Our Stories: Claire Kavanagh

Written by Emma Bell.

Claire Kavanaugh bw GIMP resizeMost of us will go our entire lives without ever achieving our childhood career aspirations. As a little girl, Claire Kavanagh was convinced that the role of supermarket check-out operator would be the best job in the world, because you got to push a lot of buttons! At 15, she realised this dream in the Porirua Countdown. This may have been her first foray into customer service, but thankfully her aspirations didn’t stop there.

She went on to study tourism and commerce at Victoria University, becoming particularly interested in marketing. A part-time job in Telecom’s pricing team marked the beginning of a long-term interest in telecommunications, although her favourite part of the job was moonlighting for the marketing team, which she was eventually able to move to full-time in a product management role. In 2005, the marketing team was being moved to Auckland and Claire was faced with two choices: take a voluntary redundancy, or move to Auckland. She chose the former and began a new chapter, travelling solo through South East Asia, then arriving in the UK.

Her London adventure started like most young Kiwis; with a job hunt conducted while sleeping on her brother’s couch. She joined the B2B Sales marketing team with T-Mobile and set up their acquisition marketing communications plan, then later moved into a customer retention role.

Her entrepreneurial spirit was growing, but with the economy crashing in 2007, the timing wasn’t right to start her own venture. Instead she sought out experience within a start-up environment. She settled on Blyk Mobile as she was drawn in by their unique ad-funded business model where users received free mobile service in exchange for receiving ads. It gave her valuable insights into the inner workings of a start-up, and as their staff fell from 70 to just 3 within a matter of months, she saw first-hand examples of what not to do.

In 2009, Claire was recommended for a role to help launch a new start-up, which evolved to be giffgaff, a crowdsourced and entirely online mobile business with a strong community element. Here she set up the online community where 95% of customer care enquiries were completed by members. She also established the customer service, loyalty programme and service elements of giffgaff. Crowdsourced / community customer care is something that may seem commonplace in businesses today, but at the time, giffgaff was leading the way.

“I’m really proud of what we did at giffgaff. We became a real challenger in the mobile space, delivering better customer service and being an open and transparent brand. If you ask a question in the community on average you’ll get a reply from another member within 70 seconds, 24/7. We were one of the first mobile companies to use twitter as a service channel, I remember how delighted someone was when I simply responded to their tweet. At the time this was pretty innovative, now everyone expects a reply within a few minutes.”

She found the start-up phase thrilling, enjoying the challenging timeframes, tight budgets and innovative approach. After a one-year secondment as Head of Customer Experience, Claire decided that with innovation slowing down, it was time to move on to a new challenge.

By this time, customer experience was really starting to develop as a concept, and as a trailblazer in the field of improving customer experience through technology and innovation, Claire sought another start-up to work with. The lure of working alongside Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, took Claire to The People’s Operator as their global Customer Experience Director. Here she supported the launch of a new online community and US based mobile network.

Her entrepreneurial flame was lit and Claire started working with a career coach who helped her recognise her passion for working in the start-up and growth phase of a company.
She returned to New Zealand for Christmas and decided that it was the right time to follow her own entrepreneurial dreams.

“I love the challenge of bootstrapping things; the rapid growth and lots of change. There’s so much possibility for innovation within start-up environments.”

She realised that new businesses could benefit from her wealth of experience, especially around some of the hard lessons she’d seen other start-ups struggle with first-hand.

Last year she began Customer Experience consulting to help entrepreneurs and start-ups reduce customer care costs and increase customer satisfaction. Within a week of returning from New Zealand she’d landed her first client, helping them to revise their communications and marketing strategies.

She’s now providing consulting advice for growing start-ups, helping them to sort out their customer service and communication headaches, plus developing workshops to help start-ups get to grips with marketing fundamentals, providing tools and practical exercises.

“Marketing is a special skill set that a lot of start-ups don’t have access to in the beginning, but it can really hinder your business if you’re not confident in what you’re doing. I can provide some basic, actionable steps for business owners to get results with marketing and communications, which can help them to increase their sales and grow their business.”

As a customer herself, it’s no surprise that Claire has pet peeves when it comes to service. She refuses to visit Nando’s chicken because their processes are “unnecessarily inefficient!”. “You have to line up, be taken to a seat to get a table number, come back to stand in a DIFFERENT queue to order, and then take your food back to your table. Why does that first person need to take you to your table? It makes no sense!”.

Claire predicts that in many industries some aspects of customer service could become fully automated in the future because people’s expectations are changing.

“In the past, customers wanted a response within a day, then it was within a few hours, now it’s a matter of minutes. Customers don’t want to talk to someone, they just want their issue resolved quickly and painlessly. The customer experience doesn’t begin when they pick up the phone, it begins three days beforehand when they realise that they have to call. Then they spend an extra few days putting it off. The data exists to manage a lot of customer care automatically now, it just has to be managed correctly. I think that in future, we could see start-ups launching with no customer service staff at all.”