It’s time to clear the clutter. Remove obstacles. Or weed the garden, as Rick Davidson, interim CIO of AAA and CEO of Cimphoni, put it at the Fusion 2015 CEO-CIO Symposium.

The “weeds” are business rules, processes, and implementations that make it difficult for customers to consume or use products and services. “In the best case they’re an annoyance,” Davidson said. “In the worst case, they antagonize our customers.”

CIOs are in a unique position to advocate for improvements to customer experience and deliver with the back-end technologies that enable them, he told an audience of executives.

“I think it’s our turn to take leadership around weeding the garden,” he said.

Customer focus

One of the issues AAA is working on is the waiting period for new customers to get long-distance towing services.

“They don’t want to spend $200 on the tow and then have you cancel the service,” Davidson said. It’s a case where the business has a real reason for the policy but could benefit from being able to modify it to better serve customers. To be comfortable doing that, though, they need a way to better assess new customers for risk, so while it’s ultimately a business decision it’s also on the shoulders of IT.

For example, credit card companies do fraud detection behind the scenes using all manner of techniques that the average customer knows nothing about, because customers are not exposed to them up front when there isn’t a problem.

In other cases, companies may be letting internal organization or incentives, including digital, get in the way of their customers buying from them in the first place.

For example: one of Davidson’s friends wanted to buy a TV over the holidays, and Best Buy had one on sale for 40% off for online orders. He went to a local store to see if they would honor the discount there as well, but they refused. So he walked away, ordered using his iPhone, selected in-store pickup, walked back to the counter, and got his TV.

It may have boosted Best Buy’s online numbers, or maybe there was some departmental siloing going on, but what it didn’t do was provide a smooth customer experience. “Online” no longer means something completely separate from “bricks and mortar” because connectivity is everywhere.

“Are you exposing your customers to these kinds of things that don’t make any sense?” Davidson asked.

Alliances needed

CIOs may be well-placed with a view across the enterprise, but they can’t do it alone. Besides buy-in from their CEO, Davidson said it’s a good idea to partner with customer service, which deals with the consequences of “weeds” on a daily basis. All too often, there is only communication from customer service to the CIO when there’s a problem, he said, and “CIOs don’t usually ask.”

“You could also start at the other end at marketing, which is the promise,” he said.

Either way, a change that affects policies is going to be a business project with a technology component, not an IT project.

At some organizations, the CIO even shadows employees as they go about their work, using the very systems that IT manages (or not using them, as the case may be).

“You get to see the work as it’s unfolding, smoothly or otherwise,” said Brian Tennant, CIO of Agrace HospiceCare. Job shadowing is a regular part of how he learns about what’s needed in the organization, assesses the relative importance of different issues with processes.

Another benefit, Tennant said, is getting to see both the whole process IT department’s internal customers (the employees) and the people they are serving working together.

When you do that and then go back to the boardroom, Davidson remarked, “You’re not speaking in the abstract… it just moves you right up the credibility scale.”

And it’s those employees who actually create the customer experience. “It’s not the executive team that’s doing that, it’s the employees that are out there every day,” he said.

“Just like we don’t always allow the front line technology to work well, we also don’t allow the front line people to work well,” said Kay Plantes, principal of Plantes Company.

“People aren’t free to break the rules,” she said — including the rules that are there for the small percentage of troublesome cases.

Weeding out the processes or rules that are getting in the way isn’t about exposing the company to more problems or risks, Davidson said, but insulating the majority of honest customers from the complications or challenges involved.

“Sometimes we put these rules in place to protect the company [but] we shouldn’t put that right at the front,” he said. “If you assume your customer has nefarious motives… you’ve already defined the relationship.”