Don’t leave that seat empty

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There’s an old anecdote that’s probably apocryphal—at least for some brands that like to tout it—that certain Customer-centric companies are “so dedicated” to their Customers that they leave an empty chair at the table in the meeting room where their leadership gets together that is ostensibly to signify where the Customer would be sitting….i.e., their place at the table.  The symbolic meaning of this is to emphasize that the decisions that are made at that level of responsibility should include a level of deference to what the Customers might want or may think about what’s going on in there.

It’s a little melodramatic (perhaps overwrought), and may not be your style of management, but at the time it came into popularity (or at least at the time the stories about it became more prevalent), it seemed to have some resonance.  From time to time the story pops up when discussing some brand that has a reputation (earned or not) for great Customer-centricity, or it shows up in a business book here or there.  I may have even mentioned it in my book.

But it occurs to me as I work with clients who are striving to become more Customer-centric:  What a waste of a seat!

Why not hire someone to actually, y’know, sit in that seat?

Quite frankly, putting an empty seat at the table alongside your CFO, your CMO, your CHRO, Head of Product, Head of Supply Chain, and the rest of your executive leadership team is almost an insult to your Customer, when you think about it.  It says that your Customers are important enough that you’ll drag a piece of office furniture (retail cost, what? $150?) up to the table, but not important enough to invest in an actual representative to sit at that table.  If they were really that important and you really wanted them to have an actual seat at the table, you’d fill it with a no-kidding Chief Customer Officer.

Maybe that’s the origin of the disheartening trend I see all over the place of companies paying lip-service to “being Customer-centric” or “doing CX” but with no action to back it up.  Or at least it must be related, the themes are so consistent:  If you’re cavalier enough about your Customers to give them nothing more than a symbolic empty chair at the table where the real executives are making decisions and running the company, it won’t come as much surprise to find that, when it comes to investing in acting in a Customer-centric way, you’re going to fall short.  The same attitude that makes a CEO think putting an empty chair at a table is going to make some sort of massive difference is likely to convince him or her that putting up banners around the office and constantly yammering about how important Customers are will be sufficient when it comes to implementing an actual CX strategy.

It’s no wonder so few brands are moving the needle on their CX given how trite the exercise has become.  That pulling up an empty chair is seen in some quarters as such an awe-inspiring and meaningful gesture that it deserves highlight in business publications speaks volumes to the lack of progress that some organizations have made.  They’re all simply clutching at straws.

If “Hey, don’t forget we have Customers, as you can clearly see symbolized in this [empty] chair,” makes the hair on the back of your team members’ necks stand up as a chilling reminder of how brilliant you are as a business leader, you need better advice.  Meanwhile, if an author interprets that as the pinnacle of genius in the CX world, I’d suggest you find another source for inspiration.

On the other hand, if you are serious about being Customer-centric, find someone who’s curious, analytical, diplomatic, and most likely from a different industry.  Put him or her in that seat, charge your CCO with the responsibility to staff an Office of the Customer, and the authority to make differences in how you do your work.  I have a feeling that’ll make more of an impact than an empty chair.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I fully agree with the article. If the Leader or Leading Team really thinks that the Organisation must be Customer Centric , they must accept to have somebody as a customer representative within the Board of Directors.

  2. So agree with you. The technique works well for a continued perspective AND including a formal Customer advisory council, co-creation activities with customer (including them in design), redefining business reviews and conversations, engaging your teams to help them build their business case (and how you contribute to that business case and value creation) and other techniques that really involve them and get them IN those seats. We are a partner in their business and it needs to be a deeper engagement as we are all facing the same challenges with change, technology, employees etc.

  3. I have praise for you for calling out the silliness for the “empty seat for the customer” ritual. If the goal is to be customer-centric, the best resident for the empty seat is not another employee in the role of the chief customer officer. It is a customer–a smart, vocal person who can help voice the perspective of the buyer or user.. Granted, you may have highly confidential, perhaps insider stuff to discuss. But, you can always ask the real customer to step outside for that portion of the meeting and still comply with SEC rules. Why not have your meetings on the premises of your customers so you can be in their world, not just imagine what it might be. Why not give all senior leaders a requirement to spend a certain amount of time each week talking, visiting, and observing customers in action in order to report on key learnings? I completely agree the empty seat is just that–empty! But, the person who is invited to sit in that empty seat can telegraph to the organization the real priority!

  4. Nick, I enjoyed your read. I had the experience of working for a CEO that felt the empty chair was the way to go. I was able to coach this CEO out of that thinking by demonstrating the real value in assuring that each person coming to the table is trained to consider the customer impact from the decision making taking place. I also support your thinking about having someone at the table whose primary function is the customer and brings the relevant VoC to the table. Thanks for the read. Dennis

  5. @Senen, I agree…actions speak louder than words!

    @Diane, Great for you (and your clients!), and I agree–*direct* interaction with your Customers is ALSO vital!

    Along those lines, @Chip, I agree with you! In fact, BOTH things can be true (as they say, “the magic of ‘AND'”). There’s no reason having a CCO in that seat should foreclose having your Customers directly involved…there are a LOT of ways to do that, and coordinating such an effort would definitely be part of the CCO’s job!

    @Dennis, Bravo to you for championing the Customers and their perspectives. The CCO’s job is twofold: 1) as this representative, and 2) running the–very robust, if you’re getting it right–operations within the Office of the Customer, to include, Customer Insights, Process Engineering, and CX Culture. Check out my website for more info!

    http://www.zeislerconsulting.com

  6. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz (Amazon and Starbucks) leave a chair empty to represent the customer (Mr. Schultz leaves another empty chair to represent all employees) then I am not going to jump on the bandwagon calling it silly. I would go so far as to add a third chair to represent prospects. The prospect experience includes pushy appointment setters, low-level telemarketers reading from a lousy script and email after email sent to unqualified audiences. My opinion, an empty chair might be more valuable than seating an additional expensive executive. Thank you.

  7. @Dan, thanks for joining the conversation and adding *your* valuable opinion too! I like to look to other successful businesspeople for insights and ideas and thoughts, but I’m always cautious to simply decide, based on appeals to authority, that they’ve got it right. When it’s right, it’s right, but when it’s nonsensical, we’ve got to ask questions.

    BTW, Mom’ll be proud to know I’ve created a bandwagon! 😉

  8. I’m in favor of the ’empty chair’ exercise, as long as the intent is sincere and embedded in overall culture and strategy. Since your article touches on a number of ideas involving customers, it’s useful to tease apart a few of the ways companies can interpret ‘customer centricity.’

    1. Customer safety is of paramount importance
    2. Customer interests must always be protected
    3. Customer interests must be considered
    4. Customers must be directly involved in decisions that affect them

    In business, ideals are often opposed to one another, and these are no exception. I staunchly support #’s 1-3, and, for a variety of reasons, I disagree with #4. If the ’empty chair’ symbol facilitates awareness that customers matter, then use it. What’s the harm? One problem, however, is that when it comes to corporate decision making, customers are not the only under-represented stakeholder.

    One could argue that in the name of customer-centricity, a company should strive to keep its prices as low as possible, and it should ensure its supply chains remain responsive to customer demand. Those outcomes could depend on sourcing raw materials from countries that have spotty environmental or labor laws. So . . . how about a chair for laborers who are vulnerable to exploitation or suffer from bad working conditions? Or, what about keeping a spot for the state government executives who might have to contend with increased waste or environmental hazards as a result of a product decision?

    Another point that sometimes gets overlooked in implementing a ‘customer-centric’ strategy is that customer interests themselves are rarely in concord. A management decision that favors ‘loyal’ customers might be detrimental to occasional buyers. A decision to raise prices in an unprofitable market segment might be disagreeable to customers in that segment, but favored by others who are subsidizing them. This issue – that customer needs often conflict – suggests that companies probably have little to gain by having customers present in meetings when such tradeoffs are discussed.

    Proponents of customer-centricity often warp the customer-centric ideal by implying that there are no limits to what organizations must do in order to ‘delight’ customers, or to ensure their ‘success.’ In fact, there are limits. Few businesses would survive if they remained agnostic or ignorant to the costs involved for their customer deliverables.

    My recommendation: if you must remind yourself about the importance of your customers, give them a ‘seat’ in the operations meeting, the board meeting, the planning session, the project retrospective, the financial analysis meeting preceding the product rollout, or the monthly Zoom call for the sales team. But leave the seat empty. Instead, involve your customers through channels established for the specific purpose of learning their needs. And above all, make sure your customers are not the only stakeholders whose interests you’re prioritizing.

  9. A “no-kidding” CCO is definitely the way to go. But, I’ll also submit, there are much larger issues here. Today, customer-centricity, and the things that go with it, isn’t really enough. Customer obsession, with everyone in the enterprise, and all support processes and functions, owning consistently superior customer experience and value delivery, is now needed.

    Also, stakeholder-centricity must be embedded into organizational DNA, so that employee experience, optimized though commitment and advocacy behavior, has equal weight and priority with customer experience. Far too many companies consider employees costs rather than actively contributing assets, and this hurts both customers and employees.

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