Customer directors are a long-overdue addition

Customer obsession underpinned by great marketing is a long-overdue trend, says Claire Beale.

The Guardian ran an article last weekend headlined: "Has John Lewis lost its way?" The point of the piece was to suggest the retailer was undermining its long-standing and coveted reputation for superb customer service by outsourcing its call centre in Glasgow to Capita and sending some online orders from the John Lewis website on to manufacturers to fulfil.

Although the emotive headline inevitably attracted comments from disgruntled John Lewis customers, an official statement from the retailer mounted a defence of its record for service. Even so, last week’s decision to promote John Lewis’ chief marketing officer, Craig Inglis, to customer director with a seat on the board seemed perfectly timed, particularly as it coincided with the retailer announcing a 26 per cent fall in profits. Whether John Lewis’ standards of customer service have slipped or not, there’s no point lovingly crafting benchmark-setting marketing collateral unless the rest of the customer experience delivers on the promise.

Clearly, the transmogrification of the chief marketing officer into customer director makes absolute sense for any company that values its brand and values its customer base. It’s a shift in emphasis that echoes an old quote from Telefónica’s Ronan Dunne: "We’re not a company that runs a brand, we’re a brand that runs a company." Put it that way and customer obsession underpinned by great marketing is more likely to follow.

It’s certainly a long-overdue trend, and promises to raise the stature of marketing and empower it by harnessing it to a wider remit that spans every customer touchpoint. Finding enough marketing people with the credentials to step up to this broader role will be a challenge, but the shift (particularly when it’s accompanied – as it must surely be – by a seat at the boardroom table) will help attract a higher calibre of executive into the marketing profession. 

In fact, my enthusiasm for the rise of the customer director is tempered only by discovering that Clarks has had one for a while; back-to-school shoe-buying there was as dismal this year as ever. Calling someone "customer director" clearly doesn’t necessarily herald real change but, assuming this is more than just a lip-service fad, it should also afford agencies the opportunity to wield more influence in client boardrooms. Where once agencies attributed their lack of influence to being tethered to a marketing department that was itself undervalued, the rise of the customer director could help propel agencies to the heart of their clients’ businesses. Whether agencies really have the depth of business acumen to make a meaningful contribution once they get there is, of course, another matter.