The customer is always right, but how would you know? Few CIOs truly understand what external customers want and why they act the way they do. Running IT can all too easily keep CIOs internally focused, making sure fellow employees have the technology they need to do their jobs. That's important work, but it's not strategic.
CIOs who don't look outside the office and mingle with the people who pay money for the company's products and services miss the chance to get ahead--of customer complaints, of competitors, and in their own careers. A CIO who knows how to interpret customer behavior can come up with ideas for new products and fixes for systems that don't quite work the way customers expect. CIOs with experience on the front lines of the business may even be able to help shore up relations with customers being courted by competitors or spot new business opportunities.
"The magical stuff with IT is great applications that run the business better. That can't happen when IT stays in a corner," says Wayne Shurts, CIO of Supervalu, a $37.5 billion chain of grocery stores that include Albertson's, Jewel-Osco, Shaw's and others.