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5 ways to find and keep customer-focused IT pros

5 ways to find and keep customer-focused IT pros

The days of inward-facing tech teams are over.

In order to stay competitive in today's marketplace, IT organizations not only need to hire digitally focused employees such as data scientists, developers and innovation experts, they also need to evolve the mindset and structure of their IT groups. IT departments can do this by changing their old image of inward-facing order-takers to one of outward-focused collaborators who interact directly with internal and external customers.

This shift toward greater customer-centricity is a growing trend, according to the latest IDG Enterprise (CIO.com's parent company) Tech Poll. The survey found that 73 percent of CIOs believe IT is interacting more with external customers than two years ago and that 37 percent plan to focus IT spending on external customer interactions.

[Related: CIOs are refocusing their staffs on customer-centric IT ]

Here are five ways you can recruit and retain customer-focused IT players as well as change the mindset and skills of your existing workers to get closer to the customer-centric IT model:

1. Look for outside-the-box thinkers

IT departments often attract the classic technology type: introverts who are most comfortable delving into code at their desks. Although there is still a place for these types of workers, IT leaders need to bring in different personality types with diversified skill sets to expand and sharpen their group's customer focus.

One option is to bring in workers with industry experience who can take on business-focused IT roles. Raj Harapanahalli, director of North America application services at biotech company, Genentech, looks for senior people with business experience such as physicians, bioinformatics experts or scientists who could transition into roles within his IT group. Among people with those types of backgrounds, he said he looks for "attitude and passion to go after unsolved problems."

Another way to find people who will excel at working with customers is to get a sense of how they would solve a business problem with technology. Aaron Gette, CIO of Bay Clubs, a luxury fitness and country club company, said he cares less about titles and hot IT roles and more about intangible qualities. "I'm looking for nontraditional IT people. They like to talk to people, not just on social media, but actually socializing and being involved in initiatives," he said. "They need to be involved in member forums and understand what's working with our programs."

2. Provide opportunities to work with customers

Relationships between IT employees and their internal and external customers should involve more than filing a ticket and exchanging emails. CIOs need to foster deep, collaborative relationships between their IT departments and the customer bases they serve by having them meet face-to-face and work as equal partners on key projects.

[Related: How to find IT talent capable of being customer-focused ]

One way to accomplish this is through rotational programs. At Bay Clubs, Gette has his IT employees participate in the "manager on duty" program, where workers take turns serving as onsite managers at different club locations. Because workers are directly engaged with club members, it helps them think more granularly about how to solve business problems, such as whether members are being offered the right sales opportunities or whether the onsite technology is effective, he said.

"It forces them to learn the business and be engaged," he said. Afterwards, Gette gets a report of what they learned and sends it out to other business executives.

Another way to get your IT team to understand its customers better is to embed workers in different areas of the business, a practice Harapanahalli at Genentech has implemented. He has sent out IT employees to shadow sales reps in the field as part of the "Ride Along" program. He said the takeaways from programs like this will carry through to IT's meetings with other departments.

[Related: How Royal Caribbean personalized the customer experience ]

"How do we add value to our business partners' strategy, goals and objectives?" he said. "Our role is not sitting behind office cubicles but is moving to where the customers are."

3. Develop a process to hire customer-focused talent

To find the in-demand customer-centric IT workers, CIOs need to develop a consistent sourcing and hiring process, which sometimes can mean discarding the old method and rolling out a new one.

"The landscape of how companies can source talent is far more complex than ever before," said Diana Bersohn, managing director at Accenture and part of the company's IT strategy and transformation practice. Some companies, she said, are ending up with a haphazard mix of talent, such as contractors, strategic partners or offshore service providers, due to lack of governance around their sourcing and recruiting strategy.

To fix this, she suggests looking at the core capabilities your business needs to work better with customers. Then provide clarity around which competencies employees vs. outside partners should have to meet those needs. When you get to the interviewing stage, show candidates how roles are involved in innovation, offer opportunities to move to different positions within the company and show that you embrace people with a flexible mindset.

4. Strategically convey your company culture

Also, during the interview process, IT leaders should show how their company culture can help blended IT/business workers thrive. "The companies struggling the most are ones that aren't viewed as being innovative," Bersohn said. "They are perceived as being old and there's an image issue that needs to be addressed."

At Bay Clubs, Gette competes for talent with startups and vendors in the Bay Area. To stand out, he conveys the company's openness to learning and risk-taking and touts it as a startup culture inside a traditional business. "There's a lot of opportunity to come in here with the startup culture, be free and open, and have the ability to take risks," he said. "We won't be out of business next week either."

Harapanahalli uses storytelling at Genentech as a way to sell candidates on the company. For example, he talks about how the IT department positively impacts patients and physicians dealing with serious illnesses. "We're trying to tap into sharing those stories to motivate people and connect to the company mission. When that happens you see much better engagement and contribution."

5. Change IT's perception internally

The final piece of advice is to get internal customers and business partners to see your group as a strategic partner for them and a value-add for external customers.

To do this, choose your words carefully. For example, start referring to your internal customers as "partners" and stop calling the rest of your company "the business." Make sure you communicate the value of your work with both customer groups across the organization. Then, get a seat at the table at the right meetings with other departments.

Each of these five steps will gain respect for the IT department and will help employees inside and outside of your IT group buy into the more customer-centric model. Additionally, it could attract talent from other departments and boost morale of existing IT workers. Harapanahalli said the future is bright for the customer-centric IT organization if you can "figure out where you're adding value and get out of the way where you're not."

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