A Q&A with Stewart Bloom, the cool-headed leader at Aspect’s helm.
Paul Newman was one of the best, if not the best, actors of his generation. Not only was he a beloved star, his cool factor was off the charts. When he wasn’t acting in Academy Award-winning movies, he was racing Indy cars, raising money for various charities or tending to his summer camp programs for seriously ill children, all with his wife of 50 years at his side. Cool.
Newman also starred in a 1967 movie called “Cool Hand Luke,” in which he played a decorated war veteran who, basically, uses his wits to buck the establishment. The movie produced one of the most iconic lines ever uttered in a film: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
I’ve always admired people who keep cool under pressure and can think on their feet. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s spoiled me for NFL football after watching Joe Montana lead the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships during that era. Montana was regularly referred to as “Joe Cool” by the sports press, especially after the way Super Bowl XXIII ended with him throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with 32 seconds left on the game clock. In 2006, Sports Illustrated named Montana the number one clutch quarterback of all time.
I served with many cool hands and clear-thinkers during my years of military service. They were typically leaders who could and would make a decision under pressure, and execute on that decision. I like to think that the decision-making skills that I honed in military service served me well when I decided to go into business for myself 18 years ago.
In the contact center industry, I haven’t run into too many clear-thinking decision-making managers who can make and act on decisions under pressure. In fact, I’ve found that many executives are more concerned with not making the wrong decision than they are with making the right decision. I believe the guiding management strategy among contact center vendors today may be, “It’s better to make no decision than to make the wrong decision.”
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are several industry executives that I’ve met over the years that I greatly admire for their ability to make a decision and then act upon it. I’ve written about some of them in this column over the past couple of years. Another name to add to that list is Stewart Bloom.
Stew Bloom is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Aspect and has been since 2012, which is when I first met him. Since then, Stew has proven to be a cool-headed leader with the ability to guide Aspect through a challenging time and have the company emerge stronger than ever at the other end.
Aspect is headquartered in Phoenix, and since my office is in nearby Scottsdale, I was able to catch Stew in his office for a chat about his tenure at Aspect.
Stockford: Tell me about the circumstances that brought you to Aspect five years ago.
Bloom: Almost five years ago, I was invited to join Aspect’s board by the company’s primary financial sponsor at that time, in a lead director role. We were looking at Aspect with an objective eye and wanted to conduct a fairly comprehensive “strategy refresh” for the company. It was going to take a seismic-shift effort level to think about the customer engagement space from the lens of the end-consumer, what new customer preferences were becoming, and how the power was shifting from companies to consumers who were increasingly part of a digital community, connected socially, mobile and always on.
The early industry indications of the shift from products to services and the role of the cloud were there, they just needed to be paid attention to. We had a blue-chip customer portfolio, 600 patents and a long list of “firsts” in our history. But, the board felt the company was doing more to defend the status quo as a leading outbound dialer company, and not enough to challenge every single element of our business from a customer-first viewpoint, and get back to fundamentals with a real innovation agenda.
Long-term relevance for Aspect was going to mean rethinking the product portfolio, rethinking how our enterprise customers are going to compete to maximize the value of their consumer relationships, and do it in an omnichannel, extreme self-service context. In late 2012, the board asked me to take the helm full time as chairman and CEO. So I became the custodian of this company with amazing longevity and a great brand, with the benefit of some advance runway experience on the board prior to my post as chief executive.
Stockford: What was it in your background that the company chairman and shareholders thought would benefit Aspect when you came on board?
Bloom: I had a long-term business relationship with Aspect’s financial sponsors at that time, private equity group and technology investors Golden Gate Capital, dating back to 2006 when I was CEO of Escalate Retail. Escalate was a multichannel software provider to the retail and e-tail industry that provided store systems, mobile platforms and contact center order management applications to some of the largest retail brands across fashion, mass merchandise and specialty segments. I had assumed a variety of roles over time in affiliation with Golden Gate as a CEO, director, executive chair or senior advisor. Financial sponsors look for “change agents” who can plot a course for businesses that are rational paths forward, reasonably executable with quantifiable risk, and can develop a clear strategy for unlocking hidden value in a company.
Prior to the past 12 years I spent leading enterprise software companies, I had been a management consultant as a partner with Ernst & Young Management Consulting, and Capgemini, where I led the technology strategy practice in the Americas. Those experiences gave me exposure to boardroom business issues and opportunities in some of the largest companies in the world, as well as an opportunity to work among consulting and industry professionals across strategy, technology and change management disciplines—all people who were heads and tails smarter than me. Those diverse experiences tend to help one learn to think outside the box, develop your critical-thinking capabilities further and faster than you can on your own, and get good at the preparation required to separate the noise from what is truly important. I think the board believed that professional managers who bring strategic advisory services experiences across multiple industries and disciplines, along with solid operating experience, tend to be a good fit for complicated transformation projects.
By definition, I think people from similar backgrounds as mine are programmed to have customer empathy first, and we are comfortable with making decisions based on knowing 70% of the information needed to set a forward path, and adjusting as we go. Others who find it difficult to make decisions until 100% of the data is collected find they never get to 100% and, as a result, wind up with a prescription for analysis paralysis. It probably didn’t hurt that I had steered other investments to good outcomes in the past for some of the board members. Earlier in my career, I had run a line of business in the voice and data space for PacTel Information Systems and a joint venture with Nortel called PacTel Meridien Systems. So I had some telephony and contact center DNA which helped me have a leg up on understanding the current industry and business context at Aspect at the time.
Stockford: What were the early changes you implemented at Aspect to get it heading in the right direction?
Bloom: It’s all about the people. In the course of 90 days, we had refreshed the leadership team with several technology executive veterans, and repositioned some of the incumbent leaders in roles where they could have bigger impact on customers and gave them the authority, accountability and tools they needed to be successful. We talked to as many customers, business partners, industry analysts and employees we could, asked questions and listened hard. Nobody was bashful in providing very direct and fact-based feedback.
Those efforts gave way to a strategic playbook for transformative change and growth, that we still operate from today. We specifically drilled down into our technology roadmap, with a focus on quality and customer experience. We formed new technology alliances. We set a standard that not everything had to be invented internally, and we partnered, licensed and distributed a select group of products that enhanced our offerings quickly and made Aspect a more valuable supplier to our customers. We spent a lot of time on employee engagement and underscored that the work we do at Aspect is important. We asserted that world has gone digital, and software runs that digital world. For example, our products allow people to connect with healthcare providers on life-and-death matters, we help establish relationships between people and financial institutions where we enable the purchase of first homes for people starting out in life, and help facilitate relationships that lay the plans for our kids’ education. We reignited our collective passion for great products and fostered a sense of transparency, unlocked communications and innovation internally that we measured in the feedback we heard from our customers. Nothing is more rewarding than to hear a customer talk about how we made them successful or to hear them ask: “What are they putting in the water at Aspect?”
In short order, we had greatly improved the value proposition for our Unified IP platform. We doubled the adoption rate of our workforce optimization suite and heavily invested in a radically reinvented user experience/user interface for all of our products, and began our shift to SaaS cloud offers, both through organic R&D and acquisitions. We also took a heavy dose of our own medicine and rethought our professional services approach, retooled customer care and re-platformed all of our key internal systems onto modern cloud platforms with an emphasis on self-service. It has been quite a case study for positive change, and it was predicated on saying what we were going to do, and doing what we say.
Stockford: Last year you had to make some tough decisions for Aspect. How did you maintain your cool through the whole reorganization process—or did you?
Bloom: Years before the current leadership team took their posts, the company had accumulated quite a large sum of debt on its balance sheet. The company was growing, and very profitable. But we knew that excessive leverage was not an effective long-term strategy that made sense for us. However, we needed to get the fundamentals around customer operations, products and services, and internal infrastructure in order first. The last big transformation step was finding a strategy to de-lever the balance sheet and redirect more of our healthy cash generation into products and customer opportunities rather than interest payments. Sometimes the best paths forward are counterintuitive. For us, that counterintuitive moment was that a majority of our lenders had offered to convert, what now has become 45% of our debt, to equity. That’s a hard offer to turn down—it’s like having your bank call and offer to reduce your mortgage by 45%. In the course of 10 weeks, we were able to get through the process with a super-majority of support from our lenders and emerge as a transformed company with no interruption of service to our customers, employees or suppliers, whatsoever. Something we would not have succeeded at without the quality of people I have on my team.
So did I maintain my cool? Well, I think there were plenty of opportunities to melt down when you take on a process like that. But, my philosophy is that you have to index a problem or challenge appropriately. The worst day in a financial restructuring process is still much better than learning a loved one has passed away or an employee has taken seriously ill. So, you keep your perspective and lay down the right stepping stones for success. The first stepping stone began with surrounding ourselves with great professional advisors, communicating non-stop with our employees, customers and suppliers and keeping our eye on the ball. In this case, “the ball” was asking our global workforce to focus solely on serving your customers every day, and knowing that when the restructuring process is done, as a leader, you will have guided the company to a great outcome with less debt, more agility and a great path forward with no financial obstacles. We had the opportunity to become a more viable and relevant provider to our customers for the long term, and that’s clearly what the outcome was for Aspect.
Stockford: Where are you going to take Aspect next?
Bloom: Part of “where next” is unfolding right now. We have always professed to our customers that we will deliver our solutions to the market in the modalities they want to have them delivered. We continue to deliver a strong perpetual software license set of products on customer premises. And now, the pace of growth of our cloud products has usurped our on-premises products. So the market has spoken and, as such, we have just released our latest platform hatched from Aspect Labs, which is our fully browser-based Aspect ViaTM Customer Engagement Center platform. Aspect Via is delivered through Amazon AWS and fuses the best of our ACD, dialer, campaign management, analytics, workforce optimization, self-service and CRM integration into a gorgeous user experience for agents and supervisors. The feedback has been outstanding, the value proposition is substantial as our customers look for ways to simplify their technology infrastructure and variabilize costs, and we believe it will be the fastest growth platform in the industry, no less the long history of Aspect.