Three leadership skills every customer experience leader needs to master

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: November 25, 2016

Shaping a company’s customer experience (CX) is, perhaps, the biggest leadership challenge of a business. Yet the leaders in charge of this crucial endeavour rarely receive targeted leadership training. It’s time to change this (from my column).

Recently I made the case for more rigour in marketers’ training and development paths. I remain convinced that better training is urgently required in marketing. But why leadership training? Aren’t marketers busy enough keeping up with all the technical skills needed to survive in this new digital world?

Think about what it takes to make the customer experience happen, and it becomes immediately clear why the key is leadership. First, customer experience is about the future. To get on the C-suite agenda and secure budgets, marketing leaders must convince hard-nosed finance leaders and other top managers that a better customer experience will—eventually—lead to more revenue or profit. That can be pretty hard to do. And it requires serious negotiation skills. But here’s an even bigger challenge: dozens, maybe hundreds, of employees who design the actual customer experience don’t report to marketing or IT. Mobilising them requires exceptional leadership skills.

Another challenge lies in the complexity of digital marketing. Marketing leaders can no longer aspire to know it all. They have to build great teams of experts and generalists and then help them to all pull in the same direction. Does leadership matter for customer experience leaders? It’s essential!

Fewer than one in 10 customer experience leaders has received specific marketing leadership training, according to my research. Even more surprisingly, most of the senior marketing leaders I train haven’t received any leadership training. Some went through a generic leadership course or two, which may be useful, but didn’t equip them with the three most essential marketing leadership skills: mobilising the C-suite, mobilising peers in other departments, and building teams of leaders.

Let’s take a closer look at the leadership skills required in marketing and customer experience.

Mobilising The C-suite

It’s crucial for marketing leaders to get a seat at the top table. Customer experience is a company-wide issue. And most CX decisions require top-team buy-in. Even if customer experience is important to the CEO, it needs to be important to all departments, including sales, operations, HR, IT, marketing, and so on. That’s why customer experience leaders must play at the C-suite level. They need to learn to connect the wants of the customers (which most CX leaders know very well) with the needs of the C-suite (that’s often harder).

The best marketing leaders understand the “burring platforms” of the company board. They are skilled enough to make CX relevant for C-suite leaders from all walks of life. This also means translating customer metrics, such as Net Promoter Score, into company KPIs, such as revenue or profit. And to secure the all important budgets, marketing leaders must ultimately convince the C-suite that CX drives long-term profitable growth. Changing C-suite minds is a leadership challenge.

Mobilising Peers

Most employees who have a hand in creating the actual customer experience don’t report to marketing or IT. These members of staff have their own agendas—and convincing them to act requires pretty strong leadership. One important leadership skill is storytelling. Napoleon Bonaparte said that “leaders are dealers in hope.” Marketing leaders can’t move the needle if their peers don’t listen. But they can tell them a story of hope, a story that gets to people’s hearts.

Former Ford CMO Jim Farley emphasised that “storytelling is a marketer’s most important skill.” But storytelling is only the start. Getting people from across the company to move requires lots of hall-walking and one-on-one negotiations. Marketing leaders are change leaders. They must be the role models that others want to follow.

Mobilising Your Own Team

Gone are the days when marketing leaders can know it all. The plethora of marketing and customer software available opens completely new opportunities to understand and interact with customers. But CX is complex and requires specialisation. Instead of chasing every detail, leaders must learn to lead complex teams. They must integrate specialists and generalists into a cohesive tribe that strives together for a common goal. Instead of controlling everybody’s work, the best leaders spend time aligning their teams around common goals (that can be harder than you think). They help the specialists see the bigger picture—and they help the generalists go deep, selectively, to understand important CX tools. Leading CX teams isn’t complicated—but it requires new skills.

What Next?

Marketing leadership training isn’t on the agenda of most organisations. But that’s starting to change as people realise that actually creating better customer experiences requires leaders with strong leadership skills. It’s time to put leadership skills on the marketing training agenda.