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It’s Time for Executive Customer Experience Leadership

The customer experience (CX) industry has ballooned during the past decade. According to market intelligence firm IDC, investment grew from $508 billion in 2018 to $641 billion in 2022—a 26% increase. There’s a simple driver behind the growth: the power of customer choice. Vast swathes of the economy have transformed from supply-driven markets, where the vendor dictates provision, price, and experience, to consumer-led spaces.

“There’s a baseline level of quality and price that many vendors are meeting,” says Greg Tucker, customer experience executive turned award-winning advisor at Tucker & Company. “It unlocked a variety of different options for people and if they don’t get the experience they expect, they’re taking their business elsewhere.”

Such a booming discipline requires new leadership, and organizations are investing in top talent. In 2020, Gartner discovered that nearly 90% of organizations had a Chief Experience Officer (CXO), Chief Customer Officer (CCO), or equivalent—up from just 65% a couple of years earlier. However, there is immense variation between these roles.

Some businesses build their entire enterprise around it, ensuring every customer touchpoint sparkles. Others bolt it on haphazardly, hoping to “retrofit” an exceptional experience. In their defense, customer experience is still a relatively new discipline—in terms of organizational strategy, at least. Business and functional leaders have been flying the airplane while building it, or, to be less charitable, making it up as they go along. But Tucker suggests that we’re reaching a point of coalescence.

As customer experience has matured, leaders have consolidated proven strategies into best practices. Now, consultants like Tucker are helping companies institutionalize customer experience in an impactful way by creating impactful executive leadership, not just functional figureheads.

CXO and CCO roles are crystalizing

Most CEOs acknowledge the need to improve, overhaul, or transform their customer experience. It’s tough to look at the research and reach any other conclusion. After all, “companies with the highest customer satisfaction scores returned double the shareholder value over ten years,” according to Boston Consulting Group. But despite the impetus and importance, customer experience is just one of myriad competing topics on a CEO’s agenda—and it’s losing out.

“When I talk to CEOs about customer experience, they say, ‘I love the topic, but it’s not one of the mission-critical things Wall Street analysts are going to judge me on,’” says Tucker. “Analysts want to talk about EPS, M&A, and Digital Transformation – sexier topics than customer experience.”

If CEOs are too busy to take on customer experience, where does the responsibility lie? Marketing was once a popular choice. Operations, too. But CMOs and COOs already have packed workloads. Adding another full-time responsibility borders on irresponsible.

Increasingly, however, organizations are carving out independent customer experience positions in the c-suite. This is the future of CX leadership: A clear, empowered role with a seat at the top table.

Greg Tucker
Greg Tucker, Advisor at Tucker & Co.

In his work researching customer experience and consulting with companies, Tucker has identified three robust customer experience executive archetypes:

Subject Matter Expert (SME): The SME role is more of an executive independent contributor. They work alone or with a very small staff, collecting insights, acquiring knowledge, and acting as the authority on customer experience. If a marketer, salesperson, or support manager has a question about a customer’s lifecycle, the SME is the go-to person for answers. These roles are fairly common, partly because they’re cheap and relatively easy to hire for, and partly because CEOs often fail to see a direct link to financial return that warrants a more significant investment.

Transformational Leader: At the other end of the spectrum from the SME is the transformational leader. They’re brought in to proactively lead large-scale transformational customer experience across an entire organization—or a large part of it, at least. They own and deliver the project, wielding wide-ranging authority and significant budget.

Experience Architect: While they’re still expected to drive change, architects hold mostly soft power. They can’t affect change on their own and their job isn’t to lead the transformation program. Instead, they coordinate those with real authority. They architect the different elements of customer experience—the prospect experience, sales experience, onboarding experience, and so on. They build alignment between the people who own those areas, ensuring each experience flows seamlessly into the next. 

Each of Tucker’s three roles is common and valuable. They can all deliver positive change to an organization. Although they vary immensely when it comes to empowerment, no one position is inherently better than any other. When CEOs come to carve out a new C-suite role for customer experience, Tucker recommends they start by evaluating their people.

“You can’t take a junior person and put them into a transformational role,” he says. “It’s like putting a college quarterback in to play in the NFL.”

Use the talent you have available to narrow down your options. If you have a world-class executive with several successful customer experience transformations under her belt, that leads you towards the transformational role. Forcing her into an SME or architect position would be a waste of her time and your investment.

Tucker also advises caution when it comes to pre-existing power structures and dynamics. Adding a new C-suite role is inherently disruptive. Driving transformational change? Even more so.

“I’ve seen cases where a customer experience executive has been amazingly successful for 90 days only to be summarily fired,” Tucker says. “They ruffled every feather on the C-suite until it reached a point when the only thing other executives wanted to talk to the CEO about was the nuisance in their side—the new executive.”

It’s a fundamental truth of change management that change cannot be put on people. Instead, you must instill change within them.

While a C-suite biased toward the status quo prevents immediate transformation, architects and SMEs can get the ball rolling, slowly engendering support and laying the foundation for later change. They can advocate for customer experience, communicate its value and potential opportunities, build the business case and link it to employee experience and retention. They can align disparate executives behind the common goal of exceptional customer experience. It’s a long-term, but necessary, process. Most c-suites have immense organizational inertia. Priming them for change takes effort but it’s necessary.

Creating sustainable change

Much of the language surrounding customer experience gives it a transient feel. For example, customer experience transformations have start and endpoints. This has created a belief among many company leaders that executive CX roles ought to be time-limited. 

“A lot of companies eventually want to sunset their CX executives,” says Tucker. “They think that they won’t need the executive forever. They’ll just build their role and ideas into everything else. Conceptually, that’s fine. But it’s like telling your personal trainer, ‘Hey, I’m gonna use you for a while, and then I won’t use you anymore.’ What happens after you send your personal trainer away? Your performance goes down because your level of discipline isn’t as high.”

The future of customer experience in the c-suite simply cannot be temporary. To maintain customer centricity for the long-term, it requires someone there advocating for it. Indeed, the organizations that adapt best to customer experience transformation always have a strong executive champion. They have someone with authority and weight who is willing to go to bat time and time again. That is why 2022 must be the year of empowered customer experience leadership. 

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