by Dan Roberts and Larry Wolff

Why your IT team should be obsessed with your customers

Apr 10, 2018
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

When IT knows what customers want, it can anticipate their needs. Plus, it gives the team the credibility and respect to contribute in the business at a much more strategic level.

Customer-obsessed organizations are winning. It’s as simple as that. Amazon dominates because its track record of innovation has disrupted numerous industries. We know them because of their numbers: 42,000 percent rise in stock price since their IPO, market value of $423 billion, and a meteoric rise up the Fortune 500 ladder to No. 12 last year.

How is Amazon doing it? What is driving these outstanding results, not only against brick-and-mortar stores, but countless online competitors? You don’t have to look much further than Amazon leadership principle No. 1, “customer obsession.”

To our mind, that’s the way every business should be run, and it’s definitely fundamental to the success of any IT organization.

Know your customer

Are you tired of all the “stuff” that distracts your IT organization from moving the ball forward, from helping to deliver meaningful business outcomes? Amazon and other customer-obsessed companies have found that when you’re locked in on your customer, a lot of that internal noise disappears — poof! The results (see Amazon’s 14th and final leadership principle) clearly speak for themselves.

High-performing, world-class organizations know this. Owens Corning, the $5.6 billion global building materials company, benefits from the customer-obsessed IT organization led by CIO Steven Zerby.

“The number one tenet in our organizational behavior strategy is applying a service-first mentality,” Zerby says. And by first nailing that customer obsession, Zerby has been able to evolve IT up the maturity curve — and increase their contribution. “This service culture positions us to move up the stack rapidly and across a broad swath of opportunities.”

Unfortunately, many CIOs don’t understand customer centricity. Many confuse this with being a servant, or subservience, but it is not that at all. CIOs like Zerby find that building relationships provides a platform to debate, to push, to disagree more.

But that doesn’t mean being the stereotype of IT as “the department of no,” any more than it means abject subservience. Shanna Cotti-Osmanski, CIO and corporate senior vice president for IT at Charles River Laboratories, says that knowing your customers is at the core of a good service culture, and it allows IT to deliver results before the business knows what to ask for.

What kind of results? Charles River Laboratories is an early-stage research and drug discovery company that provides differentiated products and services to customers ranging from biotech companies, government agencies and academic institutions. They had a hand in 80 percent of the drugs that were approved by the FDA in 2017. And IT provides services to both the internal business partners and customers of the lab.

“Anticipating the needs of your customers, while difficult, is critical to truly excellent service,” Cotti-Osmanski explains. “To accomplish this, it is key to understand your customers’ goals and struggles, and what’s important to them. Then you can decide how best to apply technology to effectively anticipate their needs.”

Research has identified an evolutionary curve for IT organizations that’s evident regardless of industry or the size of either the IT team or the enterprise. In a previous article, we introduced this IT Maturity Curve, detailing the evolution from basic service provider to solution provider to strategic partner and, ultimately, “Innovative Anticipator.”

In every organization we’ve advised, and in every conversation we’ve had with high-performing CIOs, one thing has been true: A service culture that infuses all of IT’s work — and is evident to IT’s clients throughout the enterprise—is the foundation of everything IT does. It is this service culture that earns IT the credibility and respect to contribute at a much more strategic level.

Outside in, inside out 

In today’s digital world, CIOs and their teams are finding themselves spending more time with external customers — just like Charles River Laboratories. These direct customer interactions keep the CIO on the pulse of their business and their customers’ business. This, along with IT’s unique end-to-end view of the company, positions IT to look around the corner and anticipate opportunities to orchestrate a new customer experience, build new revenue streams, and drive industry disruption.

This outside-in perspective is grounded by an inside-out service philosophy and careful attention paid to all customer touch points, or what we call the “moments of truth.” In this culture of service, IT earns trust, credibility, and the ability to bring an influential point of view to the table of decision making.

“You need to provide unexpected or exceptional service to build credibility and trust,” says Mitchel Davis, vice president and CIO of Dartmouth College. “To move quickly, this marked improvement must happen consistently and across the board, with all team members.”

He emphasizes that good service prepares you for leadership. Davis asks his team, “If the opportunity presents itself, or you create the moment, are you prepared to lead the meeting? Have you spent enough time understanding the clients and business needs to create solutions that exceed expectations? Are you in a continuous learning mode? Do you think more about your client’s success rather than your own? Are you change- and risk-positive?”

Dartmouth’s isn’t the only Ivy League IT team that’s committed to helping their IT leaders and staff achieve excellence in their field.

Harvard University’s famed IT Academy is a unique talent development program designed by Harvard IT professionals. Demonstrating their commitment to investing in their workforce, the IT Academy website details how this program is “built around the idea of creating ‘T-shaped professionals’ who have both depth and breadth of expertise.” According to Harvard’s internal research, developing a service mindset and trusted advisor consultative skills are paramount to their work to meet and anticipate the needs of all constituents, including faculty, students, and staff.

A healthy obsession

The best companies and the best IT organizations are obsessed with their customers. From Amazon to Charles River Laboratories and Owens Corning, to Dartmouth and Harvard, IT is contributing to significant, ongoing business success and improving its organizational role and the careers of its talented staffers. And in every case, the foundation of success is a client-focused service culture.

Of course, building a culture of service across IT has its own unique challenges. We operate in a world that most of our customers don’t understand. We have to balance deep technical understanding and a focus on business strategy and operations. Fortunately, there are resources specifically devoted to building a culture and workforce that deliver IT service excellence. You can find more of these resources on our blog and the CIO Whisperers series at