Who Knows The Customer Best?
Hail to the new chief
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In modern companies, who takes responsibility for these disparate interfaces and touch points? Who's accountable for the optimization of interfaces on both a stand-alone and an integrated basis? Who ultimately ensures that the elements of complex corporate systemstechnology, marketing, processes, and R&Dcreate loyalty-inducing experiences for customers? Often the responsibility falls to the CEO, who's best positioned to see across the entire organization but is overburdened with other responsibilities; sometimes it falls to the chief marketing officer, who understands the marketing challenge but misses, or can't influence, the integration across nonmarketing interfaces, such as call centers and Web sites. It may fall to the CIO, who may control the technology but not marketing, sales, or service strategies. Given these barriers, none of these is a good answer.
To ensure desirable customer experiences, companies must appoint dedicated chief experience officers. Call this individual the "other" CEOor, as we prefer, the CXO (not to be confused with the commonly used term that refers to any C-level executive). This executive's strategic agenda starts with a line of inquiry regarding the company's presentation layer. In every business that competes on service or relationships, these questions can highlight enormous strategic internal issues, such as operating efficiency, organizational design, and enterprise economics.
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To begin, the chief experience officer must ask: Have we deployed the right interfaces in the right places at the right times and in the right ways? Do we have too many interfaces or too few? Have we optimized each of the interfaces according to our customer preferences and needs, by segment? Have we understood the pathways our customers define as they flow through our interfaces in typical purchase processes? And finally, have we aligned and integrated those interfaces into coherent systems?
The new executive must relentlessly focus on unifying the disparate functions of human resources, marketing, operations, sales, service, and technology. For most companies, such integration suggests an unholy alliance of warring fiefdoms and silos, and that's precisely why the C-suite needs an individual with the power and authority to deliver integrated experiences for customers. Such executives may be hard to find, since they need literacy and fluency in the multiple and specialized functional "languages" of the modern corporation, as well as the diplomatic skills to bring disparate managers and organizations together in service of a common goal. Because technology lies at the heart of many new interfaces and interface systems, the chief experience officer will likely fail without the support of the company's technical talent.
Of course, you could argue that this is an old story. After all, many companiesindustrial or otherwise, from Citigroup to Williams-Sonoma to Dellhave long relied on multiple service channels to compete. But something else is happening that's upping the ante from both growth and cost-side perspectives. In our book, Best Face Forward (Harvard Business School Press, January 2005), we call this the rising tide of "front-office reengineering." As leading companies find ways to substitute capital for labor in the front office, they're engaged in a reengineering effort analogous to the automation and process-redesign revolutions that transformed agriculture in the 19th century, manufacturing in the 20th century, and corporate information processing only a few decades ago.
In recent years, machine interfaces have emerged to play unprecedented roles in automating interactions between companies and their customers. In the 1970s, the ATM provided an alternative to bank tellers, but as attractive as ATMs became to retail-banking customers, few people considered ATMs true customer-relationship managers. ATMs were all about efficiency. Contrast that cold, mechanical relationship to how we feel today about automated interfaces at Web sites such as Amazon.com, electronic devices such as iPod and TiVo, or virtual agents such as Amtrak's Julie or AT&T's TellMe. Each of these is an automated-service interface that's sufficiently intelligent, interactive, distributed, and networked to transcend a functional role and appeal to users in meaningful and, at times, emotionally fulfilling ways.
Emotional responses to automated interfaces signal new possibilities for the roles that machines can play in the front-line workforce. Affective technologies can enable more effective interchanges between companies and customers, while reducing the cost of each transaction or interaction. While past reengineering efforts focused on efficiency, front-office reengineering focuses on efficiency and effectiveness. It comprises three fundamental impacts on the design of work: substitution (machines for labor), complementarity (machines in combination with labor), and displacement (outsourcing or offshoring of machines or labor). From these choices emerge optimized customer interfaces and interface systems to open new frontiers of efficiency and effectiveness for large-scale companies.
Underlying these choices is a fundamentally novel question facing managers today: What's the optimal division of front-office labor between people and machines? While the CEO must focus on the broad strategic implications of this issue, the new experience officer must design and manage interface systems to ensure that the company's optimal presentation layer becomes a reality.