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Who owns the customer? Why are you even asking?

By December 14, 2020June 9th, 2021Insights

For years, organisation and industry academics have been debating who owns the customer, usually driven by an organisation’s lack of confidence in its own people and an inherent anxiety, that if it isn’t stated who “owns” the customer, no one will. And yet the real onus ought to be on gaining customer insight, and adapting to meet their needs.

In truth, many organisations are paying lip service to the question and the reality is, that functional ‘ownership’ of the customer or customer insight, doesn’t translate into any value for the customer.

The simple fact of the matter many organisations are not asking the right questions. Instead of asking “who owns the customer?”, they should be asking the far more challenging question, “how do we put relevant insights into the hands of the right people, at the right time, so they can respond in the right way to deliver a great experience?”

This was the topic of discussion at CGA’s November Navigator Forum, where we were delighted to be joined by Navigators and Influencers from a host of industries as well as Dr Nick Baker, Global Research Officer at Savanta, whose keynote presentation acknowledge, this is a significantly more difficult question to answer and one which most organisations avoid.

As consumers and buyers become ever-more connected and, at the same time, more promiscuous in their behaviours, the opportunity to create the feeling of being loved at the point of contact with an organisation is getting harder. Experience is now the real differentiator, which demands the customer must be the first point of thought. However, in many transformation programmes, organisations focus on recreating old processes in a digital way, without thinking about the experience delivered to the customer. As a consequence, brands often fail to engage customers in meaningful experiences, which in turn effects their loyalty.

In this emerging, omni-channel world, organisations should be establishing processes that transfer insight to individuals across the business at the point of contact with the customer, because the power to change is in their hands, not those of the Insight Manager, who will always struggle to turn insight into action, single-handedly. There was a distinct sentiment within the forum that those organisations that aren’t ready to adapt will struggle to survive in the new experience economy.

The emerging central message of how insight should be used, highlighted three key disruptive messages.

  1. It is crucial that organisations embrace the complexity of the challenge, translating insight into meaningful action is a systemic organisational problem, not just a single function or individual responsibility.
  2. Organisations must recognise and embrace the simplicity of enabling action so staff can deliver on customers’ experience goals. This is about democratising insight and empowering action where it matters.
  3. The question “who owns the customer” is part of the problem, since no one owns an individual They own themselves. And if you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer.

At the heart of the Forum discussions, was the notion of fair exchange of “value” between the organisation and the customer, especially given that choice is a fundamental driver of experience for the customer. Rather than thinking about customer in terms of ownership or ownership of specific aspects of the brand (digital, social or retail for example), an organisation needs to put power of delivery of the relationship in the hands of its people, who interact with customers on the frontline.

The organisation therefore needs to consider “how do we enable the organisation as a whole to know what experience we want to deliver and what customers want?”. The implication of this is the breaking down the old “gatekeeper” model to provide different levels of information to different people in the business. Empowering them with access to understanding what matters to customers and how the organisation is doing in delivering to that, because research is useless until something is done with it.

Customer perception is their reality, including the perceived value of any experience. If organisations don’t accept that, they risk misunderstanding the needs of customers and mistakenly believing what we want to believe. Organisations need real understanding of the “perceived customer value”, and the impact of that on the business. As our attendees noted, it is very worrying when a company salesforce talks & acts like they are the guardians of the customer – everyone needs to be involved and have accountability in understanding and doing what is right for the customer. Often the salesforce, partners, agents, or 3rdparty fulfilment companies own the last mile of the relationship but do so from a position of revenue protection, rather than asking “have we delivered a great experience?”.

During the forum, it was noted that FMCG are typically trained to master customer insight; crafting decisions and plans around carefully analysed understanding. However, even in this sector, there is increased promiscuity of customers and an ever-growing gap between what people say (according to research) and what they actually do. Therefore, it is critical to make sure you listen to “the dog that doesn’t bark”, because often it is what’s not being said that is more important than what is being said.

As the forum discussion concluded, the members agreed that the question organisations should be asking to better align behaviour, reward and recognition is “what is the level of service quality we want to deliver to the customer?”. Combining this with a responsibility to create independence of action, by putting power into the hands of staff and customers themselves, rather than trying to claim a stake of customer ownership is really the way to survive, through what are only going to become increasingly challenging times.