Up-and-Coming IT Leaders Focus on Business Customers

Winners of the 2014 'Ones to Watch' awards say they're trying to reduce the distance between corporate IT and external customers.

Nick Sewell sounds more like a marketing manager than an IT leader. He talks about the need to understand what customers want, to deliver products that fulfill customer needs, to stand up for the customer.

But Sewell, director of IT programs for Western Union Business Solutions, knows that technology plays a vital role in keeping customers happy as they use Western Union to move their money around the world. "Technology," he says, "is absolutely a differentiator in the market."

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Sewell is one of the up-and-coming executives honored this year by the Ones to Watch awards program, which is administered by the CIO Executive Council to identify promising IT leaders. Many of the 2014 honorees--like Sewell--are focused on using IT to serve external customers and develop new products or services.

"The biggest trend I've seen is turning away from an IT-centric view to a customer-centric view of how we give service," says honoree Carrie Rasmussen, vice president of IT customer service and support for the grocery and drug retailer Safeway.

That shift comes with a new set of challenges and skill requirements.

For example, Sewell and his 50-member IT team need to understand what the company's 100,000 business customers need from Western Union and then deliver systems that make them want to pick Western Union over its competitors. For traditional IT departments, that's a new way of thinking.

Miles Apart

"The distance between us and the customer is traditionally far too big. It's immense. You might have a guy doing coding or testing who will take his requirements or direction from a project manager who might work with a business analyst who works with a product person who works with a salesperson who talks to the customer. There are five or six steps between the person providing us with the real need and the person actually delivering that. My view is, you have to cut all those steps out and have as much direct contact with the customer as possible," Sewell says.

He's doing just that, talking directly with key customers and assigning IT staffers to work with Western Union's client advisory council so they meet with customers, too.

Tina Gehrts, vice president of management information systems with Thomson Reuters, is taking a similar approach. Gehrts and her team reach out to e-commerce clients in new forums like sales meetings to find out what they need and how they want to interact with her company.

"You have to put yourself much more into an end customer's mind, make sure you're attuned to what they need and be attentive to the different end markets," she says.

Technology can help IT better understand those external customers, Rasmussen says. Safeway uses data gathered from call centers, field services and other sources to help her team identify what shoppers want from mobile apps, Safeway portals and self-service technologies.

The additional challenge for IT teams working for external customers is contending with a wider range of technology platforms as well as end-user skills. Rasmussen, for example, says her team must deliver applications that work for all types of mobile phones, tablets, desktops and laptops. They must also develop applications that work for users at all skill levels, because external customers can't be brought in for mandatory training on new systems the way internal folks can.

Not So Different?

But Ones to Watch honoree Jim Dolphin, CIO for retail and direct bank at Capital One, says developing for external customers isn't completely different than what many IT departments already do. He says the 1,000 associates in Capital One's IT department are expected to think about the same questions regardless of who ends up with the technology: How will the technology help? What will the experience be like for the user? How can we give them the best experience?

So Dolphin says the skills that IT workers need when serving external customers are similar to those generally sought in technologists today: the ability to communicate and understand business needs, coupled with technical aptitude.

Yes, it's a tall order. But these award-winning IT leaders say they're training their staff members to ask the right questions, to explore customers' responses, to tease out what's bothering customers and what they're trying to achieve, and to take ownership in meeting those needs. And that, these up-and-comers say, is just an extension of what they've been doing all along.

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