Question and Answer with Bob Furniss Contact Center Industry Veteran

In May 2017, the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) recognized Bob Furniss, VP, Global Service Cloud Practice, Bluewolf, an IBM Company, with its Lifetime Achievement Award. According to ICMI, the recipient is “a person who embodies the spirit of customer service and has contributed to all aspects of the contact center industry—the people, the organizations, the technology and the customers.” That seems a most fitting way to describe Bob and his career.

Bob Furniss, recipient of ICMI’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Bob’s industry experience is extensive—from his early days on the phones to managing contact centers to consulting for Fortune 100 companies and leading initiatives to help organizations transform their customer service operations. But what makes him an outstanding ambassador for the industry is that he is accessible, genuine and always happy to share his knowledge. Bob’s ability to connect with people and his passion for helping others to succeed is evident whether he is consulting, training, writing or speaking at industry conferences.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Bob about the award, his career and how the industry has evolved.

Q. What initially drew you to the customer service/contact center industry?

I don’t think I chose the job—it chose me. I first signed up to work in a “phone room” at Greyhound without knowing a lot about the job, but I quickly realized that I loved working with customers. That job provided me with the opportunity to help open their first contact center in Charlotte, N.C., in 1980, which then led to supervisor and training positions. It has been my focus and career ever since.

Q. Who was the most influential person/mentor in your career? Why?

Wow, that is hard to narrow to one person across a lifetime—in fact, it’s impossible—but let’s talk about several.

George Shaver was my first real mentor. I still remember his advice to me in my first supervisor role at Greyhound: “This industry is about PEOPLE—always put people first.”

Next is both a person and an organization. I learned the “how-to” details of our industry from Brad Cleveland and ICMI. They gave me access to new technology, new ways to manage and to the nuances of success as a leader in the contact center world. They also gave me a chance to grow my personal brand by allowing me to speak at conferences, write for their publications, consult and train on behalf of ICMI. It reminds me of a favorite quote from an unknown source: “Never stop learning; when we stop learning we stop growing.”

There are also others. Mike Tamer had a significant impact through the years. As the CEO at then Teknekron/eTalk, he gave me a chance to engage fully as a customer around their products and to have a leadership role on their customer board. In those roles, I learned a lot about how to engage to help my contact centers prosper. Mike has a great quote about our industry: “We take our most valuable asset, our customers, and connect them with our newest, most inexperienced employees and expect world-class customer service.” Looking at our role and our industry through this lens will make you rethink how you recruit, hire, train and coach your employees. It is through this lens that I have tried to lead my teams through the years. Mike is now a good friend and a mentor for “life stuff,” but we also still talk business from time to time.

The last two are more personal. I worked alongside Vince Kellen first as a fellow consultant at iXL, and then did consultant work for him at multiple universities where he was/is the CIO. For more than 15 years, he taught me about the importance of relationships—knowing who is in the room and how to lead them toward better answers, which is the true art of negotiation. He, too, is a colleague who became a mentor and then a lifelong friend. We have shared many hours of conversation on his deck and across the table at meals. You may see a pattern here—my success was built by building relationships up, down and over. I believe that success is less about the X’s and O’s of management and more about the relationships we build while leading.

The last one who comes to mind is another lifelong friend, Scott Thomas. Many years ago, Scott worked for me in a contact center. He started out as an agent, just like me. I remember the day he sat in my office and said, “I want to know how I get your job!” I knew what he was saying—he was asking me to prepare him to be promoted and to grow as a person. About a year later, I had the opportunity to move Scott into a leadership role, and it was obvious that he had the right leadership skills to succeed. Three years later, he left our organization to lead a national contact center for another company. His success was all about his skills, focus and drive, but I feel I had a small part in it—and that is what leadership is all about. Through the years, we have worked together, written together, and have spoken about our success on the stage at several industry events. He is still a mentor, friend and, in some ways, a life coach.

This brings to mind another favorite quote: “Success is not counted by how high you have climbed but how many people you brought with you.”—Wil Rose

Q. What does it mean to you to be recognized for a lifetime of work in the industry?

It is just an amazing feeling to be recognized for a lifetime of work. We work in an industry that can pull you into long hours, nights and weekends. As a result, there have been times when my life got out of balance. The award is validation that those long hours are worth it.

It is also humbling. I’ve watched others receive this award through the years and always was amazed by their impact on the industry and their accomplishments. But it is particularly special to receive recognition from an organization that I respect so highly. I love what I do! I love that it is a “people-first” business—just as George told me so many years ago.

Q. You’ve been a strong supporter of coaching and training for frontline customer service professionals throughout your career. What is your advice for the next-generation of customer service/contact center professionals?

Your question means a lot to me. You have known me for a long time, and if my legacy in the industry is to be a supporter of coaching and training for frontline agents, then that means even more than the award.

I sound like a broken record, but I believe that success in the contact center business is built on three things: building relationships, never stop learning and always be a coach.

Build strong relationships with your managers and your direct reports. To make them care about the things you care about, you must first care about the things that are important in their lives.

I am reminded of a time when I was consulting with a large sales contact sales contact center. I was conducting a side-by-side coaching session with an employee in his cubical. While talking with Carlos, the employee, I learned that he was the third best model car racer in the country. As I looked around his “office,” I noticed photos of model cars everywhere. He just lit up when he talked about model cars—how he designed them for speed, bought the best parts and spent most weekends racing cars.

Later, when I spoke with the supervisor, she mentioned that Carlos was a good employee but not very motivated. When I asked her about his passion, she knew nothing about his model car obsession. It made me think—how could she ever motivate Carlos to be a better employee (to do the things she wanted him to do) if she didn’t know his motivations? Based on a lifetime of working in this industry, my advice to the next generation is: “Focus on people and relationships.”

Q. What has been the biggest industry-related change that you’ve seen during your career?

I spoke at the recent ICMI Contact Center Expo & Conference about this question. When it comes to technology I think there have been five key points of change:

  1. IVRs changed the way we route calls, and until self-service began to make it obsolete, allowed businesses like banks to provide transactional information without talking to a person. It saved a lot of money—and perhaps made a lot of customers unhappy at the same time.
  2. Personal email was also a game-changer. I remember being very concerned about agents writing email direct to a customer, but today it is just another channel that we all manage.
  3. The Internet was next. FAQs allowed customers to find their own answers, and personalization provided a way to engage directly based on customer-specific needs. Again, a huge cost savings and hopefully a better experience for the customer.
  4. Social media gave power over our brands to the customer. If you don’t believe me, ask the CEO at United Airlines. We all see the horror stories, but social service has become a very viable channel for our industry. Those that are doing it well are adding “stickiness” to their company’s brand.
  5. The next one is happening now. At Bluewolf, we believe that artificial intelligence (AI) will permeate every facet of the contact center industry. The first wave is happening today. We are designing and developing chatbots that will support the customer with or without human interaction. But AI is also changing knowledge management, contact/call routing and self-service options. We believe that the next five years will bring radical change to our industry, perhaps as dramatic as the Internet produced. Phone calls and human interaction are not going away, but as IBM CEO Ginni Rometty says, “Our goal is augmenting intelligence. It is man and machine. This is all about extending your expertise… It doesn’t matter what you do. We will extend it.” AI will bring big improvements!

Q. What advice would you give to others on how to get involved and get engaged in the industry?

I can think of three recommendations:

  1. Attend conferences. They are the best way possible to build strong relationships with others in the industry.
  2. Read and learn. Read publications like Contact Center Pipeline. It is the monthly must-read for anyone inside service or support. They tackle subjects that matter now. Never stop learning. I love to tell people, at the end of the day, ask yourself this question: “What did I learn today that no one can ever take away from me?” Whether you are in the same job, or a totally different industry, learning should be personal. Find a mentor, be a mentor, never stop learning.
  3. Write and speak. Writing and speaking will not only give you a chance to build a personal brand, but it also forces you to learn. Everyone is an expert about something. Stop to consider how many times people ask you for help each day. That is your expertise, and writing about it gives you a voice.

Q. What’s next for you?

I told someone that I hoped there was life after a lifetime award. I could not be more excited about working for a company like IBM and Bluewolf. The acquisition of Bluewolf by IBM has presented me with an entirely new direction inside the technology world that I would never have imagined. It’s a platform to continue learning. Also, the work that we’re doing with AI provides me with an opportunity to help set the direction for the future—and work with some of the smartest people in the world.

As I look back, I realize that I have been blessed with so many opportunities. As I look forward, I know that I am closer to retirement than before, but I’m hopeful that others will view my “old guy” status as experience and wisdom, and will give me a chance to share ideas and lead others toward success.

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