Asia to see more chief customer officers

CCO title largely unknown in region but will grow in prominence as companies focus on having its entire organization provide holistic customer experience, industry players say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Chief customer officers (CCOs) are largely unheard of in the Asian business world, but industry players say they expect greater prominence for the role as more companies realize that successful customer relations go beyond sale transactions or be confined to the responsibility of one department.

According to them, firms are increasingly recognizing that a CCO is integral to strategizing and ensuring a consistent, powerful customer experience reverberates throughout the entire organization.

Felicia Leung, chief customer officer at Prudential Assurance Singapore, told ZDNet Asia that the CCO role was created to "specifically establish a customer experience strategy for the company that would support our long-term growth aspirations". Leung, who became CCO 18 months ago, has worked with the insurance giant for 13 years.

"Customer experience is the next competitive battleground, and companies that can do this well will reap the rewards," Leung pointed out in an e-mail.

Focusing on customer experience, she explained, goes beyond front-line customer service, complaint management or call centers. It is about the organization considering how a customer experiences the company and its brands, or "all critical interaction points", she added.

The overarching responsibility of the CCO is "to bring the voice of the customer into the organization", and this means it is imperative to understand customers' expectations, and work with all parts of the organization to deliver an experience that meets or even exceeds those expectations, the Prudential CCO elaborated.

Another CCO, Jim Steele from Salesforce.com, said his role was created because "you can't separate sales from customer success". Steele became CCO two years ago and is also the president of international operations at Salesforce.com, where he has worked for over eight years.

Having a CCO "changes the discussion with customers", Steele said in an e-mail. "My conversations [with customers] have less to do with what they're going to buy, and more to do with how they can be more successful. This allows for a more open discussion…If customers think I'm there to sell them something, they'd be more guarded."

He added: "As a CCO, I'm looking for that transformational experience [and] not just selling technology. I'm trying to give them an experience nobody else has.

"This approaches changes the game for us, it changes the conversation."

David Ang, executive director of Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI), said in a phone interview the fundamental task of the CCO is to look after the interests of the customers. However, he also emphasized that the focus on customers has shifted from merely transactional to a strategic one.

It is no longer just attending to and solving the customer's problem; instead, the "customer's perspectives, needs and wants are [strategically] built into the organization", he explained.

CCO largely unknown in Asia
According to Prudential's Leung, the CCO or a similar role that links different parts of an organization to provide a holistic customer value proposition and delivery system, is relatively new in Asia.

Instead of identifying how every department in a company contributes to the overall customer experience, there is still a tendency to view customer interaction as belonging to a specific function, such as the customer service or marketing department, she noted.

SHRI's Ang added that the CCO position is mostly new to local enterprises, adding that the role tends to be associated with multinational corporations (MNCs) or global corporations.

Annie Lim, manager of IT commerce division at Robert Walters, also reported in an e-mail the recruitment agency has not yet seen a demand for such a role among its clientele.

Over in the United States, the majority of CCOs have less than two years of experience and come from internal ranks, a Forrester Research study of 155 CCOs revealed. In a blog post in January, Forrester analyst Paul Hagen said 82 percent of the respondents had been in the role for two years or less, while 83 percent are internal hires who have been with their companies for an average of eight years.

Companies that currently have CCOs include South Korean electronics company LG and imaging giant Kodak--both positions were created last year and filled after an internal search.

Not all companies, however, see value in creating a CCO position. Local bank DBS opted to create a customer experience council (CEC) chaired by the CEO, to oversee strategic service agenda, as well as anticipate and address customer service needs, said Paul Cobban, its managing director. He added in an e-mail that DBS also has customer experience leaders for different specialty areas such as retail, technology and operations.

CCO to rise in prominence
While the CCO profile is currently relatively low both in Asia and globally, the pool of customer chiefs is set to grow, observers pointed out.

A consumer-centric digital age--thanks to the prevalence of social media and Web 2.0--will spur companies to call for a CCO with the right capabilities and qualities to ensure their business thrives, said Sue Lou, course manager of Diploma in Marketing at Temasek Polytechnic's School of Business.

Consumers today have greater access to information and command over media consumption, and these changing trends in the new media environment are affecting the enterprise--making business leaders sit up and notice that traditional approaches to customer service and marketing are no longer sufficient, Lou explained in an e-mail.

Hence, with the rise of a customer-centric focus and accountability, it is logical to expect that the CCO would become an essential member of the C-suite of corporate leaders, she added.

Prudential's Leung concurred, noting that there is an accelerated realization among companies that what attracts customers to choose a brand and stay loyal to it, is "shifting from just pricing and transactional excellence to one that delivers a unified experience that satisfies on the physical and emotional level for the customer".

Therefore it is likely that the business world will see more management focus in such a CCO role in the future, she pointed out.

Steele of Salesforce.com also highlighted that the cloud-based subscription model has also made it more crucial for companies to step up customer engagement and ensure a positive experience. "We earn the sale every single time, [so] retention is just as important as the initial sale."

In addition, in today's "Google and Facebook era, we are at the forefront of a revolution in how companies and their customers engage and communicate", and this opens up a world of possibilities for companies to build stronger relationships with their customers, he said.

Because the most successful companies tend to be customer-focused ones, companies will soon create CCO roles, Steele pointed out. The CCO, he added, is "especially important in Asia", because of its diversities in country, culture and language, which makes maintaining a consistent customer experience even more important.

DBS' Cobban added that there is competition among organizations to take advantage of Asia's growth and increasing consumption. This competition will drive innovation in all areas including service, he said, and that in turn will spur organizations to have a CCO or its equivalent to focus holistically on the costumer.

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