What is a chief customer officer?

A growing emphasis on customer experience is the most prominent trend in business today. The chief customer officer (CCO) position helps provide a single vision across all customer interactions.

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One of the most prominent business and technology trends today is a growing emphasis on customer experience — ensuring that a client’s interactions with a company go as smoothly and efficiently as possible over the duration of the relationship.

The goal is to keep customers happy so they will keep coming back, as well as draw new customers by establishing a reputation as being a good organization with which to do business.

At some organizations a relatively new member of the C-Suite, the chief customer officer (CCO), is in charge of overseeing efforts to enhance customer acquisition, experience, service and maintenance.

CCOs are responsible for the total relationship with an organization’s customers, and the position was created to help provide a single vision across all methods of customer interaction. These executives can have an impact on multiple departments within an enterprise that play a role in customer activity, including sales, marketing, customer support (including call centers), finance and fulfillment.

Champion for the customer

“The highest responsibility of the CCO is to be the No. 1 advocate and champion for the customer, with commitment to making the customer happy, healthy and successful,” said Sue Woodard, CCO at Total Expert, which provides a marketing technology platform for the financial services sector.

“It’s understanding how each persona thinks and feels, their pains, how success is created, what drives them; and then [being] able to effectively communicate that across the entire organization, creating understanding and empathy,” Woodard said.

The CCO can have a direct impact on the bottom line by creating an environment that retains current customers, drives opportunities for expansion and upsell, and draws in prospective customers who can sense appreciation by the company before they are even on board, Woodard said.

The Chief Customer Officer Council, a member-led peer-advisory network offering insight into the critical issues facing CCOs, defines the role as "an executive who provides the comprehensive and authoritative view of the customer and creates corporate and customer strategy at the highest levels of the company to maximize customer acquisition, retention and profitability."

The general role of the CCO is to serve alongside a company’s executive board, conceiving and building programs and systems to ensure and improve the customer experience, according to the Customer Service Institute of America, a group that distributes the International Customer Service Standard (ICSS) and certifies organizations.

Examples of efforts CCOs might oversee include designing customer loyalty programs, creating systems for analyzing customer feedback or incorporating service training and certification programs for employees, the institute said.

Because the CCO role is still somewhat new, there is as yet no executive MBA program for the position, the institute said. But as an indicator of how much a priority customer experience has become, CCOs typically report directly to the CEO.

The CCO “needs support at the highest levels of the company, as sometimes the voice of the customer is one that creates work or frustration for other departments and leaders,” Woodard said. 

Core responsibilities

Having an in-depth view of customers by measuring customer satisfaction at each touchpoint in the customer journey not only serves as a strong indicator of customer experience, the institute said, it also has a predictive capacity. By closely analyzing this data, companies can avoid potential problems before they occur and create new programs and experiences in anticipation of customer needs.

While the functional and organizational responsibilities of the CCO might vary from company to company, the core responsibilities are most often centered on two key business drivers, said Alex Hesterberg, senior vice president and CCO at enterprise software company Turbonomic.

One is customer renewal, or maintaining the as-is customer base; and the other is customer expansion, or identifying and executing on growth within that customer base.

“Most CCOs evolved from a world of services and/or support, which means key internal projects tended to start with professional services automation (PSA) and technical support case management software,” Hesterberg said.

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Over time, this has evolved to include planning and deployment of customer success automation software, which integrates PSA, technical support, customer usage data, and marketing automation software. In addition, there is the responsibility of configuring customer success software to accommodate the customer journey and alert CCOs to deviations or anomalies in a customer’s progress along that journey.

CCOs are typically involved in a number of key projects, Hesterberg said. One is defining the customer journey, including where customers start and how to lead them through the journey. Another is defining “key functional interlocks,” or how various company departments work together to serve the customer.

Other initiatives might include building the onboarding program, including setting the tone, value expectation and value measurement of the vendor-customer relationship.

Needed skills

A CCO should have a strong background in professional services and technical support, Hesterberg said. “And when I say this, I mean all aspects of running those businesses — sales, marketing, operations, delivery, services engineering and partner enablement,” he said. “The selling/booking responsibility and the packaging/marketing functions are key elements in becoming a successful CCO.”

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Ultimately, “the CCO becomes the cross section of almost every aspect of the business, and is directly or indirectly responsible for how the customer engages with the product/brand,” Hesterberg said.

“Having to build services to close product gaps or meet unique customer expectations, while being face-to-face with the customer, is the type of dynamic that is constantly present in the average customer success organization,” Hesterberg said.

Many companies and business leaders see customer success as a catch-all for anything with the customer — good, bad, or indifferent, Hesterberg said. “So, the ability to add structure where there is none, create repeatability, and ensure every step has the customer lens in mind, becomes the perfect ‘training ground’ for a CCO,” he said.

As CCO, Hesterberg reports weekly metrics centered on customer renewals and customer expansion, and coordinates with all other members of the C-suite to address risk and staffing status, and to engage on special programs such as early adopter/beta programs, customer advisory boards, etc.

Woodard thinks having a background in the industry a CCO is serving is critical. “I’m not sure how you otherwise obtain the deep level of empathy, understanding and love for your customer that is foundational to the role,” she said. “You have to know innately how they will respond to a new idea, messaging point, feature or product — and that is generally only gained by a deep understanding of the industry.”

A background in account management, relationship management and customer success “is likely the best path to move into this role,” Woodard said. “But needing to operate, advocate and evangelize cross functionally also requires tremendous diplomatic and communication skills, as well as an understanding of all the other departments within your company,” she said.

Woodard’s specific responsibilities as CCO generally include overseeing customer-facing departments, such as customer success and support, and creating repeatable, scalable processes that ensure customer success and create provable return on investment (ROI).

“The role [also] includes oversight of the customer experience or journey across the entire organization, noting gaps and areas where trust can be diminished and solving for them,” Woodard said.

Cross-functional collaboration with other executives is vital, Woodard said. “Many of the items that impact the customer show up in customer-facing departments, but need to be resolved elsewhere [such as] sales, onboarding, product, etc.,” she said. “If a customer is constantly frustrated because they felt they were misled during the sales process, you have to connect with sales leaders to learn if an adjustment in sales process is needed, or if expectations need to simply be reset.”

The CCO should also create opportunities to raise up customers as thought leaders and champions within their industry — at events, in publications and online, including social media, Woodard said,

This advocacy creates a powerful “win” for the customer being seen as an industry standout, Woodard said, and in turn it creates a win for the company in the form of a testimonial from the customer. “At Total Expert, we call our customers family, we use the word ‘love’ to describe how we feel about them — and we mean it,” she said.

Technology’s role

Leveraging technology to enhance customer interactions is among the key facets of the CCO’s job. The Customer Service Institute of America notes that as companies are becoming increasingly customer-centric, CCOs must create and manage systems that unite the different sources of customer data into a master view of every customer.

Newer tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced data analytics provide “direct insight on how your customer is using your product — and most importantly the measurable results they are getting from usage,” Woodard said.

Conversely, these tools help companies see where customers might not be using their products or services. “Sometimes the absence of data said more than the presence of data, and you can make needed adjustments,” Woodard said. “Technology can also identify and serve up key opportunities for either we, or our customer, to take advantage of and further drive success.”

The most important role of analytics technology is being able to model and prove ROI for the customer, Woodard said. “I tell my customer-facing folks to act at all times as if our contract is sitting on their board table, and our champions are needing to explain to their board why they continue to work with Total Expert,” she said. “We should always be able to provide a solid, measurable ROI showing their success, and recommending areas it could even improve further.”

Customer success automation software has been the biggest technological advancement in customer success over the years, Hesterberg said. “It has allowed CCOs to intelligently aggregate and manipulate data across many different inputs in a way that allows customer success and sales teams to take action when certain [events] happen, or do not happen, across these aggregate data inputs,” he said.

Some of the customer success automation platforms have playbooks featuring “pre-canned” thresholds and metrics that serve as guidelines and guardrails for newly formed customer success teams, Hesterberg said.

“What we are starting to see now is a migration towards the tracking and alerting on value delivered or outcomes,” Hesterberg said. “In time, we will see these playbooks augmented by storyboard-like capabilities — like we have in marketing automation today — in order to bring our customers through a certain journey and assist them when they seem to be deviating.”

Looking ahead

As the role of the CCO continues to evolve, these executives will become the dominant owner of customer touchpoints such as pre-sales, services, training, expansion, renewals and technical support, Hesterberg said.

“In some cases, the sales organization will morph into the ‘initial deal organization’ and this will leave the follow-on delivery, expansion, and renewal business — which will become the lion’s share of company value — to the CCO,” Hesterberg said.

The CCO “is still a new and rising role, one that I’ve only been in for two years myself, so I believe it will continue to dramatically evolve in the years to come,” Woodard said. “The biggest recent change I’ve seen, in financial services in particular, is finally a deep focus on customer experience. So as a vendor [that] serves financial services, this is a perfect place to apply focus, both within our own company and to help customers audit their own customer experience or customer journey as well.”

What are the keys for anyone aspiring to the role of CCO or looking to improve how they perform in the job? “Start to observe in your life the customer journey and experience — where you work, where you shop, where you eat out, etc.,” Woodard said. “How do you feel as a customer? What do you wish could be improved, and what is great?”

Thorough knowledge of the company’s industry is also important. “Who are the personas you might serve, and what are their pain points and drivers?” Woodard said. “What does success mean to this industry, and how will you measure and prove out success and ROI?”

Candidates for the role should also think about which departments they might interact with in their company, and understand those department’s viewpoint.

“Finally, obsessively seek to understand and know the specific customer base you serve,” Woodard said. “Raise them up. It’s just like any other relationship. Success is built on empathy, understanding, communication and helping them be their very best.”