In B2B, who should own/lead the Customer Experience?

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I acknowledge and thank Bob Thompson over at CustomerThink.com for being the genesis of this post. Bob asks the question, In B2B should Sales own the Customer Experience?

Is it possible to own the Customer Experience?

I am clear to own something is to have it, to possess it, to have claim-authority-dominion over it.  Can one possess the Customer Experience?  To answer this question, it helps if we have a good grasp of what Customer Experience is.

For the purpose of this conversation let’s assume that Customer Experience refers to the totality of what the business does, or does not do, to influence/shape the customers’ perceptions of the business.  So the question that we have to answer is this one, who within the business has-possesses-controls the totality of what the business does, or does not do, to influence/shape the customers’ perceptions of the business?

I say that for any significantly large business no single person nor functional department owns the Customer Experience. Why?  Because no single person or functional department can possess-control the totality of actions that the business takes, or does not take, to influence/shape the customers’ perceptions.

Is it possible to lead the Customer Experience?

Let’s accept the definition of lead as being “to guide” and/or “to cause to go with one”. Using this definition the question becomes, is it possible to cause people in the organisation to do, or not do, what it takes to bring about the kind of Customer Experience one wants to bring about?  Clearly, the answer to this is yes.  It is logically possible and some organisations – USAA, Zappos, SouthWest Airlines, John Lewis - are doing this well.

Who is best placed to lead the Customer Experience in a B2B organisation?

I have spent the bulk of my business life working for B2B organisations. And I have acted as advisor-consultant to a number of B2B organisations.  To date, I have not come across a single B2B organisations that had crafted the Customer Experience it wished to generate for customers. And then communicated this experience to the people in the organisation.  Please note vision and values do not constitute a blueprint of the desired Customer Experience.

Let’s assume the Marketing function has taken the lead and crafted the desired Customer Experience.  So now there is something to guide the rest of the organisation by.  Is the Marketing function the best one for leading (guiding, causing) the rest of the organisation in generating the defined Customer Experience?  I say no. Why?  Because in just about every B2B organisation I have worked with, the Marketing function lacks respect, lacks clout.

How about the Sales function?  Whilst this sounds like a great idea because the Sales function tends to be the most powerful function, there are issues to contend with.  The most significant of which is that the sales reps are usually into ‘one night stands, not affairs, and certainly not marriages’.  Second, once the sale is made the delivery of the service moves to another functional department say the Service Delivery function.  It is the people in this department that have a huge influence on the Customer Experience. They are the one’s that staff the engagement, the ones that do the work, the ones that determine whether the work gets done on time, on budget, to the expectations of the customer.  It is worth remembering that the Service Delivery phase of the customer journey runs from months to years.

Does this mean that the Service Delivery function should lead the Customer Experience?  In the real world this does not work. Why? First, because the people in this function don’t have clout.  In many B2B organisations that I have experienced, the service delivery folks are seen merely as a channel for servicing clients not different to captive prostitutes who have to do what they are told to do.  Second, the customers expectations have often be set, incorrectly, by the organisations Marketing function (marketing messages) and the Sales function (promising the world in 30 seconds).

Let’s take a look at the role of the Account Manager. Some B2B organisations appoint Account Managers, especially for significant customers, and hold them responsible for the customer’s experience and the relationship. I have filled that role on more than one occasion.  What can I tell you? I can tell you that my effectiveness in shaping the customer experience depended on the willingness of many players in the organisation agreeing to do, and not do, what I requested.  Was this easy? No, not at all.  Ultimately, the players in the customer experience chain were focussed on their personal-team-functional objectives and priorities not my concerns or commitments to my customers.

Should the CEO lead the Customer Experience in a B2B organisation? 

My experience of CEOs is that they are into growth, revenues, costs, profits, and dealing with internal conflicts between powerful parties in the organisation.  I have yet to see a CEO that was into the Customer Experience. Yes, I have seen CEOs turn up for the PR events and that does not mean that CEOs are into the Customer Experience thing.

I am clear that the CEO can, personally, lead the Customer Experience for a relatively small professional services organisation.  The organisation has to be so small that the CEO knows everyone and sees just about everything.  I am also clear that in large organisations the CEO cannot directly lead the Customer Experience simply because he does not have adequate visibility nor control of what goes on in the organisation.

Can the CEO lead the Customer Experience indirectly?  Yes, he can.  How? By setting priorities.  By formulating and communicating the right policies.  By putting in place the right practices.  By putting the right people in the right positions.  By being a visible exemplar of the kind of behaviour that is being asked.

Bake the Customer Experience into the structure and relationships that drive the organisational behaviour and performance

Do you notice what is going on here?  The indirect approach to Customer Experience is not about owning the Customer Experience. Nor is it about leading the Customer Experience.  No, the indirect approach is about shaping the ‘system’ so that it naturally does that which needs to be done for the desired Customer Experience to be delivered.  Some people refer to this as the culture of the organisation.  Those who study complex systems like bird flocking keep pointing out that amazing order/alignment can occur without a central commander issuing commands. Instead all the players in the game follow simply rules. And it is these rules that allow order to emerge without needing anyone to do the ordering.

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