The Finance Function: An Unlikely Customer Advocate

by Tatiana Goncharova, Izabela Kisilowska and Prakash Dadlani

A business isn’t viable without customers, so finance is an essential part of making customer-centric decisions. Despite not being the most obvious customer advocate, finance, like all functions and business units, can make a substantial contribution to a company’s overall customer focus.

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Mature, customer-focused, B2B companies invest time to understand customer needs, push product design boundaries, and use emerging technologies to become more solutions-focused, ultimately serving their customers better. The foundation of a customer-centric culture is an approach that starts with the customer and works back, understood and adopted by the whole organization. Senior leaders model the attitude that everyone in the company should adopt: proactive, collaborative, that jointly create customer value.  

Consider possibly the least likely candidate to champion customer-centricity: the finance function. Despite not being the function most exposed to the customer directly, finance, like all functions and business units, can indeed make a substantial contribution to a company’s overall customer focus. 

As part of an organization’s backbone, the financial function lends structure to a business, binding it together and, in the best cases, helping it discover opportunities for growth. Yet many companies tend to exclude support functions when demanding an intense customer focus. After all, legal, finance, compliance, operations, and research and development don’t deal with customers directly. This is where companies miss an opportunity. To reap the strategy’s full benefits, every function in the whole organization must have a customer-first mindset and way of working. 

Understanding and acting on the end customer’s interests 

When some companies describe support functions as ‘customer-centric’, they usually refer to internal customers—that is, superiors, peers or subordinates in the reporting chain or colleagues from another business unit who have requested support within the organization. Treating these internal relationships as customer interactions can result in making budget approvals quicker and more straightforward, improving communication between teams and sharing metrics regularly. 

However, true customer-centricity means understanding and acting on the end customer’s interests. This could involve the finance or legal function spending more time with customers to understand their needs, then making conscious efforts to work with other teams across the business to address those needs.  

CFOs can lead as customer-centric champions 

Customer-led organizations have mastered ways to make all the support functions row in the same direction as customer-front teams. Well-working measures typically include:  

  • Educating and raising awareness of how accounting, controlling, tax can be customer focused  
  • Engaging CFOs to lead by example, and radiate customer focus  
  • Embedding customer metrics, such as employee and customer NPS or CSAT into performance KPIs 

A variety of CFO leadership styles can help drive a customer-centric culture. We spoke with several CFOs about their approaches, including Arun Khetan, CFO across several different verticals during his career of over 25 years. He believes in staying in regular touch with customers, advising them on everything from their payment schedules to restructuring cash-flows, traveling to customer locations in order to understand their businesses and how the organization can help them in creating a better value proposition for their customers and a win-win outcome for all parties. In his earlier role, when one customer’s plant suffered a fire, he facilitated the airfreight of materials to keep the customer’s production line running at no extra cost to the customer. Arun notes, “Gaining customer confidence is one of the most important things I believe in. It makes driving price and other realization metrics easier and benefits the organization in long term.” 

Not all CFOs find the right way to foster customer centricity on their first try. Juba Tsuladze, CFO of a real estate development company, admitted to getting involved in all initiatives concerning customers. Over time, he learned to adopt a more balanced approach , only getting involved directly when the situation was critical and when customer value was at risk. One such situation was a project to design and build new distribution channels. The job required input from many stakeholders to truly meet customer and business needs, so Juba encouraged the formation of a truly a cross-functional team to drive the project. 

Another CFO, Sachin Mittal, partnered with marketing, plant, and logistics functions to develop a bouquet of tailored products at various price points. Customers and margins both benefitted. One example being able to enable close deals with customers using bill discounting and other measures that could be a win win for both, particularly in the age of digital, where information flow and platforms helps get the best deals form from multiple partners and not the traditional banker. 

The CFO of the fintech Axio, Akshay Sarma often helps design customer solutions, saying, “The finance function needs to be automotive fuel, not a red light—its business role is to turn creative ideas into viable solutions.” 

Investment in customer experience should involve the whole organization. 

Every organization can become more customer-centric, but the journey can be challenging. José Tomás Aguirre, CFO of a multi-industrial holding company, told us that he very much wanted to connect to the end customer, but wasn’t able to create the link on his own. Jose cited the company’s growth and resulting structure as the problem. “What started as a united team, with all functions addressing customer problems together, became a siloed, specialized organization,” he said. “Creating customer connection can become more difficult in that environment.” Unified vision, leaders acting as role models, and employee empowerment can all help remedy this situation.  

However, Finance — or indeed any function — needs time to focus on customer needs. If finance is drowning in reports and administrative requests, it can’t help deeply understand nor solve customer problems. To find the necessary time, CFOs need to reshape and redistribute tasks. That might mean shaping their role to allocate at least 20 percent of their time to partnering with other functions on ways to serve customers.  

In addition, finance needs appropriate tools to succeed. Current CFOs need new ways to assess business health and growth opportunities. An ability to estimate lifetime customer value and segment customers into grow, preserve, and optimize categories distinguish savvy CFOs who put customers and customer value first.  

Finally, trust is essential. Businesses should see finance as problem-solvers, not as barriers to getting things done. Making finance a part of cross-functional teams and giving employees a chance to regularly contribute in new ways can create an atmosphere of trust that further embeds the customer-centric culture.  

Tatiana Goncharova is a Director and Izabela Kisilowska is a Specialist Manager in global management consultancy Kearney’s Ignite division, and Prakash Dadlani is Senior Vice President, Customer Centricity at Aditya Birla Group. The authors would like to thank Kearney partners Maciej Gawinecki and Nigel Andrade for their contributions to this piece.