3 steps to customer-centred leadership

There are two levels at which a senior marketer can think about his or her leadership. The first is the way in which they lead their team in the Marketing function, seeking to maximise its performance and impact. The second is the role they play cross-functionally in leading the whole company in being customer-centred.

Both of these levels are important. They are also mutually dependent – you can’t fully succeed in one without also succeeding in the other. But it is the second which deserves particular attention, not only because it is the most challenging but because it also requires the biggest change in mindset for people coming through from the junior ranks of the Marketing function.

Marketers have a vital role to play in helping companies create value for their customers. Look at the fantastic work done at Nike with the Nike+ proposition, at Waitrose with the award winning Essentials range and at O2 in establishing their Fair Deal by rewarding loyal customers and not just newly acquired ones. In each case, the marketing teams identified exciting market opportunities and created insightful, innovative propositions in response.

Success of this sort is not dependent solely on excellent technical marketing. It also requires a host of activities across the whole company to be aligned behind these customer-focused opportunities. How can this broader leadership challenge be achieved? Here are three steps to help.

1. Choose to lead for the whole company

The first and most important step is simply to make a conscious decision to define one’s leadership in terms of the whole company, rather than at just a functional level. This may sound obvious, but it is far from commonplace.

A good starting point is to make sure brand strategy is central to the whole business strategy, rather than simply the basis for advertising and promotion. For marketers to make promises to customers via their brand communication is one thing – to ensure the whole company is aligned and consistent in delivering against those promises is another thing entirely.

The impact of successful brand development must also be explained in financial language so that other functions can appreciate the full commercial value of Marketing’s role. In the words of Unilever’s CMCO Keith Weed, ‘if Finance counts where the money’s going, Marketing must count where it’s coming from’. Marketers will only earn the right to play a leadership role in the business if they can demonstrate how creating better value for customers will ultimately translate into improved top and bottom line growth.

2. Hardwire the customer into cross-functional decision making

For Marketing to truly influence the company’s activities, an operating model must be created that has customer considerations at its heart. Phil Chapman, a senior marketer with experience at Unilever, T-Mobile, Kerry and Kraft explains, “In the role of CMO I believe you have one central challenge. Ultimately the only way for Marketing as a function to succeed is to make sure the whole company works as a marketing organisation. You therefore have to shape the whole organisation so that it focuses on the consumer and you have to ensure that the commercial business model is integrated with the way you are building and developing your brands.”

In practice, this means clarifying how Marketing will interact with the rest of the business. Clear roles and decision-making responsibilities must be established, as must strong inter-personal relationships with key stakeholders to support effective collaboration on a day-to-day basis.

3. Inspire and enable people throughout the business

Once the organisation of the company is set up to serve the customer, the third step is to make sure the people working within it are motivated and empowered to do so in practice. An inspiring brand purpose is a powerful foundation for emotional engagement, as proven recently by businesses as diverse as Red Bull (Energise the World) and Boots (Feel Good).

But too often internal brand engagement programmes begin and end with employee inspiration. More focus is needed on the support systems needed to ensure that good intentions are embedded in true behaviour change. A good example is the work done by British Gas in recent years to reduce customer complaints by 90% by sorting out its faulty IT billing systems.

To conclude, let’s go back to the first step. If you are a marketing leader, ask yourself this question: who are you really leading for? Is it for yourself, your team, your function, or your whole company? The bigger you think, the bigger your impact is likely to be.

Originally posted on the Marketing Society blog.


For more information about how Brand Learning can help you lift your organisation’s customer-centred leadership capabilities, please get in touch. You may also like these films, perspectives and resources on Customer-Centred Leadership.

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