Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
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8/17/2007
05:32 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Should IT Interact With Customers? Some Readers Don't Think So

Readers have offered some thoughtful responses to my recent posting of "The First 10 Things A CIO Should Do," but I was puzzled by what I interpreted as a general resistance to change and a reluctance to put customer needs at the top of the priority list. Am I naive or just misguided?

Readers have offered some thoughtful responses to my recent posting of "The First 10 Things A CIO Should Do," but I was puzzled by what I interpreted as a general resistance to change and a reluctance to put customer needs at the top of the priority list. Am I naive or just misguided?One reader offered this perspective on IT interaction with customers: "Further, sales staff usually don't like or allow others (especially IT) to interface with their customers in most businesses. Once IT begins interacting directly with customers, one major thing happens. The customer begin contacting the IT staff directly for support. This then completely bypasses the technical support and sales staff. For IT, this becomes a problem because the IT staff can no longer focus properly on system support when supporting customers directly and it also undermines those departments who should be focusing on customer support."

My reaction: I'm grateful for the comment, but it reflects yesterday's thinking whereby companies expected -- actually required -- customers to adapt their behavior to suit those suppliers' requirements, processes, and convenience. That might have worked in the past, but it is a guarantee of utter failure in today's customer-driven global economy. If customers find value in working with a supplier's IT department, then that supplier is out of its mind if it forbids such interaction -- why not work out a tiered set of service options to cover the cost of that time and value? And if IT interaction with customers "undermines those departments who should be focusing on customer support," then shouldn't the company restructure its operations to allow customers to have the types of "customer support" that they want? Because if your formal Customer Support team is getting undermined by some other department that's offering higher value, then the Customer Support team is failing. Right?

Also from that reader: "While I would love to say that your bullet points would make an ideal business, unfortunately, you'd end up firing most of the staff in most existing companies. The corporate culture in most present businesses would not allow for such radical changes easily. ... The one thing you want to avoid as a company is being known for having a revolving employment door with constant turnaround."

My reaction: Businesses that don't change go out of business. Businesses that are afraid of changing -- in ways large and small -- become irrelevant because that reluctance means that they put their own internal wants and desires ahead of those of their customers. Constant, customer-driven change is hard and it's challenging, but it sure beats irrelevance and liquidation. And *that* is the one thing you *really* want to avoid as a company.

Another reader comment: "I'm a user who had an intra-corporate history of friendly and low-level conflict with IT staff. Points 2 and 6-8 illustrate why -- some IT personnel want to be the tail that wags the dog, or think they are the dog. The company was formed for purposes other than creating an IT version of Nirvana, and while strong IT is important ... it's not the central mission."

My reaction: I agree, and I don't think my points suggested IT's wagging the dog; rather, here's what I was suggesting: No. 2: Bury the philosophy of "we need to align IT with the business" and replace it with "we need to align IT with customers"; No. 6: Focus bonuses on the company's financial performance and IT's top priority; No. 7: Increase by 33% the amount of time IT managers spend with customers; and No. 8: Launch a blog showing how IT is creating value for customers. Reader comment: "I have never worked in a company where the IT staff could do what you have suggested. ... I see IT's role as [another reader] suggested: serving (supporting) the business. Sure, where IT can help better support customers, I'm all for it. But that has to be aligned with the internal people who interface directly with the customers. And let's not forget how most execs view IT. They STILL don't get it."

My reaction: First of all, if I worked for a company whose execs don't get IT, I'd bail out as quickly as possible because that company just will not be able to compete. And you're right that IT interaction with customers has to be coordinated with other colleagues who deal regularly with customers. But I don't think that goes nearly far enough: The top priority of IT can no longer be to support internal operations -- that has to be just a given, the table stakes. The top priority for IT -- as with every other department -- has to be creating excellent value for customers. Otherwise, what's the point?

Reader comment: "There are many other issues involving your points that could be discussed and would have serious business impact, but I'd have to write a book to discuss them all."

My reaction: Write the book -- we'll post extensive excerpts on this site and you'll become rich and famous! My final question: So, am I naive or just misguided?

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