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Empty chairs and experience labs: How do you ensure your customers are represented in the boardroom? 


Even with the best will in the world, some businesses forget to incorporate the customer into their thinking at boardroom-level.

25th Feb 2020
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There’s a tale that arose during Jeff Bezo’s early days as Amazon CEO. It may be apocryphal, but the sentiment remains.

“Bezos left a single chair empty around the boardroom table,” Ian Rhodes, the founder of the Ecommerce Growth Co. explains.

“It signified the presence of the customer. No matter what the discussion point, conversation would be aligned with the question ‘what’s best for our customer?’ Why? Because that empty chair represented far more than a void at the table. It represented exactly what every business decision, one way or another, meant to the chief decision-maker: the customer.”

Ford and United

Plotting the history of prominent organisations reveals numerous examples of brands that have risen and fallen based on their capacity to bring the context behind ideas such as Amazon’s empty chair to life.

Ford, for instance, may not have had the success it had with the Model T had its visionary leader, Henry Ford not put the counsel of his wife – as a customer – front and centre in a bid to build a motorcar that befitted the needs of a fairly sizeable demographic that had been entirely shunned by the automobile sector up to that point: women.

As Jennifer Pendleton explains in AdAge, the Model T goes down in folklore as a beacon of great customer-led design, “earning the nickname the ‘The Great Liberator’ long before the term ‘women's liberation’ was coined”. It’s easily conceivable that without a customer - Clara Bryant Ford – represented at boardroom level, this may never have happen. 

In contrast, cast your mind back to April 2017, and the viral video of a United passenger being forcefully ejected from one of its overbooked planes, sending shockwaves around the world.

An unrepentant response from chief executive Oscar Munoz followed, serving to add fuel to the fire and heavily impacting the airline’s share prices.

“The CEO’s response exacerbated the issue,” says author and customer experience consultant, Alex Allwood. “He responded with very little concern. It was apathetic. 

“The incident derived from a company culture that was based on business outcomes. Decision-making wasn’t empowered because they didn’t have a culture where they thought to put customers first.”

The United incident may serve as a lesson in the pitfalls that await those brands that forget to include their customers into their thinking in the boardroom.

However, very few executive leaders intentionally shun their customers in the decision-making process. Especially now, in the age of the customer.

In 2014’s Conference Board survey of CEO priorities, ‘getting closer to customers’ was the number one issue among the research’s respondents. 63% of CEOs want to rally their organisation around customers as the top investment priority. 90% of CEOs believe the customer has the greatest impact on their business.

The desire to be customer-led is undoubtedly there. The issue is finding ways to make customer representation more tangible.   

Hire a chief customer officer?

Perhaps an obvious route to ensuring customers are considered in boardroom decision-making is to hire an executive with that exact mandate.

This has been one of the most popular exercises in big businesses in recent years – a 2016 study found that 10% of Fortune 500 companies had already adopted the role of Chief Customer Officer (CCO), a percentage that jumps to 22% when focusing on the Fortune 100. 

However the role has one of the shortest average tenures in the c-suite, suggesting hiring a CCO is not always the panacea for customer representation that many brands would hope.  

This is a point cited by Blake Morgan, in a recent Forbes post titled ‘The Case Against a Chief Customer Officer’:

“A business will often give this c-level executive some influence, some resources, and a pinch of authority across the business, but not enough necessary to impact real change.

“One person cannot pivot an entire ship without power, influence and resources. It is very hard if that CCO doesn’t have the full support of the CEO and the board. When the CEO is involved in customer experience, results are much better.”

Crucially, just 36% of CCOs currently report directly to the CEO. But with this number slowly increasing, it suggests a CCO’s success might hinge on their directly dialogue with the person heading up their business.

When the CEO is involved in customer experience, results are much better

Build an experience lab

Customer experience guru, Jeanne Bliss has long been an advocate of ‘experience labs’ – or ‘customer rooms’ as they’re also referred – as a physical reminder for staff at all levels, including in the boardroom, about the importance of staying on top of your customers’ needs and expectations.  

“It’s a tangible depiction of the customer journey,” says Bliss. “A room full of information that uses visual storytelling to help staff understand the current experience the company delivers and to be clear about the intended experience that the organisation wants to deliver.”

In recent years, experience labs have become en vogue, with brands ranging from IBM to Wendy’s creating their own variants in a bid to drive customer thinking into the heart of a business.

However the caveat is that not every version of an experience lab has the desired effect.

As Bliss explains: “In the case of Nordstrom, for example, their customer experience lab was much-praised — but then, because it didn’t contribute as much to new revenue as quickly as intended, the company ultimately shrank it and reassigned employees.

“Point being: a customer experience lab is just like any other business plan. The justification needs to clearly be there, and the lab ultimately has to deliver on its promise. Just like I consistently tell CCOs they need to “earn the right” to their work, so too do customer experience labs need to earn the right to continue iterating and developing.”

‘Empty chair’ your customer

Apocryphal or not, one clear path to ensuring your customers have a presence in the boardroom is the empty chair.

Crucially, the empty chair is a statement of customer-centricity, but must be backed up with action. As’s John Koitsier explains.

“It sounds cheesy, and it probably feels that way sometimes for insiders. But it is a way of visually compelling every meeting participant and every discussion to reference Amazon's customers. And it'd be hard to argue that the company's single-minded obsession with customers hasn't stood it in good stead.”

Or….give the customer a chair

The obvious alternative to an empty chair is a filled one. Author and CX trainer, Adrian Swinscoe believes those in the boardroom could be braver in their approach to listening to their customers.

He cites the Walton Centre, a specialist neurology and neurosurgery treatment centre in Liverpool, for its approach to ‘patient experience’, which involves acting on direct customer feedback in the form of a patient story being presented to the boardroom monthly, by the patients themselves.

The stories provide an opportunity for senior leaders to fully empathise with a patient’s experience and their perspective of the standard of care they have received – good and bad.  

“I think what The Walton Centre have done by bringing people, telling their own stories, into their boardroom is both insightful and incredibly brave,” Swinscoe states.

“We all know how busy modern organisations, particularly hospitals, can get and how in the midst of the busy-ness the patient or customer can often get lost in the process and procedure.

“Bringing not just verbatim feedback but people themselves into the board room, from my perspective, is next-level braveness and clearly shows what matters to the organisation. This might be a big leap for many but it does show how far the leading organisations are willing to go to in order to connect with, understand and learn from their customers.”

Replies (4)

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By LinkedIn Group Member
26th Feb 2020 09:57

Comment originally posted in the MyCustomer LinkedIn group by member Anne-Marie Greensmith:

I love the empty chair idea! I’ve seen this in a couple of documents recently.

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By LinkedIn Group Member
26th Feb 2020 14:06

Comment originally posted in the MyCustomer LinkedIn group by member Vicki Marsland:

Love the empty chair idea but more so the practice of inviting a customer to share their experience as part of every board meeting agenda.

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By Valen
27th Feb 2020 11:45

Just great Chris its' wonderful.
The idea "empty chair" is fantastic.
I have tried to evangelizing this for years. It's needed a lot more focus on customers/clients in boardrooms and it should be a genuine one. It will give and gives positive results in companies/brands with this as a fresh approach.
I feel excited being not so alone. Thanks Chris for lifting this issue and idea. / Hans

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Replying to Valen:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
27th Feb 2020 13:21

Glad this has sparked a few ideas for you Hans. We'd love to hear how you get on!

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