by Minda Zetlin

5 ways IT still fails its business users

Nov 06, 201911 mins
Business IT AlignmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Mastering customer experience is the drumbeat of digital transformation today. But too often enterprises pursue that while neglecting employee experience to their peril.

man with face in hands failure mistake by tinpixels getty
Credit: TinPixels / Getty Images

Everyone’s talking about customer experience (CX). If you don’t get customer experience right, consultants and other IT experts say, you leave yourself vulnerable to competitors who do. But companies, and IT leaders, who focus only or mostly on customers are forgetting something just as important: employee experience (EX).

“The data is showing us that improving CX isn’t just something that feels good, it has a measurable impact on a business’s financial performance,” says Todd Shimizu, managing director of strategy and transformation at Grant Thornton. The same is true of improving EX, he says.

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“Companies that are considered leaders in employee experience are showing up in some of the better-known employee surveys, and now there are some demonstrated connections to revenue and performance,” Shimizu says. “Sometimes in an enterprise there is more focus on external-facing technologies. It’s easier to emphasize customer-facing tools, but if you don’t mind the farm internally, you’re missing out.”

Just how much of a difference does employee experience make to a business? You might be surprised. “Companies with great EX outperform the Standard & Poor’s 500 by 122 percent,” according to a 2017 Accenture study.

That statistic may seem hard to believe but it wouldn’t surprise Tim Wenhold, chief innovation officer at Power Home Remodeling in Chester, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1992, the company had grown to $27 million in annual sales by 2007. Around that time, Wenhold was hired as a contractor to create Nitro, an internal communications and productivity system, basically a home-grown ERP that does everything from help employees schedule appointments with homeowners to creating presentations for those homeowners and making sure planned work complies with local regulations and codes. When Nitro was deployed to Power Home Remodeling employees in 2007, it created a noticeable inflection point in the company’s growth trajectory. In the 12 years since, revenues have rocketed from $27 million a year to $720 million a year.

Nitro may not be responsible for all that growth, but it does account for a lot of it, Wenhold believes. “As an organization, we wouldn’t be where we are today without it,” he says.

“The basic formula is: You can’t have customers that are happier than your employees,” he continues. “If employees are unhappy and servicing a customer, that will come through.” The formula applies just as much to, say, accountants who never talk to customers as it does to sales and customer service people, he adds. “The customer experience is an extension of the employee experience. Tools can make it a better and happier place to work, which is especially important in a service industry like we’re in. Your internal technology is never neutral. Either it’s helping you or it’s hurting you.”

Here’s how IT departments are falling short of providing employee-facing technology that helps rather than hurts productivity, morale and the bottom line.

1. You’re not listening to employee needs

“Most people want to do their jobs well,” says Michael O’Malley, managing director at executive compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer and co-author of Organizations for People. “If there are incessant impediments, people may start to surmise that this is a place where they can’t get work done.”

Even without impediments, any technology that streamlines or simplifies any part of a user’s job will make a positive impact. And sometimes you won’t know what will make that kind of difference unless you ask. That’s the strategy Kim Verska, CIO of Culhane Meadows, uses with her cloud-based law firm’s nearly 70 attorneys spread across eight cities. 

“We nominated a beta testing group of about eight partners in different locations to try some technology tools,” she says. “We chose them based on practice groups — a litigator will have a very different way of interacting with technology than a patent attorney or a business lawyer. And we made sure to include people who weren’t early adopters.”

Based on a recent recommendation from the beta testing group, Verska and her team decided to invest in software to connect the firm’s email system with its document managing system. The firm’s attorneys, each working with his or her own computer, were accustomed to creating and securely saving documents related to the projects they worked on. They were encouraged to also save these documents to the firm’s central repository. Having all those documents available to all the attorneys at the firm, sortable by client name, by case or transaction, date, and so on, could be a huge asset. But the lawyers didn’t always bother to upload their files.

“Ease of use was always the issue,” Verska says. “Most of our attorneys practice while sitting in Outlook all day and if they have to take extra steps to save documents to our document management system they may not do it, and that’s not good.”

The new software was deployed only very recently, so Verska does not yet have metrics to tell her whether it’s resulted in more attorneys saving more documents to the repository. But she’s confident they will. “Based on the enthusiasm we can see on our teams, it looks like it will make things much better.”

2. You’re not making onboarding as smooth as it should be

In this tight labor market, companies put a lot of time, effort, and resources into recruiting and hiring the talent they need. Unfortunately, technology can undermine those efforts. “The selection and onboarding processes often can fall apart, from losing track of new job candidates to not having the requisite paperwork to not getting back fast enough to high-potential candidates. The list goes on and on,” O’Malley says.

When asked exactly how Nitro contributed to Power Home Remodeling’s spectacular revenue growth, Wenhold points at hiring and onboarding. “Along with the revenue growth, we went from about 600 people to 2,600 people,” he says. Just as Nitro streamlines every step of the process when consultants make proposals to homeowners, so it streamlines the recruiting and onboarding process as well. “When we evaluate a candidate, all their information comes in from the job search site. If we make a job offer and they accept, they can digitally sign and when they come into the office on the first day, they’re not burdened with paperwork. HR can focus on employee experience and truly work on onboarding.”

Being able to put more consultants in the field faster translates directly to the bottom line, he adds. “When we first created Nitro, we were doing 85 appointments a day. A typical day now is around 800, and this coming Monday we’re doing 1,150.”

3. You’re requiring a steep learning curve

Most users have little patience with needing a half-day training session before they can use everyday technology. “Some of the research we’re seeing suggests that the expectation that’s been set these days is that things are totally intuitive, and that things like user’s manuals and certifications may be a thing of the past,” Shimizu says. “That may be more true for a non-technical user.”

If employees do have to sit through training sessions, they expect to emerge with some powerful new capabilities. “We work with a lot of marketers and they are starting to use some pretty sophisticated systems,” he continues. “They do require training, but often the training is about how to get the most out of these things because they are so incredibly feature-rich. It’s not about getting someone competent to log in and use the tool; it’s more about letting them see the breadth of the applicability.”

Besides, choosing technology tools with little or no learning curve means your organization is much less likely to get locked in to a specific piece of software or hardware just because employees know how to use it. Shimizu made this discovery years ago when he was working for a hardware vendor.

“We were competing against a much larger hardware company and that can be tough sledding when you’re up against an incumbent. One of the common objections we would get was: ‘All of my workforce is trained on this other piece of hardware so even if we like you, it’s too hard to bring you in because we’d have to retrain people.’ The judo move we figured out was how to create an interface that doesn’t require as much training and makes it easier for people to self-train,” he says.

4. You’re not providing a consumer-level experience

Peter Yared, founder and CEO of global data protection company InCountry, has an imaginary “hate scale” he uses to describe the experience of using software at work. “If people have to log in to a mainframe, I’d put that at about a 10 on the hate scale,” he explains. “Traditional HR software might be a 7, Slack might be a 1.”

Too many companies have too many tools that fall toward the high end of the hate scale, he says. “Most people have technology deep in their lives. Their cars are roving computers. They’ve had experiences like buying a ticket from a kiosk at a train station or buying an airline ticket online.” How will those experiences compare with, say, filing a request for paid time off, or submitting an expense report at their jobs, he asks?

Because, like it or not, employees will be making that comparison every time they use a system at work. “I think it’s pervasive throughout lots of technology now,” Shimizu says. “Even SaaS enterprise products are starting to have a consumer feel to them.”

And we don’t just want our technology to be intuitive. We want it to be pleasing, informal, and perhaps a little bit fun — qualities that go a long way toward explaining the breakaway success of Slack. “A lot of collaboration tools have come and gone in the enterprise,” Shimizu says. “Slack is a great validation of the fact that if you’re a technology vendor, you need to think about design from the experience in.”

5. You haven’t upgraded to a digital workplace

Yared is a serial entrepreneur, but for three years he was CIO and CTO of CBS Interactive. “CBS has kind of turned the corner now on digital transformation,” he reports. But when he joined the company in 2011 its employee-facing technology was decidedly unimpressive, he reports.

“We were taxed with things like streaming the Super Bowl, getting the website modern, and getting mobile apps out there,” Yared says. “People had seven-year-old PCs. The conference room computer had floppy drives. The WiFi didn’t work. But we’re telling people we’re going to stream the Super Bowl and provide super-fresh websites for consumers. Our thesis was that you can’t have digital transformation without a digital workplace. You can’t talk about streaming the Super Bowl when your employees’ kids have better computers at home than your employees do at work.”

A decent computer costs about $1,200 and should last an employee three years, he adds. “Can you spend $400 a year on an employee?” If you can’t, how can you expect that employee to feel valued?

This is one reason improving EX can make such a powerful difference. The quality of the technology tools you give employees to do their jobs sends a message about how important they are (or aren’t) to their employer. “How do you want employees to feel about your organization?” Wenhold asks. “Are your tools mirroring that? We are a high-paced company and we ask a lot of our people. If our technology doesn’t align with that, we’re doing something wrong.”

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