How to prepare IT people to be in front of customers: 5 strategies

Are you coaching your team members to shine in customer meetings? Try these proven approaches
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In the midst of digital transformation, more companies are putting IT leaders in front of customers in order to better understand their needs. Perhaps more importantly, these meetings help IT leaders articulate the “today and tomorrow” of the strategies designed to impact those customers and businesses. 

As a CIO, I’ve had opportunities to participate in a number of those customer meetings – I quite enjoy that aspect of the IT leadership role. But as CIO, I am one person. Your business needs service from many rising IT leaders. If you are in IT, it’s safe to say that it’s less a matter of if you will find yourself in front of your customers (i.e., on a call or visit with the sales team) and more a matter of when

[ For more lessons learned, see our related story, How Sonic Automotive CIO led transformation focused on customer experience. ]

Additionally, it is imperative that IT organizations keep current on the needs of their customers and anticipate the impact technology adoption will have within those organizations.  How can they do this? Well, for starters, they can spend more time with their customers. 

That’s exactly what I had in mind when I asked "Robert" to accompany me to a customer meeting to share our strategies for driving processes and capabilities closer to the customer. Robert was the ERP application development manager within the IT organization.  While the meeting ended well, it was not one of our finest moments. The IT presentation was very technical and lacked the business relevance needed for the audience. That customer outing provided rich learning content for us regarding prepping IT team members for customer interactions.

As CIO, how do you ensure that people in the IT organization (even in roles that traditionally have not been viewed as customer-facing or having “versatility in language”) are ready to engage effectively?  

Like anything else, it comes down to being prepared. In my organizations, we ‘ve been deliberate about anticipating the need to support revenue-generating functions by participating and sharing with our customers. In my experience, here are five things you can do to prepare your team to engage with customers more effectively.

1. Get feet on the street

As an IT associate, knowing the technical discipline is table stakes, but understanding the business you are in – and the business language spoken – is the differentiator.  The CIO can get feet on the street; get people outside those four walls and spending time out in the business learning the business. IT teams will be able to provide solutions and services that are relevant to the business, all while learning more about how it contributes to the business results.

While your team is out doing that, they are learning to speak as your customers do. As CIO, I encouraged this practice by adding a quarterly “Feet on the Street” goal to Robert’s performance review process. Getting this exposure provided the business acumen he needed to be effective. 

2. Invest in soft skills

Gone are the days when IT pros could spend their time simply sitting within the four walls of the IT organization. You need to broaden your set of soft skills and go beyond your boundaries. The CIO can create opportunities for IT team members to hone interpersonal and social skills that will serve them well when meeting with customers. Invest as much in soft skill training as in technical training.

As technologists, we tend to frown on spending dollars on soft skill training.  I say strike a good balance – and educate people on the benefits of social skills training. Often, IT members can't see the benefits of training beyond technical skills, so help them read between the lines.

[ See our related story: How to cultivate soft skills in your IT team. ]  

3. Start with the end

Hire the skill set that you need not just for today, but for tomorrow and beyond. If you take that approach, then you will hire team members who will flourish in front of customers. Hire for talent, not just for position. You can always teach technical skills, so take the time to look for talent with social skills – i.e., communication skills, listening power, and empathy.

[ How do you screen candidates for soft skills? Read 8 unusual IT interview questions and approaches: CIOs share. ]

4. Nurture a customer-focused culture 

Take a customer-centric approach to delivering technology and institute within the IT organization the value of thinking like customers about needs. This will start to build the culture of customer orientation – which will help build up the IT team’s acumen for customer interactions.

I fostered this by instilling a business capability focus at the onset of technology projects and starting with SMEs from other business functions and a few IT resources who understand our business, as opposed to beginning with the technology in mind. In addition, our internal IT discussions are purely about business value delivered rather than technology value delivered.

5. Embrace the learning curve

No one gets it all right the first time. Encourage the ideology that it is ok to try something and fail – you just get up and try again.  Engage with your sales teams for feedback regarding customer calls and meetings. An IT team member may not say all the right things during the first meeting, but the more meetings they attend, the more they will learn and the better organizational ambassadors they will become.   

As CIO, I advanced a culture of accountability instead of consequences, with the intent of demonstrating an atmosphere of learning and growing. On the return trip from our less-than-ideal customer meeting, Robert and I engaged in immediate feedback for analysis and remediation.

Don't wait to prep

There are many ways to raise your team’s awareness and get them ready to meet customers and add value to the discussion. I have seen the above strategies work well within organizations across a number of industries.

Regardless of the specific techniques you use, all IT organizations need to prepare today for opportunities to engage effectively with the customers who use their products and services.   I’m happy to report that Robert has, since that first customer learning session, been on several customer visits and is regularly called on to share the “What’s happening in IT” message from a customer perspective.  

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Onyeka Nchege
Onyeka Nchege is SVP, Chief Information Officer for Novant Health, a super-regional healthcare system with one of the largest medical groups in the US.