CIOs are refocusing their staffs on customer-centric IT

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."

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.

For customer-facing technologies, IT has upgraded its quality-assurance and user-interface testing to get insight into what customers want, Dhanda says. Giant Eagle conducts workshops with customers that IT teams observe. All IT staffers also work in one of the company's stores to experience firsthand how IT works on the front line for both employees and customers.

At Agco, a $9.7 billion maker of global agricultural equipment, CIO Sheryl Bunton is just setting out on the road to customer-centric IT. "Every company has to take that journey, and every company has to stop at all the waypoints," she says. "We have a toe in the water."

"The days of [merely] building a product and bringing it to market don't work anymore. Between social media and the collapse of distribution channels, there's a very different customer expectation. One of the biggest shifts everyone in IT has to make is getting from an IT focus to a customer focus," Bunton says.

Much of the shift has to do with dropping the traditional IT command-and-control attitude and adopting the role of influencer. "The perspective that was here was very much of an old-school technologist," she says. "IT would tell the business what they needed instead of listening to business people and coming back with strategies and recommendations. What I've told people is we have to remember we're a tractor company with an IT function. We're not an IT company that makes tractors."

To get there, IT has to prove its status as a valued partner to the business over and over again. "You have to do it enough so that you build trust. It's becoming very strong at execution that keeps the business engaged and builds that trust," she says.

Before business partners are willing to bring IT to meet with external customers, they must be confident it will benefit the customer relationship, Bunton says. "If I was making a sales call, I'm only going to expose my customers [to someone] from IT who I can trust and who will add value to the conversation and who will make me look good," she says. "Otherwise, the risk just isn't worth it."


By Julia King

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