Lead Where You Stand


By: Rob Sherrell, Sara Roberts

A Guide for Customer Experience Leaders Surrounded by Skeptics and Cynics

North Highland Insights 

The diagnostic and guiding principles that follow are informed by our in-depth experience in helping hundreds of clients across numerous industries drive customer-centric change. For this paper, we couple that experience with client interviews and three pieces of North Highland research1 that feature the insights of senior-level CX and transformation leaders from around the world:

  • Customer Experience Ways of Working: Survey of more than 300 director-level and above employees
  • Customer Experience Principles: Survey of 215 director-level and above employees reporting a familiarity with their organization’s CX efforts
  • Business Leader Mindset/BEACON: Survey of more than 600 senior-level employees in energy, financial services, healthcare, retail, and media, entertainment, and telecom companies

In Summary

The following is a perspective for CX leaders who feel their organization talks the customer talk, but for a myriad of reasons, doesn’t fully walk the walk.

Our research shows that 49 percent of leaders cite competing strategic priorities as the No. 1 hurdle to prioritizing CX.

Your job is to uncover those barriers—those competing strategic priorities—to be as effective and influential as you can possibly be.

There’s plenty of advice out there for delivering a better customer experience. But you already know what good looks like, and cookie cutter solutions won’t help. What you need is a way to spur CX momentum within your unique set of barriers, circumstances, challenges, and resources, and an approach rooted in an understanding of who you are, and a recognition of the world around you.

The following insights and guides are custom-designed to help you lead where you stand, and start a journey towards customer centricity from wherever you may be.

The concept of CX was introduced in 1998 by Pine and Gilmore in their groundbreaking work, “Welcome to the Experience Economy.”2 Today, 20 years later, it’s the reigning darling of business strategy, and organizations across all industries collectively agree with the mandate: Get customer-centric or die.

And you—armed with a CX title and varying levels of resources and support—are the captain at CX’s helm.

If you’re among the lucky ones, you have the enabling tools of authority, money, time, and a galvanized workforce at your disposal. In your organization, CX is not a siloed function, but rather a shared, cross-disciplinary compass. You are part of a customer-optimized machine, and your work is authentically valued, enabled, and supported.

This guide is for the rest of us.

It’s for the CX leaders who may have gotten some points on the board but are stunted by structural roadblocks and cynical peers. It’s for the CX leader that has earned a few pats on the back from a C-suite that is ultimately wired to react to short-term results, not lifetime customer value. And it’s for the leader tasked with making CX a disruptive force within a political environment hell-bent on maintaining business-as-usual.

Our research shows that 88 percent of leaders cite better customer experiences over the next five years as “extremely important,” though less than 35 percent feel very prepared to get customer centricity right.

We’ve experienced this organizational tension from all sides. As strategic advisors to some of the biggest companies in the world, we’ve worked from the outside in to empower leaders to make CX the foundation of business strategy. We’ve been on the inside, tasked with leading CX initiatives for operationally optimized Fortune 100 companies that talk—and have ultimately walked—a good CX game. And we’ve advised others that loudly espouse a commitment to CX but deep down are cynical, skeptical, or beholden to the kind of company-centric thinking that kills customer centricity before efforts even get off the ground.

Armed with that perspective and experience, we know that many CX leaders are struggling to gain traction because they are heads-down executing on an agenda that is tactically driven, not strategically designed. You are too busy doing the “CX stuff” to assess yourself and your organizational environment. And as you exhaust the quick wins, you’re rapidly approaching a stalemate that is all too common: 86 percent of CX leaders say they struggle with defining a strategy that balances the short and long term for a higher-impact, more sustainable approach.3

This inability to move past ad hoc initiatives and toward systematic change has propelled scores of CX leaders to reach out to us for help. These leaders are tired of the fruitless pursuit of a one-size-fits-all CX promised land. They know their success relies on their ability to lead where they stand and to ignite a CX movement now. Unfortunately, most have not paused to reflect and gather the contextual understanding to do that well.

In this piece, we offer you the approach we use to support our clients. It’s one that provides CX leaders with context. It zeroes in on the needs and motivations of the people in play and applies research and experience to help you see the entire ecosystem through an appraisal of your personal leadership skills and a diagnosis of your organizational environment. And it suggests practical, tailored advice to help you effectively chart a course to customer centricity.

The one-size-fits-all CX promised land is a myth. Your CX context will determine the strategies and tools to be employed. The following rapid introspection renders tailored advice and actionable tactics to help you remove barriers and capitalize on the impactful opportunities on your journey to customer centricity.


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1 “Customer Experience Ways of Working”: March 2018 survey of more than 300 director-level and above employees across all industries in organizations with $1 billion/£1 billion revenue per year in the United States or the United Kingdom.

“Customer Experience Principles”: October 2017 survey of 215 director-level and above employees reporting a familiarity with their organization’s CX efforts. Survey respondents represent an even mix of industries in organizations with $1 billion/£1 billion revenue per year in the United States or the United Kingdom.

“Business Leader Mindset/BEACON”: October 2017 survey of more than 600 senior-level employees in energy, financial services, healthcare, retail, and media, entertainment, and telecom at companies with 2016 revenues in excess of $1 billion/£1 billion and operations around the world.

2 Pine, B. Joseph II, and Gilmore, James. “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” Harvard Business Review, July 1998.

3 “2018 Top Challenges for Customer Experience Leaders,” Gartner, January 2018.


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