Corrine Sklar - CMO at Bluewolf headshot

Presenting

Corinne Sklar

Chief Marketing Officer at Bluewolf, an IBM Company

As CMO of Bluewolf, an IBM company, it’s Corinne's responsibility not only to articulate the company’s vision—innovation through strategic customer focus—but also help their clients with the real hard work of turning a strategic customer focus into practice.

Corrine Sklar - CMO at Bluewolf headshot

WHAT IS BLUEWOLF?

Bluewolf, an IBM Company, is the Salesforce consulting agency that enables companies of all sizes and industries to connect customer experience to value. As part of IBM, Bluewolf brings over 105 years of technology innovation to business transformation.

Bluewolf logo

Marketing is more complex than ever

As CMO of Bluewolf, an IBM Company, it’s Corinne’s Sklar responsibility not only to articulate the company’s vision—innovation through strategic customer focus—but also help Bluewolf’s clients with the real hard work of turning a strategic customer focus into practice.


In this sense, Corinne is both executive and executive advisor. Like most CMOs, it is her job to use customer data to give her clients better experiences. Unlike most CMOs, it is also her job to help executives at other companies do for their customers what Corinne does for hers.

After observing hundreds of mid-market and enterprise companies try to define and implement a customer-first strategy, and implementing one for Bluewolf, Corinne has developed a keen sense for what differentiates the haves from the have-nots. The common thread between the companies that she has seen succeed is clear: “They have C-level alignment, top-down support, and cross-departmental resources dedicated to their customer initiatives.”

To be clear, when Corinne says alignment she does not mean approval—she means commitment. That commitment goes beyond just the marketing team having access to data they need to improve customer experience. Executives outside of Marketing have to be able to see the broader vision for the initiative, and then spend the budget, divvy up the headcount, agree on outcomes, and the decide how to measure them, together.

In her twelve years at Bluewolf, Corinne has seen few marketing departments single-handedly design and implement a program that, by its mere existence, transformed the way the rest of the company did business. Customer-first practices do not spread like wildfires. As is true with most good ideas, they need good marketing to gain traction, so the first job of any customer champion, then, is to create more champions.

“The CMO is brave to carry this flag, as most marketers tend to be when it comes to pioneering new programs. But no matter how industrious the advocates are, they can’t move forward a large customer experience initiative without buy-in from other leaders. That doesn’t mean that the CMO can’t be the one to start the conversation, but they do have to stretch outside of the Marketing silo and become a torchbearer across the enterprise.”

In this exclusive interview, Corinne shares observations from years as a CMO and twelve years advising them, and makes her recommendations to executives who find themselves up against the organizational and cultural barriers standing between having a customer strategy and actualizing one.

The limits and purpose of technology in customer experience initiatives 01

From Corinne’s perspective, the first step a CMO needs to take in order to use data to improve customer experience, surprisingly, has very little to do with data governance, tooling, accessibility, or tech stacks.

As the customer experience strategy, goals, constraints to budgets, and technical resources shift, so too do expectations around what data should be collected, how and when it should be used, and who needs to access it. So time spent debating the ‘right’ technology up front—before there is alignment on these expectations—ends up wasting time and dollars.

And it’s not only a matter of when. Corinne has also seen too many leaders overestimate what technology can actually accomplish when it comes to improving customer experience. “Right now, technology is amazing, and, inarguably, organizations must be technology-driven to compete in the market. But too many people treat technology like a band-aid to solve much larger problems. The problem is that people use technology. And systems have to feed into that technology, and behind those systems are politics and budgets and security issues and silos—all built by people.”

Moreover, the sheer volume of data that companies can collect and the metrics they can choose to measure is overwhelming. “Manual data entry and ongoing data management takes focus and investment. Not all data is important, not all metrics are worth measuring, and with new regulation like GDPR, this is a perfect time to focus on the right data and management.”

Everyone is chasing the best data stack, but, from Corinne’s perspective, “the most important item to agree on is standard metrics and build personal, organizational, and company-wide benchmarks. If the executive staff don’t have alignment, leadership, purpose, and governance structure to supporting and driving these goals, the data, on its own, won’t be valuable. And I think that is the most important thing we have to we all have to realize: customer experience is not about data experience. It’s about how individuals experience the brand from both inside and the outside of the company. Of course, data can help people make that experience better, but ultimately it is a tool that can only supplement strong leadership and a culture of putting the customer first.”

[Data] is a tool that can only supplement strong leadership and a culture of putting the customer first.

How to break down silos to secure lasting commitments 02

Corinne has seen too many organizations trying to build that customer-first culture in a vacuum. “People often talk about customer experience exclusively as it relates to the programs, services, or product that their specific team owns. They’re actually only seeing a portion of the customer journey, because when you actually look at most companies’ customer journeys, and see that infinity loop around acquisition, new purchase, and loyalty, it becomes clear that touchpoints exist within every single department. Not just in marketing channels like email or website or ads, but in the call center, in the purchasing department, in the product, etc. And so, when leaders of each of those departments can map out that journey together and start to understand where pain points and opportunities to add value overlap, the silos begin to break down.”

Because customer experience is, a cross-department issue, Corinne doesn’t think it matters the title of the executive that makes the initial push. “It could be CMO or the CIO or the Chief Customer Officer or the Chief Digital Officer. At B2B companies, we’re sometimes brought in by the Chief Sales Officer. The politics really depend on whether the company is mid-market or a Fortune 50, and whether the company is going through a digital transformation or if technology is already very core to their business. So the specific challenges will be different but, ultimately, the role of the champion is not important. What’s important is that the champion can clearly articulate, up front, why they want to push forward a customer-first initiative, what impact it will have, and all possible ways to measure that impact.”

Decide on desired outcomes and how to measure them, together

The onus often falls on one executive—often the CMO—to make the company more responsive to the needs of the customers. But the CMOs don’t dictate the company strategy, or even customer strategy, so they need to make their case for a new customer experience initiative very relevant to the rest of the executives.

Merely presenting on the initiative does not instill a sense of personal investment or responsibility needed to get others executives to get involved. So the champion needs to get them to participate in a conversation, or, ideally, a vigorous debate, about customers needs and the best way for the customer to deliver on them.

We run align sessions for our clients at Bluewolf to start these discussions. They vary from business to business, but the general goal of the session is to get executives to the point where they have roughly the same answer to three core questions: What is the customer journey? What are the touchpoints along the way? And what real business value should customers gain in the process?

- Corinne Sklar, CMO at Bluewolf
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Don’t settle for nods—nail down commitments

After working at Bluewolf for over a decade, helping clients go through this alignment process, Corinne has become very good at sniffing out meaningful commitments from cursory ones.

Again, true executive alignment is not borne of an hour-long meeting where senior leadership sits in a room together nodding along to the CMO’s vision of a customer-first company. In fact, Corinne thinks CMOs will be worse off if they mistake this kind of tacit compliance for genuine support.

“The biggest risk is that the executive champion will walk out of the meeting with the illusion of alignment.” It not only dooms any initiative from the start and forces the champion to invest time and resources into something that will never get off the ground.

Real executive alignment looks like this: “Other department leaders help decide on goals, the milestones and metrics they will use to measure their success on the goals, and then they to put their money down, make their time available, and dedicate a headcount to hit the goals.”

Starting small with a start-up mentality 03

Once the champion has secured meaningful commitments from other leaders, the executive staff has to decide on their initial area of focus. Corinne warns of two common pitfalls in this process: “biting off more than you can chew or choosing an initiative that doesn’t align with the business value you offer to your customers.”

Together, the executive staff needs to revisit to that customer journey that they mapped out and assess the different pain points. “Start with one that is going to be the simplest and cheapest to address, that will drive the most business value in the shortest amount of time.” And don’t rush it. “Where you start with a customer experience is everything.”

Solving a simple, but not insignificant, problem early on generates excitement about the broader customer experience initiative, which will help carry the company through more difficult challenges that inevitably lie ahead. “It might be in the call center. It might at the bottom of the acquisition funnel. We never know going in, but that’s the important work of all those alignment sessions—to help the executive staff seed that out for their own company.”

Once the initial area of improvement is decided on by the executive staff, the champion needs to invest internal change management. “This is where CMOs have an edge, because successful organizational change is all about communication and internal marketing. If you have a quick win, you should tell that story internally to demonstrate that the customer experience initiative is paying off. Applying the same rigor to your internal marketing of the initiative as you would to an external campaign can continually drive buy-in, budget support, and ongoing governance for the program.”

Particularly at enterprise companies, organizational structure determines how successful companies are at maintaining support for customer experience initiatives in the long-term. 

"When it comes to driving customer experience initiatives, larger businesses, in particular, need to make sure they are structured in a very agile, efficient way that is conducive to a start-up mentality."

Structuring customer experience strategy around an ‘innovation lab’ model can help enterprise companies not only maintain an initiative, but also ensure that they are always able to identify those high-impact areas for change.

“We work with one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, and they run their customer experience strategy with a center of innovation—a group of individuals who test, in a very agile way, the areas where there is room to improve customer experience. It’s all hypothesis driven and based on 30, 60-day scrums. They come up with a concept, they test the concept with this small group of customers, and then they decide whether it’s worthwhile to turn it into a new program. And they’re testing 20 of these ideas at any given time.”

Continuous innovation is necessary to keep up with the evolving needs and expectations of a diverse and growing customer base. Even though Corinne encourages to have a long-term vision—and even write up a multi-year roadmap—for customer experience, not every program need to be, or even should be, implemented.

“The executive staff can take the learnings from the new experiments and use it to tweak the vision accordingly. It’s more important that everyone is aligned around the same North Star and less important how you get there.”

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