Skimming through my daily sources of articles, I noticed one titled “Is it time for a chief customer officer?” With apologies to the author, I didn’t read it because the title turned me off, and now that I’m writing about it, I can’t find it again. But my first thought was…oh goody, another staff job that exists solely to bring all of the organizational silos together to focus on the customer and create more work for those who face the customer on a daily basis.
Interestingly, there apparently is a rise of Chief Customer Officer – something I learned in a quick Google search. There is a whole book about the topic, several case studies and job openings.
I’m bothered by the concept, and here’s why….isn’t that what the CEO is for? Isn’t that what the executive team is for? Why would an organization pay anyone who wasn’t focused on the customer, particularly the senior leaders who make crucial decisions on behalf of the customer? Plain and simple, without the customer, there ain’t no business.
Let’s go back to Organization Design 101. There are line or operational jobs – those that face the customer and generate revenue. Then, there are staff jobs. These jobs work across the organization to create policy, process and consistency. They may be finance, marketing, human resources, information technology or legal, but they typically do not generate revenue. Of course, there is a hierarchy for line, and one for staff. The heads of those units typically form the executive committee. So far, so good?
Each unit, or “silo,” has their own professional discipline and knowledge base, their own professional associations, and their own set of vendors who promise a “best in class solution.” Each leader has worked hard to achieve the top job in her field, and many aspire to the CEO role. They want and need to be successful, so they build a team of professionals who have their own aspirations to business success.
It has been my experience watching staff leaders and their teams (and I’ve had a lot of experience operating at or coaching at the executive level in organizations) that they make decisions in a vacuum. After all, how could someone in human resources have any reason to weigh in on the selection of an accounting system, right? What would a finance guy add to a discussion on marketing, except for the amount of money that can be spent, right? Oh, and here’s my favorite – the purchase and deployment of a business intelligence dashboard, generally on the radar because a vendor got their foot in the door with either finance or IT, and promised to clean up the “mess” of unintelligible data.
Play this scenario out. Finance “bites” at the business intelligence dashboard. HR, in response to the CEO’s focus on talent, selects a “best in class” talent management software program. IT is scrambling to piece together all of the various systems that provide critical data to operational leaders, so they build a data warehouse. Marketing decides it’s time to re-brand, so they launch a new program promising a customer satisfaction guarantee.
Now, you’re the operational leader. Your job is to lead your team to generate revenue. Under normal circumstances, that means observing, teaching, developing, correcting and influencing the right behaviors to generate business success. You should be “out with the troops” seeing first-hand how your processes and services benefit the customer (or not.) Instead, you are at your desk, reviewing mockups for the dashboard, reviewing operational stats and finding errors (because your bonus is based on accurate numbers), learning the talent management system so you can document your evaluation of your team’s potential, and scrambling to figure out if you can actually achieve the threshold that has been set for the customer satisfaction guarantee. But you can’t focus on the customer, and service and sales are dropping.
Enter the hero
Bounding across the parking lot comes the new Chief Customer Officer. Of course, she needs to spend time with you (time you don’t have) to learn and understand your business, your metrics and your productivity. After she has assessed the status of customer focus, she develops programs to train customer service, and takes your team away from the customer. She has to justify her role, so she creates reports and action plans for you to share all of the work you’ve been doing (or not).
But is that the right hero?
Okay, back up a minute. What would happen if the CEO exercised his responsibility to focus on the customer and challenged the executive team (staff and line) to work together to decide what is in the best interest of the customer, decide collectively on a plan, clearly delineate the work and resources necessary to execute the plan collectively, and take the ultimate responsibility (collectively) for success?
What if the CEO held the executive team collectively responsible for execution? What if the CEO said “no” to initiatives because the timing was wrong, the foundation had not been laid, or there was duplication of effort? What if the CEO held the executive team accountable for acting as a team, rather than as individual contributors?
Ask good questions
Here are some questions that I believe any CEO must ask of their business leaders:
Why are you proposing [this system, this process…] now? What is the business problem you want to solve?
How do you know this solution will solve this problem? (And, “the vendor promised” is not a good answer)
Have you determined what resources will be necessary or this proposal to succeed? Are those resources available? Have you coordinated with the leaders of those resources?
Is this the right time to implement [this system, this process…]? Are the resource you need committed to other projects at the same time? Are there foundational projects that should be in place before we tackle this one?
Tell me how you have presented this proposal to your peers. Do they agree on the problem, the solution and the timing? If they don’t agree, how can I help you to work with your peers to prioritize?
We are just too busy to allow project to take our focus off the customer
It is difficult these days to find an article or commentary that doesn’t point out how busy we are. Ask any front line manager how she spends her day, and see if the majority is not doing work for a staff group. I have earned the right to say this because I have been one of those staff leaders who created a whole bunch of work for my operational partners. I watched them trying to juggle and prioritize all of the demands we (me and my staff peers) were putting on them.
Some operational leaders said, “no, I just cannot commit to doing this.” That didn’t make me too happy when it was my project on the line. Nor did it make me happy when I was told that the work I was asking them to do wasn’t helping them be better at their business. I could have enlisted the CEO to step in and mandate (and on occasion, did) but it only added fuel to the fire.
The CEO’s Role is not to mandate but to facilitate
I have come to the conclusion that the CEO is the only person in the organization that can serve as Chief [Customer, Culture, Strategy, Innovation, Sustainability….] Officer, because she is the only one who can see beyond the silos, ask good questions and keep the focus on the customer. This takes listening, asking good questions and most of all, courage to say “stop the madness.” If we don’t “stop the madness”, we’ll just continue to try to make traction while running on a hamster wheel.
That finance guy may have great insight into a new marketing campaign, even if simply as a consumer of the product. That IT leader who is building the data warehouse might “call time” when the dashboard project is announced, because it duplicates effort. Those operational leaders who spend their time nose down in the talent management system may have valuable feedback about what REALLY needs to happen with the talent management program. Oh, and the operational leaders just might have some insight into whether the metrics of the customer satisfaction guarantee could actually be achieved.
It takes time to fully vet projects, but it is time well spent. Decisions made in a vacuum create silos, confusion and zap resources at the exact place they are needed – in front of the customer. Decisions made collectively, with the brainpower of the entire team, can move mountains.
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