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Giving the customer a seat at the boardroom table

March 10, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Customer Experience, a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

As retailers large and small increase their investments in Customer Experience Management (CEM) and Voice of the Customer (VoC) technologies, customers are being given a voice, but is that enough? To ensure all customer concerns — from employee performance and product selection to the ever-touchy subject of privacy — are being heard, customers need someone inside the organization who is constantly fighting on their behalf.

Chief customer officer (CCO) is one of the newer additions to the C-suite and an executive role that has gained steam in the "Age of the Customer." According to the Chief Customer Officer Council, there were only 10 CCOs in 2010. Today, there are more than 450 worldwide with this title or something comparable, including yours truly. My fellow CCOs and I all operate on one guiding principle: to deliver better customer experiences by influencing strategy in all aspects of customer relations, from call centers and finance to sales and marketing.

Here are three ways a CCO (or other internal customer advocate) can keep the customer at the forefront of an organization:

A unified customer-centric front: By coordinating efforts across multiple internal organizations, CCOs ensure each department operates from a customer-centric perspective. When there is a constant focus on improving and enhancing the customer experience internally, it successfully translates to brand locations.

Leverage VoC data: Many retailers use VoC programs to gain a deeper understanding of the customer experience. VoC technology can tell retailers what their customers love and what they should keep doing, and more pressingly, what is driving customers away and how to rectify that immediately. Insights from VoC data are a customer advocate's greatest ally in identifying areas of improvement.

Voice for the customer: As an internal advocate for the customer, a CCO pushes back when necessary. Do we really need to ask for all this data? Is this what's best for our customers? By ensuring key areas of importance to customers are being considered and protected, a CCO helps a company find win-win solutions for both the brand and the customer.

Boardrooms are filled with representatives from marketing, sales, financial and product teams. Isn't it about time the customer got a place at that table?

Discussion Questions:

What specific duties and responsibilities do you see for the role of the chief customer officer at retail? Which ones might you add to those mentioned in the article?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Which of the three defined roles mentioned in the article for the chief customer officer is most critical for retail organizations?


It's all good and well to be customer-centric, and to read mountains of data, and even to invite real-life customers into the boardroom, but it's also important to remember that no two customers are exactly alike or want exactly the same things, or have exactly the same priorities. So why not bring busloads of customers "into the boardroom" while making sure that all different customers, with all different perspectives, are included to be sure you have all possibilities covered, so that your retail store can be literally all things to all people!

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David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates LLC

Dr. Edwards' points are excellent. Undoubtedly he adheres to these principles.

Sadly, he tells us there are still only 450 comparable executives in the world and that is a telling statistic. Whether there is a specific function/title in an organization or not, the retailer that proactively anticipates customers' reactions is committed to delivering an excellent customer experience.

I would add two additional responsibilities to the role of chief customer officer:

Anticipate how customers will feel before adopting new and modifying old touch points. Don't rely on reactions after the fact. Set up a panel of customers to provide feedback before implementation.

Let all customers know about your efforts as they occur, so they can consciously integrate their great experiences with the retailer's policy and execution. There's an opportunity to enhance the return achieved by these initiatives.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

The role makes sense, but I think it can be equally argued that customer experience is everyone's job given the connectedness of customers today.

The challenge here is ensuring everyone is operating off of the same playbook with respect to customer/consumer interaction data and insights. I'm afraid in many cases customer experience is scattered among various functions within silos, with social media among the biggest culprits (I wrote about that recently here).

So to that end, a customer experience officer should look to enable everyone in the organization to leverage customer data and insights to improve the customer experience (whether directly in the store or indirectly in terms of assortments).

One item not mentioned is collaboration with Marketing and Technology executives, since both are probably already engaged in customer engagement projects. A customer experience officer is going to have to figure out how to work well with and add value to these other roles.

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Gib Bassett, Retail and Consumer Goods Industry Principal, Oracle

There are so many aspects of this job that are still undefined, even where the job actually exists in a company. The other challenge is my concern that other business functions will only reinforce their already "hands-off" approach with customers now that a CCO is in place. I think the leadership has to define what this role entails and broadcast it throughout the organization. I think a proactive pipeline of ideas to respond to customer needs is a must. Innovation has to thrive in this area. Social channels are a big component of the source of new ideas, by the way.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

As the role of the CCO is becoming a popular addition to the C-Suite, the actual responsibilities are varying from company to company. That said, the root of the CCO's responsibilities are similar; to oversee the customer experience. That could include:

  • Managing the "Voice of the Customer," which includes direct customer feedback, data management and more.
  • Eliminating silo's and creating a unified company as it relates to the customer.
  • Aid in creating systems that are customer focused.
  • Eliminating anything that would get in the way of the system being customer focused.
  • Being the voice that speaks up when the board or any other executives and leaders are making decisions that aren't customer focused.

And more.

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

The role is far beyond looking at reams of data to extrapolate insights. The role needs to be ahead of the behavior -- what is the shopper thinking? What compels/repels behavior? Why us? Why not us? What is the shopper in search of? How can we make the journey more productive/easier/more fulfilling/etc.?

A few observations:

  • The reliance on technology scares me a bit - this is the LAST role that should be hiding behind pivot tables.
  • Every person hired and working for a company has a customer (either internal or external) - so everyone needs to be thinking in terms of serving a customer.
  • The naming of the function and putting someone into that role allows for others to ignore that or minimize it (not my job - Betsy does that). I have seen the same thing happen with Human Resources (managers don't think they have to train, coach, or develop people...that is HR's role).

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David Zahn, Owner, ZAHN Consulting, LLC

In our work, the most pervasive challenge facing Chief Customer Officers is how to effectively deliver on a unified customer-centric strategy.

While the boardroom might agree on a brand's customer-related priorities and how to action initiatives, most retail organizations inherently operate on a certain level of decentralization, and this is where even the best of plans become diluted.

A critical factor in CCO success is how to operationalize, in a consistent and intentional manner, the sharing of the most salient elements of customer-related data...customer satisfaction, voice of customer insights, mystery shopping scores, etc., in such a way that frontline associates can effectively take action on the data.

CCOs need to be supported throughout the entire organization, and especially by key field managers in continually working with store-level stakeholders to understand customer sentiment, resolve issues and continually improve the customer experience.

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Jeff Hall, President, Second To None

A few quick thoughts:

1. Organize (selected/recruited) customers into audiences to facilitate conversations. There are firms who take a cut for organizing and maintaining customer communities and to be sure, there is know-how and effort required to manage this activity. But as an industry that has its own customers, can we do it ourselves at a better price? Basically this plays into the larger question of how can we improve how we conduct research (not surveys or focus groups).

2. Within those communities, there will be some all-star customers who will probably need to be rewarded with more then a Starbucks or iTunes card. I would figure out and fight for the budget to reward these customers for their willingness to contribute top-of-mind insights and be willing to take on research projects on demand.

3. I would definitely make sure I have a place on my retailer's mobile apps screen that is something more then a feedback button lost somewhere. It must be a real customer research/VoC access point. That's precious real estate - get it now.

3. The store is a lab! Help drive the efforts to turn a store into a place of learning. Staff it with trained researchers. That's already happening, but not on a wide scale.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

I must admit I'm surprised at Dr Edwards' suggestion the boardroom needs another officer to champion shopper insight. That's what marketing is there to do - to represent and deliver against unmet needs - isn't it?

He may well be correct in thinking marketing needs to do a better job of using data (both "big" and small) to drive innovation, but that's a different kind of challenge to establishing a new directorate.

Peter Askew, Exec director of strategy, Clear

It is easy to say all the good ways to improve the voice of the customer. But it is an entirely different thing to put those words into action. I would love to see something like this happen. I have always been a customer advocate.

Let's see if those words can convert to a corporate action plan.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Having the engineers mindset that I do, I can not read this without thinking structure. It's great to leverage VoC and be an internal advocate, but...you have to have a structure in place that forces the customer into each and every step.

These CCOs might want to look at Customer Experience mapping techniques, if they haven't already. What do your customer personas look like? How many paths to purchase do each of these personas like to take? Are they being touched enough times as they move through their chosen paths to purchase? Have you personalized those personas and really gotten to know them? How do you do that? And the list goes on, but you get my drift, right?

I am very passionate about this topic, can you tell? Ha!

Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

Lee Kent, Sharing Insights for Success in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

You'd think the job of "Voice of the Customer" would be the CEO's, but in today's financially driven C sector, that's probably not the case.

I'd say that the job of the top "Customer" advocates within a retailer's org would have to have some power (hence the CEO as optimal); that is, enough power to trump the operations head. No retail org will be worth their margin-salt if the customer's voice doesn't trump the operations voice. But clearly, that's a little bit of a pipe dream now...unless you're Amazon.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Brand, Strategy & Design, WD Partners

That person will gone with the next economic downturn. Instead, you need to require everyone in the company to work the floor once a month. No exceptions. Have them take turns in customer service, backroom, sales, security, and maintenance. On a Saturday. Once they know what it's really like in the trenches, they will respect what it takes and be more realistic in what is needed for the company to succeed.

Kate Blake, Social Media Manager, Take Five with Kate Blake

If companies are truly serious about the power of this position, they will empower the person with clout to offset bean counter based policies that serve to alienate customers by downplaying their long term life-time value. General Motors has already seen the value of implementing policies to insure the retention of complaining customers by resolving their issues. They have been able to support this move by documenting the increases in their bottom line due to this type of retention.

Tom Borg, Business Expert, Tom Borg Consulting, LLC

I totally agree that the customer needs to have a seat at the table and a CCO can surely fill that role. However, I suggest that the role could also be filled by a Chief Data Officer (CDO) -- another emerging title that could become one of the most important parts of a retailer's C-suite.

Data is among the most valuable of corporate assets today and a CDO is uniquely suited to provide the customer's perspective in the board room. By appointing either a CCO or a CDO retailers are shifting the corporate conversation from the analytics group to the boardroom, and eventually to the front lines where consumer is.

See this for additional info on CDO's (including Gartner's recent research). 

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Bryan Pearson, President and CEO, LoyaltyOne

The Chief Customer Officer needs to make sure that the business is run and decisions are made in the context of customers. Simply as that may sound, most retailers are merchant-driven and consequently product, store and price-centric way before they are customer-centric.

The best companies have Chief Executive Officers who are also Chief Customer Officers. They have names like Bezos, Nordstrom and Drexler.

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Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue

Some of the duties that I see for the role include:

1. Managing VOC across channels and enabling a differentiated, yet seamless experience.

2. Bring all the data/analytics into one place. The customer shopping across channels and across brands is many times the same person.

3. Manage a consistent message across channels.

4.Manage experience and feedback at each touchpoint as they get added.

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Shilpa Rao, Practice Head - Merchandising, Tata Consultancy Services

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