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CX leadership: A congruence of heart and habit

A People Nerds interview with Jeanne Bliss, author of Chief Customer Officer 2.0

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

You don’t have to be a researcher to be a people nerd. You do have to be relentlessly curious about what people do, and what makes them do it. In the research world, people nerds are usually pretty driven to share that knowledge, too -- and to see something come of it.


CX pioneer Jeanne Bliss may not be a formal researcher, but we’d argue she’s 100% people nerd. Bliss dedicated her latest book, Chief Customer Officer 2.0, to leaders who grow their businesses by improving customers’ lives. She’s held the chief customer officer role more than once, and now coaches others aspiring to excel in that position. She’s also an advocate for right-brain/left-brain synergies, leadership derived from both hard skills and soft skills, and caring about the people whose careers are about all about …. people!

Her lifelong customercentricity in mind, we sat with Bliss recently to find out more about her obvious people-nerdiness. In the process, we learned about what she calls “balanced” listening versus “reactive” listening. She believes it’s an especially critical skill for “the human duct tape” holding together a customer-driven organization.

Check out another dscout interview with Jeanne on Using UX strategies within a Customer Experience Team

dscout: Would you consider yourself a people nerd?

Jeanne Bliss: I think of myself as someone who wants to help organizations understand there's a human at the end of their decision. Understanding lives and people, imagining their lives and storytelling about their lives, and walking in their shoes has been my mantra for 30 years. If that means I'm a people nerd, then yes, I guess I am. 

My dad is the first one who taught me the importance of being real—of being unafraid to put your own humanness into how you do work.

Jeanne Bliss

Would you point to any life experiences or interests, outside of your own career, that illuminate your deep interest in understanding people? 

My dad is the first one who taught me the importance of being real—of being unafraid to put your own humanness into how you do work. 

He had a single Buster Brown shoe store, but he shoed a generation of children and their children's children.  If a young mother came in and she had a pocketbook and she opened it up and she didn't have enough money, he'd say get those shoes on your little one's feet, bring back the rest when you're in town.

He was the first one that put a pair of shoes on these children's feet. With his loving touch, he was a part of the story of people's lives for all those years. When he retired, a line of people three blocks long stood to say goodbye to him and tell him that buying shoes would never be the same.

This was less about shoes and more about this man who connected and cared.

That’s such a wonderful, formative childhood experience. Were there any academic or early career experiences that complemented or cemented that?

Professionally, I had the great joy of continuing what I call “the congruence of heart and habit.” It was what my dad did at that Buster Brown shoe store, and what I did at my very first big corporate job at Lands End, magnified 100,000 times.  

Understanding people is how we grew Lands End. We imagined what it felt like to be handed a UPS box with your child's Christmas present in it. We thought about how it felt to pull a turtleneck over your head for the first time. So both personally and professionally, I had these incredible formative experiences that just stamped that, what you call “people nerdness,” into me. 

How did you end up a pioneer of this chief customer officer concept? You even co-founded an organization that now has more than 5,000 members.

I actually held the CCO role, or the first versions of it, at Lands End, then Microsoft, All State, and Mazda. I wanted to elevate the entire profession and create a clear path for what it was. Bruce Temkin and I started the CXPA because we saw a skillset that needed to be developed and heralded. 

We felt we needed to create a community of likeminded individuals where we could learn from each other. We created a model that was economical so many people could join and create this community of fearless sharing with one another. I'm really proud that it's one of the things that I've done in my life.

Have you noticed if people in this CCO role tend to come up through any particular part of the organization? Are they more often sales people? Product people? Marketing? Engineers? 

More important than the roles they held has been three things: what they had accomplished, their personal behaviors, and how they’ve built relationships in the organization.

The number one key is that they have successfully run some operation. It could be a service organization, or marketing, or sales.

Number two: They're a seasoned, mature, thoughtful senior company leader who can think comprehensively, is respectful and respected. They nurture and develop people and can step out of the spotlight. They take people on a transformational journey. It's about enabling the organization to come together, enabling employees to deliver value. 

Third: They are a collaborative partner. They are the kind of people you want to work with. They are honest. You may not always agree with them, but you will want to roll up your sleeves with them. They check their ego at the door.

These traits make for the most successful senior CX leaders in an organization, and that's why I love working with them. I can coach them in the work, into how to embed the competencies, but in many instances, they've already done a version of this in their work or in their way of collaborating inside the organization.

I’m interested in what you said about checking your ego at the door. How might that relate to the deep need that someone—a people nerd, a CX leader—has for ensuing the real people on the other end of a product are being heard?

For people who’ve already achieved a lot in their career, it’s easier to put the spotlight on others. They're the kind of leader who listens to and engages others and wants their ideas.

At the end of the day, when I define the chief customer officer or senior CX leader, I call them the human duct tape. They really are creating a comprehensive perspective by uniting the company’s silos that wouldn't otherwise work together, giving them all a voice to create a united experience.

It’s about more than listening. It’s patient listening, thorough listening, a mature listening that is not just waiting for someone to be done, but really being thoughtful and respectful of the feedback. It’s also knowing how to bring different people together to do what I call balanced listening.

It’s about more than listening. It’s patient listening, thorough listening, a mature listening that is not just waiting for someone to be done, but really being thoughtful and respectful of the feedback.

Jeanne Bliss

I’ve heard of “active” listening, but I’m not familiar with “balanced” listening. Can you talk more about that? 

A lot of what's happened inside of organizations is well-intended customer driven work. We're in a meeting and a group comes in to present the social media information, and then you go off on that. Then survey results are presented another day and then people go off on that. That is reactive listening, not balanced listening. 

The CX leader must bring a balance to all of the different pieces of information we hear, organize it, and give perspective across the silos. They must say “here's the totality of what we're hearing, and here's where the most important things are coming out.” They must engage each silo-based leader to agree where they will go forward as a unit versus going off and chipping away something inside their own silo, no matter how well intended those objectives.

The CX person is a uniter. There's a skill and a competency and a behavioral element to being that kind of person. It’s that ability to unite the C-suite that makes improving customers lives and growing the customer asset an important strategy, bring the company will earn organic growth, earn the happiness of employees, and create an elevated kind of company in the way it operates.

Take your customers off of the spreadsheet and focus on a few things to really improve their lives - Check out Jeanne's first interview on CX teams here.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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