CEO – Chief Executive Officer or Chief Experience Officer?


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I am asked many questions about customer experience on a weekly basis. Some questions are delivered face to face, others are in the virtual world. Whilst most questions are different, one or two sit in the box of ‘most frequently asked’. One question that is firmly in this box is:

Who in an organisation should own the customer experience?

It is a very simple question. Like many in the world of customer experience though, it is not necessarily that simple to answer. There is certainly a significant difference depending on whether the person posing the question wants to know ‘who does’ or ‘who should’. So to answer the question, and thus explain the context of the title of this post, let us look at ‘who does’ own the customer experience in most organisations today.

The majority of organisations who have a customer experience focus (which does not necessarily make them customer centric), will have someone at the highest level who is ‘responsible’ for the customer experience. Typically that person is responsible for the Sales & Marketing function, the Customer Service function, or the Operations function. In writing this, I am not yet saying if I think any of these functional leaders are the ‘correct’ owners of customer experience, I am merely stating the facts.

Some businesses have gone a step further than this and have given the honour to an individual at the highest level to be clearly seen as the ‘owner’ of customer experience. These individuals have been awarded fancy titles such as CCO (Chief Customer Officer) and CXO (Chief Experience Officer). There are many Customer Experience Directors – some also sit at the highest level, but many are at least one layer below the board. Whichever title is held, the minority rather than the majority of senior leaders responsible for customer experience have only that as their remit – often, they will also ‘own’ part of the customer journey, whether it be sales, marketing, customer service or another part of the operation.

In my own personal experience, ownership of the customer experience has been even more complicated. At one point, I reported into the Group HR Director of a business – a clear sign of lack of buy in and ownership – it was quite comical really. I have also reported into Sales and Marketing Directors, Chief Operating Officers, Customer Service Directors and Operations Directors in my time.

So if that is ‘who does’ own the customer experience, ‘who should’ own it? To answer that, I would ask you to consider whose responsibility you think it is to deliver and improve the customer journey that in turn delivers experiences to customers? Is it the responsibility of one person and one function, or is it the responsibility of the organisation collectively? The answer is obviously (obvious to me anyway!) the latter. The customer journey is made up of a series of touch points which are owned by a number of functions in the business – from sales and marketing, to e-commerce, to customer service, to logistics etc.. These functions are additionally supported by central functions – HR, finance, IT – all of whom are essential to enable the journey to work. The customer journey and experience that it creates is a collective effort, and as such, I believe that it must be OWNED collectively by all.

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The owner of customer experience must have the ability to ‘hold the mirror’ up to his/her peers and the whole organisation. With an approach that is both fact based and without politics, the individual must be able to influence all colleagues to clearly understand the customer strategy, and everyone’s role in achieving its goals. It is very difficult to do this if the owner of customer experience is also an owner of part of the customer journey. It is very difficult to remain truly independent when you are having to hold yourself to account as well as others. I have seen examples in the past of ‘spats’ between the board member responsible for customer experience and his/her peers – ‘how can you tell me that I need to improve – look how bad your bit is’!

I think there is one person that we tend to overlook in a business who is best suited to being the most effective owner of customer experience. The one person who sits on the board with the responsibility for everything the organisation does, but is not responsible for the day to day delivery of any part of the customer journey. This person has the highest level of authority to insist that the customer voice is heard on a level playing field with that of the shareholder. This person can genuinely hold the mirror up to the team as a collective, and influence change in the right direction. This person is the CEO – an acronym that I believe should stand for BOTH Chief Executive Officer AND Chief Experience Officer. I have worked with CEOs who are passionate about customer experience, but they have not gone as far as saying that they ‘own’ customer experience – why not – in reality they do.

I am sure there are CEOs out there that would consider themselves the Chief Experience Officer – Jeff Bezos of Amazon may well be one (although I do not know him personally to be able to ask regrettably!). Jeff Bezos is the CEO who demanded that there always be a seat at his table to represent the customer. Mr Bezos wanted to ensure that his team were conscious the effect their collective decisions would have on the customer. That makes him a Chief Experience Officer in my book. You can read an interesting article about Jeff Bezos here http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2012/04/04/inside-amazon/.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how many leaders of businesses decide that there is no-one better to lead the customer experience in their organisations than themselves. They can have as many customer experience directors and customer experience managers as they like – but ultimately the buck stops with them. Their organisation exists to serve customers. Their organisation exists to deliver experiences to customers. As the ultimate leader of their organisation, they are therefore by default, the Chief Experience Officer.

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