If I've set a really good goal for myself, and I stop to think about what it'll take to get there, it creates a physical reaction. A long exhale. A few sleepless hours. A queasy feeling in the gut.
It's a physical reaction to what my brain is saying about the goal. Can I really do it? Can I change the actions I take every day, that I've been doing for years, in all the ways needed to accomplish this new goal? Will the toil and expense pay off? Is it even the right goal?
'Tis the season for setting goals and priorities for the year ahead. This time, rather than creating a short list of priorities, IT leaders might consider setting just one goal. And if it's only one, that goal should be one that makes you at least a little uncomfortable to think about.
So here's what I propose for 2013: Make IT measurably more relevant to your customers. I'm talking about end customers, the people or companies that buy our stuff -- not IT's internal customers, a.k.a. employees. Following are three avenues to do that.
Understanding customers: Companies always have craved information about their customers. What's different today is the potential to predict consumer behavior with greater accuracy. Better analytics and the ability to more affordably crunch huge amounts of data create this opportunity.
This "understanding customers" category might sound like the safest, easiest way for IT to get closer to customers -- just watching and analyzing. But it doesn't stop there. Yes, customer data helps you run the business internally, but would big data analysis help the customer even more if you gave it away? This is the classic FedEx breakthrough -- package tracking was an essential internal tool, but sharing package status transformed customer relationships in the industry.
Sharing your analysis with customers can get uncomfortable. I talked with a CIO whose company shared usage data with one customer, only to have that company conclude it should buy less. The customer was underutilizing what it had. Not only might customers not thank you for the data, they might ask why you sold them that last unit and how long you've had these insights. It's a moment that tests what "partner" and "long-term relationship" really mean.
In consumer products, predicting behavior based on social media sentiment is a new opportunity. Can social media predict success of a new product launch, and even help steer production levels and reduce stockouts? Can social media analysis spot new product ideas or get customers involved in product development? 2013 will be a year of experiments, embarrassing failures and early successes in social media analysis.
Promotions for customers: Once IT has created a better understanding of customers, the next step could be improving promotions. A big reason marketing is increasing spending on technology is to make promotions more data-driven and efficient. But there's a long way to go in customizing them.
Data-driven customization is fraught with risk. Just because people sign up for a loyalty card doesn't mean they want a stream of promotions. I love my bike and skis and wouldn't mind hearing more from the companies that make them, but I never need to hear from my coffee company. Does your data make those distinctions?
Sears is an innovator in using Hadoop to mine big data for customer insights, and it's in the early stages of applying that to promotions. Big-box retailers need to test more customized, real-time promotions to compete with online stores. But when I wrote about Sears' efforts, this note from a reader warned of the risks: "I think that retailers may have forgotten that the customer is a person that does not always make logical decisions, but will hold grudges."
Products for customers: The ultimate customer-facing role is to help drive technology that the customer actually uses. From Ford to Nike to Royal Caribbean, companies across industries increasingly embed tech in products and services to differentiate them. Building customer-facing products often takes higher quality and faster development than IT is used to for internal projects, so don't underestimate the cultural change required. Mobile apps have accelerated this trend, giving companies a new way to interact with customers. Those apps also create a new data source, which brings us full circle to understanding customers.
We're living through a historic shift that makes technology more important -- in fact, indispensable -- to building close customer ties. IT leaders can seize the moment by ruthlessly focusing 2013's goals on the customer who buys their products.