Thomas Barta: Customer experience is a marketer’s biggest leadership challenge

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Unless marketers step up and take the lead, great customer experiences will remain a corporate fantasy.

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Looking for buzzword bingo ideas? Just listen to virtually any CEO speech on customer experience (CEX). Although there has never been more CEX talk, the reality for customers often seems to be the exact opposite of what is said.

An airline says it flies “the friendly skies” but violently drags a paying passenger off one of its planes. Many hotels claim to put the customer first but happily talk guests into inflated currency conversion charges: “Do you want to pay in your local currency?” Say “yes” and pay up to 5% more for your stay (the hotel get’s a cut – for your convenience).

Wells Fargo says it wants to earn customers’ “trust” by behaving “ethically”, yet it was fined $185m last year because employees had opened over two million fake accounts to meet their individual targets and rack up profits.

If there were a race for the biggest gap between the CEX promise and the reality, many Fortune 500 firms, it seems, would be in great shape to reach the top spot.

Luckily, it’s not all bleak in the world of customer satisfaction (or customer delight or customer experience – different terms for basically the same thing).

The American Customer Satisfaction Index, for example, hit a new high in the fourth quarter of 2016. But the relentless cost pressure in many organisations poses a continuous threat to customer service: ‘Why not cut down on call centre staff for a few months? If people complain, we can still roll the changes back.’

As a marketer, never claim to own the customer experience; this will set you up for disaster.

While glossy brochures talk about “putting customers first”, the top internal KPI is often “cost per contact” (or similar).

New marketing software, in theory, could help serve customers better, but is often used to trim more costs. Airline Lufthansa, for example, now mainly relies on stiff IT-supported rules in its (outsourced) call centres, making it in my experience one of the world’s least generous carriers.

And many companies happily fill your inbox with messages – but prevent you from bothering them by hiding their phone numbers. If the current digital trend continues, customers could simply be worse off.

Customer experience advocates wanted

Here is the real issue: many marketers, despite all their conference talk, don’t play the prominent role they could (and should) play when it comes to the customer experience.

Of course, marketing will never determine the customer experience alone. Just imagine an organisation that offers the best possible customer experience. The service is five-star, winning prize after prize. To make such a great experience happen, how many employees have to join in? Many – perhaps almost everybody. And how many of these people typically report to marketing? Very few. But it’s also wrong to leave what customers get to operations, sales or accounting.

READ MORE: Brands unclear who should take responsibility for customer experience

Marketers’ role is to serve both customers and the company – and this includes making the customer case loud and clear.

Customer experience leadership is about influencing the top management, mobilising the many people who don’t report to you, and stepping up to become a true customer authority, adviser and activist.

Becoming a CEX authority is the entry ticket to influence, but it’s a highly competitive game. It seems everybody from the chairman’s spouse to the junior IT recruit has a view on CEX.

Since the famous 2003 Harvard article ‘The one number you need to grow’ advocating the net promoter score, every CEO believes they know a thing or two about CEX. And thanks to digital, technology firms have flooded the market with hundreds of new CEX toys.

Be authoritative

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To build your CEX authority, cut through the clutter and first understand your organisation’s basic CEX mechanics.

Which parts of your customer experience drive profitable revenue and which don’t? How much does customer satisfaction contribute to shareholder returns? How much of a given satisfaction change is structural – namely, owing to changes in market share? If you are unsure, a quick stroll down the aisle of current marketing journals will quickly smarten you up.

Step two: translate your insights into simple answers that everybody in the C-suite wants to see. How satisfied are customers, and why? How does that satisfaction impact on revenue and costs? Which are the most profitable CEX improvements your organisation should make now?

Some weeks ago, I sat in a board meeting where a CEO bashed her CMO for slipping NPS numbers. Instead of being an adviser, this CMO has become the fall guy for customer satisfaction lapses that he doesn’t even influence. This is the worst-case scenario.

Making marketing responsible for CEX is like making the GP responsible for your flu. The GP can diagnose your illness and advise you on how to treat it. In the same way, marketers should measure the customer experience and point out where the company could do better.

Don’t claim ownership

As a marketer, never claim to own the customer experience; this will set you up for disaster. Instead, aim to become the CEO’s CEX adviser. Have the most credible customer satisfaction data to hand and show continuously which parts of the organisation need to improve.

Data, however, will not replace your most important role: being your organisation’s number one customer activist. People can disagree with you but nobody can disagree with the customer in the long run. The customer’s voice is your most powerful argument, so be that customer voice.

But who, in today’s organisations, is the customer’s voice? Here is some chilling data. When a recent large study asked C-suite executives this question, only 13% named the CMO.

Even if I’m generously adding those who said ‘shared responsibility’ (24%) or ‘chief customer officer’ (14%) to the CMO numbers, it’s still only 51%. In other words, half of all C-suite executives don’t believe marketers represent the customer’s voice.

READ MORE: Collaboration is key to customer experience

Granted, some marketers are still building their CEX authority. And some haven’t reached an adviser status yet – fine. But I can’t find a plausible reason why any marketer in the world wouldn’t be seen as the voice of the customer.

Being the customer activist inside a company can be tough, especially when everybody else is talking about costs. But as Henry Kissinger once said: “A leader does not deserve the name unless he is willing occasionally to stand alone.”

Influencing the customer experience starts with a simple task: becoming the undisputed voice of the customer. And if being that activist means standing alone at times – well, that’s what you get paid for.

Thomas Barta is a marketing leadership expert, speaker and co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’ with Patrick Barwise.

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