I’m at BMC Engage this week, where the company announced the creation of its Customer Success Organization and a key executive position called the Chief Customer Officer. I’ve spent a lot of time studying Steve Jobs and lamenting that, given how successful Steve was, the industry didn’t seem to want to duplicate that success. Even Apple seemed to discard the model that made them so successful, and now instead of creating insanely great products, they increasingly seem to be bringing to market products like the bendable iPhone.
I’ve talked about Lenovo re-creating the pitchman side of Steve Jobs with Ashton Kutcher, but another important part of Steve was his role as the chief customer advocate. Having a Chief Customer Officer who reports at an executive level is a part of the old Apple model, and I think this role should be emulated.
The problem with most large companies, particularly public ones, is that they too easily lose track of what the customer wants. Years ago, I had a conversation with now ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about the lack of customer focus from the top executives, and he summed it up as follows: With a massive number of customers, the chief executive can begin to see them all as noise because there is little consistency in their needs or how they express them.
I think this is a problem with nearly every big company. The top executives meet regularly with a few peers who are far removed from customer needs and are relying on their staff to convey those needs. Customer-facing folks aren’t well connected inside the firm, and virtually all of the executives are, as a result, more focused on staffing issues, schedules, reporting and almost everything but the customer.
Most of the folks who build products have different skills and experiences than their customers do. They build up perceptions of what customers do and want done that are often little more than fantasies. Future product requirements can range from actual customer needs to the near-mad ravings of the most obnoxious person in the planning meetings. Even when the process actually starts with real customer needs it can easily be derailed by consensus meeting after consensus meeting. Without some executive knowledge of what the customers really want and how to prioritize those wants, the resulting products often don’t have any relationship to what customers actually wanted.
We know Steve Jobs as the quintessential pitchman for Apple, but he was also a super-advocate for what the customers wanted. He always had a very crisp idea about what a product needed to be successful, and he made sure that stupid decisions weren’t made. It isn’t that Apple didn’t have problems, but you’ll recall that the antenna problem happened while he was on leave and the latest software and case-bending issues happened after he left us. Both decisions appear to be related to decisions that lowered the priority of function or design quality in respect to cost. You may recall that when he returned after the antenna issue, he fired those he thought were responsible, sending the signal that he wouldn’t tolerate trading off usability and customer satisfaction for minor cost savings.
I’ve argued for some time that I think companies need a super-advocate for their customers. This responsibility needs to either be invested in the CEO or in someone who reports to the CEO because you often need that level of authority to make sure the customer’s needs have a high-enough priority to overcome other considerations.
Chief Customer Officer
This appears to be what BMC’s Chief Customer Officer does. He is a super-advocate who focuses on real customer needs and making sure they are prioritized in new products, patches, acquisitions and divestitures. He reports to the CEO and can balance the thinking that can come out of product groups that have misjudged or made up customer requirements. A role like this, when properly staffed and supported, can perform the check that will identify a major problem before the product is shipped.
Basically, this executive puts the customer at the table during major product or organizational changes. That should assure that, over time, BMC will be able to deliver solutions that are better matched to customer needs than companies that don’t have this function or something like Net Promoter Score, which can partially take its place. In fact, I think a combination of this position and a NPS effort would be even more effective because it puts more rigor behind deriving customer needs.
Customer Success Organization
On top of this position at BMC there is an executive level organization called the Customer Success Organization. This is actually pretty unique and speaks to the common problem of being abandoned by a vendor after the sale. Entire classes of products often remain un-deployed or underutilized because IT organizations can’t figure out how to fund, staff or execute the installation or how to properly use the tool once installed. Granted, there are sales and support organizations that are supposed to do this, but I’ve found they often don’t because the former is more focused on closing deals and the latter on break/fix after deployment. The Customer Success Organization at BMC is tasked with making sure purchased products are deployed optimally.
This organization should result in higher customer satisfaction for BMC.
Re-creating Steve Jobs’ Best Practice
I think that capturing some of the brilliant things that Steve did not only honors his life, it makes for a far better company and related customer experience. BMC is apparently stepping up in the enterprise space to create a level of customer advocacy that appears modeled after Apple’s. It should result in customers having a stronger voice in decisions that impact them and in products that more closely map to their real needs.
One of a customer’s most important needs is actually benefitting from purchased products, and the related Customer Success Organization assures this happens. A lot of companies could learn from what BMC is doing. If they do, not only will one of Steve Jobs’ critical skills remain with us, but there will also be a far closer and stronger relationship between vendors and the customers that use their products. For now BMC is blazing an interesting and important path.
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