I've never seen a CEO who wouldn't sign up for customer loyalty, customer focus, and just plain improving things for their customers. It's getting them to drive the company to do something about it that's the challenge.
A number of telltale signs determine pretty quickly whether a company is serious about the job or not—beginning with the CEO and leadership and cascading all the way through the ranks of the company.
Specific leadership actions occur in companies that have taken the commitment past lip service. Understanding customer issues and what drives customer loyalty becomes the stuff of everyday conversations—not just when one soul has been lucky enough to get it on the CEO's staff meeting agenda! The issues are trended and understood and talked about. Building customer experiences and relationships is considered the true "work" of the organization—not something layered on the "real" work of achieving quarterly sales goals.
CEO has personal ownership
A CEO leader on a customer mission takes responsibility for driving value for customers and improving the customer experience. This is not something jobbed out to someone else. Although a lieutenant will be need to help drive the work (because the CEO has an entire company to run, after all), the CEO is an engaged and active participant.
In meetings and in communication, CEOs with this commitment seem to have an internal compass that allows them to steer company efforts in the right direction. They are not timid about challenging ideas or pushing separate operating areas to work out what appear to be potentially hazardous for customer experiences.
These CEOs demand engagement and will work hard to make sure that issues are worked out when there is potential confusion or dissent about changing direction or taking new, uncomfortable actions. These leaders have clarity about where they want to take the company and what they want it to become for customers. They inspire people directionally and don't do it with empty promises and a hand-wave or a proclamation of "just go make this happen, will you?"
Commitment Questions 1 and 2:
- Does your CEO clearly articulate what he/she wants the company to become for customers and constantly reinforce and drive the company in that direction?
- Is there a commitment for organizational transformation, not some one-off tactics and silver bullets?
CEO makes the customer champion an officer of the company
Because these leaders recognize that this is organizational transformation, they grasp completely that it will not happen with a public proclamation and a great kick-off memo. It's understood that they need an executive-level partner to bring the transformation about.
The CEO recognizes the scale of this work and understands that many people need to be assembled to bring about the level of wholesale change required. For example, in Whirlpool Corporation's transformation, a whole team was assembled with company-wide engagement and commitment of resources. The team created by Chairman and CEO Dave Whitwam included a vice-president of customer loyalty, vice-president of leadership and strategic competency development, and a leader of diversity and inclusion, among many others. It was understood that the transformation required an emphasis not only on customer loyalty but also on the skill sets for bringing new competencies into the organization, and engagement and inclusion among all company levels.
Making the customer champion an officer is not an insignificant point. When the customer effort is considered a strategic priority, the work simply needs to reside at that elevated level. An officer-level leader is needed to drive the action, as the company will take their cue about the work's importance from the title in the organization box.
The CEO must be in lockstep with the customer champion and must establish role clarity and acceptance through the ranks for why this position exists. There is an uncanny amount of pain associated with such a position that cuts across the organization—from "big brother," to "we don't need you," to "what do you do anyway?"
Commitment Questions 3 and 4:
- Has the CEO layered this work onto someone's already overfull plate, or is there recognition that this is a critical job for the organization that requires an immense time commitment?
- Has the CEO ensured that the customer champion is an officer of the company with the full support and engagement of the CEO, leaders, and the organization?
CEO demands clear and regular accountability for customers
This is a huge sticking point. CEOs who understand this demand regular accountability for the sole purpose of identifying and tracking progress with the customer agenda. The metrics and performance requirements are clear. There's no wiggle room of interpretation, and the accountability gets down to the operational level.
Some people have passed this off as putting some customer metrics into the scorecard. But that's not what I'm referring to. Regular accountability means, for example, trending and tracking customer complaints by category and setting metrics for improvement. Regular accountability means that customer losses are understood and accounted for and explained. Regular accountability takes the key customer interaction points down to operational metrics, which the CEO tracks as fervently as the number of products sold—because in those moments experiences are made or broken.
It is tough to get accountability to this level of actionable granularity. You've got to want it badly. You've go to be willing to put the time and the rigor into getting the organization to achieve at this level. There are leaders out there who want this and demand it so they know what's happening with their customers. Is yours one of them?
Commitment Questions 5 and 6:
- Does your CEO actively hold people accountable for customer performance? Is there clarity in what's expected and does the organization practice discipline around identifying what should be measured and managed?
- Are forums for accountability regularly scheduled and enforced as a key strategic meeting for the success of the company?
CEO provides political air cover
Committed CEOs take an active role in bringing around the nonbelievers and deflecting the flack that comes with driving the customer agenda. They seek out the dissenters to understand the issues and encourage lively debate to ensure that things are settled in the open, not in the privacy of a leaders' own domain, where they can simply choose not to participate.
Because this work deals with the entire organization, the CEO steps in when necessary to course-correct and drive the action when it stalls. These CEOs don't sweep the naturally competing silo priorities under the rug. They are acknowledged, and the gnarly work is done to determine where the agreements must be made, where the compromises must be set, and where the new lines of accountability must be established.
When there is a CCO-type person, this partnership will boost the CCOs perseverance and fortify him or her to keep moving forward. But a CCO forced to navigate this work alone will wear out over time as the isolation and challenges of the job mount.
An absentee executive sponsor, one who is there just to see the pitch meetings and sign high-level kick-off memos, just won't cut it in giving the work the momentum and fire-power required.
Commitment Questions 7 and 8:
- Does your CEO commit time and resources to a solid partnership with the customer leader?
- Does your CEO play an active role in understanding and participating in the rigor of aligning the company when necessary?
CEO encourages corporate patience needed for the work to take hold
This work is not for the mild-hearted or quarterly inclined. Everyone needs to understand that becoming a "customer" company is a multiyear endeavor. They can't bail in the first year because the results don't come as simply and cleanly as seeing response rates on a marketing campaign, tracking sales goals, or the number of pageviewws on your Web site.
The CEO must have the belief and commitment that this is the right course. The company must hear that the company ticker on proclaiming something a success or failure has a much longer timeline here. When things seem to waver (and they will), people will need to hear that the corporate patience exists to stay the course.
We have been programmed to worry about lack of results in increments of quarters, and so people will be anxious unless timelines and expectations for results are reset. If the CEO doesn't personally commit to corporate patience, people will see right through it. They'll abandon efforts when their performance rating is at risk for staying focused on the "customer stuff" that's not yielding results quickly enough for the impatient corporate machine.
Commitment Questions 9 and 10:
- Is your CEO committed to the timeline required (in the neighborhood of five years) and are they willing to suspend the usual short-term expectations of immediate results to have patience for the customer work to take hold and yield results?
- Will they sustain the patience inside the corporation and with the board to stay the course so that results can be achieved?
CEO demystifies the road map and suspends the disbelief
Yeah, right... so we're really committing to customers? The corporate naysayers will be quick to voice that this work has been tried before and failed. It's likely that past efforts were reactive, without the commitment of resources required and lacking an appreciation of its complexity.
But committed CEOs have grasped all that and factored it in. And since it's all been considered, there is a clear plan—an achievable plan—that is laid out before the organization. It accounts for the changes in behavior required, the new workload, how metrics will need to evolve and change as well as leaders. This is not hallucination-induced customer-focused lip service that's lacking a plan, resources, and personal commitment. A reality-based road map is established, funded, followed, and followed up on.
Commitment Questions 11 and 12:
- Are the stages, expectations, and processes to drive the work identified realistically and planned so people understand the road map, where it is leading, and why it has been set forth?
- Have the resources been applied so that the road map is grounded in the reality of what the company can achieve and fund?
Melymuka, K. "Innovation Democracy." Computer World, February 16, 2004.
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