5 Ways CIOs Benefit From Facetime with Customers

CIOs who get out of the office and talk face-to-face with customers can bring back ideas for new products and better systems.

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.

Most CIOs don't do much customer outreach, according to our latest State of the CIO research. Just nine percent of 596 CIOs surveyed said they spend time studying market trends and customer needs to identify commercial opportunities--the same as last year and a drop of three percentage points from 2010.

Not understanding customers can lead to poor decisions, says Bruce Temkin, managing partner of the Temkin Group, a customer-experience research and consulting firm. As senior executives, CIOs are involved in critical corporate decisions about mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, investments and business strategy. But those who hibernate, focused on IT operations only, may lack the customer-related information needed to do the job well, Temkin says. "More CEOs are looking for their staff to be better aware of customers," he says.

Our survey shows CIOs expect that paying attention to customers will become a bigger part of their job. Twenty-seven percent said they want to be doing this kind of work in three to five years.

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