Chief customer officer

Want to be customer-centric?
Get a real Chief Customer Officer

By Sam Puchala
with contributions from Chantal Rapport

Most companies tell you customer experience is the bedrock of their organization. Boosted by some 3,000-plus books preaching the virtues of a client focus, this topic is on everyone’s lips. But that’s often where it stays—as mere lip service.

Appointing a chief customer officer is intended to make customer experience pivotal in all decisions rather than the responsibility of a silo, such as marketing. However, while some companies have CCOs, these executives are often glorified advisers without real power, or sales and marketing specialists who lack control over all of the customer experience. A CCO must take a holistic view of the customer journey and directly influence every touch point.

Focusing on the customer is always right

Companies that really do put the customer first get rewarded. In the 2014 Customer Experience Index compiled by research and advisory firm Forrester, businesses focused on customer experience gained 43 per cent in performance versus a drop of almost 34 per cent for those that neglected it.

We can quickly name companies that really nail customer experience, because they are in such rarefied company. Apple and Amazon spring to mind; as do the names of their CEOs—the driving forces behind their customer-focused success. But not every company is lucky enough to have a Jobs or a Bezos at their helm.

Besides, chief executives have plenty more to worry about, so having them champion the customer isn’t always a winning formula. Rather than lean on the CEO, instead optimize organizational structures that today are anything but customer-centric.

Break down those silos

Most companies remain stuck in a silo approach to running a business that dates back to the early 1900s. This structure suited industrial corporations looking to create uniform products efficiently.

Today service-based businesses still use the same outdated org chart, which shortchanges the customer in two ways. First, crucial information and analysis get trapped within silos. Second, no single part of the business has a monopoly on understanding the customer, so client needs and values can get lost in translation. For example, marketing creates desire for a product, the sales team sells that product and customer service helps solve problems. Who is responsible for pulling all of those threads together?

Enter the CCO

Recognizing that they aren’t as customer-centric as they should be, companies are latching on to the notion of the chief customer officer. As of this June, there were 357 CCOs in the U.S., according to the Chief Customer Officer Council. Yet only a few have an active, influential voice in their companies.

Some CCOs are little more than advisers, playing a role similar to that of chief strategy officer. They make recommendations, but don’t have the staff to put ideas into action nor manage anyone directly. As a result, they can’t make decisions and never hear about customer issues directly from the field.

Then there are the CCOs who are really sales and marketing VPs. These CMO-turned-CCOs have real power, but may lack direct control over critical elements of the customer experience, such as product development, pricing, service levels and some retail channels.

A third type of CCO tries to accomplish more by ensuring the customer voice is communicated throughout the business. Still, more often than not, this approach leads to unwieldy corporate structures.

CCO 2.0

Real CCOs look at the customer journey holistically, regardless of how the client interacts with the company and its brand. They know that the buying process—from first consideration of a product to post-purchase customer care—is circular.

Bringing on a CCO calls for a reorganization that sees existing executives step aside or give up some of their power. The CCO must have direct managerial control over every customer touch point, starting with product features and proceeding through pricing, channels, sales and marketing, and general brand engagement.

Remember, it takes just one misstep to ruin the whole customer journey and many parts of the organization can play a role in this bad experience. So a company that deals with the customer in silos will be ill equipped to respond.

The CCO’s task is to build customer value into traditional silos and business processes. He or she can craft a strategy to select which customers the company wants to compete for and how. Rather than dwell on marketing messages or a particular channel, this strategy must consistently target those customers throughout the entire lifecycle.

For all of its challenges, the CCO role is manageable, and you can add it to your business cleanly. Other executives will keep doing their jobs with influence and direction from the CCO as needed, whether it’s on hiring or price points.

Walk the talk. Your customers will thank you.