CIOs Need to Become Customer Champions


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When asked by the Conference Board in 2005 to rank the challenges that keep them up at night, U.S.-based CEOs put customer loyalty and retention third overall, just behind steady top-line growth and consistent execution of strategy by top management. The three issues are linked, of course, which gets to the heart of why they’re perennial sore spots for CEOs. A company having problems consistently executing across leadership divisions is also likely to experience challenges delivering a cohesive customer experience—challenges that will have an impact on keeping and developing profitable customers.

The CIO is in a unique strategic position to help out—and, in the process, emerge as an unexpected customer champion. Cases of CIOs taking this position, in my opinion, are not prevalent enough and identify a missed opportunity to advance the organization’s quest for customer profits. Beginning with one immediately actionable example; understanding the value of gained and lost customers, the quantity of referrals and the movement of customers from one level of profitability to another should emerge as a key set of metrics. I call these the “Guerrilla Metrics” because they power the customer onto the corporate agenda – and will help the CEO determine the value of the corporation based on its ability to manage customers as assets. This requires enabling the integration of customer data and driving that as a priority.

Extending the role beyond the metrics for managing customers as assets, CIOs need to take a stronger hand in insisting that corporate plans begin from prioritized actions to improve customer experiences, with resources lining up to enable their successful implementation. In too many organizations, sales, marketing, operations, and service all run separately from one another and have their own perspective, processes, metrics, and requirements. Eventually, divisional problems show up at the feet of some poor fellow in the IT department. And because each problem is presented in a vacuum, the solution that’s applied is often cordoned off from the rest of the requirements, IT resources, and data-management imperatives critical to running a business. Traditionally, attempts to manage these disparate requests are dealt with on a quarterly basis. Resource allocations are made and placed in a queue that may be monitored by committee oversight. But too often, there’s little thought given to how these separate efforts will affect the customer experience.

My strong belief is that whoever leads the customer effort should do so in partnership with the CIO. Sadly, CIOs continue to be brought in too late in the game. Perhaps CIOs need to take the first move to ensure involvement in the customer mission. Rather than waiting for an invitation, seek out the customer leader and suggest a meeting of the minds on the priorities and objectives. The strongest partnerships I’ve experienced were when there was a genuine desire to build this collaborative partnership. So making this move yourselves is the key. Don’t wait for your CEO to band you together.

The CIO is in a unique position to draw connections between the relationships and outcomes their company wants to have with customers and how projects line up to achieve strategic objectives. To take a leadership role here, CIOs need to be active in determining how to manage customer-service issues holistically across the organization amid the mass of data that currently exists. This should be one of the key job descriptions of the CIO. To advance this role as customer champion, CIOs should partner with the company’s customer-service leadership to review priorities.

For example, at Mazda, in the infancy of CRM during the early 1990s, as senior manager, customer satisfaction and retention, I forged a strong partnership with the CIO and the IT department. Together, we managed to merge twenty-five separate databases, each built separately across the operation (warranty, service, parts, marketing, etc) into the first relational database in less than nine months. We did this sitting side by side, sloshing through the data; determining what was needed from each database, what common attributes were required from each to connect and align the business requirements and what IT actions would pull the triggers to deliver the desired outcomes for customers. As we got deeper and deeper into the work, the CIO and IT organization grew amazingly enthusiastic, offering ideas that often beat mine in creativity and potency. These IT team members became truly inspired custodians of the customer relationship.


  1. Hooray for great insights as always from Jeanne Bliss! Her book, Chief Customer Officer, is my absolute favorite, as it drives home to the root issues of customer churn and offers sage practical solutions. Too often in companies these days the customer advocacy role is viewed very narrowly, as building customer case studies, or as expediting issues for high-revenue accounts, or as advising product development, or as generating referral business, or as enabling up-selling and cross-selling. While all of the aforementioned examples are certainly valuable, most of them are in essence self-serving for the company, and not necessarily value-building with regard to customers’ current plight. That’s why more cross-functional involvement at the C-level is essential for sustainable improvements in customers’ full experience with your brand. Sustainable growth in revenue, share, and the bottom line.

    Lynn Hunsaker,, mentors executives for customer profitability through advocacy and churn/hassle prevention.

  2. I enjoyed reading your analysis. Unfortunately, my perspective has been jaded from having spent too much time in the cable and telecoms space. I firmly believe that one of the things that keeps everyone awake at night, especially after the J.D. Power ratings are published is customer retention, which they call churn.

    Cable’s churn averages just under 3% a month, let’s say 30% a year. So, if a cable operator simply wants to grow by thre percent, it must replace a third of its customers. Let’s value each of those customers at $5,000. For a cable operator with ten million subscribers, the value of the asset churning is about $15 billion. There is also the lost cash flow and the cost of having to replace that customer base.

    The last time I asked a cable exec about the reason for churn he said it was because customers move. I do not know a single cable operator who has a churn management program in place that in any way reflects the magnitude of the problem. If any other industry lost a third of its customers each year it would be addressed with such laser focus that they would either cut the number in half in 12 months, or die trying.

    Unfortunately for them, cable outsourced most of its IT for most of its history, and many of the new breed of CIOs are not viewed as having an understanding of the pulse of the business, and as such are not given what is needed to go from a one-size fits all approach to churn management to something more targeted. One CEO explained it to me this way. “If I give IT a dollar, they ask me for another dollar. If I spend that same dollar on a piece of coax, somebody mails be two dollars.”

    Paul Roemer,
    Partner, Clinton Rubin


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