Leading-edge companies recognize the importance of Customer Experience (CX) to their success and are scrambling to find ways forward. Organizations need leaders who have a firm grasp of both the mindset and the methodologies required to design great experiences. Additionally, these leaders must find ways to make their focus on customer experience meaningful and to drive adoption across their entire organization. In this article, I’ll examine why we’re seeing a rise in the demand for CX leaders and describe the key aspects of how you, as a new leader, can be the successful change-agent your organization needs.

Why CX Leadership? Why Now?

As you read this article I’d like you to consider three things. First, as a CX leader you have the opportunity to shape your own, your team’s, and your company’s future. Take this opportunity seriously. Second, no matter your circumstance or organizational dynamic, you have a choice as to how you approach your role as a leader. Finally, CX leadership roles are new for organizations and because of this, you’re going to run into those who can talk a good game, but sadly do not have the skill sets to create and execute a vision. This article is meant to help you to successfully jumpstart your role and to bring others along with you.

Discovering who your customers are and their pains, goals, and needs cannot be a one-time activity

The new and democratically-driven customer feedback loops are wreaking havoc across all verticals. Customers can critique your products and services on Yelp, Facebook, and Twitter. Employees (current, former, and potential) can critique their experience with your organizational culture on sites like Glassdoor. But for most companies, just understanding, tracking, and keeping pace with their customer’s pain points, needs, and goals can feel like a tremendous undertaking.

I want to give you a roadmap which charts a course for you as a leader—a leader who is going to be a cross-silo connector; who instills a proactive approach to customer experience; and who brings a cross-functional mindset to how they approach their work. You’re likely already a big-picture thinker who has the ability to see down the road. Let’s use that skill to put strategies in place which can help you to identify current and future customer needs. This means creating strategic partnerships, thoughtful placement of the right practitioners, processes, and systems which encourage customer-centric thinking across all functional areas of the business.

Your Roadmap: Understand. Build. Communicate.

I’m going to focus on the mindset and the strategy for a new leader who is guiding their organization to be more experience-focused. Let’s establish where your focus should be. What are your first steps? What should you be considering? How can you gain buy-in? How do you build, scale, and sustain momentum?

New CX leaders are being asked to drive change. It’s challenging enough to take on any new role - the challenge for leaders in CX is that you’re really defining not only a new role, but a new role in a new landscape where digital is a significant factor in the customer experience. This isn’t marketing or IT specific, and it’s certainly not about a single silo in the organization. It’s about valuing the customer experience. This requires reaching across and connecting the disparate teams and leaders of your organization to help bring clarity and consensus to the effort.

Being a successful change-agent for experience-first thinking is going to challenge you on many levels. Your role is likely going to change the fundamental aspects of how the organization, leaders, and teams have worked for decades. By the nature of your role, you’ll be challenging the operational processes of the business, the underlying organizational structures and often working around antiquated technical architectures neither of which were designed to answer today’s customer experience demands. A big challenge to say the least and one which will test your skills, your will, and will challenge you to grow your leadership competencies.

If you’re positioned correctly, your role is going to be highly visible to the rest of the organization. So, if you weren’t motivated before, this visibility should encourage you to approach your new role with an intentional strategy. Being highly visible generally brings high accountability. Don’t worry - we’ll get through this together. Adopt the following strategies to start strong:

  • Understand the current state of the organization.
  • Build relationships, your team, and your strategy.
  • Communicate and connect your vision early and often.

As you’re taking time to understand the organization, you’re also going to be building relationships and communicating to leaders and teams where a holistic approach to CX will be adding value. Be thoughtful about communicating specific areas where your team will have a positive impact on the products, the services, and especially how promoting an experience-first mindset will contribute positively to employee engagement and the organizational culture as a whole.

UNDERSTAND

Being open to understanding is a key strategy for any leader - new or otherwise. Depending on your exact situation you’ll spend time learning the business and its hierarchy; the teams and their capabilities; the customers and their needs, goals, and pains. Approach this like you would with any user-centered design project – gain an understanding of the context in which you’ll be building. Consider the touchpoints (i.e existing processes) where your team will align with or potentially disrupt the organization. These are the places where interpersonal connections and experience are helpful. As you learn the context, you’re developing awareness of where there are both areas of opportunity and potential pitfalls.

When learning about the business, begin by absorbing the organizational values, the culture, and the history.

  • In terms of how they approach CX, how did they get to where they are now? Beginning with the fundamentals - is there a customer experience strategy - or is CX a component of their overall business strategy?
  • Where have they succeeded and failed in the past - particularly with cross-functional, customer experience-focused efforts?
  • Are there cultural triggers to be aware of? Too often a well-intentioned initiative blindly steps on an old organizational wound and is unfairly punished. This is especially true with the “new” processes for engaging customers. The “old” way might engage customers only after a product or service hits the market. The “new” way solicits deeper customer engagement before, during, AND after.

When assessing individuals and teams, you’ll want to know how each operates, particularly where and how well the various teams work with one another.

  • What are the teams’ capabilities today? Do they see themselves as mature in their practice - even if they aren’t? Teams often believe they’re performing at a high-level because they only know what they’ve experienced. If you’re successful you’ll help to expand their understanding.
  • How deep are their skills? Do you have multiple team members with a firm grasp of conducting contextual inquiries, developing and delivering a strong content strategy, or creating a scalable information architecture? Have they established a way to consistently turn customer data into actionable information? How widespread is the concept of CX and which ancillary teams do you need to consider assessing?
  • Finally – and most importantly – which gaps do you need to address right away? To build a sustainable team, closing capability gaps is the best way to ensure consistency and quality and ultimately how to best demonstrate value back to the organization.

BUILD

As you continue to understand and assess the organization you’ll find yourself needing to pivot your efforts towards awareness-building for your team and their value. This is where s*** gets real. I’ve been here many times in my career and building your team’s practice will be difficult. This process will undoubtedly test your patience and your will. This is especially true when you’re building within existing operational processes and an organizational structure, particularly one which hasn’t previously incorporated the experience design methods and approaches which you’ll be advocating.

Based on much of what you’ve learned from the first step in your roadmap - Understanding - you’ll want to begin prioritizing your top objectives.

  • As you build, continue to establish credibility by showing your willingness to listen. This helps to both pinpoint barriers which the organization will need to overcome and to set an actionable path forward.
  • Where can you get quick wins which will make a measurable difference? To be more precise - find where you can help others within the organization right away. What …The longer you wait to demonstrate value, the harder it will be to be seen as a worthwhile resource. I can’t stress this enough – just because your team is a new unit or you have one senior leader’s support doesn’t mean other teams are going to be clued in to the charge. Even if they are clued in, it’s likely that some aren’t going to respect, value or desire the change.
  • Determine which teams you can align with to demonstrate value. Is there a specific project where you can see your team making simple changes that can show high value? For example, we know that consistency is a fundamental factor for great omni-channel experiences. If the organization has multiple web properties - are they all using the same foundational style-guide? Are there interaction design discrepancies in how forms work or are there clear disparities in the content strategy? Your goal is to find an early success that helps show people the value of your work.

COMMUNICATE

The first rule of change is to communicate the change. Basically, it’s the opposite of the first rule of Fight Club - transparency is a good thing. Share more, not less. Now, this sounds obvious, but somehow it’s the most fumbled aspect of any organizational transition or transformation effort. As a new leader, you may not feel like you’re changing a lot right away, but really you are. By being a new leader you’re fundamentally bringing some degree of change to the organization. While each individual context and degree of change will vary, the comprehensive and actionable perspective you’ll bring to the CX conversation will shift process, roles, accountability, and responsibility. Be ready to address these questions.

At this point you’ve taken the time to Understand the organization and you have begun to Build awareness of your team’s value. Now you’re ready to Communicate how CX can connect various teams and strategies.

  • Out of the gate, a great way to communicate what your team will be doing is to let the customers do the talking. By conducting user research via contextual inquiry, usability testing, etc you’ll be equipped with compelling examples of where customers are feeling pain, expressing needs, and even sharing their success stories and moments of delight with your product.
  • At this point, you’ve raised your line of sight to understand the needs and goals across divergent groups to tailor your message to each audience. The best way to communicate will depend heavily on your culture. Ultimately you want to foster ownership, buy-in and a successful way of achieving this is to work with cross-functional teams to co-develop a CX Vision.
  • Communication is often misused when it’s treated as a “conversation at” rather than a “conversation with." I’ve found the most successful way to communicate this type of change is to adopt the facilitator’s collaborative spirit rather than standing behind the lecturer’s pulpit. Designing conversations and ways of sharing the CX narrative is just as critical as designing a scalable information architecture, an effective customer feedback loop, or a meaningful interaction within the interface. Great communicators are intentional about how they say what they mean.
  • Lastly, consider how the feedback you receive from teams should inform your course of action. As with any great design, your ability to flex to the competing needs and values of the organization is your best bet at achieving clarity of mission, consensus of the CX strategy, and efficiency in execution.

Establish a Cycle of Iterative Discovery

When I work with organizations and leaders who want to reimagine their customer experience, I regularly focus on the concept of Iterative Discovery. Discovering who your customers are and their pains, goals, and needs cannot be a one-time activity. It must be part of the way you do business. In the same way we value the current state of our customer experience, we also need to establish regular check-ins with our internal teams and CX operations as experience is not a stagnant variable. It’s constantly evolving and changing. Where are we seeing CX wins/failures? Has there been measurable movement in the adoption of experience-first thinking? As a leader you need to continually identify the wins, be aware of the current state, and communicate the vision for customer experience.

These steps are just the beginning. Guiding your organization to achieve an experience-first mindset means understanding your context, building connections, and communicating your intention. Applying this framework will give you a solid foundation from which you’ll be able to scale your organization’s CX maturity by provoking both insight and action.

Image of red paper ship leading among white courtesy of Shutterstock.

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