There’s an old anecdote that’s probably apocryphal—at least for some brands that like to tout it—that certain Customer-centric companies are “so dedicated” to their Customers that they leave an empty chair at the table in the meeting room where their leadership gets together that is ostensibly to signify where the Customer would be sitting….i.e., their place at the table.  The symbolic meaning of this is to emphasize that the decisions that are made at that level of responsibility should include a level of deference to what the Customers might want or may think about what’s going on in there.

It’s a little melodramatic (perhaps overwrought), and may not be your style of management, but at the time it came into popularity (or at least at the time the stories about it became more prevalent), it seemed to have some resonance.  From time to time the story pops up when discussing some brand that has a reputation (earned or not) for great Customer-centricity, or it shows up in a business book here or there.  I may have even mentioned it in my book.

But it occurs to me as I work with clients who are striving to become more Customer-centric:  What a waste of a seat!

Why not hire someone to actually, y’know, sit in that seat?

Quite frankly, putting an empty seat at the table alongside your CFO, your CMO, your CHRO, Head of Product, Head of Supply Chain, and the rest of your executive leadership team is almost an insult to your Customer, when you think about it.  It says that your Customers are important enough that you’ll drag a piece of office furniture (retail cost, what? $150?) up to the table, but not important enough to invest in an actual representative to sit at that table.  If they were really that important and you really wanted them to have an actual seat at the table, you’d fill it with a no-kidding Chief Customer Officer.

Maybe that’s the origin of the disheartening trend I see all over the place of companies paying lip-service to “being Customer-centric” or “doing CX” but with no action to back it up.  Or at least it must be related, the themes are so consistent:  If you’re cavalier enough about your Customers to give them nothing more than a symbolic empty chair at the table where the real executives are making decisions and running the company, it won’t come as much surprise to find that, when it comes to investing in acting in a Customer-centric way, you’re going to fall short.  The same attitude that makes a CEO think putting an empty chair at a table is going to make some sort of massive difference is likely to convince him or her that putting up banners around the office and constantly yammering about how important Customers are will be sufficient when it comes to implementing an actual CX strategy.

It’s no wonder so few brands are moving the needle on their CX given how trite the exercise has become.  That pulling up an empty chair is seen in some quarters as such an awe-inspiring and meaningful gesture that it deserves highlight in business publications speaks volumes to the lack of progress that some organizations have made.  They’re all simply clutching at straws.

If “Hey, don’t forget we have Customers, as you can clearly see symbolized in this [empty] chair,” makes the hair on the back of your team members’ necks stand up as a chilling reminder of how brilliant you are as a business leader, you need better advice.  Meanwhile, if an author interprets that as the pinnacle of genius in the CX world, I’d suggest you find another source for inspiration.

On the other hand, if you are serious about being Customer-centric, find someone who’s curious, analytical, diplomatic, and most likely from a different industry.  Put him or her in that seat, charge your CCO with the responsibility to staff an Office of the Customer, and the authority to make differences in how you do your work.  I have a feeling that’ll make more of an impact than an empty chair.