Frank Eliason

(Two months ago, we told you Frank Eliason was leaving Citi. He said he wanted a new career opportunity that would give him the chance to be himself, serve customers, to listen, to engage in teamwork and to be empathic. 

He apparently found what he wanted at New York City-based Zeno Group, where he was just appointed EVP of US Digital and Customer Experience. 

The PR and communications company offers services including reputation management, corporate communications and brand marketing. Eliason said he and the agency have a "shared ambition and belief about how agencies can and will be valuable in this current and future digital state.”

As he settles into his new position, we offer a brief look back at Eliason's thoughts and perspectives in this interview by CMSWire's Bill Sobel, which was originally published in August.)

Scathing critiques of bad customer service fly thick and fast on social media, so when the Twitterverse lights up with spontaneous praise it tends to grab attention.

Such was the case recently when a grassroots effort took hold, aimed at drafting Comcast’s legendary customer service guru, Frank Eliason, back to the post he vacated in 2010.

As the architect of Comcast’s early social media strategy, and most recently as a Global Director for Citi, Eliason has built his career on the simple but unwavering belief that customers want a pleasant experience the first time around rather than social service after a company has failed to provide it.

Customer Service is Personal

Frank’s belief in the power of empathy to provide the kind of transformational customer service that technology cannot, is rooted both in work experience and personal tragedy.

He has explored but themes as a prolific author and blogger. Eliason has written “At Your Service: How to Attract New Customers, Increase Sales, and Grow Your Business Using Simple Customer Service Techniques” and plans to start a new book shortly.

As he prepares for his post-Citi chapter, Frank sat down with us to share his thoughts on what it takes to provide exceptional customer service.

Connecting with Bill Sobel
Sobel: I was surprised to read that you're leaving Citi. You made the announcement at the end of a very emotional piece you recently wrote for LinkedIn, “American Girl Brought a Grown Man to Cry.” What's next for you?

Eliason: I loved my time at Citi and I will always be grateful to the entire team. We accomplished a lot, including being recognized twice as one of the most innovative forces in banking (Taking Social Media to a Chattier Level).

During the same time I was watching Citi transform itself into an incredible brand leader in the FinTech space, I was going through my own transformation.

When I started in social media at Comcast back in 2007, I believed that social media would force companies to fix the Customer experience. It took a while but today, we are finally seeing companies embrace CX.

These transformations got me to thinking more and more about the broader shifts that companies must make to embrace CX. That gave me the idea for the book I am leaving Citi to write, which will look at the intersection of business, artificial intelligence, robotics and humanity.

As the world changes before our eyes, I see the future bringing humanity back to business, just as American Girl’s empathetic and generous gesture did for my family.

Sobel: A recent article, “Exec Formerly Known as ‘Comcast Frank’ Has Some Tough-Love Advice for Company” describes how you headed up Comcast’s Digital Care team just when people began to realize that complaining on the Internet could get results. Though you left Comcast in 2010, the article describes how your “legacy of giving a damn about customers remains.” Can you share some of your thoughts?

Eliason: These days, social media has become a broadcast channel for brands, with the ultimate focus on eyeballs, but in the early days of social media the focus was very different.

Social media was a way to know the people behind the brands, to be members of the community without trying to be the center of it. My team at Comcast brought empathy for the Customer’s concerns and troubles.

We wanted to serve them and we did that by listening.

Listening is the way to build empathy and when social media becomes about speaking instead of listening, that empathy is lost. So no matter where I work or what my role is, my empathy for the customer will always lead me to fight on their behalf. That is what I am about.

Sobel: Comcast can’t seem to stay out of the news. And then along comes a article entitled “Former Comcast Customer Service Guru Frank Eliason Pens Open Letter to Ex-Employer” in which you say you're “disappointed” in Comcast. Can you tell us more?

Eliason: No matter what I do, I will always be associated with Comcast and in many ways that is a good thing. When I left in 2010 they were clearly on a trajectory to improve the customer experience within the service realm, but at some point things changed.

I wrote that post in response to a number of issues that blew up on the Internet, including a retention call heard around the world and name changes that were far from appropriate.

Events reached a point where I felt I needed to say something. Since writing my open letter, I have noticed some dramatic shifts within the organization and I now think things are heading in the right direction.

Sobel: Recently I noticed a few tweets asking you to return to Comcast. Would you consider it?

Eliason: It's flattering when someone makes comments like that. At the same time, I do believe the company it on the right path with the right team in place.

Sobel: In a recent column you noted, “An ideal Customer experience garden would be weed free, with thriving vegetables.” You envisioned the vegetables as the customers, the soil as the business and “everything in between [as] the experience that is created for employees and customers.” Can you elaborate?

Eliason: After years of talking about the need for companies to focus on customer experience, I am finally seeing the seeds I planted coming to fruition. It is thrilling to watch. At the same time I often find the focus is wrong.

I think companies are focusing on technology as the answer for customer experience in the mistaken belief that technology will help them reduce the costs that customers create.

But that mentality is wrong because if you start with a negative view of the Customer, you are already losing when it comes to Customer experience.

Other companies are placing their bets on building grand governance models to ensure the company creates the right experience, but all that approach does is add bureaucracy within the company.

Customer experience to me is more about a culture than a department. No single person creates customer experience, nor should it be managed that way. Every person within a company adds to, or takes away from, the customer experience

Sobel: On a personal note, you penned another piece earlier this year. In it you poignantly wrote, “Let me introduce you to Gia. She was born in 2000. She never learned to ride a bike ... she didn't grow up, because she died during a liver transplant surgery as a result of liver cancer. She passed away on July 26, 2004 ... Imagine Gia was your daughter. It is easy for me, because she is my daughter.” Would you be willing to share your personal thoughts on how you and your family have survived such a tragedy?

Eliason: We are all products of our personal history. We each have many ups and downs that impact us in varying ways; these events are the basis for our beliefs and how we interact with each other.

Gia in her short time connected us with so many people. She also taught us anything was possible and the importance of staying positive even in the most dire of circumstances. She brought out empathy in me that has structured many of my views on the treatment of Customers and employees.

The Nationwide Super Bowl ad created a stir, with many upset at the content of a child dying. It was a downer during the upbeat time of the Super Bowl.

For me, it was personal. I was watching the game with my two young girls.

They never met Gia, but are certainly well aware of her. It caused them to ask questions about what else Gia never had the chance to do. I think the ad failed on many levels, but it was hurtful for me, as was the response from the company.

In May of this year we learned that the Nationwide CMO, Matt Jauchis stepped down, with many speculating it was due to the ad. I hope that is not the reason for his departure. Mr. Jauchis had an extremely successful run at Nationwide. His tenure should have been applauded.

In my view, the Super Bowl ad would have required approval from the CEO and possibly the board prior to running.

Everyone involved was responsible for the ad, not any single individual. Too often in business we like to point fingers, but sometimes we should all take responsibility.

Sobel: France’s largest bank, Groupe BPCE, made headlines by launching a new domestic e-money service where their customers would be able to transfer money via Twitter messages. Can you share your thoughts on the future of banking from a customer perspective?

Eliason: Since the advent of social media, people have been trying to find ways to monetize the platform and make money in the process.

Back in 2013, American Express launched the ability to buy items using Twitter. Even earlier, JCPenney launched shopping on Facebook, only to shut it down in 2012.

The first key point to remember when looking at these efforts is why are we in social networks? More often than not it is to connect with other people and learn from each other. We are not always in the shopping mindset.

The other key aspect to the payment space is trust. People want to have a deep sense of trust when they are using their money. They do not want to be concerned that their money can make it into the wrong hands. We may love social networks, but I am not sure they have reached that level of trust yet.