Tough Customer

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of HRO Today Magazine, a new threat looms before the practitioners and providers of services in the realm of human resources. This is not an allusion to the outsourcing defamation that sullies the current political silly season. Nor does it refer to the legacy of unsustainably gigantic engagements that rightfully besmirched those practitioners who promised far more than they were ever going to be able to deliver. For a full accounting of that “rise, fall, and rise,” please see “Out of the Ashes,” the cover story by Managing Editor Debbie Bolla.
 
 
No, the threat that barely existed a decade ago arrives via the emergence of a new title taking occupancy in American c-suites. Many halls of corporate leadership, arguably bloated already, have been renovated to make room for yet another overseer. The title: chief customer officer (CCO).
 
 
As typically conceived, the CCO is responsible (in customer-facing companies, of course) for such relations when affected by a predictable lineup: the call center, the sales force, the marketing department, fulfillment or billing, and post-sale support. Scanning the website of the nascent Chief Customer Officer Council reveals a logical mission scope. Citing the need for a consistent public experience across all methods of access, the council notes that such dependability is an essential component to winning competition for customers.
 
 
The council counts approximately 450 executives worldwide with the CCO title or having comparable authority and responsibilities under a different title. That’s up from fewer than 30 in 2003. The council itself limns three chief concerns of its members’ province:
 

• Driving (more) profitable customer behavior such as improved loyalty, greater share of
wallet, decreased costs to serve, etc.
• Creating a customer-centric culture by aligning employees and resources to rapidly and
profitably meet customer needs.
• Delivering and demonstrating value to the CEO, the Board, peers, and employees.
 
 
From one standpoint, this evolution makes sense. That “the customer is king” has been axiomatic at most companies since the dawn of commerce. And customers today are arguably more powerful than ever. Competitive information is ubiquitous. Apps allow instantaneous comparison of goods and services. And sites from Angie’s List to your hometown message board allow for real-time sharing of commercial horror stories. No salesman is an island.
 
 
Much of this is captured in a new book Outside In, written by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine of Forrester Research. And it’s not a uni-directional story. The newly empowered customer, the authors point out, is partly counterbalanced by a parallel increase in the data potency of the companies that serve them. Whether it’s Target knowing how a typical pregnant shopper will scan the aisles or Levi Strauss marketers watching through a two-way mirror as tweens compare notes about a pair of distressed jeans, the merchant today possesses an unprecedented wealth of knowledge about buyer habits and buyer happiness.
 
 
For our purposes, however, the question provoked is not whether this pursuit makes sense. Of course it does. The question, rather, is more existential: How is this not the job of human resources professionals? If HR executives—and those who provide them with services—are not fluent in customer service, and if they don’t instill that fluency in those who come under their charge via total talent management, then they are guilty of malpractice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the CCO should be the CHRO.
 
 
This might be a passing fad. With an average tenure of just 29 months, according to 2010 research by the council, the chief customer officer has the shortest lifespan among all c-suite executives. But if the provider of human resources services doesn’t respond by reclaiming this authority, she’ll be reporting to a new boss.
 
 
Dirk Olin is the Editor in Chief of HRO Today Magazine.
 

Posted October 5, 2012 in Contributors

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