How IT Can be an Advocate for the Customer

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Do the company's customers love you?

It's not a question of whether they like you or think you're doing an OK job. It's not a question of checking the 'generally satisfied' box on the customer questionnaire. It's a question of whether they love you -- can't do without you, would-rather-not-buy-it-than-buy-it-from-someone-else really love you.

And for many, if not most, IT organizations, keeping the trains running on time is probably of far greater concern than whether or not anyone loves you. But Jeanne Bliss, the author of the new book Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action, says IT professionals need to think about how to make customers thrilled to do business with the company.

And in a one-on-one interview with Datamation, Bliss says IT administrators are in a unique position to help various departments work better together to serve the customer -- and create that loving, and profitable, feeling.

Bliss, herself, is no stranger to working on customer satisfaction.

For 25 years she worked with company presidents and CEOs building customer loyalty. Back in the 1980s, she worked on 'the customer experience' for Lands' End, establishing a customer-focused culture, training phone operators and creating the gift boxing service. From there, she moved on to Mazda, where she was senior manager of customer satisfaction and retention. She also worked for Coldwell Banker Corp., Allstate Corp. and Microsoft Corp. -- all in customer satisfaction positions.

Bliss' new work hit book shelves on March 31, and she's focused on helping other companies find their own customer success stories.

In a discussion with Datamation she talks about what's going wrong with customer satisfaction, what IT can do about it, and the roll IT needs to in the corporate hierarchy.

Q: In general, how are companies doing when it comes to creating customer satisfaction?
The problem is that each silo [or department] does its own thing and what happens to customers is an unplanned amalgamation of what comes together. The CEO says to focus on the customer and then everyone goes and does their own thing... There's some pretty sad statistics out there that says the delivery of a good experience to customers is actually worse than ever before. There's a Gallop poll that says only 20 percent of customers are completely loyal. Zenith did research that says 92 percent of all retailers have a customer service rating of 70 percent or worse.

Q: So what's going wrong?
What's happening is as boards and CEOs look at financial requirements and external metrics, the customer is falling between the cracks. There's no prevalent hoopla out there right now about customer work. People are always looking for a silver bullet. If I just do this one thing, I'll fix all our customer problems. There's no big silver bullet out there. What we've done is automate mediocrity.

Q: How realistic is it to think that you can make customers actually love your company?
When I was at Lands End, Fortune magazine did an article on us called, ''Getting Customers to Love You''. The big revelation about why we were loved was that we could be counted on. We established peace-of- mind with our guarantee. We trained our telephone reps to not only know the products backwards and forwards, but to care why customers were buying them. Our graveyard shift operators were some of the busiest in the business because of the calls they'd receive in the middle of the night from insomniacs who, sure, would buy a turtleneck, but were also on the line to hear the friendly voice on the other end... Customers loved us because we respected them and their time. And we made sure that we translated that respect to actions they could see and feel.

Q: But we're talking about IT here. How can an IT manager have an effect on how the customer feels about the business?
IT is an enabler. They are writing processes and code and automating customer contacts based on what business tells them to do. But IT has been given, inadvertently, a huge power core because so much of the corporate budget is related to IT and IT spending. And marketing, operations, sales -- each goes, on its own, to IT to establish its own project. Let's say in an automotive company the parts and service people go to IT and say, 'Let's track our parts and customer satisfaction.' IT will start that project. But then the call center people will start their own project. Both are good but they're not connected. Your external customer will expect that all of that data is interconnected but it's not. If you own a Honda and you call in, you expect they know not only when you last had service, but about your warrantee and when you bought the car. You don't know that these silos may not communicate with each other. IT has been put in this position of power because they're sorting projects that are being delivered to them by the silos.

Q: Is it IT's responsibility to say 'Whoa. Hold on. We should make sure that these projects are connected to better serve the customer.'?
It will take someone with a lot of hootspa and power to back up and make sure they all mean something. That would be ideal [for it to be IT]. It would at least get the attention of the CEO. Someone from IT needs to say, 'We just got five different projects on the same thing.' IT needs to become an advocate for the customer. They're aware that all these different projects are coming in. That gives them a lot of potential for becoming and advocate for the customer. If they're wired to think, 'Hey, how will these seven projects impact the customer?', they can have a more powerful impact on the customer than they realize. That's a great angle for them.

Q: In the corporate hierarchy, is IT really in a position to put the brakes on and tell executives that they need to figure out how to make their departments work better together?
Many times IT is brought in at the end as an implementer instead of at the beginning as an implementer. They need to be brought in as a partner and given the power and opportunity to say, 'Whoa'.
At Lands' End, IT was sitting at the table with us and they became these super creative people who said, 'If we do this first and this second and this third, we can do all of this for the customer.' That is rare but it certainly should be something that is changing. When IT sits at the table, they are not just the implementers but also the architects of the customer experience. I have had the most wonderful relationships with IT when they're allowed to sit at the table from the beginning. They have better ideas about how to automate customer experience. They are inspired and become active participants. They're ombudsman role naturally evolves as they see what they can do for the customer and to the customer. You want to help them build that customer muscle.

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