Profiling a Chief Customer Officer

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These days, people pride themselves on asserting that their companies have become customer-focused, but many continue to talk a lot more than they walk. What's one sign that a business has moved beyond mere lip service? Scan the corporate roster and look for someone holding the title of Chief Customer Officer, or CCO. This burgeoning new position will increasingly represent a slot on the executive fast track, though to date just a handful of forward-thinking firms have put a CCO on their executive team. META Group estimates that by 2003, 25 percent of Global 2000 enterprises--especially those with a heavy commitment to e-tailing--will have established such a position.

What exactly is a CCO? According to META Group's Liz Shahnam, it's a senior executive who owns various aspects of the customer relationship. "This person helps establish and manage the company's CRM strategy," she explains, "and that includes all of the associated tactics and operational policies. The CCO creates guidelines for developing cross-functional integration of the customer's 'view'--making sure all departments put forth a consistent image and treat clients holistically. Also, the CCO informs the CEO as to where to invest for long-term strategic payback."

I caught up with a real-world CCO at Mustang.com, an e-mail management and e-services vendor that was acquired by Quintus just a few months back. Lynn Wright, who has been with Mustang since its inception in 1988, took on the CCO title in 1998. When I spoke with her recently, she discussed her role as a CCO and the responsibilities it entails.

GKC: What inspired Mustang.com to create the CCO position?
Lynn Wright: Prior to taking on this role I was--and still am--the V.P. of customer service. As part of that job, I constantly read up on and researched service trends and issues. From doing so, I came to realize that service alone was no longer enough. Waiting for clients to come to us with service problems is not the way to foster optimal relationships. We needed to be more proactive, and to that end, the CEO and I decided our customers should have a friend and liaison from the start. We brainstormed about it. Given that we had a CEO, CFO, CIO and so on, the title of CCO seemed like a natural progression. The title didn't really have any huge connotations at the moment so much as that it simply went along with the whole CXO thing. So we established the role in 1998, which is when I took on the new title.

GKC: Analysts assert that since CCOs will work with various departments within the company, ideal candidates should have a diverse background. Did your background extend beyond service?
Wright: Yes. As the very first employee at Mustang, I developed the entire administrative side of the business and have created and managed almost every department, with the exceptions of engineering and marketing. Even though I've never managed the marketing group, I work closely with it now. Prior to working at Mustang.com, I was the operational manager at an oil field supply chain company and oversaw all of its business administration. So I have over 20 years of experience with business administration and customer service, and I think it well-prepared me for this role.

GKC: After becoming the CCO, how did your job change?
Wright: More than anything else, it went from being reactive to proactive. By nature, customer service tended to be a relatively passive environment. It was 'We're the customer support line and we're here if you need us,' so we waited for clients to call when they were unhappy.

The CCO job is far more proactive. It's about establishing strong relationships rather than waiting for problems to arise. As a result of building these relationships, I really and truly know my customers now. I've met them. In many cases, I've met their families. I know what they do in their time off. I know specifically how they're using our products. So it's a much larger role in terms of being involved with customers and cultivating relationships with them.

GKC: Specifically, what are your responsibilities as CCO?
Wright: They fall into six areas. First, I set up and am responsible for our Customer Advisory Board, or 'CAB' as we call it. This is a group of several high-profile customers that help guide us on the policies and procedures that affect them. They give us feedback on our products and vision documents. They participate in closed, moderated discussion lists, and they share their own individual pains that they're having within their companies. We have at least one CAB activity per week, and I'm in charge of those. I'm also responsible for doing phone conferences and quarterly follow-ups with this group.

Second, I do follow-up on professional services calls. I want to know: What was done well? What wasn't done well? What could we do better? I use the feedback to find new ways for making things run as smoothly as possible.

Third, and more proactively, we do 30-day post-installation surveys and follow-up with clients. I review the surveys, and I often contact the customers and even survey them myself.

Fourth, I review all tech support calls--why are we getting them? What's involved? Has the problem been solved, or is the ticket still open? Should the ticket still be open? Do we need to do additional follow-up?--those kinds of things.

Fifth, I'm in charge of a kudos program for all employees within the company. If someone does a great job and I hear about it from clients, that person receives various types of rewards.

Finally, I meet with clients as much as possible and do everything I can to keep in front of them. I aim for face-to-face meetings at least once a year. I constantly watch for new ways in which we can help customers.

GKC: How do you inform customers of your role?
Wright: After we sell a system, we send customers information on my role and on my background. I'm positioned as the intermediate person who is strictly their liaison--someone they contact who won't try to sell to them and who can do more than just offer service or support. I'm there whenever they need me and can give them guidance and/or ensure that their problems get solved.

GKC: How have customers responded to your role as CCO?
Wright: Very positively. People are accustomed to getting poor service from so many companies. When they see how proactive we are, it's just amazing. I think there is real value to having a CCO title. When someone has a problem that has escalated and suddenly they're being contacted by the CCO, it sends a real message: An executive officer is now on their side and will make things happen. They feel like they've gotten to the top--to someone who will really ensure that their problem gets solved. Customers gain a real level of comfort from that.

GKC: Is the job rewarding?
Wright: Absolutely. I've spent so much of my life getting bad service from other companies and really wanting to make a difference. Now I feel that I'm making that difference. We don't just want customers. We want raving fans, and I think my job as CCO has helped us achieve that.

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