5 CIOs on building a service-oriented IT culture

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the prevailing thinking among IT organizations was that what we deliver is more important than how we deliver it. Today’s most successful CIOs recognize that service missteps can make or break their team’s reputation. A culture of service excellence ensures that the IT organization is viewed and heard as a valued partner to the business.

What does it take to achieve IT service excellence? For starters, it helps to know what we’re talking about. Being service-oriented doesn’t mean being subservient. And a good service strategy isn’t about being all things to all people.

In a recent virtual roundtable discussion, five technology executives shared their experiences and best practices in building a service-oriented IT culture and workforce. Joining in the discussion were Brian Abrahamson, associate laboratory director and chief digital officer for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Renee Ghent, SVP of customer operations at HealthEdge; Karen Juday, former director of IT client support at UCLA and director of IT customer service at the University of Southern California, now a service excellence facilitator with Ouellette & Associates; Dr. Miloš Topić, VP of IT and chief digital officer at Grand Valley State University; and David Vidoni, VP of IT at Pegasystems.

What a service-oriented IT mindset looks like

While these CxOs represent diverse industries, their approaches to service have many common themes. Chief among them is shifting from an us-versus-them mentality about IT and the business to an attitude of “we.”

“I think we’ve done the IT industry a disservice by constantly referring to IT and the business, artificially creating this wedge,” says Pegasystems’ Vidoni. “We’re all in it for the same reasons — to deliver better outcomes to customers and make sure that our organizations are successful. So we have to change the mindset on both sides, and we need to be playing off of each other’s strengths to have a common goal.”

David Vidoni, VP of IT, Pegasystems


That’s a completely different perspective from the view that service is about taking orders and responding to requests. By contrast, PNNL’s Abrahamson says a service-oriented IT culture should help build a foundation of trust so that IT is viewed as an equal partner. And part of that comes from being able to speak the language of the business and proactively thinking about what would best serve the client.

“Service excellence really comes down to understanding the client’s needs and how we can we make them as productive as possible to quickly deliver their solutions,” says Vidoni.

Those clients could be internal or external, and in fact, there are many lessons from the external customer experience that IT organizations can and should be applying internally as well.

The secret sauce that we’re trying to capitalize on is bringing those consumer-grade experiences into the workplace,” Abrahamson says. “After all, we’re all consumers — and as consumers we’ve been conditioned to expect simple, easy experiences. Why should it be any different in the workplace?”

Brian Abrahamson, associate laboratory director and CDO, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

To make this experienced-focused mindset central to their service strategy, his team at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory follows a credo that emphasizes three major elements: bold, effortless, and personal.

Being bold means acting as thought leaders to bring big ideas forward or expand on others’ ideas. Effortless is “an obsessive focus on simplicity so we become the grease on everything we do, because top-notch scientists don’t come here to get caught up in bureaucratic processes,” he says.

The third aspect, personalization, is one that many technology executives are heavily focused on today, particularly now that we have the analytics and automation to make experiences more individualized. Service personalization is about making customers “feel like a human, not a number,” as Abrahamson says.

Executing on that principle requires IT professionals to be fully dialed in to mission and purpose. “It’s really easy to say, ‘I’m just writing code. I’m just processing an eligibility file,’” HealthEdge’s Ghent notes. “To humanize the experience, our engineers have to recognize that everything they do is making a better healthcare system for individuals.”

Renee Ghent, SVP of customer operations, HealthEdge


That’s what brings the emphasis back to impact. When IT professionals proactively look for ways to better serve and address client needs, they not only build up stronger connections with their business partners; they also tend to get brought in early on in the decision-making process — instead of at the last minute when they’re relegated to clean-up crew. 

While many technology teams still struggle to get invited to that first meeting, building trust through consistent service excellence can be the game-changer. Topić’s advice: “Find a way to be present, to lead, to move things forward, but not make it about yourself. Make it about that impact.”

Measuring what matters

Another reason it’s important to understand what service excellence really means is that it will help you measure the right things and ensure you’re getting a full picture of customer satisfaction and engagement.

“I think we fell into the trap of just focusing on metrics around responsiveness, how quickly we were resolving tickets, how many calls were abandoned, things like that,” Vidoni shares. “The problem with that is it was creating a watermelon effect, where everything looked green from the outside, but if you poked a bit deeper, you’d find pockets of red — the true level of satisfaction and engagement with the service.”

His team still looks at those metrics, but now they also look at more qualitative aspects of their services, such as how employees feel about the technology and how productive they are with it.

In Ghent’s organization, the qualitative data was already there, it just wasn’t being shared with her team. As a result, they were missing not just the comments about what needed to be improved but also the positive feedback and appreciation for what the team was doing to go above and beyond to get problems addressed.

“Now we get those results every quarter, and I sit down and review them with the entire team,” Ghent says. “We go through the negative comments, but we also get to celebrate the positive things our customers are saying about us. It didn’t cost us anything, and it has helped us reorient our team to having more purpose and pride in the work that they’re doing.”

Ouellette’s Juday, who completed her doctoral dissertation on improving customer satisfaction through IT service excellence, agrees that responsiveness is only the tip of the iceberg. In training for IT professionals, she uses The RATER Model, originally published in the book Delivering Quality Service, by Valarie Zeithaml, A. Parasuraman, and Leonard Berry:

Karen Juday, service excellence facilitator, Ouellette & Associates

Ouellette & Associates

Responsiveness: Delivering service in the time frame the customer expects — and letting people know where they are in the process.Assurance: Instilling trust in your customer that you have the skills to do the job. SLAs and guarantees are associated with assurance.Tangibles: Encompassing everything the customer touches or comes in contact with —  physical spaces, websites, communications, and anything else they interact with.Empathy: Showing care and understanding. Empathy isn’t enough on its own, but when done right, it’s a huge competitive advantage and differentiator.Reliability: What’s judged at the point of delivery. In addition to whether the system is performing as expected or advertised, this is about following through on your commitments.

If you’re not getting the full data to help you gauge progress and areas for improvement, Vidoni advises, “Reach out and work with those departments to cultivate champions who can help advocate on your behalf — to bubble up those comments and feedback that you may not be hearing. It’s important to build trust at that level as well.”

Building a service-oriented culture

Like any cultural effort, creating a service-oriented culture is a continual and multifaceted process, not a one-and-done event.

Abrahamson keeps the momentum strong through continual reinforcement and sharing real-world examples of what excellent service looks like. “We’ll tell credo stories on an all-staff call, talking about the act of making something effortless or the act of personalizing some part of what you do for a customer,” he says. “It’s about celebrating those accomplishments and making them very real. You need the entire organization thinking about how you simplify and personalize the experience, not just the management team.”

In addition to a supportive environment, Juday’s research emphasizes the role of leadership, particularly in terms of setting goals and rewarding service quality. Adds GVSU’s Topić, “You really have to model the behavior you want to see. I believe that everything begins and ends with those leadership positions. They make a huge difference.”

Dr. Miloš Topić, VP of IT and CDO, Grand Valley State University

Grand Valley State University

Topić points out that this isn’t just about the leaders at the top of the org chart; direct leaders play an outsize role in what the culture actually becomes.

“A friend of mine uses the acronym SIP: You have to be supportive, inspirational, and positive, even when you’re not feeling that way, because the real change is when you propagate it down across teams. If people get one message from me, but something else from their immediate supervisor, and then there’s somebody between us who’s not following that path all the way down and across, it causes fragmentation and confusion,” he says.

At an individual level, people have to be motivated to deliver on service excellence and understand what’s in it for them.

“That also goes back to the influence of leaders, who need to say, ‘This is important to us,’ and then they need to show it by rewarding service excellence,” Juday says.

Another important piece of motivation is feeling confident that you have the skills to deliver excellent service. Many IT professionals are keenly focused right now on developing their technical competencies but aren’t getting the training they need to become better at service delivery.

Increasingly, CIOs are recognizing that service and other “soft skills” training is core to IT success today, and every bit as critical as technical expertise. According to Juday, after participating in training on achieving service excellence using The RATER Model, her team’s customer response time improved from 4-5 days to 4-6 hours.

Vidoni’s team is also embarking on service excellence training, with an eye toward increasing their business value and impact. “We want to give the team the tools to feel more confident and comfortable to execute with consistency. I think this training will help reduce the friction with engagement, make it easier for teams to engage, make it a better experience for our stakeholders, and, ultimately, lead to better outcomes,” he says.

Making every interaction count

Research shows that it takes 12 positive customer experiences to earn back the trust lost to one negative experience. These are the moments of truth that can make or break a relationship and strengthen or erode the team’s credibility. Every touchpoint along the customer journey, whether big or small, counts. And just as often, as Abrahamson says, “It’s the small stuff that matters most.”

“We tell our folks, everybody sells,” says Ghent. “Every moment of every interaction with a customer, you are potentially selling a new line of business, a professional services contract, or something else. They are watching the experience that we provide to them.”

Mapping out those moments of truth across all of the different touchpoints customers have with your organization is tremendously valuable in gauging service levels and pinpointing where improvement is needed. Just don’t make it a theoretical experiment.

“Go experience them yourself,” Topić urges. “I will get a cup of coffee and go into one of our largest libraries and sit with my back to the service desk, pretend to be on the phone, and listen to the experiences. Listen to the calls. I will make a call myself and see what the experience is. I will walk through those labs and see what the experience is. How long is the wait? Why are students standing in this corner and no one’s greeting them? Live those experiences that will significantly influence the decisions you make.”

Getting started

These executives have generously provided a valuable window into the strategies, credos, leadership philosophies, tips, and tools they’ve applied to build and sustain a service-oriented IT culture and workforce. Now, it’s time to ask yourself:

How are my people showing up today?Have I connected them to our purpose and how we impact our end customer?What’s it like to do business with us?Are we paying attention to those moments that matter?Are we measuring those things that matter most to our different stakeholders?

Reach out to me if you would like to have a discussion around the “moments of truth,” The RATER Model, and how to build a world class service team.

This article is part of an ongoing roundtable series with CIOs sharing their best practices and leadership advice on a variety of strategic workforce and development topics. Previously, 7 CIOs discussed building a consultative IT culture. The next CIO roundtable will explore the topic of leading change.

Digital Transformation, IT Leadership