Like a Knight at King Arthur's Round Table

Over the last couple of months, I have been asked several times where I think the Customer Experience function should sit. That is a fantastic question and not one easy to answer.

Looking at my own experience, I have been in completely different organisational structures in each of the CX roles I have had.

I was in a ‘customer’ leadership position in Barclays 15 years ago, when ‘customer experience’ was still a concept in its infancy and organisations were talking predominately about customer service improvement and service or operational excellence. Accordingly, and probably rightly, my function sat within the Chief Operating Office, with the accountability to improve end-to-end customer processes and remove the root causes of customer issues and complaints – a very operationally focused role, working in partnership with frontline teams and supply chain management.

A few years later, when I was with the Royal Bank of Scotland, the focus had explicitly shifted to optimizing the omnichannel customer experience, so the CX team was created within the central Multi-Channel Development function, to collaborate with marketing and product development areas to create customer-centric product propositions and seamless omnichannel journeys.

By the beginning of this decade, CX thinking was fast evolving and CX became a discipline in its own right. Social, environmental and technological developments were constantly and radically transforming customer needs and expectations and businesses began to understand that product and price were no longer enough to differentiate and compete effectively and sustainably, but a stronger focus should be placed on the customer experience. This context saw the rise of new players, new business models, new propositions and radically different go to market strategies, which started to revolutionise each service sector and disrupt those old and established players which were not reacting fast enough to the customer-centric revolution.

This was the time when, like all the Knights at the court of King Arthur set off on the quest for the Holy Grail, most organisations started in their quest to ‘put the customer at the heart’. The question was: at the heart of what? A question as elusive as the nature and location of the Holy Grail.

Putting the customer at the heart - of what?

My time with the Direct Line Group exemplified this dilemma. During my 4 years there, my CX function was moved 6 times across the organisation. I started off, by design, within the newly created Chief Customer Office, as a clear statement of the CEO-led desire of increasing customer-centricity across the organisation. When the focus shifted to the urgency of upping the pace of omnichannel capability development, a new Cross-Channel Development function came into play, with a strong CX focus. Then the looming Customer Conduct regulation ended up absorbing CX into a compliance-focused function, which I still believe was a mistake, as the team was split into a bipolar tension between compliance on one side (ensuring we met the bare minimum regulatory standards for customers), and delivering a loyalty-generating customer experience on the other (well above those bare minimums). We subsequently went through a phase when, in order to embed CX focus and a customer-centric culture across the whole organisation, my central team established ‘native strongholds’ within Operations and Digital to improve their CX management, capabilities and performance. Finally, we moved reporting line to the Marketing function, driven by a clear need to ensure that the organisation was able to deliver the brand promises through brand-aligned CX strategy and experience.

Therefore, with all the Knights fighting for it, who should lead the quest for the Holy Grail? Who should be accountable for CX and in which part of the organisational Kingdom should they sit? In my experience, three main aspects should be considered.

Three success factors for effective CX leadership:

1. Single point of ownership

Firstly, it is essential to create a single, central team to own CX across the whole organisation.

I have seen organisations where different parts of the business create their own separate CX teams, without a single point of group-wide accountability, whether in direct or matrix reporting terms. This is often due to legacy organisational structures or internal power siloes. But whenever these separate business areas serve the same customers, this dispersed approach risks to deliver an inconsistent customer experience, as each area will set out their own customer strategy, delivery priorities or service principles.

Customers experience a brand through the totality of its interactions, from the purchase and service touchpoints across all channels, to its communications and engagement activities. Unless the customer strategy is holistic and embedded across all CX dimensions, there will be a discrepancy between brand promises and delivery, online and offline customer journey, or customer experience and employee experience. A single CX team can ensure that the customer experience is managed in its totality, from the customer point of view and consistently across the whole organisation.

2. Independence

Secondly, it is preferable that this team sits within an ‘independent’ part of the business, in order to be able to manage and influence all the customer journey touchpoints.

I have recently seen a number of organisations that have simply relabeled the Operations Director as the Customer Experience Director, or the more recent sexier variation of Customer Success Director. In some cases, this was due to a full delegation of accountability from the top, driven by the naive belief that CX is primarily about delivering a ‘nice’ customer service through the Contact Centre. In some others, this was the easy choice to align CX management activities to one of the most impactful touchpoints.

Other organisations instead place the CX team within Digital, fully focused on UX design, SEO optimisation or digital marketing management, or within Transformation, to ensure that new programmes have the right dose of customer-centricity. In some other cases, CX sits within Marketing and ends up working primarily with brand and propositions teams in defining brand promises and product / price / service offer.  

While these are important elements of the customer experience, they are only exactly that: some elements. Also, this insular approach comes with three main risks: reduced focus, diluted quality and limited scope. Only changing an existing role title may not be enough to ensure the right focus and expertise are placed on defining the customer strategy and mobilizing a CX programme. Whenever one business area is accountable also for CX, they end up marking their own homework and therefore potentially diluting the quality of and challenge from CX measurement. Also, it will be more difficult for one business area to extend the scope to the end-to-end customer journey and influence others to play their part in improving the overall customer experience.

3. Decision making voice

Finally, the CX leader should have enough voice and be senior enough to sit with clout at the decision makers’ table.

A Customer Experience Manager will struggle to achieve the upward and side-way impact required to mobilise different parts of the organisation behind the customer strategy, and their agenda will only be one small part within a much broader set of business priorities – even within their own function. In addition, only a CX Director / Head will be involved regularly in all the broader departmental and cross-functional leadership discussions and decisions, being able to act as the customer advocate and influence the overall business direction, beyond his own directly managed initiatives and priorities.

The power of the Chief Customer Officer

Therefore, if we take these three considerations together (a single team, independent and at senior decision-making level), the answer is appointing a Chief Customer Officer reporting directly to the CEO.

The CCO should be like one of the Knights at King Arthur’s Round Table. These were the best Knights in King Arthur’s kingdom, who had sworn loyalty to the King and lived in his castle, Camelot. King Arthur created a Round Table at the royal court, to indicate that everybody who sat around it was seen as trustworthy and equal, and to drive a ‘code of chivalry’ based upon principles of respect and collaboration towards common quests.

In conclusion, the CX Function should sit at the CEO’s Round Table. The CX Knight should have the same power and voice as the other Knights and, like Sir Galahad, lead the CEO’s quest to find the Holy Grail of customer loyalty.

While there is no ‘one size fits all’ and CX management will be embedded differently in different organisations, the consistent element should be this executive-level accountability. In this way, the CEO is ultimately accountable for the customer experience, as only the CEO can truly drive consistent pan-organisational focus and alignment – supported by a CCO with the right level of expertise, power and influence… at least until the Holy Grail is found. In fact, after that there may no longer be the need for a Knight to lead the quest – but this will be the topic of another blog about the CX maturity stage of an organisation, so watch this space.


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