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In the Loop

In the Loop

Meeting with customers on a regular basis gives CIOs fresh ideas on how to improve customer service and justify new systems.

Reader ROI

  • Why customer contact ought to be a regular part of your routine
  • How customer outreach can help you improve systems for customer service and bring in new revenue
  • Why customer interaction gives you sound justification for technology spending

The sneaker sailed out of the sky, liberated from the foot of a thrill-seeking customer. It landed somewhere in the bushes beneath the Nemesis Inferno roller coaster at Thorpe Park, an amusement park just outside of London. Braving the brambles to retrieve the missing shoe was just part of a day's work for Chris Dare. In fact, in Dare's five years at the Tussauds Group (which runs 11 attractions on three continents, including the famous Madame Tussauds wax museums), he has dished out ice cream, picked up litter, loaded people on rides and manned the turnstiles during the morning rush. He's also pushed the expansion of a Fastrack system that reduces customer wait times and revamped the corporate Web site to make it easier for customers to buy advance tickets. For despite an innate ability to find fallen footwear and scoop ice cream, Dare's official title at Tussauds is group head of IT.

Dare is one of the relatively few IT execs who make it a point to interact with customers, an activity at the bottom of the priority list for most CIOs, according to a recent CIO survey. Yet Dare and other IT executives who make the time have found that rubbing shoulders with external customers yields enormous benefits. By opening a direct line of communication with customers, CIOs often get ideas for how to apply technology to improve service or cut costs - epiphanies they'd never have if they had stayed cooped up at corporate headquarters. They are also more adept at justifying technology investments because they can personally attest to how such investments will make life better for customers. And IT executives win points with top management when they pick up on things beyond the realm of IT that spark smarter ways of doing business.

"It's very easy to sit in the office and believe the end customer is the PC user in finance down the corridor," says Dare. "But actually, our real end customers are the people who come to our theme parks and city centre attractions." Whether they like it or not, CIOs are in the marketing business and they need to be out mixing it up with customers, asking about their problems and how IT can help solve them. As online services and service automation expand, marketing guru Regis McKenna predicts that the pressure on CIOs to understand what's going on with the external market will only increase.

"Unless you know how customers are using [IT systems and services], how they're applying them, you're not going to be able to design those systems," says McKenna, who is author of Total Access: Giving Customers What They Want in an Anytime, Anywhere World. "You have to know what customers want."

Toward that end, Dare carves out one day a month to work on the front lines at one of Tussauds Group's amusement parks or attractions, which also include Warwick Castle and the London Eye - a ride that looks like an overgrown Ferris wheel. John Hummel, senior vice president of IS and CIO of Sutter Health, a California-based non-profit network of hospitals and doctors, spends more than a third of his time with patients and clinicians. He attends community meetings, talks with patients' groups and goes on rounds with doctors - even scrubbing up to observe procedures in the operating room. Other IT executives spend at least a day a month in their company's stores or on the road with service technicians.

Here's a look at what CIOs are discovering on the front lines - and how they apply what they learn when they get back to the office.

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