This episode was also recorded in video format. To watch the conversation, tune in below:
About Mark McClure
Mark McClure currently serves as the Executive Vice President of Customer Experience at Babel Street where he successfully leads his team with all post-sale customer facing operations such as onboarding, training and customer support. Mark guides his team by promoting trust and respect between customer and company, while paying attention to the details of the customer’s desires to ensure their satisfaction. He has years of strategic planning experience with leadership across organizations to achieve customer retention and revenue goals.
With an extensive background in customer experience, Mark has expertise in overseeing global support, training and sales engineering teams. Throughout his career, he has established various customer experience procedures and has directed all presale operations within a global organization. Mark holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from West Virginia University.
The Voices of CX Podcast is a podcast that covers all things business strategies, customer decision insight, empathetic leadership practices, and tips for sustainable profitability. With a little bit of geeking out on behavioral science, A.I. and other innovation sprinkled in here and there. The guests span multiple industries, but all of them have years of experience to bring to the table.
Mary Drumond: So we’re back with one more episode of voices of CX season seven. Which is pretty ridiculous to me because seven went by really, really fast. And I am joined today by the EVP of Customer Experience at Babel Street, Mark McClure. Hey Mark.
Mark McClure: Hey Mary, how are you?
MD: Good. Good to have you here today.
MM: Thank you for having me.
MD: I always like it when I get practitioners on the show, because as much as I like thought leadership, what I’m really interested in is how people are taking those concepts and actually applying them to make their customers’ lives better.
So I’m excited about having you on and digging into how you are working every day with your team to make the customers of Babel Street have a better experience overall. So why don’t we kick this off by you giving a brief description of what you do and how you do it, and then kind of how, how you landed this role to begin with.
MM: Right. So I’m actually getting ready to come up on my sixth year anniversary with Babel Street. And if you will, the courtship started probably about of a year before that with the CEO Jeff Chapman here at Babel Street. We were acquaintances. We didn’t necessarily run in the same groups, but he knew where I was.
But so previous to Babel street, I was at a company called Clarabridge and I think a lot of your listeners will know Clarabridge. And I was there very early on and, you know, spun up the support organization and training organization on that side. And then ultimately went into the global Celgene engineering role. And then come, I guess, December 24th of 2014, you know, Jeff and I met for breakfast and closed the deal.
And on January the fourth, he was calling me a week before I started saying, hey, you ready to go on a call? So, you know, jumped in very quickly, very rapidly. But what I do here at Babel Street is very similar to kind of what I’ve done in the past, in my career. Most notably at Clarabridge. And I run the customer experience team, which is made up of our help desk or our support team, and our training organization, which we call Babel U. I’ve got a staff of nine that’s really, if you will, very global and spread out. But we do a lot of different things.
I think one of the things that we do the most, and it’s really kind of the mantra that Jeff has instilled in everybody from a very early on period, is we don’t let our customers fail. Right. So, in that continuum of not letting our customers fail. And you look at the onboarding process of the customers, after the deal is done and the deal comes through sales operations, all of the I’s are dotted, T’s are crossed. The signatures are collected. My team receives a customer notification. And again, it doesn’t matter if it’s a trial, a pilot, or a production customer, it all flows the same. And from there we take the reigns and we usher them through the process of onboarding onto Babel Street.
As I had mentioned to you earlier in our earlier conversation that, you know, we’re a little different in that we require our users to go through training. And that’s not necessarily one of the things that somebody wants to do when they step into a new platform. But look, with great power comes great responsibility, and we’re not a couple of buttons and a screen for our users to work with, there’s some complexities or some power, and really to order in order to really understand how it works, we feel very strongly that users really have to go through training to some degree.
MD: Let me, let me interrupt you really quick, because I have strong feelings about this, what you’re talking about right now, which is when you have a piece of software that’s complex by nature, and of course you want to streamline that as best as you can, but when it comes to certain aspects of technology, do you think that the, the client is to a certain sense expecting to put in the work? In order to feel like that software is truly performing something phenomenal. Like you do you know what I’m talking about here? Where, you know, we always talk about how effort we need to reduce effort, but sometimes effort is really important because it brings forth a sense of value. And when you’re dealing with something that’s this monumentous or this complex, like what you’re doing, and you can explain this in a second, I already know cause I’m cool and stuff, but do you feel like the users almost want it to be a little bit more difficult?
MM: Well, you know, the app driven world we live in today, you get on your phone, you download an app and it’s very intuitive. You start using it. If you can’t figure it out in the first two minutes, well you never look at it again and you delete it from your phone, right?
So I don’t know if they’re expecting or anticipating effort. We always get pushback, not always, but there’s certain pockets, certain types of customers, certain customers at conferences, different verticals, if you will, that are constantly pushing back because we get the argument of, look, this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’re not going to do your training because we’re smart and we’re going to figure it out. And I’m like, okay. So part of that challenge is that your effort’s required. You know, at least in my shop and really in my world that I came from, you know, be it Clarabridge, be it Babel Street there’s effort that’s required. I think the trick is to make that effort seem effortless, right? And I think from a training perspective, what we offer the program is it’s fully integrated into the platform, right? The user has a single sign-on, all of the exercises are done in line. Just like you’re going to do your own work, your own use cases with our software.
You know once you get full access, but you know, that trick of bringing them through it kind of forcing them to know through the effort to do it, but giving it the feel of flow. Now, look, there are always challenges. Everybody has different browsers and different computers and different networks and protocols and everything else that we’re dealing with. So there’s challenges that we run into. I mean, the good news is that we’ve been doing remote training since day one. You know, there’s the special snowflake that we ended up having to go on-site or do something with, which is a whole nother set of effort, just not on the customer, but on us, at least when you’re doing the online self-paced training and you can multitask, you can do different things.
But again, I think the trick is to apply the effort, force the effort, force the issue of effort. But give it the feeling of effortless as they work through the process.
MD: Since the platform itself is so complex, make everything else extremely effortless so that all the effort is just concentrated on that one thing. And the rest is extremely simple.
MM: Right. And, you know, we use a lot of tricks, if you will, to do that. You know, one of them is a platform called Walkme that we’ve used extensively and in the latest deployment of our training day integrated into the platform. And my training team, which is run by a lady by the name of Brittany Massey, who actually we worked together at Clarabridge and I hired her very soon after my non-compete was up and done. But I give full credit to them on making that effort seem effortless and part of that is the way they do it. Part of it is the technology. Part of it is just a little bit of magic that we work in between.
MD: So for the benefit of our listeners, who aren’t familiar with the magic of Babel Street. Can you give us a quick rundown because it’s really cool, honestly.
MM: So, I’ve mentioned Clarabridge and again, for the folks who know what ClaraBridge does, we do something similar. When I look back at Clarabridge, I mean, it’s more of a natural language processing or NLP approach to the analytics of the data. We’re similar to that, but we do it a little bit differently. We focus on open-source information.
So we’re not going out and we’re going out and getting publicly available information. Now, we might go through third parties that they bring it all together and we buy it from them. We work with the vendors who provide streaming streams of that information. There’s a lot of different ways to get data out there, but look, it’s all about acquiring publicly available information.
We’re not breaking into people’s computers. We’re not scraping websites. We’re not going through firewalls to get people’s data. So this open-source information is out there and there’s a lot of it. And one of the things, and this is really goes back to why Jeff created the company and created the solution that he did, is that there wasn’t a way to easily go out and acquire all this information from all these different sources, collect the data, transform the data. Inject it into the database and then run scripts analysis, to really understand what the data is saying. This is further complicated by language. So this is really where we differentiate from a lot of providers.
Is that one, just the scale. I mean, we have 50 plus data sources that are linked within the platform. And those data sources cover every language that you can imagine. So the platform itself will recognize and interpret over 200 plus different languages. So in other words, if I go in and put in the word job and I’m looking for the word job, or gun, the platform is going to go out with any number of the data sources that you’ve selected and find all the representations of gun and pull that information back. Now, the old school was you collected data in a foreign language, where you had to have a linguist or an analyst that spoke that language give you their interpretation. Then you inject that back into your analysis, and then you create your global analysis. Well, we bring all that power to the fingerprints fingertips of the analyst themselves so that it doesn’t matter.
You could be an English-only speaking analyst and not have any inkling of any other language. But we can empower that analyst to analyze all this data across multiple data sources on whatever use case it is they’re trying to solve and be able to understand what all of the data is telling them.
MD: Yeah. It’s so cool. Like you already told me all of this and I still think it’s cool listening to it for a second time now. It’s pretty amazing. At least I’m always really excited about technology and how technology is being used to improve and better the experiences as a whole. And I’m pretty sure that the companies that hire your services are also using this to somehow make someone’s life better. There is improvement somewhere, whether it’s from the safety of their personnel or the way they’re targeting those markets, is this information used for any type of market research?
MM: Some. I mean, some of our commercial customers will use this. I mean, Yes and no. Because again, this is something in terms of the data that we’re collecting and the typical use case that our customers have that is, I would say a smaller percentage of the use cases that our customers have.
One of the big things and kind of one of the mantras, if you will, the rallying cries behind the company is, our goal for our customers is that what we’re providing our customers is the ability to protect good people from having bad people do bad things to them. And a perfect example: we work with a lot of very large enterprise global companies that have staffs that do nothing but look after their executives. Where their executive’s going, making sure they’re okay there, it’s almost like their entourage. And it always kind of amazes me, some of the entourages that some of the executives that some of these bigger companies that we work with have.
But they do a lot of traveling. They have a lot of global offices and when they’re out there, they want to know a number of different things. Where are they going? What’s happening? What’s the sentiment on the ground. Not necessarily about our company, but are there issues in the environment that may cause a problem during this visit? But it gives the customers the ability to get that insight.
But it’s not a silver bullet, right? It’s a piece of information, typically. You know, sometimes there are silver bullets that our customers are able to find with the platform, but typically it’s pieces and parts of information. They get put into a bigger puzzle that tell a much broader story and help them solve for their use case.
MD: Now, see, that’s the thing. So Babel Street’s clients are using a lot of the tools to do some really serious work, which means that your job, as the head of customer experience is to make sure that they feel like they’re looked after. And that they can trust- there must be a lot of trust involved. Because if you think about it, for your commercial clients and this exact thing that you’re doing, a lot of that information is being used to look after some of the company’s greatest assets, which are their executives. So how does, how does that influence your job and the way that you relate to your clients?
MM: Well, it can, it can really force you to up your game real quick. And from the very beginning- look, I’m very process-driven. I’m very workflow-driven. And even in the very early days at Babel Street, I was putting processes in place that I knew were going to scale.
So that was really the first piece. Now I always got a lot of slack for why do we have all these processes? Why are you forcing us to do this? We don’t need these. We’re a small company. I’m like, okay for now. Right. So let’s go ahead and get everybody thinking in the same direction and make it easier then. But I had mentioned that my team is very spread out. You know, we’re from Portland, Oregon, to the UK. We have folks down under in Australia and New Zealand. We’re not a 24/7 shop, but we are a 24/7 platform. And this is just part of the beauty of really what we do and how we do it is that we’re not a 24/7 shop, but we sure feel like it at times, you know.
MD: Well if you have people in Australia, then they can probably cover the time when your folks in the U.S. aren’t working, right?
MM: They can, but they’re actually not covering down on the folks in the U.S. who were working in the middle of the night and those issues come in. Right. There’s a whole separate entity for us, you know, in the Asia-Pac space that covers down on Australia and New Zealand. And there’s always things that we can do better. We can get better economies of scale out of our people, you know, but those things don’t happen overnight. Right. And those are things that are ultimately, I think, being talked about now. And I think there’s a lot of good things that we can do that can ultimately make the customer’s experience even that much better and still not be, you know, a 24/7 shop. I mean, we can be 24/7 based on the time zones that we’re in. Even if we didn’t respond to every ticket that came in those off-hours.
MD: Well, you know, you in our pre-call you said something that was really important to me because I agree with it so much, which is in customer experience, when you’re dealing with the success of your customers, the most important thing is to know what success means to your customer.
So what does success mean to your customer?
MM: I think it goes back a little bit to solving their immediate problem. I mean, our customers are human. And humans hate to be intruded on. Right? So being proactive and reaching out to customers, you gotta be really careful, but when they reach out to us with whatever that problem is, whether we’ve seen the problem before, whether it’s new, whether it’s a bug, whether it’s something we have to go to development and take care of, it’s important.
And I tell the team, I want you to make sure that they feel like they’re the only person that we have to deal with today. Even though they’re not, right? They never are. But I want them to feel not like a number, but feel like a human. Well, we’ve all sat in those, you know, 500 student lecture halls in college and thought, okay, the professor has no idea who I am. Well, we want to make sure that they know that we know who they are. Sometimes we only know them by username. We might not even know who they are, but that doesn’t change the goal.
And the goal is to treat them like a human, have a conversation. Listen, shut up, right? You can understand a lot from people by just listening. It’s not being intrusive. It’s being human, and that’s one of the things I really try to try to instill on the team. So that overall it’s not just, you know, we call ourselves customer experience, but it is really about the experience they walk away with, because that might be the only interaction they ever have with Babel Street.
And if it comes down to renewal where they’re going around and asking the team, asking the actual users who are not writing the checks, who are not making those decisions on what tools they may or may not get to use. “Hey, what do you think?” And that one interaction might be like, Hey, yeah, I love ’em. I reached out to them and they were great. So again, you’ve got one opportunity, sometimes two, to make a good first impression, right? Don’t screw it up.
MD: Yeah. So you’re in a very specific B2B SaaS space. How is it that your team, and what do you think it took from a leadership perspective and even, you know, the influence of your CEO to make sure that you had access to all the different departments in order to avoid that feeling of siloed departments, let’s say, so that you’d be able to somehow follow the customer journey from the second they entered the organization all the way through? What do you think it took to, to create that?
MM: Sometimes a lot of effort, because silos do exist and they just exist organically there. But they aren’t something that people are out saying, Oh, I’m going to wall myself off and do whatever I want. People aren’t typically like that, but these things happen. And when they happen, I think part of the success of being able to traverse those are people being open. Sometimes, you got to have the ugly conversation. Right. And it’s not always an easy conversation. But look, it’s, we’re all here. We’re all really fighting for the same cause, and we want our customers to succeed. We won’t let them fail. And that’s one of, that’s been one of Jeff’s big mantras from day one is like, we will not let our customers fail. And we don’t. You know, we move heaven and earth. We go above and beyond and we do what we need to do.
Even as we get larger, given that doesn’t scale. But as we mature and the platform matures, things work better. Functionality is better, easier, more intuitive to understand, better processes in place for bugs and change requests, and all of these different things. And it just gets better.
But at the end of the day, it is that frontline, it’s that boots on the ground, whether it’s directly from my team or what we call our solution specialists, which for most folks that would be like what I would refer to as like an account manager or a customer success manager, maybe even a sales engineer.
But it really is a matter of getting everybody pointing in the right direction. And when we do that, those conversations are a lot easier, right? I mean, look, I’d like to take all the credit for making it work well, but there’s a whole bunch of people. I’m blessed with some really smart, intelligent, hardworking people on my team that make me look really, really good.
Some of that is through experience and decisions that I’ve made. Other parts of it are luck. In a startup situation, come crook or hook, you take the resources you can get, and sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you’re not. I’ve been extremely lucky and, you know, sprinkled in with a few good decisions that I’ve made to really build the team that I have right now. The people, they’re the ones that make it go, I’m just kind of behind the curtain. I give them the ability to make those decisions. And I think that’s also important when we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our customers, and not to overuse an old term, but it does take a village, right? You need to listen to everybody when you’re making a decision that’s going to impact the customer. It can’t be made from the top down. It can start that way, but ultimately you need to have that input from everybody. And you need to listen. It goes back and shut up and listen. And you’re going to learn a lot. And I think in those situations, you’re going to come up with a better strategy that is going to make that customer experience better. No, not because we’re so smart. But because we’ve got the bruises. We’ve got the scars.
And again, institutional knowledge is key and again, I’m blessed on my team to have a significant amount of institutional knowledge that goes back, you know, four or five plus years with the folks that I work with.
MD: Hmm, that, that leads me quite perfectly into my next question, which is about your position. Do you think that if you were not part of senior leadership, the CX strategy would be as effective as it is today? So do you think that having the head of CX have a seat at the table when it comes to the executive leadership, do you think that’s crucial to the success of the customer experience department?
MM: I think in general, it’s extremely important. I mean, we discussed this earlier and it was, we can sit here and talk customer experience theory and concept all day, but when the rubber hits the road and we’re really trying to make things happen, to your point about speaking to it from the practitioners approach, when you’re up to it in your neck and you figure out how to stay on your tiptoes and find a way out of the mess that you’re in. Now that said, I’m not sure. Right. I know it most definitely helps. I’m also very blessed from the perspective of, the team does a really good job, right? We’re kind of almost a firewall in a number of different senses for a lot of different things, a lot of different processes. And we’re also a little bit of an alarm system.
Right. We have visibility. I mean, I always like to say that the CX team within Babel Street is very much like the hub of the wheel. We work with every organization, including the senior leadership on the revenue side. We work with legal. We work with sales ops, very closely with development and product management. I mean, we really interact with everybody. And because of that, we can get a very interesting perspective. Good, bad, indifferent. But because of that, we’re a little autonomous. We do our thing, and because we do our thing and we do it well, we’re left to our devices. We get pulled in on a number of different things. It’s, you know, verify this, what actually happened there? Because we also have access to collections of data, like logins and, and kind of used statistics that others don’t. And because of that, it gives us a very unique perspective. But I tend to think that it most definitely helps that I’m at the table, without question.
Would it change what we do if I wasn’t at the table? No, I don’t, I don’t think so. I think I would be doing it pretty much exactly the same way as I’m doing it now. But I will say that from right now, we’re in very much a growth stretch. I mean, we’re constantly growing. We’ve grown over the last number of years and this year. Given the weird year that we’ve had, we’re still looking to have double-digit growth, which is super exciting. So from this point forward, there’s going to be a lot of things I think that are going to need to be tweaked and adjusted. There’s headcount, there’s roles and responsibilities. There’s the better definition of how are we going to March forward in this time versus what it would have been maybe 18 months ago, 12 months ago? Because it’s very different. So there’s a lot of things going on right now that sitting at the table matters. It really matters. You know, we always like to say we’re able to do more with less than probably any other company or team I’ve ever worked with, but I know that’s not the case. Right. Everybody’s having to do more with less, but I think right now, moving forward, I think it is extremely important that I have that opportunity and that privilege to sit at the table. And to have my input heard as to how I think things ought to go moving forward, at least with the things that impact me. Which is really the customer, which impacts everybody.
MD: Yeah. Now how, Babel Street as a whole, how much does R&D take into consideration the customer’s point of view? So, if you’re able to have those conversations with customers and understand where their pain points are at, how much are you able to kind of funnel that information back into product or development to create solutions that are customer-centric and customer-oriented?
MM: So we are really on the forefront of feedback. So are the sales teams, the solution specialist, and the business development folks who are out there boots on the ground. But there’s a mechanism within Babel Street to collect that feedback.
And look, I’m not going to say that it’s all kumbaya. And sometimes we have a very strong feeling about what we feel like needs to happen. You know, whether it’s as simple as where the button is and what it says, down to the workflow for this UI needs to be like this. Well, you know, being human nature and just the way everything is, when to have a perspective, when they develop it, product management has their perspective of when they told the development to do what they do. Now do all three of those things line up? No they don’t, but that’s okay. And we most recently changed our structure a little bit as it relates to our product management and development. I mean, almost a real-time basis we’re putting changes and updates that are out there, which honestly is a little, it’s very difficult for me, more specifically, the training side of the house, because we’ve got all of this embedded training material that if you change something, it potentially breaks training. So we have to be out in front of those roll-outs so that can be a challenge. So more and more as time goes on, we are more and more involved in those conversations, whether it’s the feedback, whether it’s how things are what’s being deployed, how it’s being deployed.
And I don’t expect that we’re always going to see eye to eye. We’re just not. But the, the good news is that I think everybody’s open for the conversation. You might not win the conversation and it’s not about winning. It’s about coming up with what’s going to be best for our users.
But I think we are really starting to migrate into a place that is new territory for us. We’ve always been in and around the territory, but I think consistently speaking in terms of the direction we’re moving forward is that it’s definitely something that I think it’s key for the CX team, whether it’s training or the help desk side to have their voice heard. Because look, we’re in it. You know, not that the product managers are not in it. They are. They talk to customers. I mean, look, in the early days, a lot of what we developed was geared toward our big customers, right?
Want to make sure those big customers were getting what they needed, maybe to a fault. In hindsight, looking back, you know, six, seven years, maybe we could have definitely done things different knowing what we know today. Um, but it really helped us move the platform in the direction that we are today.
You know, now we’re refining those processes and I think it’s a good, it’s a good situation, right?
MD: Yeah. Well, we’re coming to the end of this episode, Mark, is there like a podcast or a book or a Ted talk or something, or someone that you look to for guidance when it comes to the practice of CX that you could recommend to listeners? Like other than me and my podcast, which is amazing. Of course, of course,
MM: Of course. That was most definitely at top of my list as I’m sitting here, mindlessly thinking. You know, what’s funny Mary, is that when I look at my career and I look at kind of how I’ve developed professionally, I link a lot of that, to me and just my I’ve just got a very personable nature and I’ve never had a problem interacting with customers, but when you take it up to that next level, really what you have to really build and learn and grow on are the managers that you have.
And I’ve had some fantastic managers, but I have also had some that were not so fantastic. There’s an interesting mix. And as it would turn out that probably the managers that have impacted me the most over the years has been, aside from the management I have now, of course, are the female managers that I’ve had in my career. Which I always kind of laugh, like, it’s just my feminine side that tends to come out on these things. But I try to read a lot. I don’t necessarily have a single go-to. I’ve been kind of in this customer experience world and, you know, going back to Clarabridge, which I think really helped coin the phrase “customer experience” to a large degree.
And I probably try to practice what I preach. Right. I try to listen. Every time I come to the table, I come to the table with compromise, right. I might have very strong feelings about what I’m coming to the table with, but if you can tell me and convince me and give me reasons why I need to think differently. game on. I’m all for it. And that’s the way I manage my team. I don’t want to belittle what we do as customer experience professionals, but there’s a lot of common sense to it. Yeah. When you start with the user and you back out from them, users are just human beings and we’re all human and there’s things that we like and there’s things that we don’t like, and these things aren’t that uncommon at the core for just about anybody you talk to.
So if you can keep those core values as core ideas, there’s core concepts, you know, good solid communication. Yeah. Shut up. Don’t be rude. Don’t try to talk over people’s heads. Be open to new ideas and improve ways of doing things. And it’s worked for me. And again, I don’t, I don’t want to belittle the practice that you and I have come to know and love has offered us employment for, you know, a long time. It’s important. You know, those concepts and theories that we can sit here and talk about all day.
MM: And if we’re so rigid that when we get in practice that we don’t have some flexibility or some compromise in our pocket, I’ll tell you it’s hard to be a hard road and you’re going to find more failure and dissatisfaction than you would otherwise.
MD: Yeah. You know, I read so many books, not only because I have all these amazing authors on the podcast and I’ve got to read their material if I want to ask them decent questions. But I also read a lot of, you know, so I get kind of a mix of playbooks and concepts. And when it comes to practical application, I think that conceptual books help form our mindset to approach problems.
But when it comes to getting your hands dirty there, I’ve got two books that are my go-to for building customer experience programs from the ground up. And it’s really like step by step, which I think really takes out a lot of the mystery and kind of makes it foolproof. And one of them is Ian Golding’s book, because it’s so practical. And Ian Golding is one of my biggest references when it comes to customer experience. I’ve seen his masterclass. I’ve had him on the show. I worked very closely with him here at Worthix. But another one is Jim Kalbach’s book of mapping experiences. That also does a really good job at that one, two, three, you know? So when, when I’m talking to practitioners, I’m like, Hey, just have those books lying around because if you ever have any questions of, you know, what do I do here? What’s the best practice step, you know, that I’m missing right here at this very point, you can go back to those books and actually find what you should be doing. It’s not always as streamlined as that, but it’s at least a guide. You know, something that you can go to like a map, right? Sometimes on your map, you’ve got things have switched around with time or traffic is being rerouted or something like that, but in general, having that map always helps.
Mark, thank you so much for coming on. We appreciate your knowledge and your practical knowledge of customer experience in the B2B SaaS space. So thank you so much. And I mean, I’m going to wish you a Merry Christmas because we’re recording this in December. But, um, hopefully we’ll talk again soon and, and we’ll have you back on the show some other time to tell us about how you’ve advanced your customer experience programs, um, from here on out.
MM: I’d definitely like that, Mary, thank you. And Merry Christmas to you.
MD: Thank you. Awesome.