What do customers want? Technology professionals' crash courses in delivering better CX

Software designers' and developers' view of the customer world may still be too insulated.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Min Shin
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Is something called Conway's Law creating a chasm between what software professionals think their customers are experiencing and what their customers are actually experiencing? 

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As companies lean more heavily than ever on their IT teams to deliver superior customer experience (CX), IT professionals are under pressure to find ways to make things happen. 

This is perhaps their greatest challenge for the year ahead.

"Conway's Law suggests that products will reflect the organizational structures of the companies that build them," says Michael Bushong, group vice president, cloud-ready data center at Juniper Networks

"Teams build their components, and where they are forced to interface with other teams, the products will have interfaces. This has a profound impact on user experience, but most companies don't associate foundational things like corporate structure with end-user experience."

Again, there's an extreme urgency for IT teams to draw ever closer to their customers. A study conducted by Rackspace confirms that application-driven customer experience is a main strategic priority for executives (cited by 48%), ahead of IT security, compliance, and even IT strategy. At the same time, current IT activity tends to focus more on driving automation efficiencies (63%) and IoT and cloud native initiatives (51%), versus customer experience technology initiatives focused on real-time data analysis (44%), and customer engagement (30%).  

While both executives and their IT teams understand all too well that CX needs to be front and center of software design and development, this is easier said than done. "The desire is there, but the primary barriers we see are lack of knowledge and funding," says Matt Stoyka, CEO of NewRocket. "Many tech professionals lack the knowledge and skill to design a better experience. They want to work with specialists who can help, but often budget constraints prevent effective engagement."  

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Inherent in this direction of work is a need for agile design and development -- extremely agile. Half of respondents to the Rackspace CX study report that it can take weeks to gain consensus before implementing technology changes, like deploying new applications or launching a transformation project. Other respondents report that getting buy-in can take months (42%) or even a year or more (8%). 

"Integrating various customer touchpoints -- in-store, online, mobile, marketplaces -- is a massive undertaking that requires close collaboration between business and technology professionals," says Rajagopalan. "Decision-making is still siloed. Very few organizations have figured out a way to bridge the gap between business performance and business goals on the one side, and technology investments on the other."

For many technology professionals, gaining a full perspective on the customer experience their software is delivering can be an elusive thing. "In most cases, the people building the products are not using their own products on a day-to-day basis, which creates separation between the inferred customer experience and the actual end user experience," says Bushong. "This leaves gaps in what is wanted and what is delivered." 

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To get closer to what customers seek -- and what they're experiencing at their end of the software chain -- business and IT leaders need to open up communication to a much greater extent, bringing managers out of their offices and IT professionals out of their data centers. "Talk to customers to get a better perspective," says Stoyka. "We often make too many assumptions about the solution. Be clear about the operational and usability outcomes you seek. Illustrate the gap between the current state and those outcomes. This gap should be shown quantitatively as well as through customer stories."

Ultimately, "The most informed person in the room often wins out when hard decisions are to be made," says Radhakrishnan Rajagopalan, global head for technology services at LTIMindtree. "Technology professionals such as CIOs, IT leaders, developers and data managers should get to know the business side as much as they can, so that they can gain a perspective on meeting customer needs and challenges, and on areas of improvement. It would also be smart for technology leaders to meet directly with customers and get direct feedback to expand their knowledge of the business. Having these insights and knowledge will help them overcome inertia. Being armed with first-person perspectives on customers, and compelling data points on how certain customer needs are not being addressed, can help overcome resistance."

Understanding the customer experience means "shadowing customers," Bushong advises. "The adage 'walk a mile in my shoes' might be the most effective way to develop some empathy." The catch, he continues, is "the instrumentation of our systems makes this harder. While data allows you to draw tighter inferences, understanding data and a customer's experience are not always the same thing. We need data to get actionable insights, but we need to also spend time watching our customers interact with our products, which include our websites and documentation. When we rely solely on data we collect, we create separation, and separation is a silent killer. In the consumer space, the most successful brands interact with their customers. In technology? Not so much."  

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There are many so-called soft skills "that will help technology professionals expand their impact on the business," says Rajagopalan. "The most impactful skill for a technology professional is business process design. In many organizations, business processes are inefficient and broken. This slows down innovation and ultimately affects the quality of products and services. IT professionals can address this challenge by analyzing business processes and looking for areas of improvement. A good example of this is agile methodologies in software development. Cross-functional teams work together in shorter sprints, using continuous, incremental feedback and retrospectives to optimize features to meet customer needs. Agile methodologies, when executed effectively, can help an organization get products into market faster and more efficiently. The best of technologies and skills may not yield great results without the aforementioned considerations."   

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