In the words of Harvey Mackay: "No business can stay in business without customers." The customer is the centrifugal force holding a business tight to its core; more and more, customers demand to be heard, and businesses can either listen and respond or watch their audiences shift to companies that do.
But who is best suited to advocate for the customer, bring their perspective to light, and ultimately act as the communication channel between the business and those to whom they sell? It's a big job, perhaps the most important job in an organization when you think about it in respect to customer retention, acquisition, brand building, and more.
According to Forrester Analyst Sam Stern: "We describe this era as the 'Age of the Customer.' Companies need a team or person to be at the heart of these efforts. Subsequently, this allows others across the organization to understand how their role ultimately affects the customer. When this is implemented successfully, what you get is a customer-centric organization."
The customer-centric organization in action
A few months ago, prior to the official announcement of her new role as Dell's Chief Customer Officer, Karen Quintos and I caught up over tea to discuss her evolving mandate.
Fresh from a misty morning run along San Francisco's Embarcadero, she was ready to tackle her day, which would include meeting with Dell's largest customers to facilitate dialogue, assess potential relationship issues, and ultimately act as the Voice of the Customer.
The last time I had seen Quintos was during the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network Summit (also known as DWEN), in Berlin, Germany.
"How was your run?" I asked, knowing that no matter where in the world she happens to be, she has likely packed a pair of running shoes.
"A little wet this morning, but it was nice," she paused, "I can't believe the homeless issue here, though. It seems to be getting worse."
As someone who has grown accustomed to the irony of San Francisco - epicenter of innovation and wealth yet worst homeless epidemic in the U.S. - I hesitated to even go there.
"It's unreal," I responded, feeling partially responsible for the problem. "We're home to the most brilliant business minds in the world, but we can't seem to take care of the most fundamental human needs." I couldn't help myself.
"There has to be a technology solution for this. I need to think about it," said Quintos. And here's the thing about her: she will actually think about it.
The other thing I realized in that moment: This observance of the human experience and Quintos' empathy for its plight is the hallmark of a service-oriented leader. For Dell customers, this means she's really seeing and listening to them. To her, they won't be invisible.
Analyzing the breadth of the chief customer officer role
Patrick Moorhead, Founder, President, and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, has worked closely with hundreds of companies (including Dell) over the years. He, too, is optimistic about Quintos' recent move, from chief marketing officer to chief customer officer, and what it signals for the future of large business.
"If you look at the size of the EMC/Dell consolidation, it would be easy to focus on internal operations as opposed to your customers. Karen's role will also have a corporate social responsibility element. I think this is brilliant, because more and more -- particularly with the rise of Millennials -- people want to buy from businesses that care about things beyond the bottom line. The thinking is: 'I want to give business to someone who cares about what I care about,'" says Moorhead.
Quintos' role also covers the "diversity piece" of the organization. Moorehead continues, "Diversity isn't, by definition, directly related to corporate social responsibility or customer success. But here's why diversity matters to the customer: when companies are diverse, the customers often believe they will get a better product. It goes back to this idea of empathy. People want to see people like them within a company. Additionally, what we've observed is that if people see a diverse company, they strongly believe the company is better run."
Stern, whose Analyst role has given him access to the inner workings of hundreds of large and mid-sized businesses over the years, outlines the important qualities required for chief customer officer effectiveness: "Being known and respected in the culture is critical. The most successful customer-facing executives I've seen have mastered the art of persuasion, and in turn have a tremendous amount of influence."
He defers the origin of his next observation to Jean Bliss Olsen, VP of Human Resources and Administration for Investcorp financial services: "The ego has to be checked at the door. In this role, you have to be fine with not getting direct credit for success."
A day in, day out job
Another important aspect of the chief customer officer role is gauging customer satisfaction; Are your customers happy, and if not, why is that the case? This isn't a project-based assignment per se, nor is it an initiative with an end in sight. Instead, it requires the ability to fluidly communicate and discern, from a long list of customer needs, wants, and desires, what is actually feasible within the context of organizational goals.
"This role requires a great amount of humility," says Stern. "You're going to be hearing that certain services or products didn't work, and you're continually gaining insights that slowly uncover concerns you never knew existed."
In a sense, a chief customer officer is an anthropologist, a behavioral psychologist, a data analyst, and an expert communicator. To understand customers and truly serve their needs, one must be able to toggle between all of these things, as well as knit together the big picture. It's a tough job, but in the end, it may just be the most important role in a company, a role that keeps organizations - large and small - from losing sight of what matters most.
As Quintos and I wrap up our chat, she appears poised and ready for the day. "Where are you off to next?" I asked, assuming she would rattle off a long list of customers to visit during her ten-hour workday.
"I'm going to spend the day with one of our customers," she said.
Of course. She's going to dedicate the entire day to one customer.
She grabbed her bag and headed to the hotel lobby, gracious and smiling to those around her.
I was struck by the notion that Stern might've left off one of the most important roles of the successful chief customer officer--being a compassionate human being who is open, aware and willing to listen. A human being much like Quintos.