Promoting the customer to the board

Job titles can be colourful. Woodland adventure brand Go Ape has the rather apt chief gorilla running the show. Lots of Silicon Valley firms have a chief evangelist. Microsoft had an innovation Sherpa as well as the unofficial and unimprovable galactic viceroy of research excellence.

Luke D’Arcy, UK president of the brand agency Momentum Worldwide, recalls: “At a previous agency, I recall a chief creative officer business card having the word ‘GOD’ written on it. There was definitely no earthly parallel to that one.”

In recent years, a new job title has been proliferating. The chief customer officer sits alongside the marketing boss. Their job is to represent the customer at board level.

In 2003 only 20 such positions existed, according to the Chief Customer Officer Council (yes, there is one). Today it’s routine. SAP, Cisco, Mazda and Addison Lee all have one.

So what’s the difference between the traditional role of chief marketing officer and the flashy new chief customer officer or indeed the chief experience officer?

The chief experience officer’s lens is looking through the eyes of the customer on a continuous basis

Fiona Blades, chief experience officer of Mesh Experience, a global analytics company, puts it like this: “Chief marketing officers (CMOs) are responsible for the marketing activity that a brand pushes out. Chief experience officers are responsible for all experiences that people pick up, including owned and earned experiences like using a mobile banking app or social media.

“The chief experience officer’s lens is looking through the eyes of the customer on a continuous basis, while the CMO’s focus is the marketing campaign which may be in bursts or have highs and lows.”

The chief customer officer and chief experience officer can concentrate on tiny, but vital, details that a marketing officer might never notice. There’s also a freedom to think without profit-and-loss concerns. Creating a parallel post to CMO makes an organisation more customer centric, rather than sales centric. Royal Mail appointed a chief customer officer in 2010 as it prepared for privatisation. It was part of the change in culture from a seemingly unresponsive organ of the state.


Tesco appointed a new chief customer officer at the start of the year. Alessandra Bellini has a roving role, uniting departments, keeping them abreast of the mood on the shop floor. Her observations stretch far beyond sales metrics. For example, she has spoken of the need to improve services for customers with disabilities.

You don’t get insights like that from weekly key performance indicator or KPI data. There are issues such as whether customers understand buy-one-get-one-free deals and giving out free fruit in store to children to promote healthy eating. There’s a low return on investment in these activities. A busy chief marketing officer could be forgiven for claiming lack of time for focusing on these sorts of issues.

The appeal of the role is growing. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Marketing found 9 per cent of organisations now have a head of customer experience. The survey revealed the motivations as 92 per cent of marketers think that specialising in one area of marketing can mean skills in other areas are less developed and 84 per cent say this could lead to a lack of vision. Appointing a dedicated person to customer issues can remedy this.

Startups are keen too. Snatch Inc is an augmented reality treasure hunt app with 40 staff in London and San Francisco. It has two roles at board level representing the customer – a chief customer officer and head of marketing. Kate Taylor Tett, head of marketing, explains: “At a very simplistic level, the head of marketing is responsible for recruitment, and identifying and attracting valuable future customers. The chief customer officer is responsible for retention, increasing the lifetime value of existing customers.

“In practice it’s not that delineated. Of course there is crossover between recruitment and retention so the two roles have to work together very closely. However, splitting the roles this way does allow the individuals to become very focused on a specific section of the customer life cycle and really tailor our offering accordingly.”

Sometimes it’s simply about having two different minds on the job. Quinn O’Brien, Lenovo’s global brand and marketing lead, says: “The diversity of our customer base has to be matched by our leadership. At Lenovo, our senior team includes a whole spectrum of talent from around the world. The top 12 company leaders include three women and come from six different countries; 17 nationalities are represented in the top 100. Lenovo’s 52,000-plus employees and contractors speak more than 40 languages, and live in more than 60 countries around the world.”

In his view, the more voices the better: “In this sense, it’s imperative to have people in parallel roles, ensuring we are both polarising and authentic in all we do.”

Job titles are place-holders. There’s no point having different roles if the people in them all think the same.