This is a modified version of a post I originally wrote for Forbes. It appeared on the Forbes site on June 13, 2019. A version of this also happens to have made it as the closing chapter of my book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).

This is an open letter – a plea of sorts – to all CEOs. (Note: In the Forbes version, the editors removed the letter format and softened up the verbiage a bit when it was published on their site, but I’m reinserting and reasserting that this is an open letter to all CEOs.)

Dear CEO:

There’s a lot of talk out there about customer experience transformations stalling, or worse, failing. And there’s a lot of speculation as to why that’s happening. It makes no sense, but there must be an issue at the top of the organization for this to happen.

The biggest buzzword that customer experience professionals must endure today is ROI. When I’ve polled them at various meetings and events about what they need the most help with, they cite ROI most often. And yet, it’s also the thing that is most nebulous and difficult to define. It’s not like a marketing campaign, where you can just count clicks and conversion rates. A customer experience improvement initiative often takes a long time to implement and to be experienced, and there’s a lot that goes into any transformation (people, technology, processes, enterprise-wide). Perhaps that’s why it’s so scary for you?

But here’s the thing: why must customer experience professionals show the ROI of initiatives that will improve the customer experience? Why must they prove the business case for not pissing off customers? Why aren’t these improvements and changes considered as the price of doing business? or simply how we do business? They’re not about adding more work to anyone’s plate; they’re more about doing things better, more efficiently, and in such a way that ensures customers will come back. They’re about your customers.

What’s that? You’re in an industry where customers have little choice or are locked into contracts for a long period of time? That’s no excuse to treat customers poorly or to gouge them for services without providing any real value. Here’s what’s going to happen: the moment they have an opportunity (e.g., whether they move or something in their lives changes, or a disruptive new start-up in your industry picks off even just a portion of the services you offer and simplifies that with a better experience that isn’t harnessed by legacy technology) to move on, they will.

Here’s an uncomfortable – yet indisputable – truth: you are in business to create and to nurture customers. Without customers – and especially without employees to create your products and to serve your customers – you have no business. Regardless of company size, region, industry, etc., you are in business for the customer, because of the customer.

All of those projects and initiatives and innovations happening in your organization? If you don’t bring the customer voice into them, if you don’t consider the impact on the customer, what’s it all for?

Stop thinking that because you gained thousands of customers last month that you’re delivering a great experience. You’re not. Your customers don’t agree. According to Bain’s delivery gap and the reasons for the gap, you’re wrong. When you focus on acquisition but not on retention, you create a leaky bucket situation that belies your truth. When you focus on moving the metric but not on improving the experience, the numbers lie.

Finding a balance between all of this really comes down to one thing: the customer. If you’re focused on growth, then invest more heavily in the customer experience during the acquisition stage (yes, the experience begins well before someone becomes a customer) but not to the detriment of existing customers. If you’re focused on retention, then place a disproportionate investment on improving the experience in order to retain customers.

When I get questions like: “But if I focus on the customer, won’t that take away from my focus on the product?” it infuriates me. Don’t your employees consider that if they don’t focus on the customer, then for whom are they creating the product? Where does this mindset come from? (Answer: you.)

And similarly, stop trying to find a customer for your product. Find a product for your customer. I’ve heard this from several start-ups over the last few months. “We’re still trying to figure out what problem we’re solving for customers.” If you’re not solving problems for customers, you’ve got a bigger problem! Take the time to listen to – and understand – your customers. What are their needs, pain points, problems to solve, or jobs to be done? Only then can you “find a product for your customer.”

Have you ever heard the story of What the Hell is Water? It goes like this:

There are two young fish swimming in the ocean, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?

This is a great analogy for what must happen with customers and customer experience in your organization. They must become like the water, i.e., they just are. The customer and her experience are so ingrained in your company’s DNA that they just become your new normal, how you do business every day. Customer experience professionals are no longer selling the concepts of customer experience and customer-centricity; they’re no longer building the business case and proving ROI. They don’t have to. It’s just what you do. It’s how you do business. For and because of the customer.

In order for the business to become customer-centric, there must be a commitment from you to deliberately design the culture to put the customer at the center of all you do. What that means is that you make no decisions without asking: how will this impact the customer? how will this make her feel? will this help her solve her problem? what value will it bring to the customer?

I’ve got news for you, and it’s really the bottom line: It’s all about the customer! It’s all for the customer. Everything you do. Everything you create. Every process. Every product or service. If you don’t infuse the customer into your business and into everything you do, then I don’t know why you’re in business. It’s not to maximize shareholder value. That’s an outcome. But the means to get there is to relentlessly focus on the customer, day in and day out. When a great experience with your company becomes the customer’s new normal, everyone, including your shareholders, will be happy. (And don’t forget: put the employee more first!)

If you need a little reality check, pause for a moment and imagine your business with no customers.

I rest my case.

All business success rests on something labeled a sale, which at least momentarily weds company and customer. -Tom Peters

Annette Franz is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, speaker, and author. She recently published her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the “Customer” in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business); it’s available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Sign up for our newsletter for updates, insights, and other great content that you can use to up your CX game.

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