Actions CEO's Take if They're
Committed to Customers

by Jeanne Bliss

Is your CEO really committed to customers? Answer the 12 commitment questions below to find out.

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. There are a number of telltale signs that determine pretty quickly if the company is serious about the job or not. This begins with the CEO and leadership and cascades all the way through the ranks of the company. These specific leadership actions go on in companies that have taken the commitment past lip service. Understanding customer issues and what drives customer loyalty become the stuff of everyday conversations - not just when one soul has been lucky enough to get it on the CEO's staff meeting agenda (no joke). The issues are trended and understood and talked about. Building customer experiences and relationships is considered the work of the organization - not something layered on the 'real' work of achieving quarterly sales goals.

Some of this is about the CEO being a broken record inquiring about customers, and the state of the company's relationship with them. But they have to take it past that - way past. CEO's that drive this work understand that it's the inspiration, leadership and organizational change that are the sticking points in making progress. Instead of handing off the customer work with a big "check" next to the word "customer," they sign up for the long-haul of company-wide transformation. They go into the work with a reality-check of what it takes; that it requires resources; and that this work can't be layered on to somebody's job with a "Joe, you're the VP of Marketing, go ahead and also transform the company for me, okay?" They put their skin in the game.

They Take 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 to do. Although they will need a lieutenant to help drive the work (because they have an entire company to run after all), the CEO is an engaged and active participant. In meetings and in communication, CEO's with this commitment seem to have an internal compass which allows them to steer company efforts in the right direction for customers. They are not timid about challenging ideas or pushing separate operating areas to work out what appears might be potentially hazardous for customer experiences. These CEO's 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. These CEO's 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:

1. 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?
   
2. Is there a commitment for organizational transformation, not some one-off tactics and silver bullets?

The 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 (sad, but true, how many of us have received those?). It's understood that they need an executive level partner to bring the transformation about. The CEO recognizes the scale of this work and 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 not only an emphasis on customer loyalty, but also on the skill sets for bringing new competencies into the organization, and engagement and inclusion among all company levels.

The point about making the customer champion an officer is not an insignificant one. When the customer effort is considered a strategic priority, the work simply needs to reside at that elevated level. An officer level caliber leader is needed to drive the action and the company will take their queue about the work's importance from the title in the organization box. The CEO must be in lock-step 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:

3. Has the CEO layered this work onto someone's already over-full plate, or is there recognition that this is a critical job for the organization that requires an immense time commitment?
   
4. 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?

There is Clear and Regular Accountability for Customers

This is a huge sticking point for the work. CEO's who get 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 this is 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:

5. 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?
   
6. Are forums for accountability regularly scheduled and enforced as a key strategic meeting for the success of the company?

They Provide Political Air Cover

Committed CEO's take an active role in bringing around the non-believers and in 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 traverses across the organization, the CEO steps in when necessary to course-correct and drives the action when it stalls. These CEO's 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 CCO's 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 absent executive sponsor 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:

7. Does your CEO commit time and resources to be a solid partnership with the customer leader?
   
8. Does your CEO play an active role in understanding and participating in the rigor of aligning the company when necessary?

There is Corporate Patience for the Work to Take Hold

This work is not for the mild-hearted or the 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 hits on your website. The CEO must personally 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 the immediacy 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' not yielding results quickly enough for the impatient corporate machine.

Commitment Questions 9 and 10:

9. 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?
   
10. Will they sustain the patience inside the corporation and with the board to stay the course so that results can be achieved?

They Demystify the Roadmap and Suspend the Disbelief

Yeah, right … so we're really committing to customers? The corporate 'Nay-Sayers' 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 the complexity and dimensions to being successful at this work. 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 roadmap is established, funded, followed and followed up on.

Commitment Questions 11 and 12:

11. Are the stages, expectations and processes to drive the work identified realistically and planned so people understand the roadmap, where it is leading and why it is set forth?
   
12. Have the resources been applied so that the roadmap is grounded in the reality of what the company can achieve and fund?


Jeanne Bliss has over twenty-five years holding the responsibility for driving the customer effort inside the ‘corporate machine’ - with Lands’ End, Inc. - Leader for the Lands’ End Customer Experience, reporting to founder Gary Comer; with Allstate Corporation - Vice President, Customer Satisfaction and Retention; Coldwell Banker Corporation - Vice President, Franchise Services; Microsoft Corporation - General Manager, Worldwide Customer and Partner Loyalty and Mazda Corporation - Senior Manager, Customer Satisfaction. Visit www.customerbliss.com for additional information.

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Copyright 2006 by Jeanne Bliss. All rights reserved.

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