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Should your CEO spend more time engaging customers - and if so how?

8th Feb 2019
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If the image of the CEO influences how customers feel about an organisation then should they be more accessible to customers? And how can this be facilitated?

You only have to take a look at this infographic to realise how busy a day in the life of the average CEO can be. But in among all the planning sessions, conference calls and strategic decision-making, can a business leader really be expected to engage with customers for two or more hours a day?   

Rewind back to 2010 and a Weber Shandwick Study found that nearly two-thirds of CEOs were not engaging online with customers at all. However, a more recent study from the PRCA, The CEO Uncovered has stated that this is no longer accepted among a vast proportion of business decision-makers and customers. In fact, 75% of the 200 decision-makers polled believe the image of the CEO influences how customers feel about an organisation.

Perhaps more significantly, 25% of the 2,000+ consumers polled said that the image of the CEO often influences their choice of purchase with a brand. And this was highest (at 37%) amongst millennials (18-34 years old), suggesting that the new generation of customer increasingly expects brands to engage with them from the very top – with panache, to boot.

There's an argument that if he/she isn't available for comment, 24/7, then perhaps the organisation isn't

So how does the modern-day CEO achieve this?  

Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life and lead for the PRCA study, says the research results are proof that the modern CEO can no longer afford to be hidden from view, and must have an active involvement in day-to-day engagement with customers.

“A CEO needs to devote a considerable amount of time to understanding the needs of major customers. For example, Sir John Rose of Rolls-Royce spent much of his time travelling around the world talking to customers to ensure they always put his firm top-of-mind for any further work. For a consumer-facing company, both staff and consumers like the idea that the CEO is truly in touch with their needs and concerns.

“I heard a great story from a client when preparing this study about his mother's experience of a new Sainsbury's in Sussex. She was very impressed with how helpful and engaging the Sainsbury's employee was who helped her with her shopping to the car. It was the CEO, Justin King.”

How can CEOs be more accessible?

Whilst this story could arguably be passed off as a publicity stunt, a more digitally-orientated approach is now paving the way for a more round-the-clock, accessible CEO, where PR isn’t necessarily the core objective.

Indeed, fast-forwarding to Weber Shandwick’s 2015 research shows a dramatic turnaround in CEOs engaging online, with 64% now doing so through their company pages, while corporate video is fast-becoming a standard form of communication for top executives (54%). However, the majority now choose social media as the most direct method of conversing with customers.

Will King, the founder of King of Shaves, is often seen as the archetype of a modern-day ‘social CEO’, and believes social media gives business leaders a chance to tap into qualitative research as well as engage directly with customers.

What the world lacks right now, in so many areas, is authenticity and trust.

“What the world lacks right now, in so many areas, is authenticity and trust. The rise of social dialogue means that organisations can no longer simply 'broadcast out' what it wants people to believe. Through social interaction platforms, especially Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the fate, rate, or slate of the organisation is in the hands of the consumer. 

“The only way this digitally 'faceless' reciprocity of opinion can be managed in a positive way is by clear, authentic and relevant communication at every level of the organisation, from the teams running the social accounts, up to, and including the CEO of the business - as the buck stops with them. 

“I have been on Twitter with King of Shaves since 2007, and was an early advocate of listening to our customers, their praise and criticism, and then routing that into the customer care team at King of Shaves to respond too.”

But, while social media may provide a platform for CEOs to be more visible and instantly conversational, it can often be overwhelming.  

“Social is pretty crucial for a consumer business as it enables the CEO to converse with a lot of people on a large-scale,” adds Giles Fraser. “But the main challenge is deciding how much time to devote and how interactive he or she wants to be. It takes a considerable amount of time and it is inadvisable to start at a certain level then have to turn it down. Of course, they also need to be prepared to keep the same level of dialogue and openness when things get tricky.”

What are the most important CEO behaviours to customers?

Indeed, PRCA’s research seemingly suggests that social media forms just one component of what the customer sees as an ‘engaged’ customer, with just 32%  stating they like to see CEOs active on social media. In comparison, 34% of this group would like to see CEOs active in mainstream media too.

This comes with a caveat, however. No longer is it ok to simply be a spokesperson for a brand message. CEOs are increasingly expected to be tackling customer needs head-on through all of their media engagements.   

“The CEO sets the tone for the organisation,” says Will King. “There's an argument that if he/she isn't available for comment, 24/7, then perhaps the organisation isn't.  But, you need to breathe the oxygen that other humans breathe, to understand their loves, hates and misgivings.

Vernon Hill has instilled a 'fan culture' into the whole of Metro Bank - and you'd struggle to find any genuine ‘fans’ of the competitor retail banks.

“For instance, the chairman of Metro Bank, Vernon Hill, describes his bank’s customers as fans, not customers. Metro Bank has a net promoter score of 80+.  In contrast, RBS/NatWest has one of =6. Although Vernon isn't active on social, the company has a great social presence, and for a bank is doing well. Vernon has instilled a 'fan culture' into the whole of Metro Bank, and I think you'd struggle to find any genuine ‘fans’ of the competitor retail banks.”

Indeed, this idea is backed up by PRCA’s study which says authenticity and personality are highly rated for keeping customers engaged. The top-rated trait, as ranked by customer respondents to the study was “appearing to be interested in what staff and customers think”. 48% of consumers cited this – twice as many as for the next highest trait.

Conversely, business decision-makers were asked what aspects of CEO behaviour were important for them to like and trust the company they work for, and 36% cited “appearing to be a real person revealing something of themselves on a regular basis in the media and elsewhere” as fundamental. And cementing this point is an increasing body of evidence that points towards the CEO’s approach to employee engagement, and how it in turn rubs off on the engagement employees have with their customers further down the line.

“A lack of senior sponsorship usually results in poor buy-in from employees and a poor purchase decision based on local tactical needs, for example the lowest cost provider,” says the Hay Group report, Why Does Employee Engagement Matter to CEOs?.

As Harvard Business Review stated 20 years ago in its seminal article on the topic, happy employees = happy customers = happy shareholders. Increasingly, the CEO is expected to be the catalyst for regularly engaging each part of this chain.

“As head of a B2B company I prioritised my customers,” says Sir John Rose, formerly CEO of Rolls-Royce plc, in PRCA’s study. “My second priority was my employees. Early on I realised we were telling staff less than shareholders. So I spent a huge amount of time talking to the staff.”

It’s no easy feat, but the payoff for a CEO is clear. PRCA’s study states that an engaged CEO, both with customers and employees, directly influences how 85% of employees feel about the organisation they work for.


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