Influential Women in CX: Microsoft’s Aileen Allkins on AI, Customer Centricity, and CX in the Next Decade

Jayaram Bhat | January 29, 2020

Our Influential Women in CX blog series is back with the conclusion of our feature on Aileen Allkins, Corporate Vice President of Customer Service and Support at Microsoft.

In part one of our interview, Aileen told us about her rise to CVP at a Fortune 100 company where she leads an international team of 25,000 employees. She also explained why people are her favorite aspect of her job and why angry customers don’t bother her.

In part two below, she discusses the connection between employee experience and customer experience, Microsoft’s approach to blending human and machine-driven customer support, and her predictions for CX in 2020 and beyond.

(Please note that the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What are your thoughts on the connection between employee experience and customer experience?

I think it’s well-documented and just generally understood that if you have a happy front line, they are going to deliver a better experience for your customers.

When I give talks about digital support transformation outside of Microsoft, I always link it to the people because, no matter how much we transform digitally and move to self-service, you’re always going to need people. And I don’t think support organizations in general are focusing enough on people.

Imagine you’re working in a call center. These are generally low-paying jobs, especially when you outsource in high-volume centers and certainly in the consumer space. When a support engineer or advocate gets a nasty message, how could they go home at the end of the day and say, “I had a great day today”? What could possibly be great when they are dealing with customers that are not happy and their day is full of negativity and problems?

So when I think about the link between employee experience and customer experience, I try to think first and foremost about the support engineers and advocates as human beings. What is the frame of mind of the person helping the customer? What would make them want to answer that next call or take that next chat when they’ve just been abused?

To me, the key is helping them to continually understand the difference they make. That’s why we’ve gotten into the habit at the beginning of every single meeting of sharing a story about how we’ve helped a customer.

For example, I mentioned John’s Crazy Socks in part one of our interviews. They are an SMB and Microsoft customer. John has Down’s Syndrome; he was leaving school and wasn’t going to be able to get a job. John said he wanted to create crazy socks, so his father set up the business, and now they’re running a $5 million company selling crazy socks.

When we share the customer’s story and explain how Microsoft enables them to run their business, it helps our people to see our customers as human beings.

It’s incredibly impactful for engineers and advocates to see the difference we make. That’s how we empower them to continue to feel motivated by helping them understand the link between the phone call they just took or problem they just solved and the overall impact on our customers.

You talked about the importance of seeing both employees and customers as human beings. How does that emphasis fit with the growing trend of non-human support channels?

We have a very clear strategy for support at Microsoft, which focuses on three things. The first is empower me to help myself, with the caveat of “if I want to help myself.” Here we’re thinking about communities, videos, virtual agents — essentially any non-human-assisted support.

We had been going down that path, like probably many others, of saying, “Yay, we’ve got virtual agents coming out of our ears. We’ve got amazing technology because we’re Microsoft. We’re so lucky.”

And the virtual agents are helping some of our customers and were eliminating huge volumes of customer tickets in some scenarios, which is good because we can prevent some problems from happening in the first place. But we were at risk of forgetting that isn’t what every customer wants or needs. And we believe it’s important for customers to have a choice about how they receive help.

The second part of our framework is help me quickly when I need your expertise. So that’s saying, if the customer can’t help themselves or doesn’t want to help themselves, we must provide amazing help through assisted support. That’s where the people, the human-to-human interaction comes into play, and where we’ve been putting a lot of intense focus.

The third part we call advise me, which is essentially going above and beyond helping the customer with the current issue and offering that extra bit of advice or guidance. For example, “Now that we’ve solved the problem, I noticed that you’re not using this feature that is available on your subscription. Do you want me to show you how to do that?”

We do a lot of that, and it’s had a really interesting impact. Firstly, customer satisfaction and sentiment are higher on the cases where we’ve taken the time to have that conversation. Secondly, we actually see consumption of our services increase.

The third impact was one we had not anticipated, which was how much better it makes our employees feel when they were not only able to help the customer solve the problem but also take that extra moment to provide additional value.

I’ve listened in on some of the call recordings and spoken to the support engineers and advocates afterwards when the customer is saying, “Wow. I would never have known that. Thank you.” And it makes the employee feel so good.

What does it mean to be “customer centric”?

Many organizations talk about being “customer centric” or “customer obsessed.” I think every company that says that’s part of their culture really means it. I do believe they want to be customer obsessed and that when they sit around leadership tables they say, “The customer is king. The customer is most important. We’ve got to do everything with the customer first in mind.”

The reality, though, is that it isn’t like that in many cases because the customer is not the first thing you’re thinking about when you make decisions on tooling, processes, or many other things that you need to do to run a business.

For example, think about the launch of a new product. Many companies will say they are customer-oriented, but do they ever design the support experience in parallel with the product design? How often do companies really plan what the support experience is going to be from end-to-end?

We’re not great at that yet at Microsoft, either. We’re not always thinking from the very beginning about how we want the customer to experience the product and, when they have challenges, how we want them to experience support. I don’t mean which modalities of support (i.e. chat vs. phone vs. email). I mean what we want them to feel, what brand experience we want to deliver.

That’s where I think the industry as a whole has a real opportunity, and I would love to see everybody do better.

Do you have any predictions for how customer support will continue to evolve in 2020 and beyond?

I see a trend of more customer experience officers reporting to the CEO. This is significant because I believe that, until CX officers report to the CEO and are on equal footing with sales and product teams, a company hasn’t truly bought into being customer-obsessed or customer-first.

I actually see it happening more in smaller companies (smaller at least in relation to Microsoft). I see startups baking in customer experience and customer success from the very beginning.

That is very different than how it was when I started in customer support — where support existed because you had to have it in order to respond to customer questions and issues. Now many companies are starting to see that customer experience could truly be a differentiator if they want it to be. But to succeed, CX must have an equal seat at the leadership table.

The other thing I see happening more and more is conversations about the well-being of the workforce, especially on the front lines. I don’t think people are going to wake up suddenly in 2020 and realize they’ve got to do more and better for their employees. But I think the conversations are starting.

My hope is that in another two to three years, leaders will seriously start to see the front-line teams as people that represent your brand and can make a difference between whether you win a customer or lose a customer. And I believe we’ll start to see more initiatives around employee well-being. Not just in the sense of healthier food in the cafeteria or fitness facilities, but also focusing on mental health.

Microsoft is actually working with Ariana Huffington’s company Thrive Global to give our employees moments in the day to get positive reinforcement. It could be something like a 30-second conversation just to tell you that you did a great job. It might sound bizarre, but having even 30 seconds away from difficult or negative conversations and receiving some positive feedback can really make a big difference.

Thank you, Aileen!

You can learn more by following Aileen on LinkedIn. And we hope you’ll continue reading our Influential Women in CX series to learn about other customer support and success superstars!