When I’m building a new organizational structure with a leadership team, someone usually makes this observation: “In this new structure, who actually owns the customer?” Before responding, I first try to get a shared definition so I’ll ask them to clarify: “Great question. What do you mean specifically by ‘own the customer’?”
They tend to hem and haw before replying something like, “You know, own the customer… a single point in the organization that knows everything about the customer, that is accountable for the overall customer experience, makes product decisions, and that champions the customers needs.” They might then share with me that in their old structure, this role was held by the VP of Product or Marketing or Customer Success. “In this new structure,” they’ll add, “it’s unclear who owns the customer.”
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Here’s the answer:
In a well-designed organization, no single role should “own” the customer. Instead, the entire structure must be designed to acquire and serve the right customers now and over time. Every role in the structure has a part to play in accomplishing that mission.
Put another way, there are some key steps in the customer journey: from acquisition to on-boarding, to engagement, to support, to the design and maintenance of the products and services customers use, and so on. Each of these distinct steps in the customer journey actually requires a different mindset, skill set, and focus. If the structure were designed so that one role is accountable for all aspects of the customer journey, some very predictable problems will emerge because the organization is attempting to consolidate too many conflicting and competing needs under one role.
What kinds of problems? They exist on a spectrum in relation to the competing demands of short-range vs. long-range, efficiency vs. effectiveness, and autonomy vs. control. You can read more about these competing demands in Top 10 Signs Its Time To Change Your Org Structure. How those problems show up in your particular business will depend a lot on the skills, style and interests of the individual leader as well as the lifecycle stage of your business.
For example, if the leader who is supposed to “own” the customer is more sales-oriented, then you can expect to see a lot more focus on customer acquisitions and a lot less on customer engagement and retention. If the leader is more process- and quality-oriented, you should expect to see a lot of great product plans but very little throughput. In other words, some segments of the cycle will thrive and others will suffer.
Or, if your business is growing rapidly in the early Nail It stage, for example, you will see a lot of firefighting by the team to meet customer needs, with no one really sure who is in charge of each step, and no solid foundation to actually sell and serve customers sustainably. This will result in underperformance across the board.
In any case, the solution to solving these challenges is to actually map out an ideal customer journey and then clarify what roles or functions are accountable for each step. Then it becomes a question of implementing cross-functional processes, teamwork, and metrics to delight the customer at each stage of their journey with different roles focused and accountable for each distinct step.
Let me give you an analogy. If your organization was a professional soccer team instead of a business, who should “own” the victory? The answer is that the entire team is responsible for the wins and losses. But clearly, different roles are accountable for different things. The forwards are accountable for scoring goals. The midfielders for controlling the transition game. The coaches for ensuring that the right players are well-prepared and on the field, and so on.
The head coach of a soccer team is ultimately accountable for success or failure of the team. Just like the CEO, the “buck stops here.” However, the head coach’s job is to delegate accountability for key results on and off the field. Accountability can and should be delegated but responsibility cannot be. In other words, the entire team is responsible for success, with key roles each accountable for their part. Another way to think about this is that if there is one role that owns the customer journey, it’s actually the CEO. The CEO delegates key steps in that journey to other roles.
The same is true for your business. Let me show you what I mean. First, see if you can map out the ideal Customer Journey for your business today from start to end (not what is happening but what should be happening). You can think of the Customer Journey as a cycle or a process that repeats itself. As a leader, your job is to design your Customer Journey so that, like a flywheel, each iteration is done faster and better for your customers.
Mapping the Customer Journey
Below is a simple Customer Journey map for a B2C product company that sells through retail channels. Your goal is to design something similar to this. Draw the key steps that customers should go through and that answer the question, “How should we best identify, engage, sell, retain, support, and develop new and existing customers?”
Next, see if you can map the functions or roles that should be accountable for each step in your Customer Journey, just as the roles on the soccer field have different accountabilities. If you notice that you’re consolidating too many steps under one function or role, see if you can push deeper into the organization to the role that is actually accountable for implementing or performing that step in the process. You want one role accountable – not two – for each step.
As an example, here is the same Customer Journey as before, now mapped with the roles that are accountable for each step:
To be clear, I am not showing reporting structure in this map of accountabilities. For example, Fulfillment may actually report to Operations or Product Marketing may actually report to Brand Marketing in the structure. However, I am calling out which role is accountable for getting the work done “on the field.”
It might be tempting to do this exercise and say “OK, yes, this is the ideal Customer Journey and yes, these are the roles accountable for each step and now I’m going to just have Sales or Marketing or Product or whatever oversee the entire journey.” This would be a serious mistake that would actually violate the laws of structure. It’s akin to asking your goalie to report to your lead forward, which would backfire on the soccer field, right? Well, if your business is set up in a similar way, it will backfire there too.
Do You Feel Nervous?
If you’re feeling nervous about NOT having one role accountable for the entire Customer Journey, then I haven’t done a very good job of explaining myself. Let me put it this way. Would you feel nervous if you were actually a soccer coach and your lead forward on the soccer team wasn’t also playing goal keeper simultaneously? Of course not. On the contrary, you would feel very nervous if that were actually the case. Instead, you should feel nervous about not having strong leaders and performers executing each key step in the process.
Rather than thinking about “owning” the customer, think instead about designing an entire organization that excels in delighting its customers at every step of the way.
The same concepts are true for your Product Development Cycle and for your Employee Cycle. These and other mission-critical process cycles in your business require their own accountabilities, teamwork, and cross-coordination. They don’t require one “owner” and in fact, you’ll find yourself suffering if you have them consolidated in that way.
But Wait – We Need One Person in Charge Around Here!
This takes me to the hidden objection behind the questions, “Who owns the customer?” or “Who owns product decisions?” or “Who is accountable for recruiting?” that I often come across when designing a new organizational structure. It’s the erroneous belief that “I have to be in charge of it in order to get the work done.” This is a fallacy. Instead, what most often happens when a role in the organization believes they need to “own it” in order to make it work is that they end up managing a bunch of entropy that they’re not well-suited to manage.
For instance, I was recently working at a company with a head of Product and Marketing (these are two distinct functions, by the way, and they should never be co-joined). He was very reluctant to give up product management decisions in order to spend more time on marketing and brand development activities (areas he was much better suited for and where the company really needed a boost). His ego believed that he needed to “own the entire customer journey” in order to ensure that the product was on target and customers were satisfied.
What do you think was actually happening? He was spread thin, operating outside of his true strengths, and fire-fighting in a bunch of different areas of the business. As a result, nothing was working well. His belief was, “I need more resources!” In reality, he was trying to be accountable for too many things on the field at one time. This is a recipe for failure. He was trying to play offense and defense at the same time and he was exhausted. The entire team was suffering, especially in new product launches, which he never seemed to find the time to lead.
Everyone – the entire team – is responsible for wins and losses. But different roles in the organization should be accountable for discrete steps in the Customer Journey. The same is true for how you develop and maintain your products (Product Journey). Ditto for how you attract, retain, and develop your employees (Employee Journey). All roles must have clear accountabilities but also work together to deliver excellent results in a changing world.
So back to the question that started this article, “Who owns the customer?” The answer is: No single role owns all aspects of the Customer Journey. The entire structure must be designed to support a world-class customer experience at every step, now and over time.