CIO Strategy 2021: Customer Experience is Vital

Customer experience is increasingly important for every CIO. How can Chief Information Officers incorporate the lessons of customer experience while retaining a focus on system uptime and other operational activities? Two leading Chief Information Officers share their thoughts and advice.


Dec 04, 2020

Customer experience is increasingly important for every CIO. How can Chief Information Officers incorporate the lessons of customer experience while retaining a focus on system uptime and other operational activities? Two leading Chief Information Officers share their thoughts and advice.

Jay Ferro is the Chief Information Officer for Quikrete, the largest manufacturer of packaged concrete in the United States. Previously, he served as CIO for other companies including Earthlink, the American Cancer Society and AIG.

Tim Crawford is ranked as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Chief Information Technology Officers (#4), Top 100 Most Social CIOs (#7), Top 20 People Most Retweeted by IT Leaders (#5) and Top 100 Cloud Experts and Influencers. Tim is a strategic CIO & advisor that works with large global enterprise organizations across many industries including financial services, healthcare, major airlines and high-tech.


This transcript was lightly edited.

Role of the CIO in customer experience

Michael Krigsman: How should chief information officers think about and relate to customer experience? That's our topic today on CXOTalk. Jay Ferro, CIO of Quikrete.

Jay Ferro: I've been at Quikrete for a little over two years. As you know, Michael, I am wrapping up. I've wrapped up at Quikrete, and I am the incoming CIO at a company that I can name in the next week or two.

I was able to find my successor at Quikrete, which was very exciting. I was very fortunate to have been there as long as I have.

I think most people know us for the big yellow bag or know them for the big yellow bag of concrete, but they do so much more, and one of the largest building materials companies in the country in North and South America.

Yeah, onto other things.

Michael Krigsman: Tim Crawford is one of the most influential CIO advisors. Tim, tell us about your work.

Tim Crawford: My work has been leading IT organizations, similar to Jay, for the bulk of my career. Of late, I've been spending more of my time as more of a CIO at large, advising fellow CIOs and learning from them, but also sharing my experience and trying to share the knowledge as much as I can and give back to the community.

Michael Krigsman: Now, a quick thank you to Productiv, a SaaS management platform that unlocks the power hidden in your SaaS applications to bring you higher ROI, better team collaboration, and lower license costs.

What do we mean by customer experience? Why should CIOs even care? Who wants to begin?

Tim Crawford: If we look back a little bit—and I know, Michael, you and I have talked a lot about the difference between the traditional and transformational CIO—the traditional CIO was quite often focused on operational efficiency. But the transformational CIO is now also looking at things like revenue growth and customer experience. The reason why that's important for businesses today and has been (not just in 2020, but even before) is that customer experience is what ultimately leads to your success or failure within your organization.

As you think about customer experience, you then go to data. You go to technology. You think about how customers are engaging with your company. It's no longer just person-to-person interaction. You have to look at how technology plays a central role. Hence, why customer experience and the CIO really kind of come hand-in-hand.

Jay Ferro: Agreed 100%. Customer experience is king. If you don't care about it, then what do you care about? I cannot imagine a CIO in 2020, not caring about customer experience.

Your role as a company, as a company executive, is to play a huge part in attracting and retaining your customers and making sure they're delighted with what your company is doing so that they don't leave you. I think the CIO, today more than ever, is at the forefront of making that happen.

The digital experience, the customer experience that we see every day with apps and other technologies, the CIO needs to have a hand (and does, in most cases, have a hand) in that. If you are an aspiring CIO or are a CIO, customer experience better be at the top of your priority list.

Michael Krigsman: Should the CIO be inward-facing, which is to say dealing with the systems of the company, of the organization because that is the job? When you talk about customer experience, isn't that fundamentally an outward-facing role? How do you reconcile these two?

Jay Ferro: You have to do both. I know Tim thinks this way. To me, it's a privilege to be able to do both.

Quite frankly, the customer experience focuses  on your external customers, you should have an equal focus on your internal customers. I want my employees to be delighted . There's this whole work track about employee experience. I want them as delighted with IT as I want our external customers.

To me, it's not either/or. It is both.

Tim Crawford: I know there are other CIOs out there that understand this, but it's not widely understood, interestingly enough – the importance of looking at the employee, looking at making them happy.

I have this conversation with the fellow CIO of ours, Colleen Berube (who is the CIO at Zendesk) all the time, trying to figure out ways to ensure that the employees are well suited and have the information, technology, and tools that they need because, ultimately, that is how you're going to be engaging with your customers. There's a digital component that they engage with, but then there's also an employee component.

There are some studies that have been done that show that if you have happy employees, well, guess what? That's going to translate into better customer experiences.

The role of the CIO is both inwardly facing but also externally facing. We have to think about that outside-in perspective, too, of what the  customer sees.

For example, if you look at the traditional approach – and I use three pillars to that approach, which are marketing, sales, and support – historically, those are three different organizations with three different mantras and focus. Tim Crawford comes in, and Tim Crawford is Tim Crawford to marketing, but that's a different Tim Crawford when he gets over to sales. That's yet a different Tim Crawford when he gets to support. Oh, and then there might be a fourth organization who doesn't even know who Tim Crawford is.

Yet I look at Acme Corporation, or whatever the company is, as one entity, and so we have to find ways to focus on that customer-facing perspective and bring that to the forefront. IT and the CIO is one of the few orgs that sees across the whole organization and can think about technology, data, and that customer journey.

Jay Ferro: The notion of this customer 360 – and I think we've all tackled it a couple of times in our careers, and I know Tim, and I have talked about this – the notion of one Tim Crawford. I know all of Tim's interactions with my organization, what his infinities are and, more importantly, how I can delight him and make sure that he remains a customer, a loyal customer of Acme Inc. versus when I was at the American Cancer Society. We found out that we were too fragmented.

There was Jay, the patient, Jay the caregiver, Jay the volunteer, Jay the donor—whatever it was—the relay team captain, but there were seven or eight Jays. Really, to Jay, there was only one American Cancer Society, so why can't you see me as this one thing? So, it's critical.

I would argue that it's just as important to take your employees, though, the same thing. I mean Tim nailed it. Happy employees equal happy customers – most of the time.

I remember watching, at a few different companies, employees service our customers whether it was an inbound call, chat. They were flipping through 27 different applications in order to get to one or two pieces of salient information. You have got to make it easy for your employees to service your customers.

I've got people to copy and paste  into Notepad so that they search for some  other ancient legacy application just to answer a very simple question for a customer. I sat there after the call, and I said, "You are a miracle worker because that customer never knew that you were doing all this."

She goes, "It's what we do every day."

I'm like, "I am making it one of my priorities to fix that for you because that is ridiculous."

Top priorities for Chief Information Officers in 2021

Michael Krigsman: On Twitter, Steve Sarsfield makes a very interesting point. He wants to focus now. He wants to go back to the basics, and he asks this question, "Well, aren't there three things a CIO strategy needs to focus on? Number one, revenue and customer experience. Number two, operational efficiency. Then number three, compliance and regulations."

Tim Crawford: You know I think he's right. Regulatory and compliance comes back to risk. I do think that's something that you have to contend with. It's not that you can just look at customer experience in a vacuum. All of these work together.

Jay Ferro: That's right.

Tim Crawford: I often talk about how there's the customer journey, the employee journey, and then operations that sit  in the middle. Operations are what becomes that connective tissue and risk plays a very critical role in that.

It is a balancing act that you have to consider as you go down each of those respective journeys, but yeah, compliance, regulatory, and it's going to vary. For anyone organization, I find that you're going to have any given number of regulatory requirements or compliance requirements that you're going to have to contend with.

That just might be for that particular geography or that particular country. Then you go to another country, and especially if you're a global concern, it changes.

How do you start to manage that from a data and process, and architect perspective when you're trying to bring your teams together? It's complicated, but it's a necessity.

Jay Ferro: I agree, Tim. These are all interwoven. Never do we talk about them and say, well, it's customer experience only or only regulatory or only operations.

Look. It's a big role, being a CIO or a senior executive in a company. You've got to do it all. To Tim's point, the weighting may be different day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, but you're on the hook for all of it.

Michael Krigsman: Isaac Sacolick makes the point that the CIO needs to be business-facing. He puts it all under that umbrella as opposed to internal-facing, external-facing, so representative of the business.

Jay Ferro: Yeah. I mean as long as you're defining the business, I think that's fine. I think the business is customer-facing, employee-facing, regulatory-facing, and so I think it's an umbrella term for all of what we've been saying. I think @nyike—and I'm the only person that calls him by his Twitter handle—is spot on.

Tim Crawford: As Jay said, it is important to think about IT as part of the business, not as separate from the business. When you think of it all-inclusive and start putting together that business context as your driver, as the way you answer the question why and what we should  be doing, using that business context is incredibly important.

For example, I was having a conversation earlier today with someone. We were talking about digital transformation, as an example, as a way to modernize some of these monolithic systems that Jay mentioned that folks are having to deal with when they engage with customers. I said digital transformation, in its own right, is kind of dead on arrival because it misses that business context.

Now, if you have the business context, which then takes into account how customers are engaging with your company – again, don't look at this as a point in time. Look at how this is evolving over time – then you start to understand, okay, back it up, how technology needs to evolve, how my processes need to evolve, what tools, technologies, and changes do I need to make for my employees accordingly to make them more successful.

 Ultimately, remove the friction. Remove the friction from the process for both customers and employees. That goes a long way toward upping your customer experience quotient.

Jay Ferro: If we personalize the way we approach customer experience every day, in other words, if you think about your daily life and the companies that you like to do business with, the places that you constantly frequent , generally, it's because you get a great customer experience or a very high-quality product. Ideally, both, right?

You're getting this high-quality product that you find value in, and you're getting a terrific customer experience because they probably know you. They recognize you. They thank you. To Tim's point, they provided this frictionless experience.

CIOs have to be providing that to their customers and their organizations. To me, that's always a North Star. You're never going to get it all the time and get it right all the time, but that's a lens through which you need to be looking at things.

Michael Krigsman: How does a CIO go about embracing this external, even revenue-focused set of goals and objectives while maintaining all of the internal systems operations and so forth?

Jay Ferro: You've got to make time. You challenge your team and yourself to get out there and listen to your customers and eat your own cooking.

One of the ways I did it at the American Cancer Society – Relay for Life is their largest fundraiser. At the time, there were 5,000 events in 24 countries. Millions of volunteers – I said, well, what is our IT relay team generating? It was peanuts. I said that was ridiculous. We're going to become one of the largest teams in the country. We're going to raise money, put our month where our mouth is, and use all the digital tools that we provide our volunteers.

We started. We created this team, did all this other stuff, and I was like, no wonder. This is awful.

Tim Crawford: Yeah.

Jay Ferro: It immediately spawned mobile apps and quicker access to data, do it yourself fundraising, and all of these other initiatives that we came up with over the five years I was there. It came with listening to volunteers, listening to donors. I think any CIO can do that, but you have to prioritize it.

Get out there. Eat your own cooking. Talk to your customers. Listen and learn. You're not just going out to take a to-do list but listen.

You're going to understand and identify common themes very, very quickly that you can bring back and make that an ongoing dialog, not a one-time, "Hey, remember I talked to them five years ago." You've got to do it regularly  and get your team involved in that as well.

Tim Crawford: Just to take it further, I would say, when is the last time that you, as an IT leader, were sitting down with customers regularly ? A lot of CIOs don't, amazingly, or they rely on reports or feedback from marketing, sales, or other organizations. I think you have to get out there and do that.

The other thing that you can do from a tactical standpoint—and I know it isn't sexy, I know it's cumbersome to do—is sit on the helpdesk. Sit on the helpdesk and listen to those calls.

Quite frankly, if you spend a couple of days on the help desk, you will get an earful of where that friction resides. You'll start to understand. Jay, you mentioned it earlier. You'll start to understand where the problems are within your organization, where that friction is, and what's creating the friction. But you'll also start to understand what you're hearing from customers.

I can remember sitting down with a CIO. It was a healthcare organization that does in-home healthcare products. He was telling me about the experiences that he had when he'd go out on ride-alongs with their sales team and with their operations team to visit with patients. They would do in-home healthcare.

He said it was great. The only challenge was when you'd end up with a dialysis patient because you'd be sitting there for several hours with one particular customer. He said, "I learned so much about what works and what doesn't work and what I can do to make a change and make a difference for both my staff," meaning the employees, not the IT staff, but the employees on the whole, "as well as what the customer ultimately sees." That made a huge, huge difference.

I would say, listen first before you speak. Seek to understand. Then look to take action. Not the other way around.

Jay Ferro: I agree. One of the things I did—which, Michael, going back to your initial point—in practical terms is you have to empower your team to address these points of friction. Don't make it so hard that when they see these problems, they're like, "Well, now I've got to propose it and run it up the food chain. It's got to go through some onerous prioritization process."

Give your staff the ability to tackle some of these quick wins to eliminate pain points and friction. We put in a whole Quick Win program at ACS, at Earthlink, and at a few other companies where we gave people the autonomy. Obviously, it was in part of a structure, it was communicated, and that kind of thing, so we all knew what we were doing.

We empowered our employees to go out there and remove these points of friction, and they loved it. They loved their ability to take action and lead these little micro-projects on their own. It gave them a terrific experience and a sense of satisfaction, so make it easy for your staff to solve some of these pain points.

EQ and Emotional intelligence for the modern CIO

Michael Krigsman: When we talk about the practical dimensions of this, is there an IT operating model aspect that enables the CIO to have the freedom to make it happen? Is there a cultural dimension? What are the environmental factors that need to come into play?

Tim Crawford: Yes, and I think, in addition to cultural, organizational, process, you have to also lead with that perspective. You have to show an example for the rest of your staff and the rest of the broader organization that IT is stepping up to the plate and trying to make a difference. Especially in this day and age when technology is the root of everything we do, there isn't an organization that technology doesn't touch in some way, shape or form.

I think the first step is having that forethought and that vision that again aligns back to what you stand for as a culture, what you stand for as a company. What you ultimately want is the outcome for your customers. Then working backward to understand, okay, how do we need to organize? How do I need to have conversations with each of my staff and each of my teams? How do I need to change our culture within IT?

You can start small and grow from there. I don't think this necessarily requires a big bang approach. There are top-down requirements, though. You need to have that cohesive support, and that does rely on relationships.

Quite frankly, most folks in IT leadership roles today should have those relationships already, and now is the time to lean on those and step up to the plate. Start to understand how you can make a difference for the broader organization. Again, culturally, organizationally, the relationships.

The most junior person in your organization should be as well versed on what you stand for, why you're doing it, and why you're there as the most senior person. This is not a top tier only response. The entire organization needs to sing from the same hymnbook.

Jay Ferro: Agreed. I think that was all very well said. Culture does play a part. Org structure plays a role.

But to me, I have yet to be in a company, even where IT had been traditionally viewed as a back-office function or whatever, where when you start to stack up wins, when you start to eliminate friction for the organization, you start to restore faith in IT where that CIO doesn't have a voice, where I as an IT leader didn't have a voice.

It's like, well, wait a minute. Maybe we didn't know what good looked like before.

Tim Crawford: That's right.

Jay Ferro: Maybe Tim does know what he's talking about because life has gotten a whole lot easier. Systems don't go down nearly as much. The helpdesk is doing a much better job. Our customers are happier. The products are higher quality. Maybe we ought to listen.

It's like being in sports. Winning cures all ills. Everybody complains and moans. When a team starts winning, man, they're the toast of the town, so get in there.

 You've got to make sure the trains are running on time and make sure your staff is taking care of those pain points. Build on those successes and things should loosen up.

Tim Crawford: Yeah. You know, Jay, that's a great point. The trains do have to run on time. If you aren't running your trains on time, the rest won't matter because people will not be focused on anything other than the base brass tacks. I think, first and foremost, you have to make sure that the trains are running on time before you can even move on to the other pieces.

What that means for a lot of organizations is they have to get a heck of a lot more efficient than they are today. They have to get a lot more proactive than what they are today. There are a lot of IT orgs – candidly, some of the orgs that I've stepped into in the past – that have been very reactive just because the amount of work to be done is just overwhelming with the resources that you have.

You have to figure out how to clear space and clearing space means clearing headspace so that you can start to think about some of these problems and figure out how to address it, not just for you as the IT leader but for your entire organization. As Jay said, when you start having some of those successes, they will breed more successes. They will start to change the culture, broadly, beyond IT.

Michael Krigsman: What are the appropriate skills for a modern CIO?

Jay Ferro: None of it revolves around technology, right? I shouldn't say any  of it. You need to understand your domain and all of those things.

To me, the most successful CIOs that I learned from and that I see, folks like Tim, are emotionally intelligent. They're resilient. They're collaborators. They're convenors. They're great listeners. They're accessible. They're authentic. All of those things and all of these are leadership qualities.

These are business leader and human leader qualities that you want. Oh, by the way, they also happen to be good at their respective technologies. Give me somebody who is good at those and is hungry and has intellectual curiosity. They can make up the rest.

To me, those are the leadership capabilities that I look for in my senior team. When I think about who is going to be my successor, it's not, well, this guy has 25 years of being an XYZ developer. That's nice, but I'm more interested in the softer skills that she or he has.

Tim Crawford: Yeah, the EQ versus the IQ.

Jay Ferro: Of course.

Jay Ferro: I will add a couple of more to that list. Empathy is one of them, and humility is another one.

This is something that I think, for folks that have been in IT for a long time or have come up through the rank and file in IT, it's really hard to think about how humility comes into play because people see that as a sign of weakness or have seen it as a sign of weakness. Frankly, I think it's a strength.

It is a strength because it shows that you're human, you understand that nobody is perfect, but you know what? If we make a mistake, we're going to learn from it, we're going to do better, and this isn't going to happen again.

That's the pattern that you need to start exemplifying. You need to be a business leader first that happens to have responsibility for technology.

I know I've said that ad nauseum for years, but what it kind of communicates or telegraphs is that it's important to understand the business and understand the nature of what you're doing as a company and how your customers engage with you, first and foremost. That does require a different set of leadership skills before you get to technology.

I don't want to undercut technology or IT but, in some ways, it's almost to say, "Look. I'm a business leader first, and I happen to have responsibility for this organization called IT." But as Jay said, you must know kind of the brass tacks of the technology as well. You can't just come in blindly to technology. They have to come together.

How to hire a great CIO?

Michael Krigsman: Jay, you're hiring a CIO. Do you go for the person with great technical skills, I mean just great technical skills? Do you go for the person who is an empathetic generalist? Remember, this is all brought about by the need for customer experience and to engage that way.

Jay Ferro: Well, ideally, I can get both, right? I'm always looking for the unicorn, Michael. You know that.

If I can't get that and I have to have it weighted toward one  or the other, I want the leader. I don't necessarily mean I have to have this dynamic field general who is super charismatic and all of these other things.

Tim nailed it. Authentic, empathetic, humble, all of these things; I want a true servant leader that's going to put themselves behind the team, and that's going to take it in the shorts.

I tell my team all the time. I say, "Look. We will always admit when the baby is ugly. But the thing we will follow up with is what we're going to do to clean that up and pretty up our baby." We're always going to admit when we screw up, so I want leaders who are very pragmatic that way who are going to come in, be very transparent, who also have a good command of what's going on in the industry.

You see a shift. I'd be interested, Michael and Tim, on your take. I see far less resumes, CIO resumes with CS degrees, and I see far more with MBAs, marketing, some specialty degrees in digital management or digital technologies or whatever.

I don't have a technical degree. I stumbled into it because it was a hobby for me. I was going to be a lawyer, for gosh sakes. I have a degree in political science, and I have an MBA.

I learned how to code as a kid. I learned how to build computers as a kid. It was always a hobby.

I needed a job after undergrad [laughter] to pay for food, and I fell in love with technology. I was like, well, wait a minute. People make money doing this? This is awesome.

I get to play with toys, code and do all these things. I didn't know people made money doing this. Duh. I fell in love with it and realized very quickly that I was better at maybe leading it than I was doing it.

That's what I look for. I don't want a clone of me. God knows that is the last thing I want. When I'm hiring a CIO, I want that empathetic servant leader that has a high motor and a bias for action.

Michael Krigsman: Tim, let me ask you a question. It sounds to me – correct me if I'm wrong – that Jay is looking to hire a nameless, faceless MBA who doesn't know how to get anything done because they don't understand the technology.

Jay Ferro: [Laughter]

Tim Crawford: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: Or did I miss something there?

Jay Ferro: That is provocative, Michael.

Tim Crawford: I don't think that works and I think we've seen the failure of that model in the past.

Like Jay, I started in technology, and I'm like, "Wow. This is kind of cool. This is fun. Wow, I can build a career out of it."

I do have a CS degree, undergrad degree, but I have an MBA in international business. The CS degree was kind of just a stepping stone for me. It wasn't what I was going for. I ultimately had my eye on the MBA.

The reason for that is because, even as a technology leader, you have to understand business. While I had a lot of experience at the time that I did my MBA in understanding how the global business worked—having travelled the world, having worked with large global entities—I needed to round out that experience. That was kind of the genesis behind it.

To your point, Michael, I absolutely would not take someone that is book smart and put them into this type of role, nor would I take someone that is a great business leader with no technology experience and put them in this role.

Jay Ferro: Right.

Tim Crawford: Years ago, we used to talk about how IT leaders and CIOs – CIO was becoming a new term at the time – how we could replace these "technology leaders" that knew nothing about business with just a regular business leader. Take your CMO, take your COO and stick them in this IT leadership role and they'll do better than your CIO.

What we found is that they failed. They failed miserably. The reason why is because, while they might have been a great business leader and maybe even a great generalist, technology is bloody complicated. If you don't know or at least have some basis to be able to connect the dots, you're going to really struggle and it'll be lucky if you can be successful.

I would say that, for a CIO, what I would hire for is someone that has those empathetic, has a high EQ, but has some IQ in technology to be able to bring to the table, too. It's the combination of the two that I don't think is necessarily a unicorn, but it is something that every IT leader should aspire to.

Jay Ferro: Agreed. I would say one other comment, though. Today's high school and college graduates are very different than we were, right? The curriculums are different.

I have two sons in college, one that's about to go to college. Their technology acumen compared to the way we were – again, the world has changed significantly in 30 years – their technology acumen, their fundamental knowledge (being digital natives versus digital immigrants) is far ahead of where I ever was.

They've all taken computer programming. They all know how to create a database. They've at least had exposure to SQL and all of these things.

Fundamentally, it's been woven into a lot of their curriculums, so even if they don't pursue a career in technology, they have at least been exposed. Look. I can count the number of technology classes that I had as a political science undergrad on zero hands, not one.

Tim Crawford: Yeah. There's another component that comes into this when you talk about digital literacy, and that is that I didn't grow up with a computer in my home, which may date me a little bit. The kids that are coming out of high school today and in college today they did, generally speaking.

They're in a generation that had a computer from infancy through to adulthood. You don't have to explain to these folks how to turn a computer on. I can remember writing manuals of how to turn your computer on, how to boot up your computer, that your CD tray was not a coffee holder.

Jay Ferro: [Laughter]

Tim Crawford: Or cupholder. People joke about it now, but those were real issues that you had to contend with.

The level of digital literacy today is much higher. What that means is that we can focus on things that are higher functioning rather than these more mundane aspects.

As Jay mentioned, like how his sons are getting exposed to technology at a most basic level, most of the folks that are business leaders today don't have that understanding. I think as we go through the generations, we'll see that rise more and more and, ultimately, it will get to the board level, which will be great because, by a large margin, board members are not technically literate. Not to any fault on their part, but they're just from a different generation.

There's a lot of work that we have to do, still, both within our company, how we engage with customers, but then – kind of to the earlier point that Steve made about risk and compliance – how we engage with our boards, too, and bring them along.

How to improve customer and employee experience?

Michael Krigsman: We have a very interesting question from Twitter, from Lisbeth Shaw, who runs the @CXOTalk social account. She says, "Can you talk about some practical tactics and projects that improve customer experience and employee experience and enable the CIO to participate?"

Jay Ferro: Tim talked about it earlier with listening to these phone calls and understanding all of the pain points. It goes back to the fundamentals of listening to your customers and eating your cooking and then doing something with that information.

Practically, what I mean is, CIOs  get out of your chair and talk to your customers. Now, today, right now, in the middle of a pandemic, that might be a Zoom call, Teams call, or something like that. But convene a roundtable.

Michael Krigsman: A special shoutout to all the folks who were watching online and who contributed questions. Before you go, please subscribe on YouTube and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website. We will send you excellent material. Thanks so much, everybody.

Published Date: Dec 04, 2020

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 681