Who Owns the Customer?

In most companies, if you ask this question, you’ll often hear “we’re customer driven, so of course everyone owns the customer.”  The problem is that when everyone owns the customer, no one actually does. This lack of true customer ownership is in part caused by the fact that most companies are organized along functional lines (i.e., sales, marketing, customer success, support, finance, etc.), so it’s naturally difficult to achieve a true cross-functional approach that enables the organization to holistically manage the customer relationship.

What complicates the goal of customer ownership further is that each functional area often has disparate systems and databases that gather and store customer information.  Moreover, those areas do not consolidate that info in a meaningful way.  Traditionally, CRM software has become the system of record to best address the customer data silos challenge, to try to unify sales, customer success. service and marketing information for the promised 360 degree view of the customer .  For many reasons, this data-centric approach has largely failed. Just combined databases, not an easy task for sure, does not incorporate a full picture of customer behaviors, attitudes. interests and intents, which are more the collective gestalt of their interactions across all venues and touch points, from Web site behavior, to on-line community activity, user group feedback, voice of customer insights, and of course social media communications.

There are a wide variety of technologies, from ABM to intent signals to AI that are extending the CRM paradigm to address these gaps and aggregate more customer information into a consolidated and contextual database.  While most often, companies updating their CRM systems are promised a 360-degree view of customers across say marketing, sales, and customer success, the reality is that the customer experience is far broader than a database, it’s the sum total of every interaction with the company, from Zoom calls to customer forums to industry events and social media. This makes it particularly challenging to bring all the relevant customer information together, and creates an organizational and/or structural gap that inhibits customer centricity because there is no function truly empowered or accountable for the customer.

There are various organizational approaches that companies have chosen to attempt to solve this operational dysfunction.  Some companies have appointed a chief Customer Experience Officer, a Customer Loyalty Officer, or a Chief Customer Officer.  These executives typically have either an organizational responsibility or an advisory role. In the former case, the “customer owner” who has staffing and budgetary resources is much better equipped to drive the organizational changes required to effect meaningful change in how the customer is managed.  In the latter case, an advisory position that has the mission to drive customer centricity, but lacks staffing and budget, will struggle to effect change even if the individual is part of the senior executive team.  The may depend in a large part on the influential or personal power of the individual chartered to “own” customer experience, loyalty, etc., however, without direct control over people, budgets and systems, the gravitational pull of functional imperatives to, for example, do what’s right for sales, marketing, or service, adhering to an “inside-out” company goal directive (vs. an “outside-in” customer approach) inhibits the advisory executive’s impact on customer centricity.

What’s a company to do when there is no designated companywide customer owner?  It is still possible to begin the journey towards customer centricity by aligning functional objectives across two or more functions, such as sales, marketing, and customer success.  Someone needs to at least own the cross-functional responsibility to ensure that goals and benchmarks are established, and regular measurements (such as continuous or periodic tracking) are taken to record progress against the stated objectives.  In many companies, since marketing owns key elements of the customer experience (e.g., communications, Web, social media, customer advocacy and loyalty programs), it is the most likely group to lead the effort to align functional groups and drive initiatives to integrate customer management.  Customer ownership is a journey that has to start somewhere, and it often starts with one person raising their hand to tackle the inherent structural impediments of functional organizations vs. customer centric ones.  Anyone game?

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