Does it take a CXO or chief customer officer to bring executives closer to the customer experience? James Heskett ponders the value of this increasingly popular role, Harvard Business School notes.
I will always remember November 11, 1977 as the day I drove a Ford Pinto into the employee parking lot of the General Motors Technical Center in Detroit. My vehicle was the only Ford product in a sea of GM cars and trucks.I had been late arriving in Detroit. The Pinto was the last vehicle for rent. I had hoped to sneak into the lot unseen. Unfortunately, the GM customer service team, for whom I was an outside consultant, spotted me as I entered the lot.
The roasting that followed was ferocious. It seemed good-natured. I assumed that it would recede shortly. I was wrong. Throughout that project, I was the butt of an unending series of asides from executives who had never driven anything but new GM products and relied on their assistants to keep them serviced. They had been denied experiences important to their understanding of how to improve their products and services.
The event is burned into my mind. I became conscious of the fact that other senior executives with whom I worked were ignorant of their competitors’ products and services. Once, one of my sons ordered a Coca-Cola as we sat down to lunch with a senior executive at PepsiCo. He turned to my son and remarked, “That stuff can make you sick.” Several of us laughed. I wasn’t one of them. I knew him well. He meant it.
This may help explain why so many organizations seem to have lost contact with the experience of buying and using their companies’ and their competitors’ products and services. That’s not to deny that there are other sources for that kind of information. They tend to reside in the lower reaches of nearly any organization, among those who don’t have the same perks as those at the top.
A knowledge of customer experiences can be invaluable in the design and distribution of a product or service. We were convinced of that by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in their influential book, The Experience Economy. Soon my HBS colleagues and I were writing about the notion that customers don’t buy products and services, they buy results and process quality. Why both? A charming driver can’t deliver a result without a limo. At about the same time, Clay Christensen and his co-authors were concluding that “customers ‘hire’ products to do specific ‘jobs.’”
A popular fix for this problem has become the creation of a high-level position: the chief experience officer or CXO. The typical charge to a CXO is to sensitize all employees to the customer experiences associated with their organization’s products or services. The Gartner organization found in 2019 that nearly 90 percent of 401 organizations it surveyed employed a chief experience officer, a chief customer officer, or an equivalent.
To achieve their goals, CXOs often have to bring together elements of an organization that haven’t collaborated in the past—marketing and engineering, customer service and product design, information technology and administration. Finding people with these kinds of backgrounds and experiences has not been easy.
While several of their best successes—at Best Buy, for example—were associated with quick customer-oriented responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have to ask ourselves whether the future of the CXO is a bright one. After all, isn’t the customer experience everyone’s responsibility?
Shouldn’t everybody be encouraged to regularly test the customer experience associated with buying and using both their companies’ and competitors’ products and services? Does it take a CXO to remind us of that?
by James Heskett