Is anyone listening to your customer?

The difference between hearing and listening to your customer might at first seem semantic. Most companies proclaim to be customer centric and driven by their customers' every need. But the reality is that there are numerous competing interests that all company C-suites must answer to. Profitability and accountability to shareholders and investors are rightfully paramount. But there is no single path to try to achieve this, and not all are guided by the audience who can most contribute to a business’ overall success – its customers.

Hearing your customer may encompass their obtaining their input or feedback. Listening to your customer involves building relationships. It means not just knowing preferences, but understanding the reasoning behind them. It means not just responding to needs, but anticipating them. And most importantly, it means taking action – demonstratively.

Who in your organization is responsible for this vital role? With healthy and vibrant brands, the true answer is everyone. Not that all employees will have the opportunity to learn directly from customers, but certainly, each should be educated and exposed to key learnings, and their actions should be guided by this information. It’s their chance to contribute to the brand from their discipline, using their expertise to support the people counting on them (internally and externally).

Customer centricity as a term has become cliché, yet structuring organizational leadership to embrace the customer is relatively new. There are, however, companies taking the issue of customer engagement so seriously, that they are adding a Chief Customer Officer to their C-suite. This position is rapidly evolving and in many instances, not well understood. The first individual recognized as taking on this position was Jack Chambers for Texas New Mexico Power in 1999. According to the Chief Customer Officer Council, “there are 450 executives worldwide with the CCO title or having comparable authority and responsibilities under a different title.” The Council defines the CCO role as “an executive that provides the comprehensive and authoritative view of the customer and creates corporate and customer strategy at the highest levels of the company to maximize customer acquisition, retention and profitability.” In order for this position not to be a mere figurehead, this individual most frequently reports directly to the CEO, holds true power and can directly inform and influence all parts of the organization. Having a Chief Customer Officer can send a compelling message to customers that the company is serious about listening to them and building real brand loyalty. This, however, can only happen when the customer sees concrete evidence of the CCO’s ability to take action and address needs in a way that is expected and valued.

Putting customers first may seem like common sense, but the customer can easily get lost in the commotion of day-to-day business issues that arise. Companies that grow distant from their constituents do so at their own peril.

Jeanne Bliss, author of Chief Customer Officer 2.0, states, “customers vote with their feed and decide if they will stay or leave based on their perception of how much we value them and how we treat them. And more are leaving every day just because of our inability to do the basic blocking and tackling of delivering our products and services to them. Getting customers to love you has to start with showing them the respect they deserve by making it painless and eventually a joy to do business with you.”

To be clear, the CCO is a business-oriented position. Its purpose is to contribute to the bottom-line and the role’s responsibilities extend far beyond responding to customer satisfaction surveys. Paul Hagen, writing for the Harvard Business Review states, “While some firms turn to a customer experience leader to fix issues that are creating legions of unhappy customers, most focus on the desire to accelerate growth, better integrate acquired companies, or shift priorities for a changing competitive environment. Sometimes it’s new leadership that spurs action, other times efforts percolating within companies that capture executives’ attention.”

Ultimately the CCO should help empower all stewards of the brand to listen to and serve the customer. The customer’s experience with the brand is the very heart of customer relationship. Companies cannot rest on their laurels. Past brand experiences that are positive can fade quickly without reinforcement and negative experiences can cast an enduring stain.

If your brand isn’t supported by a CCO, then the responsibility falls on executive leadership to charge others within the company to take ownership of the customer relationship to best form and maintain the bond with key constituents. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that market research alone can deliver the information for best decision making. Research is an essential cornerstone, but meaningful relationships must be established. Mindsets must be understood. Expectations must be set and met. And the customer must always feel that they are front in center. The best internal intentions cannot accomplish this without senior leadership making it a business mandate. Part of this directive must result in the organization adopting the governance and structure to support the customer experience actionably.

by Jonathan D. Katz