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Who Owns The Customer?

by David Brock on March 10th, 2011

Earlier this week, I attended Selling Power’s Sales 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.  It’s a great conference, Gerhard, his team, and the speakers did a fantastic job!  During one of the breaks i had a conversation that left me a little confused.  I thought I’d bring the conversation to the blog and get your views on the issue.

The issue is in today’s Sales 2.0 world, who owns the customer?  By this, I mean, who has ultimate responsibility for managing the customer relationship, growing and supporting it. 

While, many would say “the company” owns it, or propose the CEO or the board, pragmatically speaking, if you took Customer X, who in the organization is accountable for that relationship and everything that happens with it?

In other functions within the organization, it’s pretty clear to understand accountabilities.  Product managers own the product line road map and P&L.  Development managers own the execution of the product development plan.  Manufacturing managers own the responsibility for building and shipping products.  But increasingly, the ownership of the customer seems to be unclear.

Because customers are buying in profoundly new ways, we need to engage customers differently.  In the old roles of marketing primarily focusing on visibility, awareness, and demand generation; and sales focused on taking leads, qualifying them, and managing them through closure; the accountability for the customer was pretty clear–it rested with sales.  In some organizations, where there was ongoing service delivery, implementation, and other things, this could get fuzzy–did sales still have accountability or did that pass to customer service.

In the new world of customer engagement, where sales, marketing, service and support work together through the customer buying and fulfillment process, it strikes me the issue of “who owns the customer,” can become very cloudy.  As we nurture and develop customers through their life cycle, many parts of the organization are involved, but there has to be clear accountability for owning the customer relationship.

It’s an important issue, if it’s not clearly defined, we can make lots of missteps—we may think someone else in the organization is accountable, each function, sales, marketing, customer service, others thinking another function is accountable–in the end no one owns it.  As a result, we have no strategy for growing the customer, even worse, the customer doesn’t know who they need to go to when they really need something to happen.  Usually, in these cases, they go somewhere else.

The opposite can happen, each function thinks they own the relationship.  Each one drives a different strategy, each one communicates in subtly different ways to the customer.  The customer ends up either confused, or “shopping” issues within the organization until they find the answer they want.  But like the other extreme, without clear identification of the ownership of the customer, we have no consistent strategy for growing and managing the customer relationship, and the customer is confused about who to go to.

Gaining clarity on who owns the customer relationship is critical to maximizing their satisfaction and our ability to develop and execute a growth strategy with the customer.  While many people in an organization are involved in working with the customer, only one can “own the customer.”  That person must be accountable for developing and directing the strategy for engaging and managing that customer over their life cycle with the organization.  That person must orchestrate all the resources involved in working with the customer over their life cycle.

I used to think that was sales—but in today’s world, it’s not clear to me.  What do you think?

Additionally, this new role, seems to require very different skills than were required in the past.  Developing and managing the total customer experience, managing how the customer is engaged and developed–not only for a specific deal, but through their entire life cycle requires new capabilities.  Understanding what resources to invest, when, and how to maximize our opportunities within each customer creates new challenges and requires new skills.  What are they, do those who are accountable for owning the customer relationship have them?

I used to think the answer was crystal clear.  Now, I’m not so sure.  What do you think?


From → Leadership

  1. Dave,

    In my mind, you hit the first of two key points by stressing the importance of “gaining clarity on who owns the customer relationship.” SOMEBODY must be clearly responsible for driving the train. Frankly, I don’t think it much matters which functional area is in charge. (…although I do have a personal bias toward sales.)

    What truly does matter a lot is the skill set, which as you state, is dramatically different in today’s world. I’m convinced we should study entrepreneurs of a wide variety of stripes and in their start-up phase to figure out just what those skills are. By definition, such a person MUST own the customer, simply because there isn’t anyone else; and MUST focus exclusively on the few critical business processes and metrics because there is no time for anything else.

    There is no shortage of examples of successful entrepreneurs that came from sales, engineering, finance, IT and every other function under the sun. My unscientific (but I think accurate!) list of skills in priority sequence is Customer Service, Financial Analysis & Management and Process Engineering.


    • Thanks for the comment Todd. I think it’s a creative idea to look at the entrepreneur, modeling many of the skills and capabilities they exhibit. Like you, I tend to be biased to sales on this issue–but whoever does own the relationship will have to have different skills–more focused on business management, resource management — getting the right resources in front of the customer at the right time. Thanks for the great comment!

  2. Col Virendra Kumar permalink

    Who will be owning the customer and relationship with him? It is really an interesting question. Well, if the sale deed is through and successful, everybody will be ready to own him up,otherwise sales people must own him.Honestly, why should anybody other than sales people own the customer and customer relationship.He is one who is dealing with him, if there is a point which requires the intervention of costing or production people, it should be through sales people only otherwise it will cause lot of confusion. I have seen is small companies which are not really organised with formal structure, every body is dealing with customer ,causing lot of duplication and bringing lot of inefficiency.I don’t think you require different skill set other than which are required by good marketers or sales persons. Any organisation /CEO, which is customer centric, will support sales or marketing people in this endeavor. This is the core of revenue generation.

  3. Alex Wilson permalink

    It’s been the case for a while that some deals “take an organization” to win and you have to have like levels and like functions interacting with each other. However, you still need an orchestra leader to guide the team through the process and for most deals I would say that should be sales. Now I say that having been mostly in organizations where the other roles were all 3000 miles away. With that distance comes a need to know and guide based on what is happening on the ground, what other factors are influencing the deal (other chips that could influence the design), etc.

    What becomes paramount are two factors: communication and respect. Communication in that the pieces of the organization that are “closing” their aspect of the deal need to keep the “orchestra leader” (for me, sales) aware of what they are doing, and vice versa. Respect in that, these parts of the organization have to respect each other and trust that each will complete their role/task/etc, to bring the deal through the crescendo to the end.

  4. Mohamed Saad permalink

    It is a tricky question Dave, i think to answer this questions we might want to explore the qualifications that needs to be present in that individual first…once we can have a proper list of qualifications it will not be too hard to identify the person, just as important as the qualifications we should consider the different conflicts (focus) if the person for example (someone from project management will focus on P&L perfection of delivery, risk and cost VS. Someone from sales will be focused on closure, maximizing deal size…etc) all in all are good but full of conflicts which are hard to avoid inside a single organization…so thinking out of the Box and however crazy it could sound to avoid this you need a separate entity inside the organization that normalizes the internal conflicts and have one goal which is customer satisfaction. I have seem big companies re-organize around customer team focus but again you cannot avoid the conflict between what’s good for the sales and what’s good for the customer

    • Mohamed, you make some interesting points and raise critical issues. I guess I wonder, why does what is good for sales have to be in conflict with what’s good for the customer. The more those interests are aligned, the deeper the relationship and the greater the value we create. What do you think?

  5. Sandeep permalink

    There is an African proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child’. A child has many different needs, circumstances and experiences. Being there for the child at the right time and place with the right answers cannot be done by one person. It takes a village.
    It is the same with customers. They cannot be owned. They can be raised, or nurtured. And it takes a company to do this. Its processes, its its rules, culture and its people. You can have a role in the organization that owns alignment of all these to the customer. But the role will own the alignment with the customer. Not the customer.

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