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Who Owns the Customer?

In most companies, if you ask that 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, services, 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 tried to attack the customer data silos challenge, to try to unify sales, service and marketing information for the promised 360 degree view of the customer .  For many reasons, this data-centric approach has largely failed. The approach is ill-equipped to make effective use of valuable information that can be gleaned from Web site behavior, on-line community activity, user group feedback, voice of customer insights, let alone social media communications.

There are emerging new technologies extending the CRM paradigm to address these gaps and aggregate more customer information into a consolidated database.  In addition, technology such as predictive analytic and decisioning can now make the information actionable, including next-best-actions strategies to optimize every interaction for upsell, cross-sell and loyalty purposes. Most of these approaches, however, are in the early stage of experimentation and still being refined.  Paul Hagan, principal analyst at Forrester, highlights this challenge in his blog Beyond CRM: Managing Customer Experiences, noting: “While most often, companies shopping for CRM systems are accosted with solutions that promise a 360-degree view of customers across marketing, sales, and service. The reality is that the customer experience is far broader than that . . . and so is the ecosystem of technologies required to support them.”  For the few companies (whether B2C or B2B) which have been able to bring all the relevant customer information together, there is still 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 services.  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 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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