I had the opportunity to first meet Gemma Colby during the webinar hosted by Awards International in December 2021. Together with three other CX leaders, Dejan Markovic, Gabriela Ciupitu, and Laura Tengerdi, Gemma talked about her success as the Head of Customer Experience at Yell.

Gemma’s excellence and persistence led her to win the gold at the UKCXA CX Awards in the category Leader of the Year in 2021. In February 2022, we met to have a talk about her approaches to leadership, customer centricity, and the plans for the upcoming year. This interview demonstrates why Gemma is the leader whose work you should follow in 2022.

Gemma, tell us your story. How did it all start for you in the CX industry?

Officially I have had CX in my job title for two years now, but I have been in roles that impact the customer experience for my entire career. About ten years into my career, after moving to the UK from South Africa, I decided to move into a role that allowed me to make that difference to more customers through working in a Business Improvement role.

My career in the UK was first in Housing and, more recently, in digital marketing at Yell. During my time at Yell, I have worked in process and customer experience roles. I started the CX team in February 2020 and love working as Head of Customer Experience. We are doing some very exciting things at Yell to help SMEs run their business successfully.

The skill of negotiation is often the essential ingredient to getting ahead in the world of modern business. How did you make the right people notice your ideas?

In every company I work in, I am known for being the person asking: “what the impact on the customers is?” I always want to make sure the customer is given a voice at the table, particularly as part of more senior conversations. In terms of getting my voice heard, there are a few things that have had the biggest impact on me:

  • Bring customer pain points to life through telling a real customer’s story – Top tip: refer to the customer by their first name, you’d be surprised how often we forget to do this. This helps people relate to the customer. Always back this up with data to show that while you are telling one customer’s story that this is representative of what many customers are experiencing.
  • Bring real live customers into the room. Even the most challenging stakeholder can’t disagree with the customer experience when it’s coming straight from the customer’s mouth. One of the ways we have done this, at Yell, is with our customer panel. We record a virtual session with 6 (or so) customers at a time and speak to them about their experience and expectations of Yell. We tell them we want to hear the truth, warts and all. This is used during our CX Forum, a monthly meeting with senior leaders where we talk about the experience our customers are having.

In our previous conversation, you shared that you are a proud member of the Women in CX community. Tell me how does being a woman in CX shape your leadership?

Discovering Women in CX was really fortunate for me. I saw Clare Muscutt presenting just as WiCX was kicking off and thought “I have to be part of that”. I was really happy to join as one of the Beta Founding members in March 2021.

WiCX has given me so many opportunities to learn from some incredible CX experts and reach out for support and a safe place when I need help or some guidance on how to tackle an issue. WiCX has also taught me to embrace my strengths and put myself out there.

Brene Brown says ‘a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and dares to develop that potential.’ What does a great leader do to help the CX team develop and grow?

Firstly, I LOVE Brene Brown, her work around empathy and bravery impacts the way I approach all aspects of my life. The key things that I believe a CX leader does are to excite people around what is possible for customers, help them see their role in delivering that, the impact they can have and create the space for people to make that a reality.

Leaders need to make sure that they are telling the customer’s story and ensure everything they are doing is led from insight. Combining insight and passion from people who work across your organisation is powerful. The leader’s potential is there waiting, often untapped; they can always tell you what is working or not and why that is the case. They will always know how things are showing up for customers.

What is one CX or business book that shook up your career?

The Leader’s Handbook”, Peter Scholtes. This was published in 1998, a book ahead of its time in my opinion. It challenged command and control management practices and offered new Leadership concepts and competencies, which I believe there is still merit in this to this day. There are so many nuggets I refer to regularly.

The main [nugget], in particular, is called ‘the lonely petunia in the onionpatch‘, it’s about learning how to navigate being the only one speaking up about something (the lonely petunia) amongst others that don’t agree (onions in the onion patch).

What are your main takeaways from the ‘onion patch strategy?

  1. Learn everything you can – ask questions, be curious
  2. Recruit allies – find the people across your organisation who are also passionate about customers
  3. Focus on your sphere of influence – you increase your likelihood of success even if you start with something small
  4. Have data – use data to describe the current situation and to measure progress
  5. Don’t argue with those that disagree – your success will challenge people’s thinking without you having to do it

This was very insightful, thank you. What awaits you in 2022?

At Yell, we are constantly evolving and trying to improve things for our customers. This year I’m excited about the further developments we will be making to the digital experience our customers have with us. Making sure that we understand as a customer what they need and the experience they are having, then tailoring our proactive service to that.

We want our customers to see ongoing value from their advertising with us and we know that there are some exciting things we can do in this space. We are also seeing some great things from our partnerships with Apple, Google, Amazon, and Bing. We are working closely with these partners to make sure that consumers are finding our customers more and more.

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