How to build a customer value squad — and why
A small, cross-functional team copes best with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments — in the operating room or in marketing.
Companies are organized by departments, each with its specific function, which work together…until they do not. When you hit that point, growth is harder to find. Noticing this, marketing strategist Kathleen Schaub is offering a human solution: the customer value squad.
The concept goes by many other names — tiger team, SWAT team, pods, task force, skunk works. But the general feature set is remarkably alike — a small group of people pulled from different specialties working together to solve problems. The customer value squad must be empowered to make decisions and be held accountable for the results.
Elements of such an approach were outlined last year in the two part series, “Return on investment is missing in action,” and “Static ROI metrics, meet dynamic marketing situation.”
Schaub’s customer value squad will run against the grain of the organizational chart, where power is hierarchical. In traditional companies, each department is a fiefdom. It jealously keeps data — and power — within the confines of its silo. A CVS must be able to draw information into its well in order to assess situations and act in real time, thus cutting through silos.
The legacy that refuses to die
Those silos marketers are trying to crack today are a legacy of the industrial age, Schaub told us. Early in the 20th century, scientific management and organizational structure replaced the “chaotic, bespoke” way of making things. “The idea of grouping specialists together was a novelty,” she said. Efficiency optimized processes and management was professionalized.
“Over time, specialists became silos,” Schaub explained. “Once you put people together who are alike, they form their own cultures.” Information then travels vertically, not laterally. “Need to know” traps data. This way of doing things that can be resistant to change.
Only here, change is represented by “VUCA” — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The vertical, hierarchical structure of silos become ill-suited to operating in such a fast-moving, ever-changing business environment, Schaub pointed out.
Around what mission should a team be organized? “It depends on what area of value you are delivering,” Schaub said. It could be geographic, as companies tries to improve sales in specific regions. It could be account-based. It could be about revenue operations. Or product service. Or design support. Or the team could address marketing across channels.
Here the size of the team matters. Around six to ten is ideal, Schaub said. “Getting beyond that, you start formalizing and coordinating,” she said. Companies will also have to fill skills gaps, which become obvious when the customer value teams begin operations. You may need product people, communications specialists, or account managers. “There is no checklist,” Schaub said.
Not unique to marketing
The concept of the small team is not new. It has grown out of necessity in other industries and professions.
Schaub found her inspiration for the customer value squad in an unlikely place: the hospital operating room. In that space you find a collection of specialists: a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, several operating room nurses. Each has their own different skill set. But they have one mission: the care of the patient.
Human bodies are similar, but “every situation is a little different” for the team, Schaub said “They are empowered in the moment to make decisions,” she said, and they are held accountable for the outcome.
The specialists are drawn from different departments to form the team. There is still a head of a nursing and a head of surgery, Schaub pointed out. “[But does] the surgeon ask the boss to take action when the patient is bleeding out?”
This illustrates a point: that silos with a vertical hierarchy will inhibit agility, being ill-suited to acting fast when a situation changes on the line or at the edge.
Again, this kind of organization is not unique to the OR. Sports teams operate this way, Schaub noted. So does the military. A VUCA environment moves too fast for a top-down organization to manage. But a small, networked group can handle it, since it is closer to the action.
Yes, but how?
Implementing a customer value squad is a change project. It can happen one of two ways.
The first is the ideal situation, where top managers see the need for customer value squads (or something like them). They will retain consultants, then spend several years retooling the corporate culture to embrace agility. This eventually produces exceptional results, Schaub explained. This approach is rarely seen, she added.
The second approach is more likely. That is when a company takes one piece of its business and undertakes a small, incremental change, Schaub continued. It could be customer success management or account-based marketing, but it must be customer-focused, she said.
It starts by forming just one customer value squad. “Put the best people there and push it through.” Schaub said. Keep breaking things and fixing them until you succeed. These break-fix cycles are short, but iterative. Team members learn the lessons taught by failure, adapt, then try again until they find the right solution. This is more of a methodology rather than a recipe.
Once the team has ironed out its difficulties, it can then be replicated throughout the enterprise. Schaub likened this to opening a chain of candy stores. Start with one store, get it right, then scale up in batches.
Customer value squads will vary in composition but will have three basic components. The “people piece” is network organization, Schaub said. The method piece is agile operations. The brain piece is intelligence/analysis. People will find their way towards “complexity-wise marketing” as they understand how these pieces fit together.
That will take time. A company will have to tolerate a measure of small failures in this learning process. But the results will exceed the costs, provided all are pointed towards the same goal.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.