Building the Right Team for a Customer-Centric Approach


By: The CDPa Team

There’s no magic button to make a consumer business customer-centric. And there’s no executive equivalent either — leadership cannot just declare, “Hear ye, hear ye, our company now gives priority to customer metrics over product and channel metrics, and we shall set our strategy based on the very behaviors of our most prized customers.” They might try, but it won’t stick. The shift to customer-centricity requires a dedicated team working across functions, demonstrating the value of the approach and winning buy-in over time, giving the rest of the organization a reason to believe.

What does such a team look like? How does it operate? And how do you, a leader stepping up to the challenge, approach building such a team?

We asked some industry leaders who have been down this road before to share their experiences building a customer-centric team. Our panel of experts includes Lynn Hemans, VP of Consumer Intelligence and Strategy at The Hershey Company; Sebastian DiGrande, board member for Big Lots; Chris Chapo, VP of Advanced Analytics at Amperity; and analytics leaders from healthcare and finance who asked to remain anonymous since they are still in the middle of their customer-centric transformations at their current roles.

Here’s what we learned from them:

Where does the team managing a customer-centric approach sit in an organization?

There isn’t one typical place, which reflects the complexity of the task at hand. Successfully implementing a customer-centric approach requires two things: executive support and involvement from all sections of the organization. That is, top to bottom and all the way across. That being the case, it doesn’t make as much sense to have a team responsible for getting everyone on board tightly attached to any one existing unit, because they will need to work with all units. Sebastian DiGrande says “You have to have your customer-centric approach and the team leading it be authorized, funded, and enabled at CEO level. The accountability can sit at the level just below the CEO, but without buy-in from the CEO, and even the board, the team’s efforts won’t be able to transform the business.”

Sometimes companies put their customer-centric teams in marketing, because people think that marketing owns the customer experience; sometimes they sit in analytics, which would seem to make sense given the focus on using customer data; but these teams have their own day-to-day responsibilities and their specific area of focus that may not leave room for cross-company transformation. 

Instead, it works the best when the team responsible for driving a customer-centric approach is its own entity that can collaborate nimbly and work cross-functionally. If the team does need to sit in a specific part of the organization for reporting structures or to make the most of existing relationships, there needs to be an understanding that the team has a broad scope of involvement beyond that one area.

You have to have your customer-centric approach and the team leading it be authorized, funded, and enabled at CEO level.

What kind of roles do you want on this team?

To account for the breadth of the challenge, there needs to be a mix of roles both technical and non-technical. At minimum, this should include analysts, data scientists, and business consultants. The common thread is that they all have a deep understanding of customer data and analytics in practice. 

Because the ultimate goal is to move the whole organization toward a customer-centric operating model, there need to be members of the team who can speak to the specific concerns of teams across the company. And not just speak to their concerns, but help them realize value from working with customer data and metrics. That means partnering closely on analyzing patterns in customer purchase behavior, discovering insights through research and analytics, and develop customer-centric strategies to drive business value. 

Chris Chapo calls it “a ninja team.” It’s kind of like putting together a crew for a heist movie, but instead of a safe-cracker, a demolitions expert, and someone to talk their way past security, you need a numbers-cruncher, a regression analysis expert, and someone to talk business teams through their challenges. He goes on to say ”The most important role is someone that is an evangelist and works with senior leaders and keeps the drumbeat going and always on.”

What kind of skills or qualities should the team members have?

As important as the collection of technical and function-specific skills are, even more crucial (and often harder to find) are the attitudes and outlooks needed to bring customer-centricity to life for the whole company. 

People tackling this challenge need to be intellectually curious, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and able to cultivate influence. Oftentimes they are operating without a structure, moving between teams and projects. The task calls for both building things where nothing exists and changing the way people are currently working, both of which can be tall orders unless people have the grit to see it through. 

We spoke to an analytics leader working at a large healthcare company and he said, “The most important skill is curiosity! The shift from descriptive metrics and basic analytics to more advanced and nuanced customer analyses is largely driven by the team asking different and deeper questions from the data.”

The most important skill for a team member driving customer-centricity is curiosity.

If you want to work with the talent you have, how do you develop your people to put customer-centricity to work?

The qualities of creative problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking mentioned above are harder to teach than technical skills, so if you’re looking to work with the people you already have onboard then it’s best to prioritize those traits and train to fill any technical know-how gaps, rather than the other way around. And even though we asked about making the most of the talent you already have, all of our respondents said that it’s usual to have to hire in to find the rare folks who have both the right skills and the right mindset.

It’s also important to get everyone on your team on the same page about what customer-centricity means and how it will look in your organization. That way they can be effective champions as they spread the message and practice through the company. It helps to make a “walking deck” that they all use to evangelize the method in a way that’s consistent. 

Lynn Hemans, who has been at this for a couple of decades, told us, “A strong leader will surround themselves with people that have diverse skills that are stronger in their areas of expertise and complement their teammates”.

What are some key lessons you’ve learned along the way?

The biggest overall lesson is not to expect that everything can be done in one year. You can’t just throw people at the problem — they need to be the right people, with the right skills. If you spend the time to get the nucleus of the effort right, it can expand in a healthy and sustainable way. In other words, go slow to go fast. 

As with any company-wide effort, executive sponsorship is critical. If the leadership isn’t actively bought-in and believing in what you are doing, there’s no chance that the rest of the company will adopt a new way of doing things. This means that the team you build needs to be able to reliably deliver results — even if they’re small at first — so that leaders continue to see the value and continue to support the initiative. 

A big part of gaining buy-in from leadership and peers alike is having accurate, objective metrics that show progress is being made. The customer-centric approach has an enemy: the persistence of old channel and product KPIs that have little to do with customer health. Any team leading a transition to customer-centricity needs to be able to use the same language as those older metrics (which in many cases is revenue) to show the value of a customer-centric approach. This takes diligence and perseverance in the face of doubt. 

As we said, there is no magic button to turn your business into a customer-centric powerhouse, but we hope these lessons from the experts are good companions for you along the journey. Paired with other resources from The CDPa you have a good foundation to get started!

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The CDPa Team

The CDPa exists as a forum for people who believe in responsibly using customer insights and data to drive customer-centric growth. Together we elevate the best practices and tools in a space for collaboration to drive personal development and commercial success.

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