It’s the rare construction firm that doesn’t pride itself on putting customers first. But are those customers getting what they truly want? And when employees are asked to go the extra mile on a project, are they clear about where to go?

RK, a Denver-based mechanical contractor, wants to be certain it knows the answer to those questions.

Taking a cue from a number of leading businesses across other industries, RK recently created the position of chief customer officer (CCO), charged with implementing a high-level, customer-centric approach and managing it across the entire organization.

“The CCO provides the organization with a detailed view of the customer.”

– Marc Paolicelli, Chief Customer Officer, RK

“The CCO provides the organization with a detailed view of the customer,” explains Marc Paolicelli, a 20-year employee of RK who officially assumed the new post in August. “We see the CCO as being the voice of the customer—a change agent inside the organization affecting all the decisions we make.”

Paolicelli is quick to add that his role is equally focused on RK’s employees and their individual and collective contributions to the customer experience.

“Our goals are to make customers for life, with greater satisfaction, loyalty and repeat business,” he says. “Similarly, we want to make employees for life, with greater engagement and retention.” Though Paolicelli’s position may be unique among construction firms in Colorado and possibly around the country, CCOs can be found in Fortune 500 enterprises to small, local businesses with only a handful of employees.

According to the Kent, Wash.-based Chief Customer Officer Council, there now are more than 500 officially titled chief customer officers in the world, with perhaps hundreds more performing the same duties under a different job title. While the responsibilities are not as rigidly defined compared to other, more conventional “chief officer” titles, a CCO is best described as someone in charge of profitably aligning company deliverables with strategic customer needs and values.

The council’s CEO, Curtis Bingham, says the construction industry is ripe for the CCO role, citing a long-standing perception that contractors have tended to see customers primarily as parties to a contract. Dispelling that notion is important in a business environment that is increasingly driven by relationships.

“Competition is not just about quality, price and materials—those are a given,” Bingham says. “Now, it’s also about how the customer feels about you.”

That’s why accountability ranks at the top of a CCO’s priorities, reminding other executives about the implications of their actions. Similarly, a CCO should work to systematize external relationships that can be lost as a company grows, he says.

“Decisions start to be made for a financial statement, rather than what’s good for customers,” Bingham adds. “If the outcome of a decision doesn’t benefit the customer, what will be done to mitigate it?”

Missions and Methods

Paolicelli appears to be ideally qualified to lead this pioneering effort at RK, having previously served a “very customer-facing role” as the firm’s vice president of business development.

In addition, Paolicelli says a CCO needs to be a teacher and be able to sell solutions. Tenaciousness counts, too. “It’s not for quitters,” he adds.

Indeed, the CCO role tends to be rather fragile, with an average tenure of just over two years. CCO initiatives fall by the wayside largely due to the absence of a fully defined mandate, including explicit support from the firm’s top leadership, Bingham notes. Anything less than that undercuts the CCO’s ability to gain the resources and executive buy-in to effect real change.

“The role has to be set up for success,” he says.

In a statement, RK CEO and Chairman Rick Kinning reinforced the firm’s commitment to Paolicelli, saying he is “excited to see RK be one of the first in our industry to adopt a true customer-oriented mind-set that puts relationships before contract signatures.”

Gretchen Meyer, the company’s vice president for human resources, agrees that Paolicelli’s focus on both customers and employees is particularly important to RK now, given the company’s growth to just under 1,900 employees in recent years. Further, the firm says its customer base has expanded beyond construction to include utilities and other industries.

“It’s become more difficult to communicate as more layers of management have been added,” Meyer explains. She says transparency is essential to improving employee engagement. “People want to see the results of what they’ve worked to do,” she says.

Well before the announcement of his appointment as CCO, Paolicelli spent several months gathering information for a customer-focused plan that will be closely tied to the company’s strategic plan. He also hopes to solicit insights from a cross section of employees and customers on a regular basis.

“I see this as a two- to four-year journey,” Paolicelli says, noting that gaining a connection at all levels within RK will be essential. “We’re undertaking a behavioral change within our organization, and that takes time.”