CIOs are refocusing their staffs on customer-centric IT

CIOs are giving their teams new marching orders to turn their attention from internal matters to external customers, who have ultra-high expectations.

customer centric it
Traci Daberko

Personal. Helpful. Simple.

None of those words is typically associated with the process of checking in for a flight at the airport. That's precisely why JetBlue Airways is getting rid of check-ins entirely.

"We went through a mapping of our processes and decided check-in was meaningless in that it added no value to the customer," says CIO Eash Sundaram. So IT rolled out a new system whereby certain customers are automatically checked in 24 hours prior to their flights. (The automatic check-in service will be extended to all JetBlue passengers in the next year or so.)

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The no-check-in initiative is part of JetBlue's all-out push to deliver superlative customer service, which the airline sums up in its mantra of "personal, helpful, simple." In addition, Sundaram says IT focuses on being proactive rather than reactive.

"At the airport, we don't ask the questions of 'What's your name? Where are you going,'" he says. "We have already mapped all the touch points and eliminated those that add no value to the customer. We put people in front of our processes and look at all of our products through the customer lens."

Increasingly, a customer-centric approach is a matter of competitive advantage, even business survival. By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, according to Walker Information, a national consulting firm focused on customer intelligence. Thanks largely to the explosion of digital technologies and the acceleration of innovation, "customers will be more informed and in charge of the experience they receive," Walker says. To be relevant in 2020, companies "must emphasize proactive and personalized service."

At JetBlue, says Sundaram, getting IT to this level of customer focus involved "a big mindset shift [because] IT was accustomed to thinking in transactions. Instead, we wanted to look at the customer's airport experience."

For guidance in making this leap, Sundaram says he and his IT team looked to--and continue to emulate--highly regarded, customer-focused companies like Google, Apple and others outside of the airline industry. JetBlue also partnered with Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at the Stanford School of Engineering on multiweek projects to immerse JetBlue leaders, including many from IT, in a customer-focused case study of the airline. The program included classroom training plus field research at San Francisco International Airport to help executives better understand customers' needs and JetBlue's practices.

At the company's headquarters in New York, IT is a stand-alone organization, but IT employees are integrated into various functions, like marketing and operations. Sundaram also leads the company's multi­million-dollar customer experience innovation program, along with JetBlue's chief commercial officer and chief customer experience officer.

To gain a deeper understanding of new customers, JetBlue dispatches IT staffers and other employees on trips to expansion markets. In the Dominican Republic, for example, many people pay in cash instead of using credit cards, "so IT is now working on a next-generation kiosk to act like an ATM," Sundaram notes.

Internally, JetBlue also has made customer satisfaction a key factor in employees' compensation. One-third of Sundaram's job performance rating is based on how much customers enjoy traveling with JetBlue, he says.

"When you peel the onion back, every goal we have for our IT members is tied to customer experience, too, not to IT systems," Sundaram says. Ultimately, JetBlue "wants to be a lifestyle brand, not just an airline," he explains. "Apple and Nordstrom are great brands, and customer experience is what they really focus on. We're trying to do the same thing."

Changing the Questions

Shifting IT's mindset to look beyond company boundaries and focus on paying customers changes the equation entirely, according to Eric Singleton, CIO at Chico's FAS, a $2.6 billion specialty retailer with 1,547 stores. "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."

That's why Singleton and other members of his 250-person IT organization regularly visit the company's stores--to get up close and conversational with shoppers. Singleton is especially keen to observe how women interact with a 24-in. touchscreen that's mounted in a cabinet near the back of the store. Known as the "tech table," the touchscreen lets shoppers browse beyond the 60 percent of inventory displayed in physical stores to view and buy hundreds of additional products online.

He describes the table as "a social watering hole" and "an augmented shopping experience that is fueled by the customers' social energy around it in the moment."

Best of all, tech table sales routinely add 15 percent to 20 percent to in-store sales totals every day--a figure that's higher than anyone at Chico's anticipated.

IT also regularly collaborates with marketing and merchandise managers to come up with new ways for customers to interact with the company. Next up from IT, for example, is an augmented-reality catalog that shoppers can browse, using their smartphone to mix, match and buy different pieces of clothing shown in different photos.

Changing the Mission

At PulteGroup, achieving customer-facing IT required "a significant rebuild of the IT organization," says Joe Drouin, CIO at the $5.8 billion homebuilder.

It all started in 2010 when Pulte launched a new companywide mission to become more "consumer-inspired." "The company as a whole made a commitment to getting closer to what our customers and potential customers want from a home," Drouin explains. "You would assume that there is nothing more personal than a person's house, but for a long time we just built homes the way we always did, from standard floor plans."

At the time, IT was recovering from a very long period of "just keeping the lights on," he says. "We were coming out of a long downturn, as homebuilding was one of the last industries to recover from the big recession."

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