Ian McVey

The mythology of customer care

Earlier this year, Britain’s dominant service industry reported its sharpest slowdown for nearly three years. Economists downgraded their forecasts for first-quarter growth as manufacturing and construction surveys pointed to a global slowdown.  Today, Brexit, Brazil and shrinking manufacturing output across much of Asia and the Americas are all adding to the gloom.

Against such a backdrop, how do customer management professionals prove their worth to companies as concerned about keeping their existing customers as they are about winning new ones? The answer is to be found in the tangled dispositions of companies’ customer centric endeavours.

While the responsibilities of a CEO, a COO and CIO are clear cut, the responsibilities of the chief customer officer vary enormously, with a multitude of reporting lines, responsibilities and objectives. Some are there to recruit customers in business or consumer streams, others to retain them; some may work with their marketing departments to acquire the most valuable customers, others with the call centre to ensure complaints are escalated to a meaningful resolution. Some of the best even reach out to the HR department to help ensure customer facing employees are empowered and aligned with customer centric strategy.

CXOs perform their duties in a dynamic profession that has shifted quickly from its axis in chasing customers for ‘after the event’ feedback to the sunny uplands of predictive engagement, tapping in to customers’ opinions to collaborate and create products around heir need, not company guesswork. Furthermore, they do so at a time when management is wrestling with the benefits of putting decision making into the hands of data scientists armed with big data and social media.

What emerges is a picture of a professional with as many masters as responsibilities, whose output is often hard to prove and can take times to see results, working in an ill defined environment while trying to assert his or her skills and improve connectivity across uncoordinated business units. In the mythology of the corporate world, a customer manager must perform the functions of all the Greek Gods combined, from wisdom and knowledge to dark magic, from harvesting and hunting to commerce and even poetry.

To maintain the ancient metaphor, this intractable problem symbolised by the impossible Gordian knot, can be dealt with just as Alexander the Great did with one swoop of his sword. Software is the key. Engagement software gives the Customer professional a hard edge in the shape of the transparency that no C Suite manager can ignore.  From the metrics that show how engaged the employee is about his work, to the customer’s opinion on a new shade of green for a dress or a car, it replaces top down forecasts based on precedent with bottom up forecasts based on fact. Its pulse provides accuracy over time, which provides a trend, not a snapshot.

It resists the management urge to ‘give me a single number’ with continuous insight performed daily, enabled and interconnected by the customer professional, helping management to use scientific thinking to solve business problems.

The Customer professional is the consultant, the custodian of the process that makes that happen, helping to make them valuable and hard to second guess or even to replace, for instance by Artificial Intelligence.  Algorithms are all very well at organising the engagement, distributing and compiling results while data can analyse and guide strategy, but AI cannot replace human intelligence, intuition or insight on customers whose motives are more often emotional and impulsive than they are logical and predictable. This applies to all sectors, and especially to the ecommerce environment, where the human element is even more important.

In a downturn, customer professionals who rely on engagement software to connect the disparate dots that surround them, will quickly come to be seen as mentors, not myths.