How to call on customers

Just when I think I’ve accounted for every CIO paradox, a new one rears its head. For example: You have accountability for all internal systems, yet you must spend more time with external customers.

“Whether CIOs like it or not, they have dramatic influence over the external customer’s experiences,” says Don Martin, CIO and eCMO at Armstrong World Industries. “If you do not have direct relationships with those customers, you are not equipped to do your job.”

Unlike other paradoxes, this doesn’t sound tough to solve: Just call a few good customers and take them to lunch. But as is often the case with IT leadership, there’s much more to it than that.

Pick your team. “Not every IT professional can talk to the customer,” says Stewart McCutcheon, CIO of Nalco. “The first step is to understand your IT organization and tap into their natural communication skills.” McCutcheon chose people for his customer-facing team who had started out in business and had experience working in sales. “We also set up a mentoring program so that IT leaders with the most experience could coach those who had a desire to learn.”

Buddy up to sales. Even with a strong team, you are not ready without the support of sales. “If you haven’t helped out your sales organization, don’t be shocked if they don’t want to bring you along,” says Martin. But a great reputation with sales is not enough; they still need to believe that you are customer-ready.

At Nalco, McCutcheon established “voice of the customer” sessions where the IT team could test out new ideas with the sales organization prior to meeting with customers. “The sales people act as surrogate customers,” says McCutcheon. “They give feedback on the IT organization’s ideas and communication style, and they can get comfortable with the idea of bringing IT to customer meetings.”

Do your homework. Now that you have the trust of the sales organization, you are finally ready for your customer meeting. Not so fast, says Puneet Bhasin, CIO of Waste Management. “Before you meet a customer, you need to understand your business, products and key processes extremely well,” he says. “Before my first customer meeting, I spent time in the call center, with route managers and with the dispatch team. I rode in our trucks, visited a landfill and went to our recycling plants.” You need to do your homework on the customer’s business as well, cautions Bhasin. Find out what their business model is, how much business they do with you and whether they’ve had any recent service issues. (For more from Bhasin, see “Waste Management Customers to Gain Data Visibility“.)

Don’t talk tech. “For many CIOs, technology is the first place we mentally go when trying to solve problems,” says Armstrong’s Martin. “But in these meetings, you are a business executive trying to improve the customer experience.” Frame the conversation in terms of processes and experiences, rather than throwing out a bunch of new application ideas. “Don’t paint yourself into a corner where every problem can be solved by IT.”

“Start with, ‘Tell me how you use our products,’ then use that knowledge to generate ideas,” adds Bhasin.

Close the loop. OK. You’ve met the customer, built the relationship and brainstormed some great ideas. Before you call it a day, you need to feed those ideas back to the business. To ensure a speedy path from idea to delivery, Nalco has developed a formal set of follow-up principles for the customer-facing IT team that includes prioritization, communication and accountability. Whether your customers are middle-aged couples who dress their dogs in little outfits or huge corporations that need to cut costs, their reliance on technology is only increasing. It is time to get outside your company and look them in eye.

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