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.

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A major break came when PulteGroup decided to relocate its headquarters from Detroit to Atlanta. Drouin says that, after he arrived in 2013, he seized the opportunity to overhaul the IT organization, hire about 35 new people in Atlanta and "bring IT out from behind the curtain to engage on the front lines of the business."

"We created new roles that would be visible to the rest of the business and engage with our customers and partners," he says. "We hired a director of customer engagement and a team of people under him. Technology skills were table stakes. We brought people in from a variety of places with the notion that we were looking for people who could sit across the table from a marketing person or homebuilder, or walk into a model home and sit with a sales consultant and have a conversation about what they needed, all in a non-technology-focused way."

Drouin was personally involved with interviewing every one of the serious candidates for the new roles. "I was the last stop. I was looking for an ability to communicate, to engage, interact. I wanted to know I'd be comfortable putting this person in front of a customer," he says.

But before candidates made it to Drouin, they had been vetted by recruiters who were well versed in what he wanted in a customer-focused IT staffer. Drouin and his top managers had spent two full days with a recruiting company, outlining precisely the kinds of people they wanted to hire.

"It wasn't 35 technology job descriptions. We built this profile of the kind of person we were looking for, including some of the experiences we wanted them to talk about to demonstrate those characteristics," he recalls.

That was a key facet of the IT overhaul on which Drouin and his team never wavered, and it made all the difference.

"We viewed every single hire as a critical hire," he says. "It was so important to make this [customer-centric] shift and this transformation that we couldn't afford to say 'This guy is strong technically, but I can't imagine his ability to really engage.' So we didn't make any exceptions to the picture of the person we were trying to hire. It was critical enough to me personally to be in the room and spending time personally because I couldn't afford to have one person slip by that wouldn't be there to drive this major shift in the organization."

Another huge change was redefining the word customer as it applied to IT.

"There was this very traditional idea that IT was a service provider and the customer was everyone else inside Pulte," Drouin says. "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. Our customers are [the company's] end customers."

Aiming to Please

More than a few CIOs make the point that precisely defining the word customer is a critical first step toward customer-centric IT. "We make a big point of defining the word customer. A customer is the same in IT as it is for the rest of the business. A customer buys cars, buys services and buys parts," says Barry Cohen, CIO at Asbury Automotive Group, a $5.9 billion automotive retailer with 82 dealerships. "We don't even say 'internal customer.' In fact, we make a big point of saying IT is part of the business and not like an island off by itself. These are small but important nuances because we're trying to build a culture where everybody is thinking the same way."

Asbury's IT infrastructure is made up mainly of automotive-specific systems and software developed and provided by third parties. The company's 39-person IT group is focused on managing the service providers and handling field engineering and support at dealerships. (See "Automotive Retailer Drives Into the Cloud.")

For now, IT staffers don't work directly with people who are shopping for cars but with employees in the dealerships and in other departments who work directly with customers.

The IT team is focused on taking some of the hassle out of the car-buying experience. "If you've bought a car, you know that you can spend an entire day in the dealership, so we're working on customer-facing things like digital signatures and removing some of the paperwork in that process," Cohen explains.

Cohen's team has also spent a good deal of time wiring dealerships with Wi-Fi access points so customers can have access to the Internet and social media.

Cohen himself travels to each of the company's dealerships at least twice a year and also has IT staffers work in the field at the company's stores and dealerships. "We walk into a store and meet the parts people and the accounting people. We make ourselves very visible," he says.

One of the surprising things Cohen and his team have learned at the dealerships is that, although they do have store hours, they have no set closing time. "I'd always ask what time they go home and they always said 'When the last customer leaves.' So, my IT staff is really focused on that now," he says. "We don't have hours that we are open or closed. It's when our customer is there."

Raising the Bar

Anuj Dhanda, CIO and head of digital commerce at Giant Eagle, a $9.3 billion supermarket chain with 418 stores, keeps close tabs on brands like Apple and Google. Both of those companies, he says, have played a huge role in setting the bar on what customers expect.

Dhanda says IT teams are facing new pressures in how they serve both internal and external customers. "We have to treat all of our customers differently because they're customers of other companies that have set the bar very differently," he says. Progressive companies, he adds, "don't make a huge distinction between internal and external customers."

For example, Dhanda says that, at many companies, an employee may need to touch 10 different systems to do a job. So Giant Eagle is using workflow technology to create a better internal user experience that rivals an external customer's experience.

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