by Stacy Collett

IT’s drive to improve the customer experience

Oct 28, 2019
Business IT AlignmentDigital TransformationIT Leadership

CIOs are hiring BRMs and BPOs, embedding IT in the business and sending IT staff into the field — all in a quest to better court business customers.

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A year ago, furniture manufacturer La-Z-Boy underwent a major ERP implementation and technology retooling that pulled most of the IT team’s time and resources. The project was successful, but when it was over, it became clear that other IT priorities had suffered, like customer satisfaction.

“We kind of lost sight of how do we focus on and equip ourselves with the skills, tools and resources to be really great at customer service?” says David Behen, vice president and CIO.  What followed was a year-long IT re-invention to fundamentally change the way IT operated, with a major focus on the customer experience.

“We really needed to build credibility within our organization that we could not only deliver what we say, but that [IT] can be their best business partner,” Behen says. He developed a team-based structure for each of La-Z-Boy’s four business units that included an IT director who focuses solely on the business processes and operations of that business unit, and a business relationship manager, who serves as a liaison to the business unit and who understands their business model and how IT can help enhance and support it.

Next, Behen put together an IT strategic plan with eight goals that align to the company’s strategy, along with a target of getting all 130 IT employees out in the field to see how the team’s work impacts manufacturing plants and retail stores. Today, the IT team is an important part of La-Z-Boy’s customer experience process. With IT credibility now forged with the business units, “we can now start talking about innovation,” says Behen.

Most enterprises today rank improving the customer experience as one of their top priorities. Some 67 percent of IT executives surveyed for CIO’s Digital Business 2019 Report have made improving the customer experience their most important transformation initiative.

The business model of tomorrow is one where “everyone in the front, middle and back office understands how their job and the tasks they’re doing are directly correlated” with the customer experience and its business metrics, says Steve Bates, principal and leader of KPMG’s CIO Center of Excellence.

In IT, this is a major shift, and it won’t be easy. “It requires a shift in the operating model from IT being the builder of all things to a product-centric value stream operating model — where full-stack teams get together and drive an outcome.”

CIOs discuss the tools, training and operational changes in IT required to drive improvements in customer experience.

Business relationship managers bridge the gap

Like La-Z-Boy, many IT organizations have added business relationship manager (BRM) positions for each business unit to bridge the gap between customer expectations and IT’s contributions.

At Skyworks Solutions, a high-performance semiconductor manufacturer, getting in tune with its internal customers meant understanding what each business unit wanted and why they wanted it. CIO Satya Jayadev created 25 business relationship manager roles within IT, and business process owner (BPO) positions as their counterparts in the business. “That’s your single point of contact — instead of going to 10 different sources,” he says. 

At the same time, the BRMs wear many hats. “They are also resource managers or IT functional leads in some instances,” Jayadev says. He also embedded some IT staff in each business unit. “They are able to talk the same language,” he adds.

These steps quickly improved IT’s relationship with the business, Jayadev says. The business side “felt like IT was accessible and could consult with them. We’re collaborating with them and making sure they understand” what new technologies can and cannot do for their business, he says, and where new technology can be beneficial, the BRM helps guide them to the right resources.

BRMs from inside or outside the organization?

For IT leaders interested in instilling similar liaison positions at their organizations, the question quickly becomes where to find them. The unique set of skills required to succeed as a BRM — a combination of technical and soft, business-focused skills — can be hard to locate.

Skyworks’ business relationship managers have come from inside the organization, Jayadev says. “People that have 10, 15, 20 years have a lot of tribal knowledge and business knowledge. The drawback to that is — they haven’t seen what are the possibilities outside the organization. That’s where the new [generation of workers] come in. They help move things forward.”

Holman Enterprises, a global automotive services organization, has been perfecting the customer experience for more than a decade by developing cross-functional teams for all of its products and services. Each business unit has its own quadrant of product management, product development, IT operations and support services.

“We took individuals with 15-20 years of experience running fleets and the business aspect within the organization — and took them out of the day-to-day operations,” says Steve Haindl, executive vice president and CIO. “Now their job is more looking at just the product and how do we manage and support the product.”

Today that customer-experience drive has spread to back-office functions at Holman Enterprises’ subsidiary ARI, a fleet leasing and management provider. In finance, accounting, HR and legal departments, product managers are assigned to focus on specific technologies that they use. Along with an IT representative, they work on roadmaps, strategic initiatives, cross-platform projects and customer service enhancements.

At La-Z-Boy, Behen faced a different challenge in acquiring the necessary BRM skills. “I’ve got the hardcore techies, but I also needed that other piece to really focus on the customer service,” Behen says. “If you have a very strong customer service focus, treat people with respect, communicate well and have the leadership management and coaching skills — that’s who I want to hire.” 

He found those skills outside the company in some unusual places. One of his recently hired business relationship managers came from the Peace Corps and had no technology background, Behen says. “He’s just an outstanding communicator and human being. He has a positive attitude. He came in and hit a homerun.”

Out in the field

Most customer-savvy IT teams spend some time in the field to experience how their technology impacts the customer experience — also known as the “ride along.” At audiovisual and event tech services company PSAV, CIO Cathie Kozik educates her IT team on the customer experience and on “listening for understanding,” she says. Every person on PSAV’s IT staff spends time in the field one or more times a year, whether sitting with customers, going to business events where their technology is being used, or even helping to set up and run events.

The practice helps open eyes to how the business runs. “Working with corporate requirements is one thing, but actually meeting with those individuals, learning the business, some friction points that I may or may not have control over, lets me at least understand what their expectations really are,” says Brian Zimmerman, who is now senior manager of analytics at PSAV, speaking of his time in the field. “Sometimes that differs from the corporate requirements, and my team is able to slide in and either tweak it or at least raise the need.” 

At Holman, newly hired IT staff usually spend their first few months just observing in their assigned business unit. “They’re in there developing the relationship, the rapport, and understanding and learning the business — just listening to people,” Haindl says.

Customer experience tools required

Three-quarters of organizations surveyed by Gartner increased customer experience  technology investments in 2018. Customer analytics continues to be one of the biggest investments, according to 64 percent of organizations.

La-Z-Boy just implemented a ServiceNow platform that creates digital IT, customer and employee workflows. It will help measure “how we’re doing on our incidents, what our customer satisfaction rates are, how are we doing on demands from different business areas, and how are we prioritizing those demands,” Behen says.

At Holman, “We’re working hard on our 360-degree view of the customer,” Haindl says. “The biggest tool for us is our internal CRM system and getting the information from a lot of different platforms that we have in the company — whether our sales CRM, service CRM, ticketing system, dialogs and diaries with the customers. That’s a work in progress.”

Measuring success

CIOs are moving away from traditional IT measures such as SLAs and resolve times, and aligning themselves with value streams or product portfolios that they contribute to, Bates says. The IT team’s goals are measured by objectives or key results of the business. But some CIOs say that traditional IT success measurements are still important in order to maintain credibility.

Behen presents a monthly dashboard to executives that shows a mix of business and IT goal measurements — from basic uptime in manufacturing facilities and on the network, to IT’s customer service scores. It might not be necessary for some executives to see, he says, but he continues to include IT metrics to dispel any false perceptions. “The perception here is that IT doesn’t do their job well, but data tells you otherwise. I do this to make sure I’m marketing our services as doing really good work,” he says.

Racing the clock

For many companies, “the next three to five years are really a pivot-or-perish moment for their chance to rewrite their business model for this economy,” Bates says.  IT teams will have to become a product-centric value stream for their organizations, and a positive customer experience will be one of the measurements of success.

It won’t happen overnight, so start small, Haindl says. Pick one area or business unit to implement a cross-functional team, and then build on its success.

Once the cross-functional teams are developed with IT and business units, “start measuring everything you do,” Behen says, including the IT team’s own customer service scores. “It’s easier to market [your IT team] when you have real data.”