Meet the new chief customer officer

“The chief customer officer is becoming a staple of modern business,” claims Forbes, noting that 10% of Fortune 500 companies have already adopted the role, a percentage that jumps to 22% among the Fortune 100.

In an industry such as hospitality, this number should be even higher. I can’t think of someone more qualified to speak to this than Michelle Lapierre, who graduated from 28 years at Marriott, most recently leading customer experience and social media, to now coach companies on how to “turn customers into raving fans.” In this interview, Michelle shares her perspective on the need for senior customer advocates with a broad base of business experience.

What role does the chief customer officer (CCO) need to assume? 

Even in a service-oriented vertical such as hospitality, it’s increasingly difficult to accommodate the pressures of large companies. In the past, our industry focused on a balanced scorecard between investors, owners, employees and customers. But as times changed, pressure has increased for double-digit revenue growth, quarter after quarter.

Short-term gain has forced companies to pull back from long-term vision. After the recent economic downturn, companies took the scalpel to everything on property to optimize profit – and that lean operating strategy has remained with us through today. The consequence of this is that valuable customer interaction is at risk when human resources are at a minimum.

Chief customer officers understand that if companies continue to operate with a price-driven and cost-reduction mindset, they increase the likelihood that consumers will consider their offerings to be a commodity, differentiation will be impossible and growth will become increasingly challenging. Because of this, the CCO serves as an executive representative of the guest in the boardroom, guiding the investment of resources into customer-centric growth.

What skills will the CCO have?

Guiding priorities and investment into creating a customer-centric culture requires broad business acumen in areas like reservations, food and beverage, sales, marketing and operations. Data must be gathered and translated into the day-to-day practices of teams across the company and the properties.

Specifically, this person needs to understand the business objectives of each functional area across the organization, and how people within those areas define and measure success. 

Equally important to the customer experience is the employee experience, which includes sensitivity to employee motivations, their job satisfaction and how they prefer to collaborate.   

What are some factors in hotel companies affecting the CCO role? 

Customer touch points span an organization, from the front desk to voice channels to digital and social engagement. There is a lot of activity throughout the industry to understand the guest journey and define what success looks like in terms of maximizing the customer experience, which can quickly get complicated when you consider how expectations change with cultural nuances, trip purpose, and so on. How each of the touch points sync up and complement each other with the delivery of personalized customer experience is a big undertaking.

Customer service has historically been organized around issue resolution and financially incented to shorten “talk time” as much as possible. However, building lasting relationships with customers often require longer discussions and may cover topics such as “where should I stay” and “what should I do.” This requires a more progressive attitude toward a non-templated, non time-boxed activity, not to mention the need for more flexible back-end support platforms.

The reliance on technology has changed the game in many ways, but we’re often seeing a new wave of digital leaders who don’t have experience in the psychological/social piece of marketing and customer service. Increasingly, social technology has cut across silos – and hotel brands need a corporate executive with broad experience that can oversee these myriad aspects.

Finally, training for authentic human interaction is a huge issue across the organization.

What tools is the CCO using?

Many hotel companies rely on legacy systems, and the challenge becomes finding new tools that integrate with these existing systems without taxing the already strained business sponsors and teams in IT, business intelligence, security, and so on.

Since things move so fast in today’s digitally empowered environment, it is important to select platforms and tools that are agile, scalable, and integrate information from myriad data sources. Intuitive usability is vital.

What advice do you have for CEOs looking to add the CCO role? 

Positively impacting customer experience is not a one-and-done proposition. To defend and grow your business, you have to commit ongoing resources to continually evolve your organization’s ability to understand and exceed the rapidly changing expectations of your customers. 

You must demonstrate your steadfast conviction to honestly listen to, and act upon, the voice of your customer. 

What advice do you have for hotel executives aspiring to the CCO role? 

Challenge yourself to develop earnest relationships with your customers and take responsibility for nourishing their friendship and loyalty. Then, apply what you learn to the areas you can influence.

Finally, how can each of our readers act more like a CCO – regardless of their current role? 

Give yourself permission to speak, write and act like the human beings that you are.