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Does Your Business Need a Chief Customer Officer?


Last updated 8/5/2010

Here’s a question for CEOs and other leaders: Do customers experience your company the way you want them to? If you're like most of your counterparts, you probably have to answer with a reluctant no. Despite the best intentions and fervent lip service to the importance of a customer-centric organization, many leaders have a lingering suspicion that their customers are less than thrilled. They may even be slipping out the back door. So how do you create a business that is truly focused on the customer?

That’s the question that prompted me to write my book Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2006). There's a lot of talk going on now about having a “Chief” to own the customer effort. Sounds great, right? Well . . . maybe. Don't put your money down until you know what you're buying and how it can fit inside your organization and how hard you have to work to make it a success. This is expensive real estate in terms of commitment and time and people and changing how people work. I urge you to think long and hard about the issues surrounding such a decision. That, in and of itself, will get you customer-focused in a way you've never been before.

To help you make the right decision, take the following short assessment:

1. There is someone in our company who clarifies what we are to accomplish with customers.

__ YES, there is    __ NO, there is not

Implementation Tip: These agreements need to be established in partnership with the functional owners across the organization. It is really important to make sure that the CCO or executive leadership does not do this in a vacuum and then try to "throw the brick over the wall" to the leaders to rubber-stamp. That brick will be tossed back so fast you won't know what hit you.

2. There is a clear process to drive alignment for what will be accomplished.

__ YES, there is    __ NO, there is not

Implementation Tip: The best leaders I've worked with drive people into discussion by going around the table and asking each to state his or her commitment or dissent. They make it okay to disagree if someone is not comfortable with what's being proposed. In fact, they seek it out. Getting dissent out in the open is critical in this work. It is the dissenters who spread more dissent after the meetings that tear the workplace apart.

3. We have a roadmap and clear metrics for the customer work.

__ YES, we do    __ NO, we do not

Implementation Tip: This needs to be a group effort. Bring together a team of people with at least one person from every operational area. This group must be ensconced enough in the operation to understand the implications and complexities of getting the work done so they can stage it realistically. The must then create metrics that line up to drive strategic customer management.

4. There is real clarity of everyone's roles and responsibilities.

__ YES, there is    __ NO, there is not

Implementation Tip: This is about the handoffs between the silos. Make sure that there is a task list that clearly states which parts of the organization must come together to get the priorities accomplished. Too often these goals are kept lofty and people aren't held accountable for their completion. Reward individuals only when the group has accomplished the entire task. Be firm about timelines and tasks and responsibilities and ask the pointed questions in reviews that uncover specifics for how the tasks are being accomplished.

5. People really care about the customer work.

__ YES, they do   __ NO, they do not

Implementation Tip: You need to get a commitment from each operational area in terms of the amount of headcount time each is going to contribute. Create a formalized team where 25 to 50 percent of people's time from areas throughout the company is dedicated to the customer work where they have a reporting relationship with the assigned leader for that project. Making participation stick requires the commitment of the senior leadership to whom these people report. Form an alliance with the vice presidents of each operating area. Let the marching orders to your virtual team come from their direct supervisors. Supervisors must make it clear that they sanction and praise the new role they are having in the customer work.

6. Appropriate resources are allocated to make a real difference to customers.

__ YES, there are    __ NO, there are not

Implementation Tip: The key is to have an organized annual planning approach that dedicates time to customer objectives and investment. The chief executive needs to be personally involved. To achieve success, specific actions with defined parameters of what needs to be accomplished must be identified. Annual plans must be reviewed as they come in to make sure that the investments for the customer effort aggregate up to the achievement of complete efforts in resolving customer issues and advancing the delivery of the customer experience. This is uncomfortable and unpleasant but critical, at least in the first few years of doing this work. Otherwise you'll continue to have cobbled-together investments that drive partial improvements in each area but don't connect in a real and meaningful way at the customer contact point.

7. The work is considered attainable.

__ YES, it is    __ NO, it is not

Implementation Tip: There's a term that people use a lot at Microsoft: “boiling the ocean." This is something that can easily happen in this work. Our frenzied enthusiasm leads us to focus on the end “nirvana” state rather than on the steps required to get there. Don’t abandon strategy; dole it out in bite-sized pieces. You need to know the end game, but then you have to bridge the gap between strategy and execution so people can work it into budgets, priorities and planning.

8. A process exists for marketing achievements to customers and internally.

__ YES, it does    __ NO, it does not

 Implementation Tip: You need to tell your people what's going on with their customers. Find ways to catch people's attention. One of my corporate clients placed a video screen telling of customer improvements in several highly visible places around the company. One was also posted at the front reception desk so customers and visitors could see it. That brings up another point: tell your customers what you've done, perhaps in a letter signed by the president. You’ll get credit for taking action—and that counts with customers.

9. Recognition and reward programs motivate customer work.

__ YES, they are    __ NO, they are not

Implementation Tip: Your people won’t value customer work unless they are publicly commended and rewarded for it. Use every company gathering as an opportunity to identify and reward people for outstanding customer service achievements. If yours is one of the many companies wanting to tie customer successes to compensation, attach recognition and performance to process improvements achieved, customer response or service performance achievement, such as never being out of stock of critical customer items or on-time airline arrival. Know what customers value most and tie achievement and recognition to the performance of those specific actions. Employees will become more customer focused once they gain a clearer understanding of their goals and what they need to do to achieve them.

What to Look for in a Chief Customer Officer:

  • Passion and Persistence. When considering a candidate for the CCO position, first listen for passion. CCOs must harness that passion regularly to sell the virtues of the work and the journey to believers and nonbelievers. They've got to believe in it enough to stake their reputation on making it happen. Next, probe for persistence. Ask CCO candidates how they deal with resistance. Do they thrive on it? Fundamental to a CCO's passion and persistence is the ability to stay motivated for the long haul of the work. This is not one of those jobs you can rotate people into.

  • Ability to Give the Power Away. Astute CCOs understand that their unique power must not be abused; in fact, it must be given away. The greatest measure of success for the CCO is when the work is adopted by people as their own, when it becomes a part of the DNA of the organization. That will never happen if the CCO is a credit hog.

  • Focus on Revenue. Let's not delude ourselves: the ultimate goal for the COO is to grow the bottom line through increased customer profitability and company revenue. The CCO’s job one is to convince senior leaders to commit the time and resources necessary to this effort. CCOs should first spend the time to understand the different accounting methods throughout the company to learn how and if customers are valued and tracked. He or she must cut through the clutter and force accountability on the state of the company's relationship with customers.

  • Action Orientation. The CCO's job is to keep it real. There have likely been previous efforts that proclaimed the customer as king. The CCO must implement real change. People will respond because they will be both pleased and relieved to finally have a clear-cut game plan to follow.

  • Chameleon Quality. The CCO can't be seen as an outsider, even if he or she was brought in from the outside. Most important, CCOs need to know the players and what their hot buttons are. The CCO will use this knowledge to thrive as a chameleon, modifying his or her approach as necessary to connect with each part of the organization—from the sales vice president and sales force to the marketing staff and HR department.

  • Marketing Hope. Marketing back is the magic bullet to showing customers that the company is listening to them and acting on what they say. Marketing back does require a bit of bravado on the part of CCOs. They've got to be unabashedly proud to toot the horn of the company's accomplishments. And they've got to have the guts to nudge people out of their ruts and into action. Obviously, shrinking violets need not apply.