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It’s time for CMOs to rally a cross-functional approach to customer experience

Businesses have realized the importance of building an outside-in culture. Now chief marketing officers have an opportunity to lead by engaging their C-suite colleagues in the change.

Executives around the world seem to have finally embraced the thinking of Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard, who famously once said, “Marketing is far too important to be left only to the marketing department.”

In a recent global survey of more than 1,400 C-suite executives across functional areas conducted by business research group the Conference Board, 80 percent of respondents agreed that developing a more outward-looking, customer-centric culture will be a top priority in managing customers in the future. This is quite an advancement from the days when marketing was understood to be just a business function rather than a business philosophy.

But for customer-centered strategic planning to really work, top executives from all functions need to participate. Even seeming back-office departments — such as procurement, HR, finance, and legal — influence customers’ experiences. And because focusing on customers is the essence of marketing, chief marketing officers (CMOs) are in an excellent position to lead this cross-functional strategic planning process with their C-suite colleagues.

What caused the shift to a customer-first vision?

Digital capabilities have emboldened both customers and competitors, making it increasingly important for companies to deliver on customer needs and wants.

The instant global reach of social media and online reviews has given customers a powerful voice and direct access to companies. Companies benefit from positive comments and the ability to get feedback and track sentiments, but the outspokenness endemic to social media and smartphones — always within reach — has also enabled real-time, unfiltered negative commentary. In fact, PwC’s 2019 Global Consumer Insights Survey found that about a fifth of consumers use social media to complain about a product or service.

Digital tools and expertise have also intensified competition. They’ve helped companies leverage data to improve customer experience through personalization, new digital channels (Web, mobile, and social), and convenience-enhancing apps. In addition, new digital businesses have used these tools to disrupt traditional industries in both B2C (Uber, Airbnb, Rent the Runway, Spotify, and Coursera) and B2B (virtual trade show platform vFairs, freelance agency Upwork, and office rental marketplace LiquidSpace).

Why involving the entire C-suite is imperative

Though CMOs are uniquely positioned to lead in this space, there are several reasons why they should include a variety of executive voices in the conversation about how to put customers first.

Individual perceptions are limited. All executives have their idiosyncratic, limited perspectives — none of them necessarily right or wrong. CMOs are customer experts, but the value of input from those who are seemingly far removed from customers, including leaders in human resources, supply chain, and finance, can’t be underestimated. Human resources executives, for example, can spot trends such as employees wanting to work for (and buy from) socially responsible companies. And what employees care about likely translates to what customers care about.

The Conference Board survey also found that views about how to serve customers in the future — including the extent to which employees resemble customers and the importance of agile approaches to innovation, the CEO’s personal engagement with customers, emphasizing data protection efforts, and offering more self-service options — differed across C-suite functions and executives’ genders. These sorts of diverse views from the entire C-suite will produce richer, better thought out visions of potential scenarios and responses. Customers are ever more diverse, too, and delivering to their needs is an increasingly complex and cross-functional task.

Diverse views from the entire C-suite will produce richer, better thought out visions of potential scenarios and responses.

Underrepresented executive groups might be exceptional forecasters. Some studies have found that women are better economic forecasters than men. The reason women have performed better isn’t totally clear, but researchers have suggested that women who’ve risen in male-dominated fields have to be exceptionally good. The same logic could apply to other minority executives. In the Conference Board survey, too, female executives were more likely than male colleagues to predict significant customer attitude and preference changes. Female top leaders, who in the survey were predominately CEOs, chief financial officers (CFOs), and chief operations officers (COOs), were also more likely to envision millennial attitudes in future customers — such as holding a more critical view of brand promises and caring about companies’ values, local brands, sustainability, and price–value trade-off. So when looking for a competitive advantage, CMOs should actively seek the input of minority executives, who might just have a knack for spotting future trends.

Practice makes perfect. Research on so-called super-forecasters (people with great track records at predicting future trends) has shown that individuals’ forecasting capabilities can be improved with practice and the right techniques. What better preparation for a company to get future-ready than to make forward-looking exercises a regular team practice in the C-suite? Techniques such as scenario planning help structure thinking around future customer trends and how to get the organization ready for potential changes by suggesting a step-by-step process. Participants first brainstorm possible factors that may drive the future business and then construct scenarios based on the most uncertain and impactful drivers, before playing out those narratives to derive implications for the organization. This practice would also address an objective that executives cited in the Conference Board survey — to be able to balance a long- and short-term orientation.

Executive teams that involve the entire C-suite in preparing and positioning their companies for customer changes on the horizon will be ahead of the game. The future starts now.

Denise Dahlhoff

Denise Dahlhoff is senior researcher for consumer research at the Conference Board. She is also a senior fellow at the Wharton School’s Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies.

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