Better Customer Engagement Demands A New Kind Of Leader.

by Charlie Jaggard

With the global economic outlook improving, many senior executives are refocusing their business strategies. Cost management and efficiency are still important. But customer engagement is the hot/defining growth issue.

Through the years of downturn many businesses focused on controlling costs and making their operations more efficient. Arguably, this was ‘The Age of the CFO and COO’. But we now expect a new group of executives to come to the fore – those focused specifically on driving the customer agenda. 

The relationship with customers has changed

As companies seek to engage better with their customers – and consumers more widely – they must do so in a more complex environment. When the credit crunch hit, the iPad was still two years away from launch. The digital mobile world is now ubiquitous, transforming traditional routes to market and the possibilities for interaction with all customer groups.

Indeed, in a recent Annual CEO Survey, more than 4 in 5 of those questioned identified technological advance as the single most important challenge for businesses to address, greater even than demographic or climate change, or the shift in the balance of global economic power.

Consumers are more demanding and their views are more visible. They want everything faster, better and cheaper. They expect companies to respond to their concerns immediately. They use social media to tell their friends about companies that deliver a poor experience. The impact on how companies do business has been massive. The companies that get this customer engagement right storm ahead. Those that disappoint customers have nowhere to hide. 

Fundamentally, the balance of information between a business and its customers has shifted radically. From buying decisions to service, the customer is now in the driving seat. Across industries – from retail to consumer goods to utilities to financial services – executives are trying to work out how this seismic shift affects their business and how they can possibly respond.

New skills, new attitudes

In many cases, the CEO has taken personal responsibility for redefining how a company connects with its customers, employees and partners. But would firms be more successful if they dedicated a specific c-suite executive to focus on customers?

Today, the Chief Customer Officer – or CCO – is still a relatively rare individual. But their ranks are growing. In 2003, only four Fortune 500 companies had a CCO. Over the next six years, that figure climbed more than eight-fold.

If companies are really intent on orienting themselves around customers and the multiple ways they are engaged, they need a different kind of executive leading the charge – someone with a new set of skills and attitudes.

Companies struggle with CCO appointments

 Companies need to appoint a powerful leader who can break down organisational silos and create a single, unified view of the customer. With the vision and authority to empower all employees to think and act in customers’ best interests. Who can take ownership of customer relationship quality at a high level. Who is responsible for the entire customer journey, from acquisition through to customer experience, service and lifetime value. Someone who can plot the digital and emerging technology journey and navigate the business through this transformation stage to an established and sustainable way of doing business.

Companies are still working out what kind of role they want the CCO to perform, how this new executive sits alongside connected areas – such as marketing – and how to recruit, motivate and retain suitable candidates. Managing key stakeholders and influencing complex relationships are constant briefing requirements for the modern executive, as these new ways of working are embedded into the existing organisation.

If the CEO uses the new CCO to be a catalyst, the experiment will more than likely fail. Instead, it’s important to answer two questions. What kind of appointment will make a difference in our unique set of circumstances? And what kind of individual has what it takes to execute that role effectively – in our business?

The CCO role might be an evolving one, but getting the right leader to drive a strategy that engages and embraces the customer across all channels can fundamentally transform your business.  The process of finding the right person and empowering them to add value is challenging, but far-sighted leadership and direction makes it achievable – it simply requires different thinking.