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Five C-suite priorities for customer engagement, experience and growth

Facing disruptive new technologies, seamless collaboration across the C-suite is key to creating innovative customer experiences.

In brief

  • As C-suite roles evolve to incorporate digital elements, the function of a CFO, CTO and CMO may soon look very different.
  • To drive collaboration, function heads must understand the different priorities of the C-suite.

Technologies like metaverse and virtual reality are enabling brands to create a new generation of innovative customer touchpoints. In turn, businesses across sectors will find their customers expecting ever-more distinctive and streamlined experiences as the norm.

In new research from Ernst & Young LLP, which collated the views of 600 senior-level marketingtechnology and finance executives worldwide, most respondents say they are prioritizing personalized interfaces, internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR). Moreover, their investments have already exceeded their expectations in terms of satisfying customers (76%), developing new business models (70%) and growing market share (69%).

Adrian Slobin, EY Americas Customer and Growth Leader, believes emerging technologies have become a core enabler of the wider marketing agenda. “Interactive experiences are part of a continuous ecosystem of engagement, which spans physical and digital,” Slobin says. “Today, it’s less a question of whether they should use digital in the mix, but a question of how they should optimize digital.” 

Operating in a difficult, uncertain market, businesses are optimistic about what they can achieve. Eight in 10 respondents believe they will continue to grow customer share by enhancing or reimagining their customer experiences. But seizing this opportunity is easier in theory than in practice. 

To succeed, our research suggests that leadership teams across technology, finance and marketing can help realize the opportunity by driving change across the five key dimensions below.

1. Embrace digital experience and the risk of innovation

More than half (56%) of respondents say digital-enabled customer experiences are a significant priority for their business but concerns over integration challenges and long-term financial implications are holding some back.

When asked why digital experiences are not a higher priority, 54% of respondents cite insufficient management support, while the same proportion – among those who have yet to embrace digital experiences – are concerned about the possibility of alienating customers who prefer more traditional interactions.

Respondents see finance leaders as having a particularly low risk tolerance. “It’s not in the nature of a CFO to jump into an investment just to try it,” says Mike Kelly, EY Americas Finance Consulting Leader, Ernst & Young LLP. Kelly also explains that, in some businesses, the stigma of an unsuccessful investment may even limit career development. “Some companies will penalize people for trying new things,” Kelly says. “What companies need is a more experimental investment philosophy, almost like a venture capitalist fund. Try it, see if it works; if it hits, great. If it doesn’t work, we’ll learn from it and move on.”

Acknowledging that digital transformation is a journey of experimentation and testing, rather than a guaranteed win, is key to addressing these concerns. Attaining this understanding will require collaboration across teams to rethink key performance indicators (KPIs) and assure leadership teams that consumers post-COVID-19 are significantly more open to digital experiences than they were prior to the pandemic.

2. Challenge the funding model

Embracing the new technology may mean rethinking legacy funding and budgeting models. More than half (53%) of respondents say their approach to this area is outdated and prevents them from engaging with customers to the full extent made possible by digital. This is despite 8 in 10 respondents recognizing that added agility in their budgets would give them an edge.

“If you're implementing a new virtual experience, it probably requires a few quarters or even years for foundational changes to have an impact,” says Nuno Leal, Senior Manager, Technology, Media and Telecommunications, Ernst & Young LLP. “A lot of companies look at quarter-by-quarter earnings. If the new experience cannot be measured by a traditional metric, they won't do it.”

As a first step, companies should consider bringing representatives from finance into conversations where the business case for digital investments is being developed. If finance executives are involved in these discussions and can gain a deeper understanding of how the investment will create value for the business, then leadership will be in a stronger position to think beyond traditional funding models and make the budget more agile.

It’s also worth noting that traditional spending on customer engagements isn’t necessarily any easier to track. One of the benefits of digital is in the scope it provides to carry out quantitative analysis of performance data, as Slobin explains. “Any CFO that won’t invest in digital because of the difficulty of tracking return on investment (ROI) should ask themselves how often they can measure someone paying attention to a TV spot, or an ad in a magazine that they’re flipping through,” Slobin says. “One of the advantages of digital marketing is precisely the degree of granularity that you can measure and track.”

3. Resist digital complacency

Three in four respondents to our survey believe their customer experiences are already better than those offered by their competitors. In a fast-moving digital economy, this could soon change if they don’t continue experimenting.

If we isolate the finance and technology respondents’ responses, we find they are overwhelmingly in agreement that their digital customer engagement is superior to competitors. Respondents from marketing, who are closer to customers, are more skeptical.

Key to the challenge of digital complacency is understanding what your existing technology can and cannot do. “As a CMO, my point of view is that we have to be far more technically and digitally savvy than ever before,” says Emily Ketchen, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Intelligent Devices Group at Lenovo. “As a marketer, understanding the role of technology and digital in your world, from the MarTech stack to the AdTech stack to the SalesTech stack, means you have to have a deep understanding of your technological backbone.”

4. Shift the focus onto data risk

Almost 6 in 10 respondents (57%) say there is little agreement across functions when it comes to managing customer-data risk. At the same time, 4 in 10 say that expanding data privacy and security regulation remains their greatest challenge overall.

Considering the threat posed by data risk, any ambiguity around responsibility should be cause for concern. When asked who has responsibility for gathering, storing and protecting customer data, 31% of respondents say it lies with the chief technology officer (CTO), while 19% say the chief information security officer (CISO) is responsible and 15% think that the chief operating officer (COO) should take ownership. Evidently, greater clarity around ownership in many businesses must be a priority to help ensure data privacy and security.

If their data privacy and security standards are inconsistent, businesses face the possibility of debilitating fines and severe damage to reputation and customer opinion. Creating a dedicated role, such as chief privacy officer, could be essential to clarifying the lines of responsibility and managing risk effectively. This role could also help ensure that data risk is a priority across departments, facilitating collaboration between technology, finance, and marketing.

5. Seek greater collaboration across leadership

Data risk is not the only area that requires greater clarity. Our survey suggests that, when it comes to approving digital investment, respondents have different ideas about who should make the final decision.

In our data, respondents believe that responsibility for decision-making is shared almost evenly across CTOs (27%), chief executive officers (CEOs) (26%) and chief finance officers (CFOs) (25%). While CTOs and chief marketing officers (CMOs) agree that the CTO should approve digital investment, CFOs say that they themselves should own this.

A more innovative route to a successful digital experience, rather than weighing down one leadership figure, could lie in embedding digital champions throughout the business to promote collaboration and skill sharing.

“People that sit traditionally in a business unit or a function, like marketing, need to become more tech-savvy,” says Carlton Joiner, partner, Technology Consulting, Ernst & Young LLP. “But then, the reverse is also true; the people that are more bent toward technology have got to improve their industry relevance.” 

To promote collaboration, function heads must understand the different priorities of the C-suite and use this knowledge to broaden their own understanding. As C-suite roles evolve to incorporate digital elements, the function of a CFO, CTO and CMO may all soon look very different.

Looking forward: the next wave

The pandemic showed how easily consumers across all demographics could switch from physical to digital engagement. Today, as disruptive new technologies come on stream, the challenge for businesses will be to combine digital and physical in innovative experiences that are intuitive and optimized for a changeable commercial environment. In this, talent and cross-functional collaboration will be key.

This is the first in a series of articles based on our latest research into the connected C-suite. Continue reading to explore the C-suite’s approach to digital talent, and how seamless collaboration between technology, finance and marketing is key to creating innovative customer experiences, despite the three functions’ specific priorities.


Leadership teams can help realize the opportunity of new technologies by driving collaboration across these five key dimensions and building innovative customer experiences.

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