ashwin-ball-customer-successCustomer centricity has become top-of-mind for executives at most companies in recent years and for good reasons. Business leaders have come to recognize that it's not a company's products or services that are the primary sources of revenues and profits for companies but its customers. As a result, companies are focusing greater attention towards delivering better customer experiences in order to improve customer satisfaction, strengthen customer retention, and boost business performance.

As organizational leaders have become more involved in crafting customer strategies, CIOs are increasingly being called upon to assist with their expertise as to how people, processes, and technology can be blended together to help deliver seamless customer experiences. This helps explain why 36% of IT leaders are positioned as partners with the CEO and CMO in formulating customer-centric strategies, according to research conducted by Forrester Consulting that was commissioned by Windstream Enterprise.

To further explore the CIO's role in customer centricity, along with the value that CIOs can add to these endeavors, HMG Strategy recently caught up with Ashwin Ballal, Ph.D., CIO at Medallia, which is deeply rooted in the customer experience space.

HMG Strategy: Why is it so important for CIOs to embrace customer centricity?

Ashwin Ballal: We truly live in a different world today. The customer has become the center of everything we do. There is a maniacal focus on the customer like there has never been before.

Customer responsibility is not just the responsibility of the sales or marketing teams but for everyone in the company. Historically, IT teams have been focused more on user experiences inside the company. Now, IT organizations must be customer obsessed. There are many customers to focus on: the external customer, employees as internal customers, and business partners.

What are some ways in which CIOs can deliver value in helping the enterprise to improve the customer experience?

AB: CIOs and IT organizations have focused a lot on operational platforms such as ERP and financial systems, all of which provide transactional data. In the end, transactional data is useful but it doesn't tell you about the customer experience.

Today, with data and analytics, and with customers reaching the organization through various touchpoints, whether at a store, via mobile, online, social, etc., the CIO can aggregate these data assets to enable business leaders to gain a comprehensive view of the customer experience and how the customer is engaging with the brand.

Can you point to some of the customer experience initiatives you and your team have been involved in?

AB: Our focus at Medallia is to enable companies to capture and understand customer feedback from every touchpoint. We help companies anticipate customer needs and adapt their organizations to meet them. My team and I get the opportunity to work with our customers alongside our product team.

I have the opportunity to provide feedback on whether the user interface for our product is good, bad, or needs to be improved. I can advise on how to build effective SaaS integrations both within the company and for our product to work with our partners such as Salesforce and Adobe.

What are some of the business outcomes from these activities?

AB: In the past, customer experience was very fuzzy in terms of measuring and quantifying. My view - and many of the outcomes that we're focused on - is around the opportunities that were generated by the customer experience in terms of upsell, increased gross margin, better market share, etc. That's our top priority, and we're able to help our customers and their teams focus their efforts on the most impactful areas. 

Can you offer some recommendations for fellow CIOs on working closely with the CEO and other members of the executive team on customer experience strategies?

AB: I've been a very vocal advocate that the CIO has typically taken a back seat on strategic activities. I think the change that's occurring is that customer experience is now at the forefront of everything and it's time for the CIO and the IT organization to move from the back seat to the front seat and drive customer experience initiatives. 

My advice to CIOs is that the opportunity is ripe for us to move above and beyond. Everything revolves around systems and data.  

CIOs have spent a great deal of time on the user experience. The only issue with this that I have is that we are so internally focused that we need to step outside of our comfort zones and spend more time with sales, marketing, and product teams to better understand what customers are saying and what they're looking for outside of the organization.  

It's also an opportunity for IT organizations to forge into a new area for us to focus on. Companies such as Amazon are maniacally focused on the customer and they are having incredible success.

It's the next frontier for the CIO and IT organizations.