Create IT systems that help customers buy product, argues this columnist, not improve business processes

If it’s not already right on top of your agenda as chief information officer, it should be: Your enterprise’s customers should be front and centre.

Not your infrastructure and maintenance woes. Not your budget grief. Not your business colleagues. The people putting revenue in the enterprise’s account need to come first.

How you are perceived determines whether or not your enterprise benefits. You can be like the typical book seller, who may have loyal visitors examining the stock — but bemoans the “price competition” from seeing these buyers find their treasures in the shop, but order from Amazon to take delivery. Or you can make sure that every element of the enterprise’s technology makes for a superior customer experience.

That means systems that let your enterprise be what the buyer needs now — as opposed to systems optimized to produce the best possible business process.

That means an online capability that matches your offline capability for warmth, care, interaction. That means putting technology to work to create new offerings, not to simply find a way to “me, too” everything else in the market.

New offerings, almost by definition, don’t have convenient packages. They have to be visualized and created.

Frankly, there isn’t a buyer out there that cares a whit how convenient or efficient things are on the clerk’s side of the register. From coffee shops where the person taking the order is visibly puzzling over the screen to tap in a customer’s request to the marketing effort that requires a postal code be typed in before anything else can happen, there’s a lot of IT out there that’s seller-first, not buyer-first.

Buyers want simple. They want effective. They’d prefer stimulating and rewarding. But they won’t put up with stuff that doesn’t work reliably — like most of the table-side technology in restaurants and bars — or convoluted Websites, or dealing with systems their sales help can’t navigate easily.

Does this mean your existing systems should be trashed? It depends. If floor staff can respond to an item out of stock with a very fast check for the item at close-by stores and send the buyer there, it doesn’t matter whether IT has a 40 year-old mainframe,a midrange terminal systems or the hottest new thing. Take more of the customer’s time or be seen visibly wrestling with technology and that buyer won’t go to the other outlet. Result: no revenue today, anywhere.

Get this in your head, if it’s not already there: the economy is tightening, and that means you must capture what revenue there is. Given that nothing happens anywhere anymore without a technology layer involved, that means getting buyers to stick a crowbar in their wallets and fill your company’s coffers is as much your job as sales and marketing’s job.

So review your portfolio: what’s helping, what’s hindering, getting the sale done? Review your processes: what makes you more responsive, and what’s slowing you down? Review the business and its needs, and prioritize that backlog based on revenue coming in the door. Oh, and if you’ve got four out of five dollars going into keeping the lights on and doors open, you’ve got a roadblock to getting the customer into first place.

For those who don’t have customers per se — government agencies, for instance — guess what? It’s still all about the citizen. You may not think drivers have much choice when it comes to making them line up to renew their driver’s licence, but they do — ask any young person who hasn’t bothered to get their licence (and in the four provinces with public auto insurance, that failure to drive means they’re not buying auto insurance, either, affecting another agency). Meanwhile, poor services translate directly into people electing populists who’ll “straighten out those people”. So monopoly or not, this applies to you.

Let’s be clear, therefore: IT isn’t a back room activity any longer. The core purpose of the enterprise — taking in money in exchange for products and services — is IT’s purpose, too.

The CIOs who get this are building their careers for success in the years ahead. Become one of them.

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