Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a two-day education forum hosted by a Fortune 100 firm for its key sales and marketing executives. In the course of my presentation, I discussed the importance of executive sponsorship in setting the future goals for customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives, and I used the term CSO (chief sales officer) to identify the person who needs to champion these efforts. During the break, one of the sales executives in attendance came up to me and said, "That phrase, CSO, it's kind of catchy." My response was, "I hope it didn't come off that way to everyone. I don't use the term CSO as a marketing phrase, I use it because I believe it is imperative for many businesses to have one."
Who's In Charge?
I have used the term CSO for almost a decade now. The concept started for me back in my operational days. In the '80s, I was a corporate officer for three high-tech firms. At various times during that period I ran sales, marketing and customer-support operations company wide, but never all of them at the same time.
Having no single person owning all aspects of CRM occasionally caused problems when my counterparts and I disagreed on business directions. But because these three firms were product-focused companies--like most organizations of that time--the lack of consensus on how to handle the customer was not a mission-critical issue.
But as we entered the '90s, the customer became a much more important component of corporate thinking. With collapsing product life cycles, having a product edge was no longer enough. We had to start figuring out ways to add value to the products we offered, which required understanding what it was that customers valued. At this point I began to think about having one single person responsible for setting the CRM direction for a firm. We needed to create another Big C: the CSO.
Big Cs are not a new idea. For years we have looked to one person, the CEO, to set the overall direction of the company. Likewise, we have turned to the CFO and CIO to chart the directions for back-office operations and information technology directions. But why a CSO, and why now? Consider some data that Phil Tamminga from Andersen Consulting shared with me. Andersen Consulting and the Economist Intelligence Unit recently conducted a cross-industry survey of nearly 200 firms. The results clearly evidence a paradigm shift, which places the customer at the direct center of business focus.
As the following chart shows, when asked how they were structured today, 44 percent of the firms surveyed said they were product-focused, as compared to 17 percent who were customer-focused. However, when respondents were asked how they saw themselves being organized five years from now, almost half stated that they intend to place the customer ahead of all other considerations.
The study went on to report that the driving force behind this shift, cited by 78 percent of the firms surveyed, was the need to provide "exceptional customer service." We are realizing that it is no longer just what we sell, but how well we sell to and service customers that will make the difference.
I believe this is true, but making this shift is going to cause major problems for many companies. Why? Because in most companies no single person "owns" the customer. Case in point, last month I did a CRM strategy review audit for a manufacturing firm. To understand the IT direction of the firm, I had to talk to two people: primarily the CIO, with some further clarification from the director of e-commerce.To understand the customer management direction I had to talk to nine people: the respective vice presidents of product management, marketing, telemarketing, telesales, U.S. sales, international sales, channel sales, e-commerce and customer support. While they all had the same goal in mind-customer satisfaction-each had a different view on how that goal should be achieved. Trying to get consensus out of this group of "peers" on how to restructure the company for the future is difficult, if not impossible.
Follow The Leader
I grew up in a military family. When my dad was Chief of Armor at the Pentagon he had a plaque on his desk that read, "God so loved the world that he created it without a committee!" If we are really going to become customer-centric companies, we are going to have to get rid of the committees. We are going to have to look to one person to set the vision for CRM. I don't care if he or she then has nine direct reports to turn to for help in developing the plans to achieve the vision, but there can only be one vision. And when politics, turf wars or a vested interest in the status quo bogs down progress, there needs to be one person who breaks ties and makes final decisions.
We can debate whether the title should be "chief sales officer" or "chief customer officer" or whatever. But the real point is that there needs to be one person, and only one person, to oversee this fundamental business shift that most companies will be forced to make over the next few years. Failing to adopt the concept of a CSO will cause operational chaos. If we let individual functional departments set their own unilateral courses, conflicting processes will cause inefficiency and ineffectiveness, incompatible automation systems will put IT in point-solution hell, and loyalty to your own department will cause political infighting.
If we really are going to put the customer first, then we must make the CSO concept a reality, rather than just a catchy phrase. If it is critical to the success of a company to have one person chart the overall business strategy, one person oversee the back-office operations strategy and one person develop the information technology direction, then one person also needs to be in charge of the CRM vision. That person should be the CSO.