Customer Obsession Is Today’s Transformation Imperative

By Shirley Macbeth, Chief Marketing Officer, Forrester

Who drives transformation in your business? After years of fighting for a seat at the boardroom table, the chief marketing officer (CMO) is now at the core of some of the most critical business transformations. But transformation can’t happen in isolation. It requires rallying the entire organisation to embrace change.

Many businesses, including Forrester, are on a transformation journey. Some were prompted by the effects of the pandemic, while others were already in motion. Each will be at a different point and in pursuit of different goals, yet Forrester believes that a single truth can be a strategic advantage for all organisations. Customer obsession is the key to delivering stronger revenue growth, more satisfied customers, and more engaged employees. According to Forrester, customer-obsessed organisations — those that put customers at the centre of their leadership, strategy, and operations — grow revenue, profits, and employee engagement and retain customers at more than twice the rate of other firms.

Aligning for customer obsession is a team sport, requiring aligned performance across all functions to win. Yet, Forrester’s Customer Obsession Assessment found that only 7% of firms are customer obsessed today.

To become customer obsessed, organisations need to transform their processes, culture, people, metrics, structure, and technology strategy — based on their business and the industry in which they operate. With marketing typically being the most connected to the voice and sentiment of the customer, as well as the custodian of the brand, the CMO can offer a data-driven and informed foundation on which to make critical business transformation decisions.

The first step on Forrester’s transformation journey was taking our own customer-obsessed assessment and defining a vision for our expression of customer obsession. We determined that Forrester’s customer promise is to be “on your side and by your side, helping you to be Bold at Work.” That work helped us to ground how we want customers to feel in every interaction with our brand.

The first step on Forrester’s transformation journey was taking our own customer-obsessed assessment and defining a vision for our expression of customer obsession.

To put customers at the heart of every business decision requires the breakdown of traditional organisational silos. When it comes to go-to-market strategy, it’s common in many organisations for sales, marketing, and product to each have their own goals that aren’t necessarily discussed across divisions, let alone aligned. In this situation, segmented business units may find themselves in competition or — worse still — cannibalising each other’s success.

Based on my own experience working closely with my colleagues, including Kelley Hippler, chief sales officer, and Carrie Johnson, chief research officer in charge of research products, I’ll share how aligning our business functions has set the course for Forrester’s ambitious growth plans over the next few years.

Transformation Driven By Accelerated Change

Together, using Forrester’s own frameworks, models, and methodologies, we spent the past 12 months preparing for growth by reinventing and simplifying areas of Forrester’s business. The transformation was partly driven by the pandemic environment, which accelerated change in client needs, boosted digital transformation, and spurred innovation and experimentation.

But equally, as in many organisations today, it was also a transformation of a business where, over the years, the sales, marketing, and product functions had grown and evolved with different goals, measurement metrics, and ways of doing business.

Part of the approach we developed to unite these siloed functions started from a core premise that the responsibility for customer experience, growth, and retention doesn’t fall on any single role or department: It’s a shared responsibility with a common goal.

To align with the company’s business goals, we focused on five key priorities:

1. Aligning across marketing, sales, and product. Our research shows that when marketing, sales, and product functions are aligned, companies report 19% faster growth and 15% greater profitability. However, the reality is that alignment can be difficult to achieve, and most organisations are not yet reaching the necessary depth to realise the full gains.

Placing customer obsession at the centre of Forrester’s core business strategy has provided a unified focal point and joint objectives for alignment across our core functions. But getting this close to the customer also revealed an uncomfortable truth: Our customers found our product offering overly complex and challenging to navigate. This unprecedented level of customer insight led to the most radical change in the company’s product offering in its 35-year history.

2. Shifting from being product-centric to being audience-centric. Thirty-five years of growth and a substantial acquisition two years ago resulted in over 100 products cluttering our portfolio. It was time to “Marie Kondo” our business and look through the lens of our customers to design and deliver products how, when, and where they needed them. We used Forrester’s Audience Framework to prioritize and align our strategy.

This exercise has involved the research and development of detailed primary and secondary personas that guide activity across all three business functions. The personas have become a unifying point of reference across the organisation.

Being so closely focused on our target customers has also generated a deeper understanding of them, which means recognising the multiperson nature of Forrester’s customers’ buying journey and being more attuned to it throughout product, sales, and marketing.

The result is a newly transformed product portfolio — Forrester Decisions — which offers 15 new services addressing the needs of technology, customer experience, marketing, product, and sales functions. Research, frameworks, tools, and advisory are combined and streamlined to tackle the most pressing priorities that keep these executives awake at night.

3. Leveraging data to make informed decisions. A core part of any business transformation is to become more data driven. That means underpinning strategic decisions with accurate insight and quantifiable metrics.

At the end of the day, we’re all aiming to increase revenue and boost retention, but that’s easier said than done when everyone views the world a little differently and doesn’t necessarily read from the same data dashboard or speak the same language.

For example, how does the sales team approach lead generation, and does that differ from the perspective of the marketing team or product development? How are the different stages of the funnel defined by each team, what is a qualified lead, and when do leads become hot prospects? Even more importantly, do all the core functions have the same access to the same data and have a united goal for success?

Aligning on a common, data-centred goal means having the foundation for setting targets across functional teams, where consistency and alignment are commonly lacking. We used our own models and frameworks, such as Forrester’s B2B Revenue Waterfall™, to establish a common view, clarifying the role each function plays in driving new pipeline and revenue opportunities as well as enriching current client relationships. Data is helping us to be better informed about what’s working and what’s not, and we can fine-tune our marketing and sales initiatives with more accuracy. We’re much more agile, smarter, and more strategic as a result.

4. Driving customer-informed digital transformation. Now more than ever, as businesses look to the post-pandemic future and tackle bigger challenges with tighter budgets, digitisation is viewed as an effective and necessary strategy for success.

While many firms were prompted to digitise their offerings and embrace more technology-enabled practices in 2020, only 15% of senior decision-makers across Europe rated their company as digitally advanced. Yet it is the goal of a great many others, and our research shows that it is most often the responsibility of the CMO to represent the voice of the customer in a company’s digital transformation journey.

As I’ve experienced firsthand, this isn’t a journey that can be tackled in a single project or by any kind of siloed team. In fact, most transformations fail due to a lack of functional alignment. Becoming digitally led is a journey requiring the right skills, support, energy, and equipment. We invested heavily in building a more enhanced digital experience for our customers, informed by ongoing customer input, journey mapping, and iterative testing. The resulting improved digital experience will allow for a more personalized, streamlined, and engaging experience that delivers faster time-to-value for our clients. For example, it will serve up to users the most relevant content based on what their peers are reading, what’s popular within their service, and what’s relevant for their industry.

5. Focusing on “change leadership” instead of “change management.” Determining how to be more responsive to audience needs is a solid starting point for companies looking to unlock growth potential. But unifying the sales, marketing, and product efforts on that same focused approach demands strategic change.

While change management as a practice is well documented, the most common barrier to success comes not from the trenches but from the C-suite — with the concept of “management” being the major roadblock. Our research shows that executives instead need to focus on change “leadership” to drive transformation and secure trust, because change first requires the conditions under which employees feel ready to adapt, stretch, and grow. 

Forces of technology, competition, and risk are making transformation increasingly complex. As leaders, Kelley, Carrie, and I worked hard to create a united vision and energy that would bring our teams together and motivate everyone toward the same goal. It has changed the way we manage our teams, with emphasis on how we all communicate across and within the business. It demanded a continuous and consistent cadence of information, answering many questions, addressing concerns, and being transparent. Essentially, transparency is a keystone of trust, and, if trust isn’t present, resistance to change becomes an increasing headwind.

In the post-pandemic era, where customer needs are changing faster than ever, businesses need a transformation strategy that is strong and agile. For Forrester, that meant aligning key functions, including marketing, sales, and product, around a vision for customer obsession. As the pandemic continues to recalibrate lifestyles and buying behaviours, customer-obsessed firms have a definite advantage in terms of higher customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and revenue growth in any economic climate.

About the Author

As Forrester’s chief marketing officer, Shirley Macbeth is responsible for elevating the company’s thought leadership profile and generating demand for its portfolio of research, consulting, and events. She has 25+ years of experience as a marketing professional with a proven track record in increasing revenues and building brand awareness for global B2B companies.


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