Who owns the customer?

Just over four years ago, I wrote a blog post called “Who owns Customer Experience?”. The purpose of the post was to attempt to establish the best ‘place’ within the business to ‘house’ the Customer Experience professionals. Ultimately, the purpose of the article was to argue that customers experience the business cross-functionally, and as such can be influenced by all or any of the functions of the organisation. As such, customer experience cannot be argued as ‘belonging’ anywhere, as it belongs everywhere within the business.

There is an important point to be made here.One which I have made in another blog, which argues that customer experience shouldn’t be considered to be something that the business ‘does’, rather something that the customer receives.

This isn’t, however, very helpful in resolving the issue of where your Customer Experience professionals should be ‘kept’. Where should they sit? Which departments should they belong to? Should they be centralised or decentralised? I know of one well-known UK telecommunications provider that struggled with the same issue; and ended up indecisively moving people back and forth over a period of several years.This reminded me of myself as a bored 10 year old, rearranging my bedroom furniture every other week in order to give my room a different ‘feel’.

One tongue-in-cheek argument is to sack all of your customer experience professionals. Although this isn’t meant seriously, it does have an underlying principle supporting it. If, for example, everyone in the organisation was focused on and passionate about improving the customers’ experiences, then there might not be a requirement to have a CX team. This certainly isn’t the case for the vast majority organisations, and there are always likely to be certain functional skills, such as Customer Journey Mapping, that do not naturally sit elsewhere within the business. CX professionals are here to stay.

However following a recent re-tweet of my original post by my very good friend Steve Sullivan at Channel Doctors, the ensuing discussion reminded me of a workshop I ran a few years ago with the UK subsidiary of a major German car manufacturer. Although I was facilitating the session, I had not set the agenda; and had not seen its contents prior to the day. At the beginning of the session, we went through the agenda items as a group and I noticed the first item on the agenda was the subject “who owns the customer?”.

“Who owns the customer?”

As you might expect of something at the top of any meeting agenda, this matter was a real political ‘hot potato’ for this organisation. Scowling faces sat around the meeting table throwing defiant and accusatory looks at each other, with representatives from Marketing, Direct Distribution, Dealerships, Customer Service and Customer Experience all ready to stake their claim for the ‘ownership’ of the customer. Now, it isn’t the same question as “where does customer experience belong?”, but you can see where I am going with this…

So, before the battle commenced, I asked for permission to ask a slightly different question before we waded into this one. Everyone nodded in agreement. So I started with:

“Who do you think the customer feels ‘owned’ by?”

Immediately, the Dealership guys jumped forward, stating their claim for the ownership of the customer. After all, they were the first point of contact with the customer, so logic would dictate that they should have principle ownership of the relationship. Then the Marketing guys jumped forward. They stated their claim, saying that it was their advertising that got the customer interested before they even got close to the dealership. Then Customer Service team spoke up. They might not be the first point of call, however they had a much deeper and intense relationship with the customer. They were responsible for solving the customers’ problems.

I had been too subtle. Everyone was too keen to stake their claim to even hear the wording of my question. So I stopped everyone in their tracks. What if I asked the question in a slightly different way?…

I asked the group to imagine what response we would get from a customer if we asked the question “Which part of ########## (car company) owns you?”.

The room went still for a few seconds. Nobody wanted to answer. They all knew what was coming. So I prompted…

“What do you think they might say?”

A project manager sitting at the back of the room piped up:

“They’d probably tell you to piss off!”

Everyone laughed. But the point had been made.

We went on to discuss about how Customer Experience is measured; and how a customer judges their experience on the basis of the reality of what they ‘get’ versus what they expected to get. The bigger the gap between reality and expectation, the worse their judgement of the experience.

We also spoke about how it was the business’ job to deliver the ‘reality’ of product, service and channel propositions; and how the customer’s expectation was largely driven by ‘the brand’. It was agreed that the customer’s relationship was with the brand, not the individual elements of delivery. The brand ‘owned’ the relationship with the customer.

But then someone from Marketing asked: “So it is us, the people in Marketing, that own the customer then?”

I had to knock this one on the head and quickly. So I responded:

“No. Not really. What is a brand?”

A hefty discussion ensued. Of course, nowadays everyone appreciates that a brand is so much more than a logo. Someone used the word “identity”. Also good, although maybe not wide ranging enough. Then came one of my favorites – “a brand is a promise”. Yes, absolutely. But eventually the most complete definition floated to the surface.

“Reputation?” one of the meeting attendees suggested.

“Yep – that’s it. But who is responsible for the company’s reputation?” I asked

One of the senior sales guys added “We all are…”.


The penny had dropped. Everyone understood that they had individual responsibilities for aspects of the reality of what was delivered to the customer (product, service & channel). However they now also understood that they had a collective responsibility for the reputation (brand) of the business; and that the customer’s (predominantly emotional) relationship with the brand was going to need to be managed jointly and cooperatively.

So, which part of the business ‘owns’ the customer? Ask the customer. I dare you…

In Summary: 

Which part of the company has the closest relationship with the customer? The brand!

What is a brand? It’s your reputation!

Who controls the company’s reputation? Everyone does…

What’s your reputation measured against? The reality of what is delivered via product, service and channel….

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