Every enterprise would naturally say they listen to their customers and make strategic decisions accordingly, something referred to as a customer-activated enterprise. But what role does IT – a function traditionally focused on internal/employee productivity – play in this shift to customer centricity? Can the CIO have a direct impact on customer interactions and, as a result, revenue?

To answer those questions, we need to look at how a customer-activated enterprise is built. There is no shortage of technologies and software solutions that allow organizations to engage with customers at scale. But technology alone without market vision and effective execution isn’t much good. Two companies that illustrate how to leverage new technology for market advantage are Fannie Mae and True Value. These companies operate in very different verticals, but their respective CIOs are both embracing technology in new ways to better serve their customers.

At True Value, CIO Rosalee Hermens was given the mandate to help the enterprise scale, and relate better to tech-savvy customers, especially Millennials. In a 2016 article from Sync Magazine, she details the strategy:

“’One of the reasons I’m so excited about this is that if I look back ten years, IT was all about efficiency. And although we are focusing on efficiency still, it’s not to be cheaper. It’s to enable us to scale,’ she explains… ‘It matters to all of us who are in the retail space that we relate to young people and cultivate them as customers,’ Hermens says. ‘They are moving into the phase where they are renting apartments, buying houses, and starting to be do-it-yourselfers and fix things up. This is the moment we want to engage with them so they become loyal customers of True Value.’”

When Bruce Lee became CIO at the giant mortgage lender Fannie Mae, he spent most of his time dealing with the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and the need to implement new regulations. As he explained in a Q&A with InfoWorld, that has now changed and he’s been able to focus more on innovations to better serve their lending customers:

“We’ve had a lot of change in this industry, whether regulation-driven or customer-driven, and we’re anticipating change into the future. One of the things we’re doing is moving to a more agile way of working — with more devops, with more in partnership with other people in the industry — so that the pace of change can go faster. At the heart of that you still want good data standards and so on if you’re going to really make the experience for the customer better. That’s where we’re focused at the moment: The standards help the process work better.”

Lee’s focus on partnerships within his industry is an important strategy. Research has shown that innovation happens when diverse perspectives come together. Sometimes CIOs can get this from their direct reports, but in some cases, an external, peer viewpoint is most valuable. If you don’t already have a peer group to leverage, consider starting a virtual advisory board with your connections.

In addition to the strong CIO leadership shown in these examples, another way for B2B companies to become customer-activated is to establish customer advisory boards. Near real-time customer feedback can be shared with as many employees as possible, delivering a constant stream of actionable customer intelligence.

Keeping up a consistent cadence of such meetings in-person would be a logistical nightmare and would require significant time commitments from participants. By making these interactions virtual, you remove those barriers for participants. Adding visual interaction through video conferencing improves trust and strengthens participants’ connection to one another.

For innovative CIOs looking to beta test new ideas, applying a similar structure to build a customer virtual advisory board can be an effective way to overcome constraints and deliver great benefits such as:

  • Increased customer participation, even on shorter notice – when customers can attend virtually, it minimizes time out of the office and the lead time required to garner their attendance.
  • Improved content delivery – enterprise subject matter experts can join the meeting regardless of where they work, making it easier to pull in diverse experts while reducing travel costs.
  • Wider impact of feedback – customer advisory council meetings can be recorded and distributed internally.
  • Cost/resource savings – with no physical space to secure, travel plans to book, catering to coordinate, etc. there is a significant reduction (if not elimination) of the costs associated with an in-person, hosted meeting.

Enterprise IT isn’t just about keeping internal employees efficient and productive anymore. CIOs now have the opportunity to apply their technology prowess to help build a more customer-activated enterprise. IT leaders in companies like Fannie Mae and True Value are capitalizing on the opportunity to innovate and empower employees to engage with customers to ensure their needs are always clearly understood. With so much technology and software at our disposal, a partnership with an IT team willing to think beyond traditional IT responsibilities gives organizations the best chance of success.