Increasingly, we hear about retailers focusing more on 'knowing' their customers – but what does that actually mean?

The wonders of digital technology enable us to develop a clear picture of consumer shopping patterns. Yet with big data and multichannel developments galvanising the industry, the retail sector has encountered two serious difficulties.

The first is the challenge of creating a tangible, personalised experience for each customer out of the data collected, and executing that within a wider marketing strategy. The second is ensuring the customer experience is consistent across all touch points as a retailer’s channels to market proliferate.

These strategic areas are conventionally led by a multichannel or marketing director. Whilst data offers retailers a lens into shopping habits, it can also translate into irrelevant messages. This can depersonalise the customer experience and make consumers feel indifferent. Consumers (rightfully) expect to be treated as human beings, not data sets and, as these issues grow, it can no longer fall to a traditional marketeer to combat them.

Speaking at an Oresa-hosted debate, Susan Aubrey-Cound, former multichannel development director at Marks & Spencer, suggested: “There are a lot of what I would call traditional marketeers still at the top and they’re doing a good job, but actually they’ve not got a broad enough skill set, so the only way to get around that is to create a different role.”

Having a single customer view

Enter the chief customer officer. Whilst the traditional pillars of retail focus on buying, selling and turning a profit, the CCO is the one who always has the customer front of mind and the executive power to remind everyone who, ultimately, gives the business its raison d’etre. All retailers have a designated leader at the helm of each business function, so it’s natural that the customer – the person who actually buys your products – should be entitled to one too.

Oresa has conducted detailed research into this role. Our resulting report – 'Decoding the Chief Customer Officer' – found that 66% of the business leaders surveyed believe there is a need for a CCO, whilst 90% consider that the role of the CCO will increase in importance over the next five years.

The rise of the role is dictated by the rapid undercurrent of multichannel developments. Most traditional retailers are conscious of the need to have an online offer, but physical spaces remain the main point of contact with consumers, making creative merchandising and retail theatre vital areas of innovation and competition. With pop-up shops also on the rise and talk of drive-through grocery shopping, it is clear that there is still further potential for channel pluralism.

The CEO of the future?

In order to guarantee longevity in the relationship between your business and your customer, you need someone who can develop that relationship in the long-term and deliver on the commitments you have made with regard to service and experience. This amplifies the need for a strong leader who can take ownership of the experience across all channels and, crucially, convert internal, siloed views into the joined-up journey that customers expect.

The CCO is there to be the ambassador of the customer within the business. Therefore this role needs to be a structural priority for retailers that have a) genuine multichannel ambitions, b) a determination to ensure the customer is always front of mind and c) a willingness to appoint someone to represent the customer at executive level. This is probably why 56% of respondents believed that the CCOs of today are the CEOs of tomorrow.

Hire sooner rather than later

The likelihood of CCOs succeeding as CEOs explains why the demand for chief customer officers is accelerating. With Asda, Pizza Express, Kingfisher and the Telegraph all having appointed CCOs in the last three months, it is also evident that appreciation for this skillset extends well beyond the retail arena. Yet the talent pool in the UK retail sector is already finite; directly, it’s about 30 and, more widely, it’s no more than about 100. So people with this skill set are in high demand. This means anyone looking to hire a CCO should be doing so sooner rather than later.

The chief customer officer is not a 'business band-aid'

Speed aside, we need to recognise that a Chief Customer Officer is not a sticking plaster for a company’s customer experience problems. Fundamentally, creating a customer-centric role needs to be a bespoke solution that fits with the strategic objectives of the business. Every retailer needs to assess how it is meeting these requirements and consider the potential benefit of developing this role as part of the senior leadership team. The most important thing is to make sure the organisational design is aligned to the needs of the company strategy.

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