Must You Have ‘Executive Support’ To Begin Customer Experience Improvements?

I was reading a LinkedIn discussion started by a medical products company officer looking for advice on starting customer experience improvement. She kicked things off with the following request: “Ready to implement a customer experience movement. I would appreciate any advice/direction you can share.”

In several responses, there was a consistent thread: Get executive support first. Comments such as “#1 in my book is to secure executive level support…” Another asked: “Do you have 100% buy-in from the executive broad commitment for the long haul journey?” Another suggested she “Ask the executive broad [sic] to define a corporate customer experience statement which needs to be totally aligned with your company values.”

You get the gist. Sincere comments all, but–the majority of the time–simply not aligned with the real world.

‘Show Me’
Among the many enterprise customer experience initiatives my company, customer experience innovation firm MCorp Consulting, has helped kick off over the past 10 plus years, maybe 20 percent actually began with a CEO or other senior executive “fully supporting” the program. One hundred percent buy-in? Never. Words that better describe executive involvement include intrigued, interested, hopeful, and skeptical.

When it comes to supporting customer experience transformation, every executive could be from Missouri. “Show me” is their motto. Why? Because most recognize that while true customer experience differentiation is a truly worthwhile objective, actually getting there often requires fairly radical organizational change and potentially massive investment.

Faced with this reality, it’s a rare executive who fully commits to this journey without strong proof of the value that will result. Most often, customer experience transformation is incremental; the journey starts with small steps and grows over time, with executive buy-in increasing in direct proportion to the value demonstrated.

This doesn’t mean that the journey has to take a long time, though it usually does–for most, it truly is never-ending. As it should be. But when it comes to garnering top-level buy in, the old saying, “Nothing breeds success like success,” is as true as ever.

‘Where Do We Start?’
Every week, I talk to people inside corporations interested in improving customer experience. Yes, some are senior executives. More often, though, they are marketing heads, line-of-business VPs, GMs, or directors, most concerned with their unit or division of the organization. Then there are those who’ve been charged with improving customer experience–initially given a charge and a direction, but little budget, authority, or staff to implement.

Universally, getting started means first identifying a discrete issue to address, defining an initial scope, and executing against specific objectives. Typically, early projects are focused on a particular audience segment, business unit or core process, life cycle stage (e.g., acquisition or retention), or other similar factors.

Most often working with an outside partner who has “been there and done that,” these initiatives identify specific solutions to real problems in a way that value creation is both obvious and defensible. From the results comes the ability to develop business cases, identify other opportunities, and generally continue socializing the idea of, and benefits from, customer experience improvement.

These initial programs are the first steps in the journey toward transformation. Success on a smaller scale–done in a way that is provably replicable and scalable across a firm–is what leads to broader adoption.

Skunkworks, Bootstrapping, And Intrapreneurship
Thursday I had lunch with a former client of our firm, the person who kicked off what is now a firmly embedded customer experience discipline at his company, a global investment firm with nearly $500 billion under management. When the company hired us about three years ago, the idea of customer experience management was just bubbling up across the business world.

Starting with a limited charter and significant personal initiative, he got buy-in for pilot projects from a couple of internal groups. As a result, we kicked off two business-unit and audience-specific projects, simultaneously helping educate him, his team, and others on the process, concepts, and artifacts that drive experience improvement.

Leveraging the results of these pilots, he helped others across the organization see the resulting value. Interest in the program grew, and a desire for broader involvement followed–along with increasing executive buy-in and support, evidenced not just by words, but also by budget, resources, and authority.

Looking back on his efforts, our client reflected that he’d “…successfully bootstrapped customer experience into life…” He isn’t alone. Other clients use phrases like “skunkworks” and “intrapreneurship” to describe their efforts. They recognize that when it comes to getting buy-in, you must prove yourself and your ideas–and that one of the best ways to do so is with measurable results.

Where ‘100% Buy-In’ Begins
Our most successful clients convey a similar, nearly entrepreneurial mind-set to the goal of enterprise-wide customer experience improvement. On rare occasion it starts with an executive. But every single success story has someone pushing, leading, cajoling, and evangelizing the idea of customer experience as a cure for whatever ills exist.

They find pain points that present opportunities to improve, and pilot a project (or two, or three) to be their proof-of-concept. By subsequently leveraging success to socialize their ideas, build business cases, and drive awareness and enthusiasm, the executive support that’s so important to true long-term transformation materializes.

So don’t worry too much about executive buy-in and support. Yet. No matter your role, as long as you deeply believe in the benefits to your customers and your firm (and aren’t afraid to think like a startup), you have a real shot at changing the course of your company’s future.

When it comes to customer experience transformation, the longest and most rewarding journey can be yours.

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