Customer Service Makes It to the C-Suite

Ann All

Many companies seem to be awakening to the idea that better serving their customers, not just cranking out new products and services, is going to be a key for growth. So it's not surprising to see more companies appointing executives to lead their customer service efforts.


Writing on his blog, Forrester Research analyst Paul Hagen says these execs go by titles such as chief customer officer, chief client officer and chief experience officer. Three-quarters of those surveyed by Forrester for a newly-released report are members of executive management teams, which seemingly reflects the perceived importance of the role.


Forrester found some of the execs previously held division president or general manager roles, while others came from marketing, sales or operational positions. Back in 2008, I wrote about a CIO who was tasked with global delivery of customer service processes, Bausch & Lomb's Alan Farnsworth. (According to the corporate website and his LinkedIn profile, he still handles these duties.)


I noted it seemed like a lot for one person to handle. And admittedly, the fact that CIOs aren't commonly associated with customer service was one reason I wrote the post in the first place. It just seemed like an unusual combination.


Still, I think it makes as much if not more sense than appointing someone from sales or marketing, given that so many of the channels through which customers interact with companies, including websites and contact centers, are touched by IT. In fact, IT factors into most stages of the customer experience loop, from designing a product, to getting it to customers efficiently, to analyzing customer behaviors in hopes of making improvements.


When I interviewed Bruce Temkin, he told me appointing an exec dedicated to customer service indicated a recognition that improving customer service must be a "cross-functional, transformative effort" rather than a collection of isolated departmental or divisional activities. (Then a Forrester analyst, Temkin left the firm to found the Temkin Group, a consulting company focused on customer experience.)


Among the qualities Temkin said such execs should possess: savvy political skills, because "it's a role that's about creating change through influence rather than a mandate," a strong understanding of a company's processes and, perhaps most important, a passion for serving customers.


In his post, Hagen cautions that companies must be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing the appointment of a dedicated customer service executive as the answer to all of their customer service problems. He mentions that one of the folks he interviewed expressed fears that "... in three to five years, I'm afraid we may see lots of flameout because they weren't given the seniority or authority to make a difference."


Hagen suggests three preconditions must exist for these executives to succeed:

  • A strategic mandate to differentiate based on customer experience
  • Cultural maturity
  • The creation of a viable position.

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