by Maryfran Johnson

IT departments need a mindset makeover to focus on the customer

May 27, 20152 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

CIOs must refocus IT on the external customer experience and find staffers who can handle that customer-facing role.

Remember the joke about how to tell if you’re talking to an introvert or an extrovert? (The extrovert is the one staring at your shoes instead of his own.)

That one-size-fits-all witticism is often aimed at IT people, engineers, accountants, or anyone with a nerdy job requiring a science or math background. (I’m guessing it was created by someone in marketing or sales.)

Yet for CIOs in today’s customer-centric business world, IT’s introverted, inward-facing reputation is no laughing matter. As our story “CIOs Are Refocusing Their Staffs on Customer-centric IT” points out, the traditional IT organization is getting a new set of marching orders. What matters now–and will matter even more so in the future–is using IT to understand what external customers want and to engage more directly with the rest of the business.

When CIO Joe Drouin joined homebuilding company PulteGroup two years ago, “There was this very traditional idea that IT was a service provider and the customer was everyone else inside Pulte,” he recalls. “Today, we don’t talk about IT and the business. We talk about IT as part of the business–as ingrained and as tightly woven as any other function, and contributing to business strategy.”

Thinking about how IT can better serve external customers, clients or partners requires a mindset makeover for behind-the-scenes technologists, adds CIO Eric Singleton of specialty retailer Chico’s. “You think about things differently,” he says. “You ask different questions that you don’t ask if you’re in a basement writing code for internal customers.”

JetBlue Airways is gearing up to get rid of the check-in process entirely, because “it added no value to the customer,” says CIO Eash Sundaram. “IT was accustomed to thinking in transactions. Instead, we wanted to look at the customer’s airport experience.”

By 2020, customer experience will overshadow price and product as key brand differentiators, according to Walker Information, a customer intelligence consultancy. One sure sign of a company making this customer-centric transition is the creation of new IT roles such as “director of customer engagement” or “business relationship manager.” Another good indicator is seeing IT people in the field or working in the business units. “We make ourselves very visible,” Asbury Automotive CIO Barry Cohen says of his team.

Granted, not everyone in IT belongs in a customer-facing role. But it’s up to IT leaders to find and encourage those who do (no matter whose shoes they’re looking at).