whether the role focuses on analytics or voice of the customer programs, I want to be the recruiting firm of choice that knows and understands what CX is, meaning I speak the language, I'm putting it into practice, and am the subject-matter expert.
Change the perception of the recruiting industry
This one is loftier. In a conversation I had with CX expert Jeanne Bliss, she said, “Back when I was being recruited 20 plus years ago…” Jeanne noticed that there hadn’t been a change in the recruiting industry from then to now. There hasn’t been a focus on customer experience.
That’s what I’m trying to accomplish. I want to change the way people perceive recruiting and search agencies for both candidates and clients.
As an executive chef for 15 years before joining the recruiting industry, can you draw any parallels between your experience in the restaurant industry and your current focus at Blue Rock Search?
Yes, absolutely. Back when I was an executive chef and restaurant owner, my purpose was always to ensure that our patrons had an amazing experience. When I designed menus, there was careful thought and specific reasons for each selection from food to wine pairings. Our goal was to elevate the experience for our guests, so they would tell other people and they would return.
We wanted guests to become loyal customers, and so we had to not only focus on the menu but on creating a great service experience from the moment a guest walks in the door. How does the host or hostess greet you, what do they do next?
The main parallel I draw from being a chef and a CX executive search leader is learning to be proactive.
Rather than wait for a customer to have a bad experience and reacting, great customer experience is designed by creating a specific delivery of service to create a particular way that customers engage with you. It is about diligence around the kind of experience you hope they will receive and what they end up having with you.
We're glad you mentioned the importance of being proactive. At Intouch Insight, that's exactly the way we feel too.
Let’s flip the switch and talk briefly about the 2018 CXPA Insight Exchange. Connecting with you at our booth was great! Tell us, what brought you to the Insight Exchange and what was your biggest takeaway from the event?
I joined the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) two years ago, and this year’s conference in New Orleans was my second time attending.
One of the reasons why I went, of course, was to connect with other industry leaders and learn about how CX is being practiced around the world. I got a chance to intermingle and connect with individuals who are pioneer specialists, great practitioners, and people who are learning about CX.
I think that typical CXer’s find themselves as lone rangers in their organizations. Tooting the horn or waving the flag by themselves and not necessarily having a team.
This conference is a great opportunity for CXer’s to commiserate with one another, but the theme of this year's event was tying CX to business value. Meaning at the end of the day, if you do a phenomenal job of being proactive in your design and delivery of a customer experience strategy, that the residual effect will be more customers, less churn, and increased revenues. I was very glad to have learned this connection and have a language to bridge the gap between ideation and actual revenue generation.
You have many ambitious goals for your company and industry when it comes shaping the practice of customer experience, have you noticed any trends within the CX industry that makes this a challenge?
There are a few challenges that have struck a chord with me as I'm engaging with candidates and clients:
CX leaders haven’t changed their language
CXer’s often haven’t connected the dots between their practice and the value to the organization. They must think about all their customers, not just the external ones, but the CEO, the CFO, or whoever in their organization is the decision maker. When CX cannot be tied back to the business agenda, CX executives don’t receive the resources they need to build out the robust initiatives to drive change.
CX job descriptions don’t always represent true CX
Secondary to my first point, if you don’t have the right resources you can’t build job descriptions that attract the right talent. More often, they’re are written like shiny new pennies…lofty but no substance or value in the marketplace. This generates a lot of confusion and dilution around how to describe customer experience. People don't understand it, it's not explained well, and it's not tied to the business.
Undefined expectations around experiences
There's a curve that is exponentially growing around creating delight or wonderful experiences for customers. The irony is, how far will it go? How high will expectations be as an organization creating delightful experiences for the customer? With no cap, I think there will be an unrealistic expectation that no matter what, you must do something to delight me. There is no ceiling at this point, and it's a little scary.
That’s an excellent point - customers potentially never being satisfied with no true benchmark or measurement.
Right. The sky's the limit and not necessarily in a positive way.
You mentioned that your goal is to make Blue Rock Search the go-to firm for customer experience. Why have you made it your mission particularly around customer experience?
There's a common view that recruiting agencies are enemies of internal talent acquisition.
As an example, if an internal salaried talent acquisition (TA) leader needs to fill a role, there may be no real sense of urgency to fill the role. Or, they have too many positions to fill. If a recruiting firm is brought in, the first thought the internal TA leader may have is “I’m a failure,” which could be why we’re the enemy. But, more often, this is not the case. Though hiring an external search agency requires a significant amount of spend, it saves the company and the TA leader time and resources.
So, what has happened in the last few years is that talent acquisition is developing executive search practices internally. They're trying to do both things: Increasing capability and reduce cost.
We are in an industry that is not necessarily honored and is known for its contingency engagement. Since recruiters are paid only when they deliver a candidate, the attitude may be, let me give you [the client] as many candidates as possible as quickly as possible. And typically, they’re not high-quality candidates.
The combination of speed and low-quality candidates means that the customer experience is probably horrible for both the candidate and client.
This is a very serious issue across the industry both internally and externally. On the one hand, the drive to fill roles internally is lacking which drives a horrible experience for the candidate as they likely don’t feel any passion for the role they’re being recruited for. This translates to bad customer experiences. I'm not saying that every company is like that. There are a lot of good TA practitioners and recruiting firms.
My goal ultimately is to change the perception of recruitment by proactively engaging with clients and candidates earlier in the process.
Investing the time to learn about who they are and what they're looking for up front is key. I must have an empathetic ear to develop strong relationships with my clients and candidates. Over time, because we take the time to understand their needs, companies become more reliant on these skills and trust us as THE search firm that brings great candidates to the table. In the end, the key is to find a way to provide value to your customer every time.
Many search firms focus on customer relationship management (CRM) versus the the newer practice of customer experience management (CEM), how would you say these practices differ in the recruiting industry and where should companies focus?
This is a tough one. When you think about customer relationship management, I think what they're talking about is client relationship management. As I mentioned before, in the recruiting industry the client tends to pay, candidates don't pay. So, the candidates are not necessarily invested in the process but they still expect the sun, moon, and stars. Clients, on the other hand, are the paying customer, and so there's a strong focus to appease that customer.
What ends up happening is the candidate experience is not necessarily incorporated, and certainly the employee experience is not incorporated either. The reality is if I don't have a great candidate to fill a role, it's just going to take longer, and it erodes the relationship between the client and the recruiting firm.
Search firms are not nearly as focused on the comprehensive CX plan, but rather where the money is. There's that contingent philosophy again that's rearing its ugly head. As my firm is growing, I'm trying very hard to have a balanced attack between client relationship management and the true customer experience management. Which requires strategy, and then execution against that strategy, which includes employees. So, CRM and CEM are on equal footing.
We have a philosophy in our company which is, today's candidate is tomorrow's client. Hopefully, we've built enough of a relationship with them to build that long-term kind of loyalty where they'll remember us down the road.
So, you have the candidate experience and the client experience to consider.
Absolutely. And we focus on employee experience too because they are the frontline. They're the people that engage with our candidates and clients.
What successes have you seen from focusing around improving the client, candidate, and the employee experience?
I'll tell you a quick story from early on in my recruiting career; this is what started me off on this CX journey. I remember not knowing anything about human resources, though I was a human resource executive search partner. For the most part, I learned on the job, and I was very empathetic, I had a listening ear, I was building relationships with people.
So, as I was doing that, three months into the job, one of my candidates called me. They said, “I'm not interested in this particular job, but I've got these other two things going on in this other area. Could you give me some coaching around what I should do?” And quite honestly, I took the phone off my ear and looked at it, I know you can’t see me, but that sort of cartoonish kind of, “Huh?”
I thought what a strange thing just happened. But the reason why it happened was clear. I had spent a lot of time learning and understanding what he was about and what his drive for making a change was. Because I was listening so intently with a certain level of empathy, he respected that. I had earned his trust.
The reason why I share this story is that these were the beginning stages for me around developing a true customer experience. When I think about successes, I think about training. Often a recruiter goes, “I don't know how to speak to this candidate.” That's okay. Ask questions, say their name a few times and just let them do the talking. And then as they're talking ask qualifying questions. And if you don't know, be honest and be authentic, and say, “I don't know." Tell them that the next person that they talk to in the process is way more educated than you are in this space. They know the job well, they know the company well and create a dynamic of intrigue as the experience evolves.
I train my staff this way, and I've seen a residual positive effect. Candidates are calling back, or calling me, or sending me an email saying, "This has been one of the best experiences I've ever had. No one does it like you." When a long-standing client says they can’t do business with anyone else because we know them so well, that’s a wonderful thing.
Several studies suggest that by the year 2020 customer experience will take over price and product as the key brand differentiator. Do you think that customer experience can be a truly competitive advantage for businesses? And is this a good strategy for businesses long-term?
Definitely. This is interesting to me. Some brands are notorious for their customer service or customer experience. There are stories of Zappos and Netflix and even Starbucks. When a company does it well and does it consistently, meaning if CX is at the core of who they are, everyone has bought in, and it's consistently executed day in, and day out, this is THE key indicator of success.
Customers will flock to companies that are known for their overarching service model, because of how they feel when they interact with that company is very, very heightened.
How an individual feels when interacting with those companies is the clear indicator between whether you're going to have customer loyalty, or whether you’re going to have customer loss.
I think this is where the distinction is going to be, and I think technology has enabled that to happen. People can get online faster and are extremely willing to report their experiences - good and bad. When I was in the restaurant industry, they used to say, "Okay, when you had a great experience, you would probably tell two or three people. If you had a bad experience; you tell nine or ten." Now, the numbers are much higher. The impact of experience is much greater.
Here's the irony. Most people don’t have an issue with paying more money for an exceptional experience. It's just that simple. So, if you charge a lot of money for an exceptional experience, well, your revenue is naturally going to go up.
This question has two parts. As a CX executive search leader, you work with CX talent daily. What are the qualities that you look for in a CX leader when you're looking to place talent? What are the most common qualities that companies are looking for when they're seeking your services to source that talent?
I know I'm going to get a little passionate about this one, so forgive me.
The qualities we look for (and similarly that companies are seeking) in a CX leader are as follows:
Has a focus and a voice
A CX professional should be able to tell a story. Whether it’s the story of their customers, their own story, or their company’s. People love authenticity and want to feel connected to a brand.
Knows their audience
If you're talking to the CFO, you better have data and metrics on how CX connects to revenue. If you're talking to the CEO, what is he thinking about at 2:00 am? CX better answer that. What is the business agenda for 2018 and how can you tie CX to those goals very specifically?
You must be a student of your business and know who your real customer is. When I was in the restaurant industry I realized that my primary customer was not the person sitting in the dining room eating food, but the chef who was standing across from me, who was looking at the food, and saying, it's perfect for what we want to do. Learn about your business and who the key customers are.
Empowers their employees
Empower employees to make sure customers are feeling good all the time. Help them be informed about how to solve issues for your client. Teach them how to care about their customers.
Final question for you, Christopher. How does collecting employee feedback and employee engagement impact the customer experience and what role does it play with Voice of the Customer (VoC)?
VoC programs are designed to incorporate responses from customers into designing and improving experiences. How was their experience? Companies need a platform to manage this feedback to develop and grow properly. Well, voice of the employee programs can be managed the same way. The design of these programs should be invested in the growth and development of the employees based on what they want and need. If you have happy employees, well then, they're going to take care of the clients. No matter how you slice it, they are going to treat those clients the way that they're treated. Ultimately, it's all tied together. I'd like to think of my employees as my first customer.
Well, it has been a pleasure, Christopher. We appreciate your time!
No worries. Thank you very much for the opportunity, I enjoyed it myself.
Regardless of industry, the practice of customer experience in business is present. For the executive search industry, it's clear that CX must be a pillar of focus in the overall business model in order to succeed and stand out. CX executive search has it challenges, but it is clear that Christopher Rios is making impressive strides to demystify the roles of CX professionals, create a new customer-centric business model for executive search, and deliver candidates of true value to his clients.