6 secrets of customer-facing CIOs

The CIO role has dramatically shifted as organizations lean on IT to drive digital business initiatives.

6 secrets of customer-facing CIOs
Thinkstock

Architecture and design firm Perkins+Will views technology as a catalyst for change, which isn’t surprising, given that digital transformation has become a business imperative for most organizations. What is notable is that CIO Murali Selvaraj’s team developed an app to change how the company communicates with clients and sought feedback from clients on the features they most want.

The app, Perkins+, enables the firm’s architects to share design blueprints and other documents with clients, and in 2017, Selvaraj’s team added augmented reality functionality that gives designers and developers a new way to work with project models.

With a mandate a couple of years back from CEO Phil Harrison to become more client focused, Selvaraj knew the app needed to contain enough information to anticipate customers’ questions, but not overwhelm them.

“The secret sauce of creating a [customer] engagement is not overwhelming the client with too much information, but the right information at the right time, when the client needs it,’’ says Selvaraj, who is also an architect.

Today, more CIOs are finding themselves increasingly interacting with customers as organizations look to IT to be the driver of customer-facing initiatives. This isn’t always easy for IT leaders, many of whom are accustomed to staying in the background and ensuring that systems remain up and running.


“IT is emerging as a value-based service brokerage,’’ observes the 2017 State of IT report from Salesforce Research, which noted that 74 percent of IT leaders say the business teams they partner with believe IT is the biggest driver of business success.

“As companies increasingly adopt customer-centric models, IT stands at the crossroads of change,” the report says. A number of business units, including sales, customer service and marketing among others, are looking to IT as a strategic partner now. “Meanwhile, IT juggles the shift toward digital transformation and customer experience initiatives, pushing to deliver deeper levels of engagement, connection, and innovation.”

There is strong incentive to make that shift. Capgemini’s 2017 report on The Disconnected Customer found that 81 percent of consumers are willing to pay for a better experience. Yet, while 75 percent of businesses believe themselves to be customer-centric, only 30 percent of consumers agree, according to the report. Moreover, the report found that less than 20 percent of businesses meet consumers’ expectations, and only 31 percent of consumers believe that companies listen and understand their needs.

“CIOs need to focus on what the customer wants before focusing on what the technology can do,” says Mark Taylor, global head of customer engagement at Capgemini Invent, and one of the report’s authors.

They also must blur the lines between IT and the business units.

“IT has become the central nervous system driving business success, playing a key role in how business units leverage customer data and streamline cross-departmental processes” like service teams upselling and sales and marketing collaborating, according to the State of IT report. “As such, the role of CIO is fundamentally changing to the role of business leader.”

Here’s what some CIOs and IT leaders recommend doing to become more customer-centric.

Develop internal customer groups

Success requires a deep understanding of what drives customer behavior. With that in mind, Travelport, a company that develops products for the travel/tourism industry, began building a customer engagement group within IT about four years ago and has been steadily increasing those resources, says Matthew Minetola, executive vice president and global CIO. At the same time, tech skills were integrated into the commercial and sales organization.

“This enables our entire organization to be more than just a group of technologists,” he says, because “the primary focus is to help solve customer problems and simplify their challenges. When we do this, we win.”

IT needs to change its focus from “systems out, to customers in,” Minetola says.

In the past three years, he has created almost 100 new roles within IT that focus solely on working directly with customers across the globe. One team, for example, works with Travelport’s largest customers to optimize the way they use the company’s APIs and platform.

Focus on meeting customer needs — not overwhelming them

Selvaraj has learned not to be overzealous when it comes to giving customers project information. “The aspiration to get there really fast is always there,’’ he says. “But I’m realizing that the customer engagement process is a journey.”

When his team was developing the Perkins+ app, he felt IT was trying to do too much by adding too many modules in a very short amount of time. “Then we realized customers were only interested in media-rich content, and a feedback mechanism and access to the project team with a single click,’’ he says, along with ensuring their project data was secure and only available to them. 

It’s okay to take time to get things right, Selvaraj says. “Think big but start small and remember that everything is for the user — in this case the client. If they’re not using it, don’t spend too much time on it.”

He also recommends engaging with customers early in the process of developing a prototype to find out what features they are looking for. Perkins+Will’s clients wanted just a few things — done really well, Selvaraj says.

Learn about all customer touchpoints

Being a customer-facing CIO means doing your homework to learn everything about your business processes and every customer touchpoint, says Brent Rasmussen, executive vice president and CIO of Carrington Mortgage Holdings.

“What I tell all my senior managers is to know the business cold,’’ Rasmussen says. “You better walk a mile in your customers’ shoes.” That means spending time navigating the corporate website and talking to people in the call center who talk directly to customers to understand what’s important to them. 

“It’s a wonderful education and it also creates that ease where people will come and tell you their ideas and the challenges they’re having servicing the customer, because they know you’re interested,” he says.

From there, Rasmussen makes it a priority to meet with business people “and talk their language.” They discuss what’s happening through data and where changes need to be made to give customers easier access to things that are germane to them, he says.

For example, IT has consolidated touchpoints on Carrington Mortgage’s new Vylla website and designed a customer-centric interface that allows people to perform functions such as selling a home or applying for a loan, with help available along the way. “Everywhere you touch and work with us you have a home specialist that quarterbacks and concierges the experience for you to make sure it’s seamless,” he says.

The company also has a home borrower website where customers can pay a mortgage. Because Carrington has analytics on where a customer is in their loan cycle and their payment history, IT made sure that when a customer logs in they receive a personal greeting. Some customers may also receive a suggestion on how to save money on their mortgage and consolidate the term length.

“The biggest thing a customer wants is time; that is absolutely invaluable,’’ he says. Using robotic process automation in the background enables customer service reps to spend more time with the customer. “People like that,” says Rasmussen.

Get IT staff out of their silos

Interpersonal skills are not necessarily a strength of a lot of IT people who “spent more time in the dark in front of a computer screen and were not picked for dodgeball when they were kids,’’ says Rasmussen. Consequently, becoming more customer-centric has been a work in progress. He spends a lot of time mentoring staff and making sure they know all about the Carrington brand and how it was built so IT can participate in how it is marketed.

“We’re a significant component of the success of the company,” he says. “I had to learn to get in front of our clients and end customers and talk to people one-to-one. I had to learn to write to a wider audience, and that’s not something that comes in the package of the IT industry.” If you’re not helping your staff develop those skills and encouraging them to getting out of their cubicles and talk to their peers and end users, he says, “You’re definitely behind the times.”

Rasmussen says this has been great for IT morale because now staff can connect the dots between a piece of code they’ve written and how business people are using a system and see the difference they are making. It has also been great for job enrichment, he adds, and it has helped reduce the credibility gap that has long existed between the IT and the business organization.

Minetola concurs, saying that customer-savvy tech leaders are the ones getting out of the office more frequently to meet with customers directly so they can better understand their demands, challenges and opportunities. “Engagement creates a direct linkage between user/market demand and the technology teams that are building the solutions for them,’’ he says.

It’s also important that they “ask questions, listen intently and actively, then repeat,’’ he says. “What makes a customer-focused CIO successful is the ability to get to the root issues, the right challenges, or the real burdens that both customers and internal technology teams are facing.”

Give people what they’re clamoring for

In higher education, the customer is the student. Michael Mathews, vice president of technology and innovation at Oral Roberts University, and his staff have deployed technologies such as virtual and augmented reality to broadcast lectures and classes around the globe and a student retention and analytics platform to provide visibility into courses.

As far as Mathews is concerned, taking a more customer-centric approach is a no-brainer.

“What I knew at the end of the day is every CIO provides their bread and butter with good, courteous customer service,’’ says Mathews.

At the same time, Mathews also recognized that “if faculty are stumbling over technology it prevents them from engaging with students at the proper level.” With that in mind, IT saw it was “causing pain” for faculty who had to enter the same data into two separate systems. Now, faculty can enter midterm exam grades with a keystroke from the learning management system to the student information system, he says, collectively saving faculty about 800 hours each semester.

It’s also important to stay up with the times. While some higher-education CIOs are frustrated that students are not using email anymore, Oral Roberts’ IT group recognizes “times have changed, and students are more apt to respond if you tweet them or use an app with a single sign-on,’’ Mathews says. “Anything we want them to be aware of we’ll blast [out to] them on the Student Life app.”

The app has resonated so much with students that the university’s student association now manages it and the group also provides input on how IT “could communicate better and what we’re missing,’’ he says. “When they feel we’re pushing [technology] on them they won’t use it but when they’ve taken ownership of it they will.”

Minetola echoes that sentiment, saying it is incumbent upon CIOs to stay ahead of the curve and resolve customer issues they may not even know they have yet — and not stay complacent with each new system or capability they deliver. “Technology is evolving faster than ever, and in order to keep up with the rapid changes in customer expectations, you must always be thinking ahead.”

Technology is a commodity, says Mathews, and, like Selvaraj, he says you don’t want to leverage too much at once. “Focus on how you take that commodity … to make people’s lives easier,’’ he says. “Use technology to meet people where they’re at.”

Keep egos in check

With the spotlight shining more frequently on them, CIOs also need to stay humble. Empathy is a key attribute of customer-facing CIOs, says Capgemini’s Taylor. Customer-facing CIOs must also keep an open mind when listening to business stakeholders about how technology delivery impacts customers and their satisfaction levels.

Staying focused on the user experience is what drives app stickiness, says Selvaraj. That’s more important than developing custom tech stacks, he adds.

Mathews agrees. “Instead of impressing the world with technology, my job is to help people thrive in a world where technology is such an influence,’’ he says. Part of that means helping students “survive and thrive” as they communicate in different ways.

“I want to be the first university that acts like Amazon,’’ he says. “That means everything is centered around the customer.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

Get the best of CIO ... delivered. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters!