Many companies that have an enterprise focus struggle with the concept of “owning the customer”. Who or which team should be accountable? On one hand, you could emphasize a management style of holding one person accountable for a particular customer or account. On the other, you could have people and teams that want to control the factors that impact their pay/performance. This could be a Sales Executive who wants as much control as possible, given their compensation structure, or a Customer Success Manager who makes the same case for ownership, as they are rewarded based on on renewals, and potential upsells and cross-sells.
As much as both sides want the assignment of a “Customer Owner”, this is precisely the worst way to go about optimizing company outcomes, and will lead to extremely counterproductive and inefficient behaviors and outcomes. Let me share why.
Issues with Solo Customer Ownership
The Enterprise-Customer relationship is far too complex and dynamic for any one person to control, contain, and optimize on their own. In addition, the channels of communication and information available in today’s world provide an unprecedented level of transparency and connectedness that needs to be embraced, not controlled. Assigning a single person as the “owner” in this reality leads to a litany of issues, including:
1. Organizations become desensitized to the customer – Once a CO is in place, they become the communication channel with the customer. In this capacity, the rest of the organization greatly reduces direct interaction, and as a result, start dealing with the CO as the customer and not the customer themselves. This is how Customer Advocacy organizations evolve; they are there solely because the company has become desensitized and stopped listening.
2. Functional organizations optimize for themselves, not the customer – as organization become desensitized to the customer, various organizations start to look “inside – out” instead of “outside – in”, and create processes that they optimize for themselves, not the customer. Paradoxically, more often than not, optimizing in a vacuum like this is less efficient, not more.
3. Massive noise and unproductivity is generated internally – the CO is a logical human being, and given that their performance is based upon the performance of their customers, they will push their issues and opportunities as the most critical. The louder you yell, the better chance you have of being heard. In addition, a CO will never have the breadth of skills to effectively set and manage expectations across a variety of areas.
Instead they will only amplify whatever they are hearing from the customer because they are the only ones responsible for meeting them. Multiply this dynamic across all COs, and you have a massive communication problem. Who do you listen to? What are the real priorities? All kinds of time and processes are put in place to deal with this noise, for marginal gain, while the customers suffer.
4. Customers become dissatisfied by the revolving door of COs – the average tenure of a sales rep is 19 months, with an average turnover rate of 35%. I have not found reliable stats for Customer Success Managers, but it likely is not much better. Significant frustration is generated as new COs burn time getting up to speed on the company and the customer.
5. The customer creates a relationship with an individual, not the company – this is tied with the point above, and an absolutely horrible position to be in, especially in an earlier stage company, as you have now injected another level of risk based upon the 35% of customers who will lose their CO every year.
What’s the Alternative?
If you buy into the challenges we create through the assignment of a Customer Owner, what is the alternative? Does no one own the customer? Exactly the opposite. EVERYONE OWNS THE CUSTOMER. And I mean everyone. Product, Support, Finance, you name it. What comes out of this is a sense of accountability to the customer across the board for the impact their interactions have on the overall Customer Journey. Direct interactions that address the customers’ situation make priorities very clear, as all teams work together to solve issues efficiently and effectively sort through the noise. Teams will act with urgency and mutual purpose to solve issues and take advantage of key opportunities.
If you don’t believe this, just look to your favorite team sport. Pick offense or defense. Doesn’t matter which side. Once the puck/ball is put into play, whichever side you are on is driving to a TEAM result through the actions of INDIVIDUALS reacting in REAL TIME to a constantly shifting and dynamic environment, processing INFORMATION through a variety of CHANNELS to decide what to do in that MOMENT. What sometimes appears to be a completely choreographed play is actually created in the moment via a myriad of adjustments that INDIVIDUALS are making based upon their own interpretation of the situation/data. Hopefully this sounds familiar, as I earlier defined the reality of the enterprise relationship:
…the Enterprise Customer relationship is far too complex and dynamic for any one person to control, contain, and/optimize on their own. In addition, the channels of communication and information available in today’s world provide a level of transparency that needs to be embraced, not controlled…
The Support Case Study
I have countless examples of how a shift to this mode of play completely changed how a company executed, to the benefit of the customer and the company. One of my favorites comes from a brilliant Support leader I had the pleasure to work with at a past company. As we started to deploy the “everyone owns the customer” model in earnest, it drove this individual to spearhead three major changes that benefited the customer, and made us significantly more efficient.
First, he realized that we were constantly dealing with the wrong perception of what the customer problem was and its priority. For example, it was not unusual for a customer owner to lob in an urgent e-mail that the customer was escalating an issue and if we didn’t resolve it right away, some major catastrophe would happen (remember, every customer owner’s customer issues are the most critical…). We were burning so much time trying to sort through the noise, that he figured it would be far more efficient if he just called the customer directly.
What he found is that in nearly every case, the size and severity of the problem was orders of magnitude less than presented, and in less than five minutes he could align with the customer on precisely what needed to happen and when, saving an extraordinary amount of Support and Engineering time. In some instances, there was no problem to even solve for, as it wasn’t a customer priority, but rather the CO’s priority for personal reasons. Customers LOVED the attention; in fact, he would surprise the heck out of most when they got a call directly from the head of Support five minutes after they talked to a CO! We made it a standard practice from that point on that the first step in any escalation was a direct call to the customers from him or a colleague.
Second, he realized that from the customers’ perspective, having leveled Support structures was extremely painful and slow. We had initially implemented this type of system to “protect” our most senior support engineers, a traditional inside-out thought process. After becoming so close to the customer, and realizing the acute pain this created for them, the goal became to see how quickly we could resolve tickets, starting with from the timestamp of the initial call. This evolved to “how do we solve all tickets on the first call?” To do this, he created single level support engineering, and started focusing everyone’s success metric on the percent of first call resolutions. It’s easy to see the positive impact this practice had on the customer, and hopefully as easy to see how much more internal efficiency this created.
Third, he knew that this approach meant they were “bare metal” to the customer. There was no CO crutch to lean on who would “manage the conversation”. He employed a strategy that we eventually drove throughout the company, which was the mantra “Speed and Transparency trump Spin EVERY TIME”. Instead of having to hire traditional escalation managers who are extremely skilled in the art of communication, he just said “Let’s be fast and honest”. When it was needed, we put engineers directly on the phone to talk through what the customers were seeing with no filters. He (and I) learned that spin is highly overrated. People want to know you are working on the problem, you are doing it with earnest, and you are telling them exactly what is happening. They are far more inclined to partner with you to find solutions as well when you operate in this manner.
I could go on and on with examples from Engineering, to Product teams, to Marketing. It is startling to see the impact that occurs when EVERYONE OWNS THE CUSTOMER.
Company-Wide Customer Ownership
If you try to employ this model, you will invariably get pushback from various groups and leaders. Some believe inaccurately that this is “more work” for them. Some see the power in Customer Ownership. Some feel they need to control the customer to optimize for their personal success measures. Many people (including myself at one point) think it is a requirement that accountability has to lie clearly on one person, or nothing will happen. As I showed in my team example, TEAM ACCOUNTABILITY is the most powerful of all. As a CS leader, you need to show everyone how much better this practice is for the CUSTOMER, and by doing so, customers will be more successful, faster, and have a much higher satisfaction level. Even better, they’ll buy more, sooner. Isn’t that the point?
Tom Weeks is an executive at ThoughtSpot where he is maximizing digital Success by enabling/supporting customers. He has broad experience in system integrators, traditional ISV’s, and SaaS companies. He was an executive team member in 3 very successful liquidity events (most recently Skire by Oracle and Business Objects by SAP). He has built and managed global sales teams and has broad product experience across Mobile/API’s, Business Intelligence, EPM applications, ERP, CRM, Collaboration and eProcurement with knowledge across a variety of industries.