Avoid Fist-Fights and First Figure Out Who Owns the Customer


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I had the distinct feeling of being in an aquarium. Instead of conversation and animation, I was looking at a silent group of people who were staring back at me, mouths and eyes agog. Where there had been dissention, contention and territorialism only moments before, there was now an air of what I can only describe as wide-eyed consternation. All I did was ask a question. Well, to be more accurate, all I did was ask a different question.

Anthropologists could have a field day with what a CRM initiative evokes in a company. It does not seem to matter whether the project is a network installation of a contact manager at a small mom-and-pop or a global rollout of a heavyweight enterprise CRM solution, there is one question—or fight—that is certain to surface: “Who owns the customer?” And, predictably, everyone with a dog in the hunt at any part of the process has the same answer: “me.” In many organizations, it becomes a declaration of civil war.

So where was I when I asked the question? It was at a super-regional bank that will, for all the usual reasons, remain anonymous. Like many banks, it had an organizational structure that included product managers who were measured on financial performance of their products and channel managers who needed efficient use of their channels (read: volume) to make bonus.

Add to that the bank’s typically limited ability to prospect for new customers and management’s overly aggressive revenue goals, and the battleground was now set. Everyone needed to promote as many customers as possible to avoid a beating at the end of the year. And, while this set up an aggressive cross-selling engine, it also created a vacuum of accountability for customer experience.

Armed with technology

By installing the technology to make outreach to customers more efficient, we arm the combatants. In this case, after installation of a promotional-offer management engine, the first salvo was fired by a minor officer, the product manager for boat loans. “Ms. Boat” wanted to promote customers based on a very generous cut of the data base.

The return salvo was fired by a channel manager who wanted to mail to a vast array of customers to “educate them” on the use of the channel he managed. The melee of product and channel managers took less than three months to come to full fruition. I arrived at the meeting I mentioned with an array of 17 confusing and competing promotions and offers that I had received as a customer of the bank over a three-week period.

I put them, and my question, on the table at the same time: “Who can be accountable for my experience of being a customer of the bank?” As we mapped the organizational accountability, the first place with sufficient span of control and influence to have that accountability was the president. The group’s answer was, sad to say, an example of the adage about how the same thinking that creates a problem cannot solve it. The president put in place a customer contact management group with decision power over who could use the new promotional system. What was originally called Smart Engine was quickly nicknamed “The Gestapo.”

For a better answer, look at responses from such organizations as Charles Schwab, which figured out how to segment customers behaviorally. Rather than assigning a customer value as the primary segment or some canned lifestyle parameters, they look at how customers engage and segment by behavioral profile. A segment manager makes the decisions about investments in product development, channels and, to some extent, even branding.

That structure allows the organization to clearly understand who is accountable for the profitability and relationship for any given customer. Channel and product managers still have to compete but not on a battleground that confuses customers. Their customers are the segment managers.

And, lest you think that this is only an issue for big companies, here is another example. A small outsourcer of very specific HR services with only 12 employees found themselves in exactly the same fight. A new subscription to SalesNet put the first formalized sales processes in place, and within two days, a heated argument broke out between sales and service about who owned the customer. Twelve employees. One office. And the same fight.

So, before we get to questions about who owns anything, and certainly before we arm the troops with CRM tools allowing them to engage in civil war, let’s ask and answer the more useful question about who can be accountable for customer experience. If the answer is either “we do not know” or “everyone,” then, perhaps, there is some organizational work to do before a technology project is launched.

Barry Goldberg
Entelechy Partners
I. Barry Goldberg is managing director of Entelechy Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. His practice focuses on senior executives, change leaders and bet-the-business program teams. Goldberg holds a graduate certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University.


  1. Barry

    I have to own up to being cheesed off by this expression ‘own the customer’. No-one owns the customer. Customers are not available for ownership. Customers can be sought, acquired, retained, lost, won-back, nurtured and ring-fenced, but owned? Never.

    That said, I do agree with you that customer experience can be seriously sub-optimal when different work-groups run uncoordinated campaigns to the same customer groups. Some CRM vendors have developed marketing optimization solutions that companies can use to fix the problem.

    Marketing optimization software allows you to select an overall goal, such as sales or profit margin maximization, and specify all of the constraints of your marketing strategy, such as budget, customer contact policy (e.g. no more than 3 offers per customer per year), channels available (e.g. direct mail, email, text message, telemarketing), minimal cell size per offer (e.g. target customer segment size of at least 250 persons) product-specific volume requirements (e.g. must sell 10,000 Gizmos this quarter), customer segments’ propensities-to-buy different products, and channel constraints (e.g. call centre can only make 200 outbound calls per week), to name but a few. The software then determines which customers should get which offer through which channel to ensure your campaign objectives are met.

    Francis Buttle


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