IT leaders take charge of customer experience

Erin Howard, executive director of product, service, and experience design at Charles River Laboratories, admits she doesn’t get into all the scientific intricacies of the blood products her company supplies to its customers for their research needs.

But she and her team did understand what was working and, perhaps more importantly, what wasn’t working in the interactions that Charles River had with blood donors and its own business customers.

In fact, finding those pain points — where customer experiences need improvement — is squarely in her wheelhouse.

Howard joined Charles River, which provides products and services to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, government agencies, and academic institutions for their research and drug development efforts, in March 2021 as the first one in her role.

“I joined to bring design thinking and to reimagine how we work,” she says.

According to Howard, the company created the position, which reports to the CIO and is part of the global IT leadership team, to ensure that its digital products deliver the best customer experiences and to ensure those experiences help customers do their own jobs better.

“We’re hoping that digital transformation with its focus on customer experience will take one year off the drug-development lifecycle,” she says. “We want to be that impactful.”

Howard and her 14-member design team hunt for ways to do that. She subdivided her teams into groups assigned to different customer areas, with those groups working with the IT teams delivering customer-facing products, engaging in continuous discovery activities and scheduling regular meetings directly with customers to learn about their needs.

That’s all to understand the customer journey and create customer personas so the groups can help develop digital products that better meet customer needs.

Insights and customer experience improvements gleaned by one group are shared, thereby creating synergies where pain points within different customer journeys are similar, Howard explains. And her design team works with agile development teams to iterate, test, learn, and rapidly evolve customer experience features.

“It’s about enhancing the customer experience with a digital tool,” she says. “We’re talking about ease and speed. We can’t just digitalize our ways of work. We’re looking for ways to reimagine the solutions, honing in on pain points and finding a technology-enabled new process or new way of working with us.”

That’s what led her team to the blood donation process and its drive to fix how it was falling short.

“We found that the product donation experience was a great opportunity for really impactful customer experience change,” Howard says. “We were still making a lot of phone calls, finding people word of mouth, and we were calling in the same donor pool. But donors are now mobile and used to digital tools, so we weren’t really meeting the donors in the way they wanted to interact with us. We weren’t honed in on their needs.”

Her designers created customer personas to understand both the donors and the business customers, taking the insights gathered from that exercise to ideation sessions focused on how to reduce the time it took to identify, diversify, expand, and ultimately enroll the pool of blood donors in their collection process.

The designers then used those donor-side improvements to create customer experience improvements for the company’s business customers, who as a result of all this work see both a quicker delivery of blood products and more diversity within those products — two essential elements for the clients’ cell and gene therapy development.

After nine months of work, her team launched the new digital donor experience in October, reducing a process that took weeks to one that donors can do themselves in minutes via a new app.

CX: A central tenet to digital transformation

The idea of meeting customers “where they are” has became core to digital transformation success — a tenet that, in turn, has put more of the work of customer experience (CX) under the remit of IT as companies look to make good on the promise of digital transformation.

In fact, customer experience is now a priority for all enterprise executives. The 2022 Be Digital Research report from digital consulting firm West Monroe surveyed 700 C-suite executives and found that improved customer experience is No. 1 among the top three priorities for growth. (The other priorities were enhanced data capabilities and increased scalability through process improvement.) Executives also listed customer experience as one of their top 5 areas for “next big digital investments.”

Calvin Cheng, managing director of West Monroe’s Product Experience & Engineering Lab, defines CX as “the impression and perception customers have when they interact with a company and a brand.”

He says everyone within an organization is responsible for customer experience. Consider, for example, that a company trying to resolve a customer complaint about a missed or late shipment will need information from finance, supply chain, logistics, and others.

Yet CIOs, he notes, are the “executives at the table defining and delivering on the corporate customer experience strategy and enabling the technologies that brings it to life.”

“The CIO has a high level of responsibility to coordinate technologies that enable and ensure the privacy and security of those engagements,” Cheng says, adding that those enabling technologies include artificial intelligence and machine learning as well as automation such as robotic process automation (RPA).

Moreover, he says, CIOs must also know how to make those enabling technologies work across various touchpoints to ensure a seamless experience.

Despite its growing importance to enterprise success, CIO efforts to build CX capabilities within their IT shops and their ability to use those capabilities to transform their organization’s customer experiences have had mixed results.

The West Monroe survey found that 92% of organizations said they are effective at putting the customer at the center of everything; 93% said they’re effective at creating “fluid, connected experiences across digital and physical worlds”; and 75% are investing heavily in the customer experience. Yet only 37% of companies gave an “A” to their customer experience.

“There are still companies that are struggling to bring customer experiences to life,” Cheng says, noting that companies in the business-to-business space and those in the middle market tend to lag behind the largest companies and consumer-facing ones when it comes to maturing their CX disciplines.

CIO as owner of CX

As CIO of tech company Logitech, Massimo Rapparini has taken direct responsibility for customer experience: He took on the head of customer experience title and role about four years ago after serving as only CIO for about 18 months.

“The intent is to have a single person for experience. I’m not the only one who shapes experience, but we want someone to bring it all together, and knowing how technology drives experience is the driver behind using me [the CIO] in the role,” Rapparini explains.

He says having a single owner of CX has helped the company focus on creating consistently positive and seamless experiences at all touchpoints, rather than having siloes of great experiences.

And having that single owner be the CIO allows the company to create unified experiences throughout, he says, “because technology plays such an important role in how you stitch together all these different customer touchpoints in the journey.”

Furthermore, he says having one owner has brought companywide alignment to Logitech’s vision of what great CX should be. Rapparini says he and his team did that by developing a list of objectives (known as the “7 Es”) for designing experiences.

“Building on our company values, we are committed to delivering an experience based on the 7 Es to advocate for our customers: empathy, expectation setting, effortless, engaging, eliminating errors, equitable, and environmentally sustainable,” he says.

Rapparini also uses other commonly recognized CX best practices such as creating personas and customer journeys, having CX teams engage business groups and products teams, and following agile development methodologies with incremental delivery.

Rapparini credits this cohesive CX program for recent customer experience improvements and shaping planned CX innovations, such as using artificial intelligence to predict product failures before they happen and creating embedded self-healing capabilities.

CIO as conductor

Monica Caldas, deputy CIO for Liberty Mutual Insurance, is also looking ahead to determine how and where CX can better serve the company’s customers.

“When we start with our company’s purpose, ‘We exist to help people embrace today and confidently pursue tomorrow,’ you understand that the customer experience and helping our customers at their time of need is always in focus,” she says. “Specifically related to the customer experience, it is always important to us to provide products and services that deliver on our promise. Across the globe we have teams that are working on improving what we deliver, and we incorporate the customer journey perspective into our work when we are delivering technology capabilities.”

Liberty Mutual has been building such capabilities for more than a decade, when the customer advocacy team was first established.

“The team’s mandate is to serve as passionate customer advocates who work across the business to ensure that everything Liberty Mutual does begins with the customer in mind,” Caldas says. “The team ensures that customer-facing employees are empowered and equipped with the tools, training, processes, and support to consistently deliver an outstanding customer experience.”

Caldas points to one recent example to illustrate how all this work enables IT to deliver value to Liberty Mutual customers when they are most in need of service.

IT created a tool that uses AI, aerial imagery of an area before and after a catastrophic event, and weather data to identify damage to customers’ properties before policyholders even call in claims. “This enables our claims organization to be more responsive and deploy resources to those areas with customers most in need,” Caldas says.

Creating such impactful customer experiences by rallying resources should be the CIO’s goal, experts say.

“Customer experience is like a symphony orchestra. There are a lot of players. They need to be working together to create something beautiful. They have to be playing all together to deliver a great performance. In a similar manner, the elements across an organization have to work together in concert to deliver on customer experience expectations,” West Monroe’s Cheng says.

CIOs will become even more important in orchestrating those coordinated efforts moving into the future, as customer expectations continue to evolve and as they rely on emerging technologies such as digital payments and the metaverse.

“Customer experience continues to change and customer expectations of brands continue to increase,” Cheng adds. “Those companies that can make bold moves to make customer experience their competitive differentiator can have better business performance by increased customer acquisition, customer growth, and customer satisfaction. And those companies that can align their internal people, processes, and technology to adapt and meet those customer expectations will be the most successful.”

IT Leadership, IT Strategy