THE BLOG

Who is Your Chief Customer Officer?

06/01/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

In my role as market connector I constantly meet people with all kinds of job titles, many of which did not exist even a few years ago. Some reflect a "cool" factor more than substance. Others signal strategic intent translated into an organization decision. Recently, there's been a burst of senior-level titles speaking to a new view of the customer. These include chief customer officer, chief customer experience officer and variants.

What are these roles about and what value can they bring?

I'm not one to believe that titles by themselves matter much. In fact I think the hierarchical behavior and entitlements titles convey can be destructive to the collaborative environment needed to nurture enduring, customer-centric results.

But I also think it's worth any executive's time to contemplate the value of an empowered chief customer or experience officer and why other companies might be going down this path. Is it right for you? Is it real or is it window-dressing? What can it potentially accomplish? Who should wear this hat to get impact?

Why have a chief customer or experience officer?

Last month I wrote about marketing myths and truths in an age of technology disruption and customer empowerment. Any leader should look at all of her resources -- including people, dollars and infrastructure -- and drive the changes required to attract and win the loyalty of target customers. For the vast majority of companies, the status quo is not the answer.

The chief customer or experience officer defines and steers the transformation by defining the execution plan aligning resources to deliver on the customer needs that matter. The plan should link customer priorities to a business' financial objectives. He mobilizes employees, and his appointment can be a powerful signal from the CEO that the customer must be at the center of everything the company does.

Why won't status quo work?

Traditional company structures were not built around the customer. They were organized and resourced for efficiency, control and predictability. The problem is that these priorities by themselves end up constraining the agility fundamental to delivering a productive, positive customer experience -- one that motivates trial, purchase, recommendation and other behaviors reflecting loyalty to a brand.

The chief customer or experience officer provides leadership to help the company embrace agility as key to a customer experience that is managed to deliver business results -- top and bottom line. At the same time, she must partner with peers to ensure the company does not lose sight of the basics of efficiency and control, especially to meet regulatory mandates that are "lights on" needs in many sectors.

What's going on in your organization?

Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • When decisions are being made, are employees at all levels and functions contemplating the impact on the customer? Do employees shape their actions around delivering value to the customer? Does anyone ask, "what's the impact on the customer?" And, do other participants in the conversation care?
  • Does your organization act as though the right experience will deliver business results, or do people express the belief that doing what the customer wants is a tradeoff to financial results? If the latter is the case, you are likely receiving a strong signal that your journey to a great customer experience may require a sharp pivot.
  • Are you using a methodology that connects customer satisfaction to the end-to-end experience of doing business with you all the way through to how satisfaction levels directly affect financials? A "yes" to this last question means you are closer to best-in-class practices. If you are stopping at gathering customer service feedback for the subset of customers who reach out, you have room to take a wider view.

What's right for my organization?

If you want to steer your organization towards being truly customer-focused -- if you believe this is a must-do in today's economy -- a chief customer or experience officer provides one approach that can be a mobilizing force for change.

As with any business goal, the buck has to stop with an individual, and that individual has to be someone below the CEO for day-to-day actions towards results. The title matters less than the accountability, leadership profile and empowerment of whoever is tasked with this mission.

But be aware that merely appointing someone to a role accomplishes little. Driving customer metrics requires the same kind of ownership as any result you are trying to achieve. But such an appointment does not absolve the CEO or the rest of the c-suite from taking accountability for the transformation to customer centricity. The rest of the executive team must align with the chief customer or experience officer's plans and engage to drive action among the people they lead.

What does it take to set the role up for success?

This role is not for the faint-hearted. Frankly, the technical skill background can be just about anything. The make-or-break will be the leadership profile: an influencer, a collaborator, a team-builder and someone who is a dot-connector, a naturally customer-obsessed person who is curious enough to always ask, "what would our customers want/say/think/do. And an astute observer who recognizes that great experiences come from deep understanding of people's behavior -- how they complete tasks and go about solving life's daily problems.

Then there are the must-do's for any role to be taken seriously and set up for success - real resources to get the job done, shared expectations of time-to-impact, and metrics that link your customer strategy to bottom-line impact along with the MIS capability to get at the metrics with accuracy on a routine basis.

What's the downside?

The chief customer or experience officer is a change agent. As in any change agent role, there are above-average risks to carrying out the mission with success. As in any transformation role there will be conflict. Make the conflict a stimulus for constructive steps forward, and see it as a way to achieve big breakthroughs, but be ready for this to happen. Strong leaders know how to convert conflict into opportunity.

The bottom line

Even exploring the value and impact of a chief customer or experience officer means you recognize the need to boost your organization's customer focus.

Remember, being customer-focused doesn't mean give the customer anything they want. It's about:

  • Zeroing in on the audience you want to serve
  • Being able to identify audience members to establish and build authentic relationships
  • In so doing, inspiring them to see your brand and offerings as relevant to their lives
  • And as a result, achieving win/win outcomes for these individuals as well as for your business.

What business does not want to make this happen?

So, what are you waiting for?

An earlier version of this post is published on Insurance Thought Leadership.