The CMO’s Perspective: A Conversation with William Hurley

By Jeffrey Street, Senior Writer

We’re always curious to know what’s on the minds of CMOs. So, we thought we would ask a few of them — starting with Bill Hurley, currently Chief Marketing Officer with CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), the second-largest U.S. communications provider to global enterprise customers.

We met Bill several years ago when he was with Siemens Enterprise Communications, which was transforming itself into Unify. Working with Bill’s team, we created the Unify brand and helped the company stamp its new mark on a unified world.

In a career spanning more than three decades, while operating as a CMO, CIO, and CTO, Bill has successfully transformed several Fortune 100 and private equity-backed organizations. That makes his insights concerning digital transformation particularly relevant.

He spoke to us from his country home about an hour west of New York City. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Let’s jump right in with a simple question. What are some of the key pressures or challenges in your industry right now?

In the communications service provider’s space — and I’ll focus primarily on the enterprise side — the key challenges revolve around positioning ourselves as an organization that will help customers achieve their digital transformation goals. Every enterprise is going through some sort of transformation. Organizations want to bring new products or services to markets faster, improve their operational efficiency, see some sort of improvement in the customer experience, manage their risks, and elevate their security profile. In each of those cases, we need to position ourselves to reach the right people at the right time with the right value proposition for them to understand how we can help them achieve their transformation goals.

I’m glad you singled out the enterprise side of it, because there are unique concerns within B2B marketing, such as differentiating your product portfolios, addressing diverse distribution channels, and catering to sometimes lengthy purchase cycles involving multiple constituents and potential touchpoints. How do you respond to — or take advantage of — those factors?

What we’re focused on is identifying the customer’s real needs. For the most part, they’re under the umbrella of digital transformation, but customers and prospects also have very specific issues that they’re trying to solve. Our ability to position our brand, create a great customer experience, and customize our solutions in a manner that aligns with — and solves — those needs is really where we’re putting our energy. As a CMO, you ask: “How do I understand their needs, and then tweak the brand messaging, tweak our communications strategy, tweak the entire customer experience, and deliver solutions that reinforce our value proposition?” Once we understand the customer’s needs, our ability to leverage the factors you mention can move forward. Delivering a great customer experience starts with a deep respect for, and understanding of, customer needs.

When you’re doing that, what are the key messages that you rely on to motivate and focus your team?

To start, we broke down the traditional functional approach to marketing and created segment leaders to deliver on each of the customer segments and their needs. What that did for our team is inject a deeper awareness of the importance of connecting with prospects within their segments, rather than with the traditional marketing functions that they used to play in, whether it was digital, social, display, direct marketing, or branding, for example. We turned everything on its head and said, “We really want you to focus on customer segments. All those functional capabilities of a traditional marketing organization are still important, but we want you aligned with customer segment needs to understand our value proposition.”

And how was that message received?

It’s gone very well. Using our internal employee indicators, in terms of satisfaction and engagement we’ve seen some real, good progress. We’ve recognized and created marketing leaders who understand our business and have become trusted partners aligned with sales and other parts of our organization, especially around SaaS delivery and operation. We’ve also seen measurable improvement through pilot programs that we put in place to improve the customer experience along segments and needs. The fact that we’ve moved the needle with our net promoter score has reinforced with the team that we’re headed in the right direction, and they’re excited about it.

Moving to a more agile model would seem to be a formidable task in a company the size of yours. Is it?

So, what we’ve done is we’ve employed the concept of Agile in a business environment, as opposed to in an IT environment, in pilot projects developed late in 2016 and early 2017 around the customer experience. We took employees from multiple disciplines across the organization under the umbrella of improving the customer experience for a product or market, and, in some cases, to your point, we had to physically co-locate those employees. We put about 10 or 15 people together in a pod, and created multiple pods, to improve the customer experience, reduce the churn, and improve the overall operating efficiency of the organization. That has been, you know, both good and bad. You’re taking people and recognizing them for their great work and deep knowledge of the customer and the customer’s needs, but you’re also taking them out of their home office for a couple of weeks at a time. But it’s been an important step in understanding how Agile works for us. Now we’re in the phase of, OK, how do we take the best of what we’ve learned and make it work better?

One final question. What would you tell a younger version of yourself, considering where you are now, how you got there, and what you’re doing?

First and foremost, always keep your focus on the customer. Understand the customer’s needs. Be the voice of the customer inside your organization. That would be Rule One. I think Rule Two would be, obsessively focus on translating the customer experience into financial and other corporate metrics that can help senior leadership understand how marketing can really make a difference in the organization. Finally — and this is probably the most under-recognized quality that a CMO can offer, even though it’s been key in every organization I’ve served — you need a general organizational competence around the customer. The CMO is kind of the glue that holds together all the other departments within an organization. He or she is the voice of the customer. And so, it’s incumbent upon the CMO to continuously focus on ensuring that the customer-related competencies in other parts of the organization are fully up to snuff. That third piece was not something I fully understood when I started out. But I’ve realized since that if you don’t do it — if you don’t act as that glue across the organization — no one else will. And when that happens, an organization can quickly lose its way.

Update: Since this article was posted, Bill has taken up a new challenge as chief marketing officer with Tampa-based Syniverse. You can read the media release here.