Who Owns the Online Customer Channel?

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Guest post by Brian Saperstein

One of the more fascinating organizational challenges I’ve worked on with clients lately relates to an organization’s online interactions with its customers. The online customer channel is seen by some as a marketing vehicle, some view it as a service channel while others view it as a strategic driver of new business. Since the online customer channel is so dependent on information technology, IT also enters the discussion as it deals more and more with customer information, CRM, eCommerce, online channels and the overall customer experience.  So, who should own the online customer channel?

The answer, which is specific to each organization, can be found by looking at three questions:

1. What is the purpose of the online channel?

Is the web viewed simply as an low-cost service channel? Or, do business strategies depend on the online channel to grow brand and community, position products, enhance sales, or build thought leadership as part of a multi-channel strategy? What is the desire in using web2.0 / social media to drive customer engagement? For the simplest cases where the web allows for cheaper and faster self-service, a decentralized approach to the web works fine. Having each business unit own their web presence will likely deliver satisfactory results. However, if a more strategic approach to the web is desired, an “Online Customer Champion” is a new role worth exploring to bring an single view to an organization’s many online customer touch points.

2. Who should be the Online Customer Champion?

As the online customer channel drives more business value, the leadership of the channel should be centralized through an identified champion. While this might seem counter-intuitive, the logic is that as more value is driven through the online customer channel, the more it should be treated like its own “mini business unit” and be measured similarly (even if it’s done in a double-counting manner). The champion should have relationships across business units and IT to make sure a standardized approach, no matter the differences in customer composition by business unit, is applied to the online channel. This unified approach applies not just to the corporate web properties, but also to social media channels.  We have seen this customer champion hold dual roles while maintaining another role in sales, marketing or IT.  In a few cases, a separate online channel organization was created.

3. What role should the Online Customer Champion play?

This champion should be the advocate of the online customer, but also be a multi-channel integrator. In an example from a recent client, three distinct business units each had a customer strategy, yet needed IT’s help implementing their strategies. IT was so swamped with current requests and did such a poor job aligning to the distinct business units, that a separate “Web and eBusiness” group was formed – operating between IT and the business units in a shared capacity. This group knew the business unit strategies, specifically how the web played a role, and could speak to the core technical capabilities needed – as well as how this impacted other channels or business unit offerings. Simply, this group was a hub serving as the advocate of the online customer.

As IT is often tasked with ownership of many components of the online channel and business units have increasingly more strategic plans for the web, the creation of a shared function to manage this touchpoint and resulting customer interactions is becoming an increasingly popular approach. Asking the three questions listed above, however, will help understand whether this is actually needed for each organization, and if so, to what extent.

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