The evolving role of the CIO and CMO in customer experience

The CIO and CMO must work more closely together and co-govern key resources today in new ways to address an often outdated and/or too inadequate approach to digital customer experience within most organizations.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Most organizations continue to struggle with the complexities and rapidly shifting requirements for delivering an effective, or even average, digital customer experience. The two top-level executives most responsible for this, the CIO and CMO, still have their work cut out to close ranks further and sustainably deliver on what has become the most defining aspect of business today.

Once a fairly straightforward affair involving a Web site, social media presence, and a mobile app or two, the reality of customer expectations of how companies should engage with them today today has skyrocketed. It now includes everything from real-time engagement in every digital channel to supporting customers in their favorite 3rd party devices (say in Alexa, Google Assistant, or an Oculus device), as well as pervasive app integrations, a rich developer ecosystem of add-on services, and contextual personalization that actually works.

What's worse, is that most organizations currently overestimate their success with customer experience significantly, with double digit gaps, often large ones, between what customers actually think they receive and what enterprises believe they provide.

The Shared Customer Experience Landscape of the CIO and CMO

With the tone being set by market leaders like Apple and Amazon, the average organization has to act like an above average organization in order to compete and receive the "customer experience multiple." Failure to do this means becoming an also-ran in a world increasingly being eaten by technology giants that have organized from the ground up to go all the way with digital. Digital leaders have to address the frequent shortcomings in their culture, organization, processes, and technology foundation, and do it quickly, if they wish to survive and thrive long term.

The Silos of CIO and CMO Define the Issue

In my latest industry research on end-to-end digital experience, I've discovered that one the most fundamental obstacles to success involves  overcoming the silos at the very top of the organization: IT has a great deal of the data, analytics, applications, and integrations that customer experience is powered by. But marketing understands the customer better, creates and delivers many (but not all) of the digital customer experiences, and has the mandate to deliver a good third to half of the company's experiential content, usually involving the first part, acquisition, and last parts, retention and advocacy of customer experience. 

Note: It's outside the scope of this article to talk about the sales, operations, and customer care aspects of customer experience, but those silos are whole other challenges that are also contribute to the challenges in creating seamless and effective customer experience. The focus here, however, is how to resolve it between the CIO and CMO.

I've explored the occasionally fraught CIO/CMO relationship several times over the years, and actually found it to be good for the most part, as long as the CMO didn't have to wait for the CIO and could choose most of their marketing-specific solutions. That the CMO has to wait their turn is a problem because most other line-of-business functions have a higher priority to IT than marketing does. This despite the digital side of marketing growing in leaps and bounds over the last several years.

In fact, the CMO has become a digital giant in most organizations, working with large swaths of budget, resources, and data to sustain and grow the business. The digital marketing technology budget, a function colloquially known as martech, grew by a very considerable 30% last year, greatly eclipsing IT budget growth many times over, which only increased by 3.2% average globally in comparison.

As a result, the root of the challenge in smoothing over the bumpy silos -- which result in bumpy customer experiences as the disconnects show right in the technology touchpoints themselves  -- is really resolving people issues over control and ownership. Since the two leaders are each nurturing increasingly large digital purviews, with many expanding overlaps, it appears that a reboot of the relationship is in order to reset the status quo, increase collaboration, clarify roles and responsibilities, and find better ways of working together in an ever-more digitally-infused world.

Real Solutions Requires Leadership and Action

Here are the top five issues I'm encountering -- as well as some workable solutions -- in improving the CIO and CMO relationship in the context of customer experience:

  • Merely partnering isn't that effective, so create a jointly-owned shared service for digital experience. While the partner prescription is far and away the most common piece of advice offered up to improve the CIO/CMO relationship, it's also one of easiest to merely pay lip service to, even inadvertently. A shared service can be in the form of a Center of Excellence or a newer innovation model around customer experience (which also gives an opening to other functions like sales and customer service to join in), or it can simply be a semi-formal way of working with resources and staff matrixed together and reporting up on joint programs and projects. Either way, it's a stronger model than a high-level partnership, which are harder to keep healthy with just periodic meetings and planning sessions. This approach creates a more sustained connective fabric based on collaboration and shared roadmaps between the two purviews.
  • Two top-level digital technology owners means finger pointing and overlap, so appoint a new CIO of Marketing that reports to both the CIO and CMO. I've seen this happen and work in larger organizations, especially consumer-facing ones with large digital marketing teams. It creates shared ownership and visibility, one "throat to choke", and reduces one group from heading to far in one direction without the other knowing and agreeing.
  • The shared ownership components of customer experience are often blurry between the CIO and CMO (see the large shared ownership space in the figure above), leading to all sorts of long-term downstream issues, so invest time regularly in keeping them super crisp. Define in detail who owns which parts of digital strategy and who is carrying out and paying for which near-term transformations and initiatives. One area the CMO is notorious weak in is master data, so the CIO can help make that story much more effective while the CMO can retain shared ownership and preferred access. Another notorious issue is marketing integrations, which plague marketing teams and force them to become the import/export attendants to dozens to hundreds of marketing apps. CIOs should own this on behalf of the CMO, but let the CMO retain choice of tools, but with clear service level agreements (SLAs) that ensure integrations stay up-to-date.
  • The CIO and CMO are still only part of the customer experience equation, so spearhead and contribute significantly to the rest of the needed enterprise-wide efforts to get what's needed in place. Usually missing or highly inadequate is the proverbial 360 degree view of the customer, which requires all business departments and functions to contribute the customer data they have. So too are common analytics models, digital KPIs that everyone agrees to and has access to, and a common operating model driven by a command center that has responsibility for customer responsiveness and engagement. The CIO and CMO should drive these efforts enterprise-wide to feed what they are doing as well as serve the customer.
  • Even if the CIO and CMO have a good working relationship, the rest of the organization often doesn't know what's going on and ends up creating duplication or waiting for the two leaders to let them know how to support better customer experience. So communicate early and often about joint customer experience efforts. In my research, the top complaint of digital transformation efforts by line staff is that they simply don't know what's going on. Positive change requires proactive and detailed communication.

While there are certainly other issues, with these having the largest impact right now in organizations I'm speaking with, addressing even a couple of them can have significant long-term impact to what the customer experiences. As with so much of digital, strong leadership has the most effect, and the risks of most of the solutions above are relatively low. While your mileage may vary, it's virtually certain you can strengthen the shared outcomes of the CIO and CMO rapidly today.

Additional Reading

Personalization is dead, long live personalization

CRM and customer-centricity are code words for customer engagement and customer experience

Editorial standards