Martha Heller

Running both IT and digital at Alorica

Jun 01, 2022
Artificial IntelligenceChief Digital OfficerCIO

CIDO Mike Clifton explains how, in addition to managing the IT core, he and his teams are enabling the company’s go-to-market strategy, accelerating its digital roadmap, and using AI and ML to transform customer experiences.

Mike Clifton, CIDO, Alorica
Credit: Alorica

Alorica is a privately-owned and operated provider of customer experience solutions to Fortune 500 and digitally-native companies, and employs approximately 100,000 people globally. The company operates a global hybrid model—both on site and through a work-at-home platform—and provides a range of solutions from customer care to financial solutions and customized digital services. As such, the company has been “digital” for some time.

Still, like most companies, Alorica is in the midst of a digital pivot, says Mike Clifton, who joined Alorica as CIO in August 2021 and was promoted to chief information and digital officer just three months later. Recently, I caught up with Clifton to learn more.

Martha Heller: How is Alorica pivoting as a business right now?

Mike Clifton: Today, our clients are after a level of customer insight that requires a very deep knowledge of customer service transaction paths. Our clients would also like to provide more self-service to their customers, which means that at Alorica, we need to automate more transactions and learn more from those insights.

Think about our service offerings as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the widest layer, is voice. When you call a customer service line, you will answer a few quick prompts, but you are trying to get to a voice as quickly as you can.  

The middle layer is automation, which includes look-up capabilities and voice capture tools.  Then, at the top of the pyramid, is full automation with AI-driven conversation capabilities. This is where the machines become smart enough to respond naturally and appropriately human.

Alorica’s pivot is to invert the pyramid. Voice, which is the most expensive service to provide, becomes the top of the pyramid, the narrow point. It is tailored and offered as a top-tier service. At the bottom of the pyramid are conversational capabilities that interact like a human. We can take what we’ve captured digitally to start driving real value at the second layer, which is full automation and where the machine starts to self-learn. So rather than voice first, it’s voice last with conversational AI as the customer’s point of entry. The whole inverted pyramid creates a closed-loop customer interaction. 

Why is this pivot important to your customers?

The pandemic accelerated a change to digital interactions that was already happening in the market. Our market shifted quickly from in-store purchasing to a highly digital, interactive model, where the customer expectation is to transact everything online. You can buy a new car with six clicks and it shows up in your driveway. Since our customers, many of which are Fortune 500 and digital-first global companies, represent a huge segment of the consumer market, we had to accelerate our digital offerings accordingly.

How should CIOs who need to digitize their customer service get started?

Start by looking at all of your customer touchpoints. What are the major channels you use to talk to your customers? What data do you collect from those channels? Then look at the customer interaction spots that have lower NPS scores (Net Promoter Score). Use those gaps to drive differentiated digital offerings.

But even before that, you have to look at your core platform. If you have a legacy platform, you’re dealing with wrappers. You are better off with a greenfield cloud platform, because it will already have services. Starting new seems like it would cost more, but in the end, it costs less.

Finally, make sure you understand your data, because no machine learning solution will work for you if you aren’t working with the right data. Data lakes have a new consumer in AI.

You are both CIO and chief digital officer. How do those roles work together?

As CIO, I manage the IT core: security layers, data center operations, cloud capability enablement, and architecture—everything you would find in a typical CIO organization.

But Alorica is highly instrumented digitally because of our work-at-home model and how we capture voice. Many of our service-based offerings include hosting and executing our customers’ omnichannel platforms. So, in addition to running IT, I manage the operations that deliver service levels, including measurement criteria and target outcomes. 

My combined job is to design and run an operating model that requires IT services, and leverage those to enable a go-to-market strategy, all as part of accelerating our digital offerings.

How are you operationalizing this dual role?

We’ve created a digital business center (DBC), which includes people across the enterprise, including product managers, sales leaders, business analysts, architects, and developers. This group, which is separate from IT and is its own P&L, designs and delivers our new product and service capabilities. IT is a consulting service to the DBC, which is charged for the IT resources it consumes.

The architecture team spans both models—IT operations and services—so that there is a tight connection between IT and the DBC. This is a consultative model that includes allocations and time management to enable the delivery of the digital business, as well as strategic projects like next-generation cloud platforms.  

What are the qualities you would look for in your successor?

At the core is someone who is both technically savvy and thinks strategically about the future, and about how technology will be disruptive.

The second is the ability to tell a compelling story. Years ago, I used to enroll my senior IT team in sales training classes, because they could not articulate the why, only the how. If you can translate the highly technical into a compelling story, you will inspire people to understand and sell the value it brings to the company.

Finally, I would look for someone who inspires decision making and supports failure. If you don’t create an ecosystem where failure is an accepted part of the process, then highly strategic people will not want to work for you.

What advice do you have for CIOs in pursuing the go-to-market CDO position?

Be prepared when people still think of the CIO as a delivery person, and they want to put you back in your box. You need a strong lead line into the market, because you have to understand the pulse to know if your strategy will meet market demands. The market is evolving faster than it ever has before. If you miss what the market needs, you could wind up driving the wrong strategy.

If you are a delivery CIO, and you’re tapped to lead go-to-market strategy, then change your organization. Create an integrated team, like the DBC, to make sure you have a pulse on your customers. Set up very agile delivery teams, and productize as much as you can so that you can rinse and repeat across the enterprise.  

If you are a CIO who has had a lot of market-facing interaction, it will be easier for you to transition into a CDO role. The big difference is that a CDO drives a business, which needs to produce growth, results, and margin. When you move from CIO to CDO, you are going from cost center to a high-growth business center. That’s a big change.

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

More from this author