CSG and holistic CX

Leading Brands into Holistic CX: A conversation with Alfred Binford and Mark Smith of CSG

“This (CX) has become a much bigger discipline – it spans the whole business. Marketing are interested in it. Customer service is interested in it. Sales is interested in it. Loyalty is interested in it – so it really spans all aspects of the business which is why it’s a board level, C level initiative now.”

“This (CX) has become a much bigger discipline – it spans the whole business. Marketing are interested in it. Customer service is interested in it. Sales is interested in it. Loyalty is interested in it – so it really spans all aspects of the business which is why it’s a board level, C level initiative now.”

CSG recently acquired Kitewheel.  It was something that Mark Smith had alluded to in an earlier conversation so I was excited to have a chance to sit down recently with Mark, who is now VP of Digital Engagement Solutions at CSG, and Alfred Binford, President, Customer Engagement at CSG to talk about the acquisition, what that means in the marketplace, and why this actually may be the golden era of CX.  As you’ll see, it was a lively – and informative conversation.


See the transcript of our conversation below.



I’m Mike Giambattista.  I’m publisher of the customer and today I’m honored to be speaking with two gentlemen who one of whom I’ve got to know over several interviews in the recent past and one of whom is becoming a fast friend of what we do and I’m of course a fan of what you guys do there I’m talking about Alfred Binford who’s President of customer engagement at CSG, the group that recently just bought a company that my other guest was a founder of and ran for several years, Mark Smith who is now VP of digital engagement uh at CSG and former and i would say founder and former CEO of Kitewheel.

So, thank you both for taking the time out of just what i understand her insanely busy schedules to talk with me um it’s a pretty exciting moment in your timelines uh it sounds like. I’d love to hear more about that but um because I really just gave you guys a title and there’s much, much more to what you do day to day. Maybe Alfred, if you would mind just kind of explaining your role at CSG and then,Mark if you wouldn’t mind doing the same.


Alfred Binford

Great. Well, thank you Mike and just really glad to be here really fan of your work and glad to be with you today. So, at CSG I lead an organization we refer to as our customer engagement unit which is a global business that houses all the solutions that CSG has that literally allows us to affect every phase of the customer life cycle and complements our legacy in the other parts of CSG. And we’re generally organized into three global lines of business – one of which that I lead is customer engagement. The other line of business – the one frankly that we’re most known for, is referred to as revenue management and digital monetization that’s led by our colleague and COO, Ken Kennedy. And the third line of business is a business that we’ve fashioned around being in the payment space it’s called Forte but now known as CSG Forte and it’s a company that has some of the most market leading solutions for secure digital payments. And you can imagine, having revenue management, customer engagement and payment solutions allows us to be holistic in providing our customers – many of which are in the telecom space which we’re greatly known for for nearly 40 years to be able to, again, as I said earlier, affect and impact the entire customer life cycle to wow their customers, make more money and just drive their business in this accelerated age of digital engagement. Being used to meet demands for elevating customer experience so, very excited to be here and again that’s how CSG’s organized.



So, it’s a very powerful combination of factors that you’ve assembled there. I don’t think it would be fair to say that you just inserted Kitewheel into the mix because of what Kitewheel does I think by nature, it’s a pretty holistic approach the customer experience. But those are my words – I’m much more interested in hearing how Mark describes what you helped build and have recently sold.


Mark Smith

Yeah, happy to do that Mike and a real pleasure to be back talking again and you know previous times we’ve talked it’s been in my role leading Kitewheel but yeah very excited. Right at the start of July we were acquired by CSG we’ve had a long-term partnership going back four years or so where the Kitewheel solution was part of the CSG journey orchestration capability but now all of the Kitewheel team are part of the digital engagement solutions unit within CSG and so Kitewheel is one part of that. And as you say, very much a kind of a plug-in intelligence engine that is actually orchestrating all the right communications and the right contacts with customers. But it’s very exciting for us – super exciting for the whole Kitewheel team to be now part of this much larger organization where we’ve got all this other great technology, we’ve got this underpinning CDP that helps bring all the right data together across an organization. We’ve got amazing channel capabilities including AI driven intent analysis that helps with voice and text and email communications. We’ve got a whole set of capabilities around delivering on digital channels and perhaps most exciting from my perspective, that we’ve got massive expertise. You know there’s a whole experience practice at CSG. We’re experts in customer experience, experts in user experience and so we’re kind of bringing together not just the technology side of this but also the know-how to bring a new suite of digital solutions to not just the existing CSG customer base it’s been building for the last 40 years, but off out into new markets and new clients as well.



Alfred, I don’t know if you figured this out about Mark yet, but he has a really great habit of dropping these little nuggets into a conversation that you really have to pay attention to. The last one I think, or one of the last ones, was “Hey listen, we’ve got a big announcement coming up. We should get together in a couple weeks and I’ll tell you all about it.” and then was like “Yeah, I have to go now.” and it turns out that announcement was this purchase – which I’m sure is strategic on all kinds of levels and I wanted to talk about that a little bit – specifically about the market factors that you both see behind this acquisition and what this new dynamic can produce out there. And Alfred if you want to take that first.


Alfred Binford

Sure, well, for me it’s really quite interesting. I think about the founding of CSG nearly 40 years ago where we were helping initially cable companies with their revenue management and billing operations. And whilst we didn’t call it this then, we actually started ourselves in the customer experience business right, because when you think about it, helping cable companies sort their customer management, make sure they have the billing correct – which was the lifeblood of many companies and many industries. Really it’s the foundation. But as Mark said, what we get really excited by and what the Kitewheel acquisition allows us to do even better, is to have the comprehensive stack of consulting analytics solutions and the operational capability to execute a company strategy, like I said earlier, to be able to affect the entire customer life cycle in a very orchestrated manner.

And what we had seen for many years going back to the commercialization of the internet and getting through y2k and what the iphone represented in terms of really introducing us into digital technology – I think has been further accelerated by the pandemic because, recall the pandemic whilst it’s been very difficult for society in a huge you know, public health event, one of the things it did, it forced companies to even more quickly transform the business processes around the new rules of commerce. And when you think about some of those changes to the business process accelerated digital transformation that was already underway but really sped it up. And so for example when I think about here in the US a big box retailer like BestBuy needing to re-engineer its processes literally overnight so when their stores could open, they could open in a touchless fashion and give customers the ability to shop or online pick up at the curb and go into the store if they saw fit, and being able to orchestrate that was critical.

As I saw when I was literally buying a new flat screen TV where I shopped online I then used my smartphone to order I made an appointment to go in the store but they told me, “Hey, since we have your credit card you can process it, you can pick up at the curb if you’d like, and we can make an appointment for that.”

When you think about organizing that from the analytics, to know who I am in all those channels, figure out help me seamlessly and frictionlessly get what I want, and then give me the option as to how I want to engage in the store, at the curb, online – and being able to orchestrate that, that shows why we were so excited to have Kitewheel join our company fully. Because we’ve been a partner successfully doing those things in telecom, financial services, in retail powered by Kitewheel as a partner, now we make Kitewheel a full part of our company and we’re able to affect what I just said at multiple layers. It starts first having the data.

But having a lot of data like we talked you know, 15 years ago, it was all the rage to say how many terabytes of data you have and how big your data warehouse was, that’s really not what matters. Yes, it’s good to collect that data, structured & unstructured, but how do you add analytics to pull from that data insights that you then can use to orchestrate and design the kind of customer journeys and experience, and then being able to do that in a real-time, interactive way that’s powerful. And at CSG through the acquisition of Mark and the team, we’re able to do that more extensively and at all layers. And we think that’s differentiating and very powerful and why so many companies are turning to us to help them accelerate digital transformation, meet customers wherever they are, and elevate customer experience. For all the reasons we know, drive up loyalty, drive up purchases, and of course make more money. Mark, what do you think?


Mark Smith

Well, I honestly couldn’t have said it any better by myself, Alfred. That’s bang-on! I mean the only thing I would add is just, you know, how much this theme has become the number one priority. I mean, there’s a new report out from the folks at Gartner a couple of weeks ago. You know this year, improving customer experience is the absolute number one priority for all enterprises. And it’s, you know, somewhat driven by the pandemic and this realization that businesses have to deal with customers in a different way – in a better way. But it’s now way ahead in terms of internal priorities. It’s way ahead of all the covid driven stuff and stands alone as the number one priority is improving customer experience. So that’s what, you know, makes all of the great stuff Alfred’s just been talking about. It’s also the timing of that right when the market needs it that makes this very exciting.



Would it be fair to say that the pandemic, I don’t know, let’s just say “accelerated” what would have been an already healthy conversation to acquire Kitewheel or was that something that that CSG was already kind of interested in and maybe looking at prior to when the whole massive acceleration took place?


Alfred Binford

I’d say that the partnership with Kitewheel was struck and we were excited about the partnership and we did quite well for both sides of the company literally. I can’t disclose the details, but we were able to win multiple millions of dollars of business with Kitewheel, so we’re excited by the partnership. And the pandemic maybe didn’t accelerate it but it created an opportunity where we said hey, we go from partner to being a part of CSG and really leverage the capabilities and really knit together Kitewheel in even the greater, more tightly integrated fashion. So, I don’t know if it accelerated it, but it clearly gave us evidence as we saw customers hustling to do more around digital transformation to elevate experience to meet the demands that the pandemic put upon us. It clearly made us say, wow we’re having success with Kitewheel – imagine how much more if we made them a fully integrated part of the company.

But I also would say, Mike too, with what is underneath your question, and as Mark framed out, the industry is not just telecom where we’re known for, but we do work in so many other verticals & industries, have been on this journey to improve customer experience. We use different language – in the 80s there was a whole big push around delight the customer and customer satisfaction. In the 90s we people began to think about you know customer experience, right. And that led to the birth of modern CRM (customer relationship management) where companies in many industries – be it a telecom, financial services, retail – wanted to move from these blind transactional relationships to these insight-fueled, true and durable relationships with clients. And it’s no coincidence that many of those industries – telecom, financial services and retail – over the last 30 years, have had exponential increases in competition. So whereas in telecom, the battle used to be whether cable or wireless or wireline – how big can I get my network, how many G’s can Ii have, how many homes can I pass, and that became the currency for competition.

What we’re seeing now, the currency for competition is how can I out “experience” you? And it’s not just out experience you against other telecoms. I said often if you turn on the tube in North America or even Western Europe you’ll see the major mobile providers advertising – what do they advertise 5G and iphones or Galaxies and Devices but guess what – everyone’s got 5g, everyone’s got the iphone out, everyone’s got the smart device! So how do you differentiate? That’s where experience becomes the currency of competition, I believe. And it’s not just building a winning experience against your category competitors – telecom to telecom, T-mobile versus ATT versus Verizon – it’s wherever the customer had the greatest experience, that’s what they expect from you. So, if they had a great experience at Amazon or Netflix or XYZ bank, they’ll want Verizon to be that good. And so that led to in the 2000s, the whole push around NPS which again, one could argue is another form of the quest for customer experience.

And then as Mark said, what we’re seeing in these last two years because the pandemic has affected us now going on over three years – 20, 21 and we’re going to carry it into 22 – has been an acceleration of companies realizing they have to re-engineer business processes to affect and deliver great experiences wherever they touch the customer – on the customer’s terms. I hope that makes sense. But I was thinking as you asked the question, just the generational evolution of how this quest for, you know, the best experience has evolved over the last 30 years in key industries. I hope that makes sense.



I think this notion’s been rattling around my head for some time, but you articulated it really well. And that is that the bar for customer experience expectations gets raised outside of whatever category you’re shopping in and gets taken with the customer wherever they go. So, it could be a telco customer experience but if Amazon’s doing things better, suddenly Amazon is your competition for customer experience or your expectation anyway.


Alfred Binford

They certainly set that expectation. That’s absolutely right, and you know that’s the scary thing for existing businesses that have been around for 30, 40, 50 more years – the customer’s expectation has been set by these young upstarts right, that do it all in an app and inside that app it’s easy to make everything slick and intelligent. But if you’re a big telco or a big bank or a big retailer, you’ve got a massive infrastructure that’s already there in place that somehow needs to match up to this experience delivery, that really, we all as consumers have kind of got hooked on by a few leading brands. All right and so and that’s what we’re here for – that’s the beauty of the CSG offer is that we’re helping those big businesses compete with and keep up with that standard of experience that’s been set by those leaders by essentially plugging in, empowering their legacy and existing channels and systems and processes, to be just as intelligent and just as smart and work in real time like an app does.


Mark Smith

And so that’s very much the nature of what’s so exciting about our business because they have to compete. The bar, like you say, the bar has been set very high. We all love these interactive experiences – we’ve all become used to interactive experiences, we all expect immediate answers in the palm of our hand and we’re here to help all of those traditional businesses keep up with that new world.



So, you know there’s been a lot of a lot of consolidation in the CX world I’m talking to two gentlemen who are orchestrating some of that right now. But you know, enterprise CX technologies are shifting & changing, as we just mentioned, they’re morphing and the bars for what technology needs to do to create good customer experience is changing as well. Can you talk about, you know, put on your forecaster hat, get out the crystal ball, but with what you’re both seeing in the world of customer experience as it looks right now, look out two years, look out five years, what do you think folks in your place are going to be trying to provide and what do you think customer expectations are going to be demanding at that point?

Mark Smith

Yeah could I dive in on that one? I think that there’s a really, really, interesting kind of macro trend going on which is that that CX industry the CX technologies are all going through this big transition to just step up to a whole new level of importance and contribution in businesses. Because CX as a discipline, has been around for a long time and it’s been very tied to customer feedback, been very tight to the NPS scores, customer satisfaction scores, surveys – there’s a whole set of vendors who would talk about themselves as being in the CX world who are in that world. And there’s a lot of organizations who have a VP of customer experience who cares about surveys, who cares about getting feedback from the customer and what’s happening is there’s a whole new wave of chief experience officers that see a much bigger world, and see a much bigger issue where the experience delivered is the stuff we’ve just been talking about. It’s suddenly not about customer complaints, it’s about the complete competitive differentiator for your business. It’s become a brand thing – it’s actually the brand of the company. It’s the experiences that’s been delivered so it’s suddenly a board level issue. You’ve got a CXO who’s leading it, probably the CEO cares just as much about it, and it’s absolutely at the top of their priority list.

And so CX has just jumped up but it’s not that those people are still doing the same job of looking at customer surveys, CX has jumped up to be about everything to do with the customer. So, tracking all of the actual behavior of customers, not just what they say, but actually what did they do, and how does what they do line up with what they say, and how can we help them do the things they’re trying to do as customers and that’s the overall experience.

This has become a much bigger discipline – it spans the whole business. Marketing are interested in it. Customer service is interested in it. Sales is interested in it. Loyalty is interested in it – so it really spans all aspects of the business which is why it’s a board level, C level initiative now. And that not only the leading businesses have really made that transition now and move their CX function from a kind of VP problem solving level to a C-level brand delivery for the whole business. And so, coming back to answer your actual question, Mike, that I think is this huge kind of transition that’s going on and in five years’ time most businesses will have got that. Most businesses will have CX as a board level initiative and have the CEO as well as the CXO driving those things. And that just fundamentally changes what technology solutions businesses are looking for, what kind of consulting help businesses need, because they’re suddenly delivering not just departmental level activity but across the whole business right, on a more strategic level.


Alfred Binford

Let’s take the legacy Pay-TV space which is being changed by Netflix and all the over-the-top solutions offered. Netflix clearly is a great company that has re-engineered the delivery of entertainment and information and they just use powerful insights – you can imagine the engine Netflix has that recommends “this new release” that’s powered by insights and just massive amounts of data that’s being managed in the real-time way. So, if you’re a legacy Pay TV provider having to compete with Netflix, you need to step up right, and be able to have – those kind of insights, not only the catalog of content, you need to have the catalog of insights to present the experience the customer is going to want. And I think in every example whether it’s the entertainment space, supermarkets, retail, banking, telecom services. Mark can give you some other examples of companies that we know from their work with Kitewheel, are leading.



We could go on for a long time. There’s so much to talk about here. It’s a really exciting time in CX and I think, just in terms of business evolution in general, and for my part, I say this with all sincerity – I’m honored thatI I get to talk to you guys who are leading the charge in so many ways out there.  So thank you Alfred Binford thank you Mark Smith. I’m really looking forward to the next time we get to do this.

Photo by Jonne Huotari on Unsplash

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