As companies strive to differentiate themselves from their competition, a new position is springing up in the executive suite: Chief Experience Officer (CXO). These change leaders are tackling the challenge of bringing their organizations into what experience experts Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore have dubbed “the Experience Economy.”
Although the trend is strongest among young, web-based companies founded in the Experience-Economy era, CXOs also are being named by a growing number of traditional businesses that seek to engage people with positive, memorable experiences.
“The companies that aren’t doing it are the ones that have always known they’re in the experience business… the Disneys and Universals,” said Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy and Infinite Possibility: Creating Customer Value on the Digital Frontier. “These are companies where experience permeates their entire business. They don’t necessarily need someone with ‘CXO’ branded on their forehead – although it wouldn’t hurt to keep them on track.”
BIRTH OF THE CXO
CXO probably isn’t a position you’ll see advertised on global online employment solution Monster.com, and it isn’t staffed by the thirtysomethings you might expect. Most CXOs championed the creation of the role at their companies, taking on the task after working their way up through the ranks.
Mark Greiner, CXO at Michigan-based Steelcase, for example, worked at the company for more than 40 years and served in 28 different jobs before becoming CXO. Lynn Skoczelas, CXO at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego, managed six different departments and a service line over a span of more than 15 years before taking on her current role. KC Fowler, CXO and director of Patient Experience at US-based Adventist Health, began his career as an emergency room clerk almost 35 years ago. Jim Cummings, CXO at Life Celebration (North Wales, Pennsylvania), had worked in the funeral business as a manager and funeral director for more than 25 years before pioneering the company’s experienced-based approach to funeral planning with his business partner, Gerry Givnish.
These change leaders each saw a need to transform their companies’ business model to a more sustainable, experienced-based one. They not only championed the change – they stepped up to serve as the new function’s leader.
“After more than 18 years on the senior leadership team, it was less about the company saying ‘we need a CXO’ than about me advocating that was the next role I wanted,” Greiner said. “I sent a note to our CEO saying it’s what I wanted to do. I’m not sure he really saw then what the impact on the business might be, but he trusted me as a partner and gave me the green light.”
At the time, Steelcase was a 100-year-old leader in the office furniture industry. But with companies reducing office space in favor of telecommuting, “it was becoming increasingly difficult for Steelcase to be viewed as distinctively different among its competitors,” Greiner said. “We couldn’t simply move to services because our dealer network had established itself as the local provider. We had to make the leap directly to experiences.”
Greiner’s first project as CXO was to launch a “work experience” concept branded Workspring. The concept offers turnkey office studios for rent that feature Steelcase furniture, but the venture isn’t meant to sell more office furniture. Instead, Greiner said, it’s a new business offering meant to generate an entirely new revenue stream.
“IF YOU’RE NOT FOCUSED ON CREATING AN INTENTIONAL EXPERIENCE, YOU’RE CREATING AN UNINTENTIONAL ONE.”KC FOWLER
CXO AND DIRECTOR OF PATIENT EXPERIENCE, ADVENTIST HEALTH
“The customer reaction to our first space in Chicago, which takes offsite meetings to an entirely new level, has been phenomenal,” Greiner said. “You must consider alternatives beyond your existing business model because, if you don’t, somebody out there – maybe even outside your industry – could marginalize what you’ve been.”
ADVICE FROM THE TRENCHES
People who become CXOs are, by definition, outside-the-box thinkers. Adventist Health’s Fowler said he thinks every day about how to create better experiences for the faith-based, not-for-profit health network’s patients, physicians and staff.
“Whether they mean to or not, companies create experiences – some good, some not so good,” Fowler said. “If you’re not focused on creating an intentional experience, you’re creating an unintentional one. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you shouldn’t be surprised where you end up.”
At Sharp HealthCare, meanwhile, Skoczelas champions a lofty vision: to be the best health care system in the universe, a goal the company chose so it would always have something to aspire to.
“It’s a timeline with no end,” Skoczelas said. “Although we’ve seen measurable increases in patient and employee satisfaction, we’ve also had a market increase every year for the past 14 years, including increased revenue and philanthropic support and decreased turnover of staff.”
CHANGE FROM THE BOTTOM UP
As members of the executive suite, CXOs must be careful not to simply push change from the top, said Laila Pawlak, founder and CXO at DARE2, a Denmark-based consulting firm that helps companies navigate and embrace the Experience Economy. “CXOs must be champions of change,” Pawlak said. “Getting the rest of the company on board and not only participating in the experience transformation, but helping to create it, is essential.”
Sharp HealthCare, for example, called on its employees to architect a performance-improvement process. Approximately 1,000 employees, from front-line staff to managers and directors, formed 100 teams empowered by top management to shift the company’s culture to one focused on staging great health care experiences. “Let your people guide the process,” Skoczelas advised. “If they own it, it will work. And get excited about even incremental changes – that empowers people.”
PROCEED WITH PASSION
Ask any of these CXOs about their typical day and they will politely explain there’s no such thing. Thriving on the atypical fuels their passion, but there’s science and methodology behind everything they do.
“I could take the Life Celebration program into any business and nothing about it would really change,” Cummings said of the funeral-planning service. “In almost any business, your first touchpoint with your customer is probably the telephone. The experience starts there. When you pick up the phone, are you getting out of your own tornado long enough to actually hear what your customer is saying? Or are you just racing to the end zone to get to your next phone call?”
The biggest lesson is that creating great experiences applies across every industry, Cummings said. “You can provide goods and services and wrap goods with services, but to break through to the next level you have to be able to piece together a transformational experience for people. There’s not a business on the planet that isn’t part of the Experience Economy – or should be.”