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What is a chief customer officer? [definition, responsibilities, characteristics]
Rod Cherkas, founder and CEO of the consulting firm HelloCCO, says the genesis for this role can be traced to the modern subscription business model, particularly for companies delivering software-as-a-service (SaaS). Historically, no single executive has previously been responsible for advocating for the voice of your customer across the various functional silos.
Rod has spent a career in customer-facing roles at Intuit, RingCentral and Marketo, among other well-known tech firms. He’s held multiple executive roles, including CCO, and led teams from professional services to customer success. The newness of the role also means it lacks standardization, which led Rod to write a book titled, The Chief Customer Officer Playbook.
Software businesses, for example, used to make all their sales from the initial contract, so the focus was on closing deals. As more businesses moved to recurring revenue models, like subscriptions, most of the revenue shifted to after a deal was signed. Customer retention became essential to growth.
“You need to earn and re-earn the trust and support of your customers so that they will stay with you,” Rod says. “So, this role of chief customer officer became the focal point for your organization’s ability to retain your customers and then grow their business.”
Defining the chief customer officer role and key responsibilities
Rod defines the CCO as “the executive at a company who is responsible primarily for design and delivery of the customer-facing experiences after an individual or a company decides to sign up for your software, purchase your service, or buy your product.”
Alli Tiscornia, our CCO at ChurnZero, has a comparable take. “A chief customer officer is usually responsible for everything that happens post-sale. They’re responsible for the teams and processes after a prospect becomes a customer.”
Common responsibilities assigned to a chief customer officer include:
- customer strategy;
- customer onboarding;
- customer training;
- customer communication;
- customer experience (CX);
- customer satisfaction;
- customer renewals; and
- customer expansions.
The individuals and teams that report to a chief customer officer often include:
- implementation and product training;
- customer success teams;
- customer support teams; and
- customer-facing solutions engineers and architects.
Both Rod and Alli agree that a top priority for a CCO is customer renewal and retention—as measured by metrics such as GRR and NRR. “I feel very strongly that chief customer officers should own revenue, which means they should be responsible for renewals and a lot of expansion dollars,” says Alli.
Rod also emphasizes productivity—building scalable customer processes—to contain costs and improve profitability. That means “enabling their organizations to grow without necessarily having to add people” by streamlining processes and using automation, such as self-service customer support tools and community resources.
Chief customer officer vs. chief experience officer
Some companies modify the title and responsibilities to better suit their needs. Anne Eidelman sets a good example. She’s the chief experience officer for FOUNT Global, Inc., a SaaS business focused on reducing work friction.
It’s not just the title that’s different, but the report structure. She has customer-facing teams reporting to her and that includes the product team. The company has determined, for their organization, that product experience goes hand-in-hand with the customer experience.
“Our company is helping to improve the experiences of employees because we’re working to reduce friction in their day-to-day work,” she says. “For us, the word ‘experience’ has a really important meaning.”
Even though her role is somewhat different, the motivation behind it is similar. SaaS companies that want to grow “have to really pay attention” to their customer base. That requires having a single executive responsible for pulling together insights from the different teams to get a broad perspective of customers’ needs.
“At that top level, I’m making sure that we are coherent around what we are trying to solve for our customers and what kind of experience we’re trying to provide,” she says.
There’s also an implicit message to customers in her title. What the company’s leadership is trying to do with a chief experience officer is demonstrate “there’s a broader mandate across our customer-facing teams and frankly even more broadly to center on customers and their needs.”
It’s worth noting that Anne comes from a non-traditional background. She’s a trained scientist accustomed to using the scientific method for discovering the root cause of problems. She also served as the CEO of an education non-profit for several years before taking on this role.
When should SaaS companies hire a chief customer officer?
When should a SaaS company hire a chief customer officer (or equivalent)? As with the title, there aren’t any clear-cut benchmarks, but it’s certainly only after a company is sure of its product-market fit.
“Once you get to the range of $25 million to $30 million in annual recurring revenue, you need to start investing in someone who is going to be responsible for that overarching post-sale organization,” says Alli. “That’s when you start to make the distinction between roles for customer success versus implementation versus support.”
Rod’s view is similar. As soon as you start to have a specialized team for implementation, customer success, and support, it creates an opportunity to hire someone to lead those teams and start thinking about how those functional teams work together.
“I don’t believe that a chief customer officer should be one of your first C-level titles,” says Rod. In many cases, early-stage companies can get by with a VP-level title until growth—50 employees or more—or the volume of customer interaction requires C-suite leadership.
What characteristics should you look for in a chief customer officer?
Ideally, a candidate will have experience running two or more post-sale teams—implementation, services, support and customer success. However, one tricky aspect of hiring a CCO is that the role is so new, it might be hard to find candidates with adequate experience.
“A lot of CMOs have been marketing leaders for 30 years, and chief sales officers have been in the space for 25 years. They have built up a set of skills to do their job well and to operate at that executive level,” Rod notes.
Even so, he says strong CCO candidates will have three over-arching characteristics.
1. Operational capacity
Candidates should have experience of being accountable to the business with a history of delivering operating results. That means an ability to meet customer retention goals, contribute to operating margins and seek continuous process improvement.
2. Think strategically
Companies need a CCO to deliver results this quarter—and set them up for success in the future. They need to understand the company’s goals and how to best structure the post-sale team to deliver on next year’s growth strategy.
“A lot of these leaders get so tied up in their day-to-day and the escalations that they’re not planning for the future,” says Rod. “They’re not putting in place improvements, they’re not hiring the right leaders, and they’re not building out self-service resources.”
3. Cross-functional collaboration
CCOs need to be able to collaborate with sales and product teams, and really any team within the organization that interacts with the customer, whether directly or indirectly. “Much of what happens in a customer-facing organization can’t be done just in that function,” says Rod. “They need to be able to work cross-functionally with their peers and drive cross-functional improvements.”
The chief customer officer is an operational role
While the chief customer officer role may be new, the evolution of titles in the C-suite isn’t. For example, there are a number of “chief” titles today—i.e., chief revenue officer and chief information security officer—that were uncommon twenty years ago. These changes are reflections of innovation in business and an effort to organize finite resources for maximum benefit.
That’s the case with the chief customer officer too.
“It used to be an individual whose responsibility was kind of gathering feedback from surveys and from other channels, and then working with the product team to improve the product experience or working with the sales team to improve the sales experience,” says Rod. “But in the last decade, it’s become an operational leadership role that is responsible for the teams and processes that are actually delivering these customer outcomes.”
Learn what it takes to become a chief officer from customer success executives in our guide, “The future CCO.”