I first heard the idea that customer-centric B-to-B CMOs make the perfect CEOs when talking with Claudine Bianchi, CMO at Click Software. Led by her customer-centric CEO, her company had adopted a top-to-bottom customer-centric strategy and was experiencing record growth. Bianchi orchestrated the entire customer life cycle through the use of customer-facing systems, data and collaborative processes. Bianchi knows her customer and brings intimate knowledge to her company for better decision-making up and down the line.

Because of her intense customer focus, she acts more like a B-to-C CMO than a B-to-B CMO. Her B-to-C approach fuels her successful career path. There are four phenomena guiding her and other CMOs to the corner office: the B-to-B legacy shift, customer demand for B-to-C experience, customer-centric strategy and marketing operations enabling CMO-led customer-centric strategy.

1. The B-to-B Legacy Shift

Bianchi is not the norm. A common occurrence in the B-to-B marketing world is that marketers do not know the customer. Customer knowledge is tribal and largely held in sales. This is in marked contrast to B-to-C marketers, who have an intimate, data-driven understanding of their customer, as they should. Consumers have been in control of their buying process since the dawn of e-commerce.

B-to-C marketers have a breadth of experience in working with data to shape every aspect of the customer journey. You don’t see B-to-C marketers going to sales to get input about what the customer wants. In the B-to-C world you see a marketing organization and a CMO who are experts on all things related to the customer—not so much in the B-to-B world, but fortunately this legacy is beginning to change.

2. B-to-B Customers Demand a B-to-C Experience

As consumers in a digital world, we are spoiled. We can get what we want, when we want it, from anywhere in the world. We can point, click, search and buy in about four seconds. In addition, we expect the product or service provider to know us and to treat us uniquely. Amazon recommends books for me based on what I buy. Apple updates me about the latest in iPhone technology. As consumers adopt these new buying behaviors based on customized and instantaneous B-to-C experiences, they begin to expect it in all of their interactions, including B-to-B interactions.

How to Make the B-to-B E-commerce Experience More Like B-to-C

Think about it: Isn’t your patience at an end for e-mails that know nothing about you? Aren’t you turned-off when an ad placement pops up and has nothing to do with you? Don’t you hate cold calls from reps who don’t know anything about you or your company? It’s archaic and a business relationship killer.

3. B-to-B Companies Are Adopting Broad Customer-centric Strategies

The pressure of customer expectations is finally affecting the adoption of customer-centric strategies by B-to-B firms. It is becoming apparent that a customer-centric strategy is now required to win. Pivoting from a product-centric or operational-centric strategy to a customer-centric strategy pays off. As early as the 1990s, research empirically demonstrated that companies with a customer-centric approach improve revenue growth, market share and profit margins as well as gain and retain more customers.

In practical terms, the customer focus must be pervasive and measured in a company to have the desired effect. It starts with the CEO and the executive team and trickles down to every person in the company. It has to move from “talk” to “walk.” KPIs and management by objectives (MBO) for every part of the company that associates with customer delight are ways to measure the adoption.

In this environment, the CMO is in the best position to operationalize this strategy because marketing operations now provide CMOs with the tools to adopt a B-to-C approach in working with B-to-B customers.

4. The Rise of Marketing Operations Enables a CMO-led Customer-centric Strategy

Technology is at the center of all of this change. It enables customer control of the buying journey. It is creating the pressure to pivot to a customer-centric strategy, and it is the answer to operationalizing that strategy.

In this technology-rich environment, the marketing operations group has emerged to use technology and data to detail and provide relevant customer insights to the CMO and to the organization. It has taken the B-to-B CMO a while to realize how helpful this data is in driving business decisions. Now the CMO is the expert on the customer, not sales. It is this expertise and knowledge that is preparing the B-to-B CMO for the top spot in the firm.

From CMO to CEO

Forrester says we’re in the age of the customer, and I totally agree—for both B-to-C and B-to-B organizations. In this dynamic digital world, consumers and customers alike will continue to maintain control and be one click away from the competition. The customer-facing systems and the customer data are now coalescing to represent the holistic customer journey. This journey touches all parts of the organization. In this environment, companies that best know their customers will win. While few CMOs from B-to-C or B-to-B go on to become CEOs, the age of the customer is changing this dynamic. As companies win or lose based on the customer experience, who better to lead than your No. 1 customer advocate, the CMO? Your time has arrived.