Business Monday

Q&A with Ricky Arriola, a CEO on the Miami Beach City Commission

Ricky Arriola, CEO and founder of Inktel Holdings Corp.
Ricky Arriola, CEO and founder of Inktel Holdings Corp.

In the late 1990s and amid the rise of the internet age, Miami native Ricky Arriola realized companies weren’t keeping up with the pace of growth — and their customer service was suffering most.

Arriola founded Inktel Holdings Corp. to help them keep up — and stay ahead — by serving as a third-party customer service support unit that now employs 1,200 workers and manages customer service for major brands such as Wal-Mart, the Goodyear Tire Company and Clorox. The Miami Lakes-based company provides phone-based support, social media management, marketing strategy and data analysis.

Today, Inktel is one of the largest privately owned providers of third-party customer service in the nation.

Arriola, who also had a brief stint as an attorney at Miami-based law firm Steel Hector & Davis, has also taken his customer service expertise to the Miami Beach City Commission.

He was elected commissioner in 2015, a position he said has had many overlapping features with his CEO position at Inktel.

“Inktel has taught me the importance of being personally accessible, so my commission office has an open door policy and I attend as many community events as possible,” Arriola said. “Miami Beach residents and business owners have my personal cell number and email, and I try to answer every query within 24 hours.”

The Herald spoke to Arriola on the future of customer service in a world where the Internet is now king and where the share economy is becoming increasingly dominant.

Q. What gap did you see in customer care that inspired you to start Inktel? How have those deficiencies changed and your business model with it?

A. From the founding of Inktel, we had a simple goal of making our clients’ businesses better through world class customer service. Consumers became more educated and empowered as the Internet became widespread in American households, and companies were not keeping pace by improving their customer service functions. Many customer care agents were still reading from scripts and were not prepared for consumer queries that were becoming more sophisticated.

Inktel began as a call center with a heavy focus on customer sales. As the internet and digital media took hold, we introduced new offerings such as online chat, social media-based service and email response. These services ensure our clients are communicating with their customers across all channels. We’ve sharpened our focus on serving companies in four industries that account for the bulk of our business: e-commerce, retail, consumer packaged goods and restaurants.

Q. How have you transferred those learnings into your role with the Miami Beach Commission?

A. Being an effective elected official relies on delivering great service to constituents, which is magnified in an activist community such as Miami Beach. Customer service in the private sector is all about listening to the consumer, learning from their feedback and modifying your practices to improve the way you serve — the same way governing must be shaped around anticipating and reacting to the needs of constituents.

Miami Beach is one of the world’s most popular destinations, but like any city, we’re facing issues such as climate change, traffic and affordability challenges. I’ve been incorporating constituent input in the policy-making process from day one by prioritizing a light rail system, investments in our parks and cultural venues, the development of workforce and market-rate housing, and improvements to our local infrastructure. I’m also advocating for an “open data” technology platform that will make our government even more transparent for citizens accessing public information.

Q. Miami was once known for its horrible customer service, but that seems to be changing. Has there been a push to improve things in that sector?

A. Miami’s economy is largely rooted in the hospitality industry, which hinges on delivering exceptional service on a consistent basis — and building loyalty over time. The competitive nature of this sector and changing consumer demands have led to an improvement in the overall quality of customer care our visitors and residents are experiencing.

For example, 15 years ago, there were one or two four- and five-star hotels in Miami, and now we have dozens as we welcome the most discerning business and leisure tourists from around the world.

The same can be said of our retail industry. Ten years ago, the only high-end shopping plaza was Bal Harbour, and now we have the Design District, Merrick Park and the soon-to-open Brickell City Centre. Miami’s restaurant scene is also seeing a transformation as more celebrity chefs and international brands open Miami locations.

In order for these high end establishments to maintain their brand reputation, their customer service has to be top-notch. The workforce that these brands employ get some of the best customer service training in the world, and that spills over into the rest of the local business community.

Q. With tourism as our major industry, we constantly see customer service disasters from the cruise lines and the airlines. Are there mistakes you see these companies make over and over? How can they improve?

A. The most common — and costly — mistake I see travel brands make is overlooking the importance of investing in employees, which has created a lot of competition for talent in the industry. The more employee turnover that takes place at a hotel, airline or cruise line, the more diminished the customer experience will be.

One of our core philosophies at Inktel is that fulfilled employees equate to satisfied clients, and this should apply to the tourism sector as well. When your entire business model relies on customer loyalty, there’s little room for error.

There may be a significant gap in price between mass market hotel brands and luxury brands, but it’s just as easy to provide great service at a 200-room Holiday Inn as it is at a 200-room Ritz Carlton. The difference lies in the people, their training and their compensation. By investing in people, tourism-driven businesses can reduce employee turnover and improve the customer experience, both of which help the bottom line.

Q. Consumers have a lot of information at their fingertips — and sometimes it can feel overwhelming. What’s the challenge for companies when it comes to making sure customers get the right information?

A. The internet has opened the door to a wealth of information, but there is no substitute for accessing the help of a human being. When there’s an emergency or a customer is in great need of help, all roads will inevitably lead back to a person communicating by phone, email, tweet or otherwise.

More and more, customers are turning to the phone as their first option when in need of assistance. This seems to be a reaction to the digital-first experience prioritized by many large brands. It’s critical that companies large and small equip their people with the knowledge and training needed to make a positive impression over the phone. This rule applies to receptionists at professional service firms and call center agents representing Fortune 500 companies.

Q. Self-service is a huge trend that has been growing recently. What are perhaps less-talked-about trends that you expect will become more popular?

A. Self-service options such as mobile banking apps, web portals for retailers and check-in kiosks have grown increasingly popular among time-constrained customers. This sense of consumer empowerment has helped give rise to the do-it-yourself economy.

An elevated level of professionalism is taking shape among do-it-yourself services, such as Uber and Airbnb. Users are becoming much more entrepreneurial, and we are beginning to see people purchasing multiple apartments solely for renting on Airbnb. Users are also quitting their jobs to drive for Uber full time, some even owning an entire fleet of cars. I expect that this proprietary trend will only continue to grow as people gravitate toward a more flexible lifestyle.

Q. In some areas, one can argue customer service has become slightly less important — take the sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Uber. You don’t get the hotel experience and you pay for your ride automatically. Where does customer service come into play as we move more toward a sharing economy?

A. The sharing economy might be built on a decentralized customer service model, but it relies heavily on collecting consumer feedback. Take Uber for example: Before a passenger hails a ride, they first need to review their last driver. This does two things: It requires the customer to provide measurable input, and it allows the company to collect valuable data about their drivers. Airbnb has a similar model that emphasizes the importance of customer feedback.

The sharing economy is already changing the way traditional companies gather feedback and deliver service, as consumers become conditioned to sharing their thoughts. We’re seeing this in brick and mortar retailers that solicit feedback by email and promote in-store specials via text message. Even food and beverage companies, such as Starbucks and Chipotle, have migrated toward app-based software that streamlines the path to a sale and gathers valuable customer data.

Q. What is the biggest complaint customers have across industries? Why isn’t it being addressed?

A. Inktel analyzes customer feedback for some of the biggest brands in the world 24 hours a day, and the recurring theme we hear from consumers is that accessing helpful service is a tedious process that needs to be streamlined.

The conventional wisdom is that company websites are too confusing; call center hold times are too long; and customer service agents are uninformed. The truth is that we’ve come a long way in recent years. Many of today’s companies are more responsive than ever before thanks to the sheer number of access points available to consumers, but many more brands still have work to do.

When I read about a large-scale customer service breakdown similar to what Delta Airlines recently experienced [when a power outage led to mass cancellations], I can’t help but wonder how much of the fall-out could have been avoided had the right customer response protocol been in place. Anytime we take on a new client at Inktel, we begin by assessing the customer service solutions already in place, then make recommendations for how to improve. From there, we continually monitor data and modify our systems to meet consumers’ changing needs.

J. Ricky Arriola

Job title: CEO of Inktel Holdings Corp

Age: 47

Mission: To be our clients’ most valued and trusted business partner through unrivaled service

Experience: Arriola worked briefly as an attorney at Miami law firm Steel Hector & Davis and also spent some time with a global entertainment company and an Internet startup. He is CEO and founder of Inktel Holdings Corp and was appointed commissioner of the City of Miami Beach in 2015.

Also: Arriola is immediate past chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts trust board and helped usher the center during its infancy through tough financial years. Arriola serves on President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Education: Bachelor’s in economics from Boston College; MBA from Harvard University; law degree (J.D.) from St. John’s University.

Hobbies: Arriola is an avid athlete who participates in Ironman triathlons, marathons and other types of races throughout the world. He also enjoys spear fishing in his free time.

Best advice ever received: “Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” —Winston Churchill

About Inktel Holdings Corp: Inktel is one of the country’s largest privately owned providers of third-party customer service support. The Miami Lakes-based company provides phone-based support, social media management, marketing strategy and data analysis. Clients include Wal-Mart, the Goodyear Tire Company and Clorox.