How To Become A Customer-Facing CIO - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
09:06 AM
Frank Smith
Frank Smith

How To Become A Customer-Facing CIO

Your title alone isn't enough to be successful in customer conversations. You must fully understand your company's products and services, and make sure you have something to contribute.

As a CIO, you're likely working within the confines, and you might even say restrictions, of the internal role of the traditional CIO: Developing technology strategy and IT initiatives for your own company. Sometimes it's administrative, sometimes cost containment, sometimes infrastructure, but it's always within the context of employee-facing challenges. This is especially true in the business-to-business arena.

Despite the speed of evolving technology opportunities and threats, this is standard fare -- just 23 percent of CIOs or VPs of IT consider meeting with customers among the three top things areas spend their time, according to the 2013 InformationWeek Global CIO survey. However, more CIOs, even outside technology vendors, are now rewriting their charters to focus more on external, customer-facing initiatives.

I can't say that there was one clear moment that personally broke me out of the standard notion of what the CIO is supposed to do. But over the course of my career, much of it spent in consulting, trends such as cloud technologies and managed services started to blur the lines between customer and vendor technology environments, and what had been back-office IT operations started to involve delivering services directly to customers. This blurring of the lines meant customers weren't just buying a product. They were getting into a relationship that needed to be fostered at the executive level. This shift is happening in many industries as technology becomes embedded in ever-more products and services.

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Nevertheless, history can work against CIOs trying to move into a more customer-facing role. Here are some of the hard steps I found I had to take in order to make this move at consulting companies including Booz Allen, Capgemini, Ernst & Young, and now at Aspect.

Break the stereotype
Sales sells the solution. Counsel negotiates the contract. Why do we need an IT leader here? Since management has, in many cases, pre-determined the role of the CIO, it creates an expectation that is typically limiting when compared to our actual capabilities. As a CIO, your insights can be valuable, but they will be heard only if you invite yourself to the party and prove you belong, because chances are no one will ask you to join. This requires personal initiative and persistence. Ask for a seat at the table and show other customer-facing teams your worth. They may believe at first that you are there only to satisfy your own ego, but by demonstrating your ability to work through problems and address technical questions that the sales team may be unable to answer, you will become a trusted advisor both internally and externally.

Case in point: Earlier in my career, a customer in the computer manufacturing industry was implementing an integrated ERP system. It was a project led by the manufacturing executives, so surprisingly, neither the customer nor the vendor's CIO was involved, resulting in a long and costly implementation that didn't meet enterprise-wide standards. Since an ERP project is usually a top-of-mind priority for the CIO, in hindsight it seems obvious that both CIOs should have had a seat at the table. This instance serves as a reminder that as a CIO, my input is valuable, but I can help only if it's offered.

Another time when I invited myself to the party, so to speak, things turned out very differently. I was CIO at a consulting firm. A customer in the pharmaceutical space was able to remove a significant amount of complexity from a complicated implementation because of CIO involvement from both sides. We were able to meet requirements in a heavily regulated industry because I could help our project team see the bigger business picture by getting them to focus on the customer CIO's business KPIs. Both CIOs were able to streamline information during the drug certification phase to cut 10 weeks out of the timeline.

Lean into the learning curve
We may be experts in our world of technology, but make no mistake, most of us have a lot to learn as we push into customer-facing opportunities. Because most CIO's job descriptions are heavily focused on the back office, the sales process and even our own companies' products and services may not be second nature to us. Even if we know our products, we may not know how to talk about them in the way that helps our sales teams sell. It takes time, due diligence, and practice to climb this learning curve. This might involve studying a broad range of customer implementations for key learning to offer to customer CIOs. It's critical to be confident in talking to your CIO peer on the other side of the table, and it requires knowing what you're representing.

This transition involves a broader shift in how you see your role as the CIO. It's not just being in a meeting with a customer, it's doing the preparation on your service or product and on the customer's challenges. It means contributing to customer-facing processes such as product design and partner collaboration. This can be difficult in an organization that's not used to CIO involvement in these areas.

Prepare for uncomfortable moments
There were situations in my previous roles where sales had oversold a solution and suggested it had capabilities that were not exactly accurate. Because I had become an expert on the technology, my counsel on how the solution would actually perform was sobering but necessary to prevent customer distrust and unhappiness later on. But in the process, we built a deeper sense of trust between the company I was with and the customer.

When the customer CIO is confident in your knowledge, they will look to you for guidance even beyond the implementation phase. I've experienced this first-hand. In an instance where I had a longstanding relationship with a customer CIO, the customer called me directly and we significantly cut the impact of a security issue short so we could implement effective measures within just a few hours. Together, we resolved the remote-access issues, but also got it independently certified, because I understood not only their problem, but what role our solutions played in solving it.

Make a contribution
The C in your title will get you only so far, so it's a mistake to assume that your title alone is enough for you to be successful in customer conversations. Make sure you have a contribution to make. We all resist blind calls from a vendor's sales organization when they are going to push a product or talk about pricing. However, a CIO-to-CIO conversation is helpful in understanding the issues and challenges of the customer organization. In my experience, it's very much welcomed by the customer. By inserting yourself into the conversation and knowing your company's products and services, you will elevate your firm's reputation from that of the average vendor to trusted partner, thereby creating mutual comfort and loyalty.

This bilateral trust is especially important in the big data era as regulatory requirements become more stringent across industries. Processes such as data capture and analytics, which fall under the expertise of the CIO, now steer the direction of product development, marketing, and the overall customer experience. They're allowing companies across industries to sell more services, offer better support, and create a measurable impact on the bottom line.

But big data also means that security gets more scrutiny by business customers and consumers. CIOs have a valuable contribution to make in discussing data and security issues with customers. Take the financial industry: In a case where a B-to-B financial firm offers services to customers who require data to inform trading decisions, the CIO can provide valuable input, not only on what data is important to aggregate, but also the best way to do so, because he or she understands both the industry and the technology. This allows the customer to make smarter investment decisions.

CIOs face barriers in becoming more customer-facing, but the leaders who can overcome them will be seen not as cost managers but as perpetuators of top-line growth. When this happens, and you begin to rewrite that CIO job description, be sure to include external consultant, customer counsel, and chief client information officer.

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/10/2014 | 5:36:11 PM
Re: What value?
Rob, I like your comment about getting out and talking to your firm's customers -- it can be the best part of the CIO's job! (
User Rank: Author
11/18/2013 | 2:32:49 PM
Re: What value?
Chris makes a good point. Credibiility is earned, not bestowed. You want the sales or marketing department to view you as a player? Then get to know those folks--have lunch with them, grab a beer with them, show them that you care about what thety do--and not just because you want to make sure they're not buying stuff under the IT radar. Show them that you know their basic challenges and want to learn even more. And as our Secret CIO, John McGreavy, has written: Ask them what a first-rate IT organization means to THEM. How do they define a strong IT organization?

But don't just meet with your internal customer-facing folks. Get out and talk with your company's customers. 
User Rank: Apprentice
11/18/2013 | 11:01:15 AM
Mixed messages
I think sometimes companies/management want it both ways. In areas such as insurance and banking, we often hear about the need to go outside of the industry & traditional functions to bring in "fresh blood" and a new perspective to the CIO role. Yet how often does the non-traditional hire thrive or succeed in the role? I know in financial services the results are mixed. I don't think this is always because the exec wasn't up to the job, but often boards/senior management say one thing that is politically correct and sounds good, but then expects something else from the CIO.
User Rank: Author
11/18/2013 | 9:44:15 AM
What value?
Mr. Smith's post raises a key question - what value does the CIO bring to a customer conversation? These are precious relationships that sales or account managers have built with their customers, and they aren't going to welcome IT leaders in just because it's good for the IT team. One approach is to start with just 1 or 2 sales leaders you have a good rapport with, and build out slowly. What else works and doesn't work to get IT leaders into customer meetings?
Alison Diana
Alison Diana,
User Rank: Moderator
11/18/2013 | 9:24:53 AM
CIOs should be proficient at marketing their departments, just as if they were representing an external IT services firm. As you write, that means knowing your own company's business needs, pain points, and opportunities, and recognizing how technology can improve or resolve those issues. It also means speaking to business leaders and employees -- because these days end-users can go out and buy their own cloud, mobile device, or app to find quick fixes (and longterm headaches). 
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