by Beth Stackpole

What customer-centric IT really looks like

Mar 18, 201911 mins
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

CIOs are making cultural and organizational changes to forge a direct connection between IT and end customers as part of their charter to boost digital innovation.

at your service customer service customer centric service bell by bgton getty
Credit: bgton / Getty Images

When Bernie Gracy took the tech leader reins at Agero, his first order of business was to take stock of the company’s extensive technology portfolio and spend the day riding around in a tow truck.

Agero, a digital platform for connected vehicle, roadside assistance, and claims management services, serves automotive OEMs, insurance companies, and an extensive network of roadside assistance companies. To understand the various customer constituencies, Gracy embraced a number of ethnography-based practices, including the day-in-the-life tow truck driver excursion. The ride-along experience empowered the Agero team to deliver platform innovations keyed to solving the drivers’ principal pain points — specifically, streamlining operations, providing better customer service, and achieving the work/life balance that was proving so elusive.

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“Living in your customers’ shoes is the best way to inform the set of business strategies, offerings, and services a company can deliver,” Gracy explains. “It’s all about taking an outside-in role and living the experience of our service through the customers’ lens.”

CIOs have long had customer requirements in their sights, but leaders like Gracy are taking a broader view of customer centricity, promoting techniques and making cultural and organizational changes that create a direct line of engagement between IT and the end customer. Traditionally, IT organizations have primarily concentrated on delivering enterprise solutions and support strategies that meet the needs of internal employees. Customer-centric IT organizations are expanding that charter to account for the needs of external partners and consumers as they build out their digital product and service portfolios.

“Before it was about servicing the internal customers who were serving our external customers,” Gracy says. “As we digitize, the internal gatekeeper role goes away and you engage straight through with customers. You have to link internal business processes to experiences those personas want to have.”

IT’s push towards customer centricity is important on a number of fronts. For one thing, it helps IT organizations build the digital solutions that improve customers’ lifetime value while driving new strategic initiatives that create competitive advantage. In addition, companies that prioritize customer needs and experiences tend to perform better: For example, Forrester found that customer experience (CX) leaders enjoyed a 17 percent compound average revenue growth rate (CAGR) compared to only 3 percent for companies slower to embrace customer-centric practices. Research from Aberdeen Group and SAP revealed that companies with best-in-class customer experience management practices recorded a 527 percent year-over-year customer profit margin spike compared to their peers.

CIOs are doing their part to sharpen their companies’ customer focus. According to the 2019 State of the CIO, which surveyed 683 IT leaders, 55 percent of technology leaders are spending more time learning about customer needs as a way to foster creation of revenue-generating initiatives, and 32 percent are taking on more responsibility in the customer service domain. In addition, 35 percent of responding CIOs have earmarked customer experience improvement as one of their hallmark business initiatives, the State of the CIO research found.

The shift to customer centricity is also tied to the continual evolution of the CIO role, which is becoming less about technology enablement and more about driving business strategy through smart use of technology. Sixty-seven percent of IT leaders responding to the 2019 State of the CIO survey said they are now fully immersed in business strategist activities compared to only 53 percent last year. As CIOs climb the executive ladder, spending time with customers and translating their desires and requirements into a digital product roadmap is a natural part of any strategic business leadership role, according to Angela Yochem, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer for Novant Health, a leading healthcare provider encompassing 15 hospitals and more than 600 physician practices.

“Any line of business leader must understand what consumers want so they can manage the evolution of the products ahead of consumer expectations,” Yochem says. “It’s the same sort of thing now with a technology focus. CIOs and tech leaders are the digital product and service leads now marketing digital services to end consumers. They must understand them.”

Walking in the customer’s shoes

While courting the customer is the ultimate end game, IT organizations need to cut their teeth on customer-centricity by honing best practices that start at home. Being recognized for robust service by internal customers is the consummate stepping stone for IT organizations making the leap to cater to outside customers. “You need to do the basic blocking and tackling and build credibility and trust with internal clients, then you can start talking about innovation and how to focus on external customers,” says David Behen, vice president and CIO at La-Z-Boy.

That’s also the philosophy at Hines, a global real estate development and management firm, which is recalibrating its IT organization to embrace a customer focus by encouraging staffers to put their tenant hat on as they go about their daily business. The mindset serves as a reminder that IT employees shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens, but rather should enjoy the same response times and hands-on attention afforded to internal users in other departments, notes Jesse Carrillo, senior vice president and CIO at Hines. The same philosophy is ingrained in IT teams working on consumer-oriented digital experiences, and the “walk in the tenants’ shoes” orientation has been a real eye opener for improving IT product delivery and service, Carillo says.

“IT people have a tendency to complicate and over engineer things, but when they started putting themselves in the shoes of a customer, they start to act and see things differently,” he explains. “Historically, when we evaluated a solution, we focused on the technical aspects like networks, databases, and code and we didn’t pay as much attention to what it actually feels like when you’re using it. Through these exercises, the team is much more in tune with” user interface and UX simplicity, Carillo says.

At Novant Health, Yochem is ramping up IT’s customer-centric focus using a variety of tactics, including customer focus groups, alignment with key executive counterparts such as the chief consumer officer, and hiring staffers with new skill sets. For example, Yochem’s group now seeks out staffers with retail and digital experience chops as well as those who have expertise in customer segmentation practices.

Another big change is embedding physicians, nurses, and pharmacists as part of the IT delivery team. “We have people who have engaged personally with our patients as part of other roles they have had,” she says. “They are as experienced with the patient or customer journey in the same ways as someone who is a retail or digital channel expert.”

Having direct access to patients through the chief medical informatics officer’s clinical team helps the IT organization hear first-hand stories and field questions in real time from patients and their families — a change that has led to many examples of system and process improvements. Take the case of a daughter of one patient, who was struggling with what to ask physicians during daily rounds and who felt ill-prepared to understand and advocate for her mother’s care.

Based on this particular set of feedback, the IT team orchestrated a plan to bring a patient’s proxy group (family, friends, and caretakers) into the loop by providing them with access to the Novant Health application both in and outside of the hospital. The change allowed for direct access to patient’s vitals, lab results, and doctor’s notes so the proxy team can bone up for the doctor’s visits and track wellness progress over time. “In this case, we were able to help the daughter gain proxy access to her mother’s information while she was still in the hospital, completely changing her experience for the better,” Yochem explains.

People, process, skills

In addition to embedding business specialists on the IT team, CIOs are also adding new positions such as product managers and business relationship managers to their rosters to create a closer connection to the customer.  These roles are designed to engage with end customers and leverage their input to shape new workflows as opposed to viewing systems requirements through a purely technical lens. IT staffers that can translate business needs into technology requirements and explain how technology deployments solve critical pain points is another discipline customer-centric CIOs are cultivating.

“We look for people who are dual translators — they speak customer, understand the flow of patients and other constituents, and can bring that talk back to the IT organization so they can design, implement, and deliver on-going maintenance and support in an iterative fashion,” says Randy Gaboriault, CIO and senior vice president of innovation and strategic development at Christiana Care Health System.

Executive-level communication is also essential to promote, explain, and prepare the IT ranks for a turn towards customer centricity. Agero’s Gracy is big proponent of taking a multidisciplinary approach to get the message across, which in his case, includes internal blogging, town hall meetings, and inviting other members of the leadership team to speak on the benefits as well as the changing landscape.

At Vail Resorts, many of those initiatives have helped infuse a higher level of customer centricity in IT, and the results have been a widely-heralded series of innovations. Among the more popular: RFID-enabled lift tickets and passes to shorten wait times; mobile apps for tracking everything from vertical feet skied to actual lift line waits; and Emma, an AI-based digital mountain assistant that provides information on everything from current grooming and ski conditions to dining and rental recommendations.

While a formal methodology wasn’t put in place, the changes have served to make Vail’s IT team far more responsive to customer needs, including a desire to ensure their digital innovations hit the mark throughout the entire lifecycle, from ideation through implementation in the field, says Tim April, the company’s senior vice president and CIO. For example, IT vetted the hardware and software functionality associated with a recently-launched mobile ticketing system, but they also sent staff into the field to validate the guest experience along with their peers in operations.

“We have a responsibility to think through IT operations as a guest experience,” April says. “That changes the experience of being a technologist — you’re not done when the technology is done and deployed, you have responsibility for the whole solution and that is a huge win.”

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