Passionate About Customers

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As illustrated in our 2013 series “Diary of a CMO,” Mitel Chief Marketing Officer Martyn Etherington is all about the customer. Over the course of his first year as CMO of Mitel, he completely reorganized the marketing operations to take an outside-in approach and put the customer at the center of its strategy. In our inaugural “CMO Confidential” Q&A, Etherington delves deeper into his passion for customers, how he strives to manifest it in practice, and what challenges and successes he encounters as a result.

Describe your marketing passion.

I can describe it in three words: customer, customer, and customer.

Why are customers so meaningful to you?

As the late, great Peter Drucker put it, “The purpose of business is to create and keep customers.” One could make that statement more contemporary by inserting the word “profitably” before “create and keep.”

When did you become aware of your passion for customer centricity?

It occurred when I was in college, while reading two of Peter Drucker's books: The Practice of Management and The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. Drucker writes that business has only two functions: “marketing and innovation.” Drucker distilled complex notions into simple statements that hit you like a lightning bolt. I coupled Drucker's thinking with the great marketer David Ogilvy, who was a pioneer in running his entire business centered on the customer. I still love to study the fathers of modern business thinking. Although the technologies and mediums have changed, underlying business and marketing principles really have not. We can gain so much knowledge about today and the future by learning from these past masters.

How does your desire for customer centricity influence your daily routine?

Throughout any given day I constantly think, “Would our customers value this? What am I, and what is my team, doing to help create and keep customers? Do we know who our customers are? Do we know what they value? Do we know where they are, and how they're influenced? In search-engine terms do we know the words and phrases our customers use?” Putting the customer at the center of our business provides me with a daily agenda and it helps me create my to-do lists, as well as my not-to-do lists. To borrow from Ogilvy, “There is one answer to every marketing problem: run a test with your customers.” The voice of the customer, in the form of data or fact, trumps our internal points of view every time.

How do you spread the gospel of customer centricity?

It takes a sustained and varied communications effort, but one that ultimately has to succeed beyond the CMO's rhetoric. For example, the theme of our mid-2013 flagship Business Partner Conference was centered on a book by Forrester Research's Kerry Bodine and Harley Manning called Outside-In: The Power of Putting the Customer at the Center of Your Business. We wove the book's theme throughout an event that attracted more than 1,100 business partners, industry analysts, media people, and, of course, customers. Our marketing function subsequently used that event as a launch our business.

What other forms has your drumming taken in that time?

We've taken dozens of concrete actions, including working with our customer user group to help us validate product innovations at the front end of the innovation process. This makes it easier for customers to contact us by condensing six contact centers to one, reducing our toll-free numbers from more than 100 down to a handful, and redesigning our website based entirely on VoC input. We've developed three distinct customer personas to help us develop and target more relevant content, and much more. In the past month alone we sustained our customer-centricity drum-banging by signing up more than 400 employees and 500 sales partners to attend webinars titled “Outside-In: Putting the Customer at the Center of Our Business.”

What are the primary steps in transforming your passion for customers into tangible value, and how is that effort faring?

Creating and tracking customer value is number one. We know we can, and will continue to, improve our customer Net Promoter Score by improving our customer experience, period. Next, we look at business value, which is about top-line growth: How are we creating and keeping more customers? Then we look at both business and shareholder value: Are we creating and keeping customers in a profitable way? These are the three value drivers that matter: customer satisfaction, top-line growth, and bottom-line growth. On that count, we've done well in the past year. Our share price has increased from $2.50 to $9.50. Now it comes down to sustained execution, which is always the most difficult part.

What leadership levers have you pulled to transform your passion into this type of value?

Lead by example; do as you say; and recognize, reward, and promote customer champions. But you have to do so in a consistent way. You shouldn't jump on every new fad, whether it's Big Data or social media. Any approach you consider needs to enable the marketing function and the company to create and keep customers. If any process, technology, or idea doesn't achieve that, we should question why we're considering investing in it.

What is one formidable customer-centricity challenge you encountered that might surprise many people?

Language. We realized that we needed to change the organizational mind-set from inside-out thinking to outside-in thinking—the latter approach being the way we look at the world through our customers' eyes. We realized that our everyday vocabulary played a pivotal role in making this mind-set shift work. When communicating with customers, we learned that we needed to stop using words like “us,” “ours,” and “we,” and to start using words such as “you,” “yours,” and “enable.” A word like “leader”—as in, “we are a market leader”—also means nothing to customers who are understandably more concerned with their own market position and challenges than our company and our products.

How does this passion for customer centricity play to your strengths, and play into your weaknesses?

I love simplicity in all its forms. And how much simpler can the purpose of business be defined apart from “creating and keeping customers?” I constantly pursue the attainment of this type of simplicity in everything I do, although I know I have a long way to go. I try to think like a customer and use this as a gauge, or compass, with my teams. However, sometimes a singular, resolute vision can introduce blind spots. For example, in my singular pursuit of our customer during the past year I at times overlooked the importance of our channel partners. Although customers should always come first, the channel is critical to us and I'm doing a better job of trying to maintain a healthy balance. I credit many people on my team serving as my conscience by constantly reminding me of the importance of our channel.

Did you discover any other surprising success secrets along your customer-centricity journey so far?

We quickly discovered that we needed to make sure the customer is at the heart of our key performance indicators. We also discovered that it was valuable to change the structure of our monthly Mitel leadership meetings. Rather than starting those sessions by discussing internal issues and initiatives, we now invest the first hour of those meetings—or however long it takes—discussing customers' hot-button issues. We discuss a problem, its root cause, and what counter-measures we have in place to resolve the problem. Also, the appointment of a vice president of customer quality has helped put the customer at the center of our business by ensuring that our customer-problem list is the shortest it's been in living memory.


4 Customer-Centricity Enablers

1. Enhance the customer experience through initiatives that improve the ease of purchasing from Mitel and provide the opportunity for customers to collaborate in such areas as product development

2. Measuring the progress and success of those customer experience initiatives, as well as customer satisfaction in terms of products and service, via Net Promoter Score

3. Creating business value via top-line growth by profitably creating and keeping more customers

4. Measuring business-value creation via customer satisfaction, and top- and bottom-line growth

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