CIO's move to chief customer officer role signals trend

CIO's move to chief customer officer role signals trend

If you follow conventional IT leadership thinking that views CIOs as purely responsible for back-office duties, you'd be inclined to view Equinix' promotion of CIO Brian Lillie to the role of chief customer officer as unusual.

But in today's ultra-competitive digital world, companies are recognizing that it makes sense to put the CIO on the front lines. A CIO with intimate knowledge of his or her company’s products and the ability to pitch them to peers is a potent weapon in the battle for customers.

"CIOs truly have a helicopter view of the organization,” says Lillie, who in his new role leads the data center service provider's new Global Customer Success organization. “If you have a view of the internal organization that services the customer and their journey, and you have a view as a customer of experiencing the journey and you're an executive who can speak tech and the business side... why wouldn't you want this person in that role?"

CIOs cozy up to customers

CIOs splitting duties between managing enterprise IT and customer relationships has become de rigueur at technology companies, where CIOs typically test products from their inception. CIOs, including Microsoft's Jim DuBois, VMware's Bask Iyer, Box' Paul Chapman and Okta's Mark Settle, help hone their companies’ products and market them to customers.

Lillie, who served as Equinix' CIO for eight years until his September promotion, has provisioned his fair share of applications and servers. He’s also hosted those systems in Equinix-branded metal cages and used the company's network services platform to access cloud services.

Working with Equinix CMO Sara Baack, Lillie also pitched his peers on the virtues of products such as Equinix Cloud Exchange, which enables companies to connect directly to cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft. Lillie, who also helped build the Equinix Cloud Exchange portal and API platform, the Equinix Customer Portal and the Equinix Marketplace Portal, has the experience to explain exactly how those products will work in enterprises.

The new role requires is a far more white-glove approach that provides personal attention. Lillie is "mapping" the journey for Equinix’ 8,000-plus customers, recommending appropriate services and modifying processes or IT systems to satisfy customers' business needs. If a customer recommends changes to a product, Lillie loops in Baack. "I make sure that that voice of the customer gets to Sara for inclusion in the product roadmap," Lillie says.

Lillie says he anticipates facing challenges such as when an Equinix business line and its customer are at odds over product functionality. “I’m going to have to get them to see that that’s not how the customer sees it,” Lillie says.

It’s a tech industry thing

Forrester Research analyst Sharyn Leaver says the practice of promoting CIOs to chief customer officers may accelerate in the tech industry, where it’s common for IT leaders to purchase products from dozens to hundreds of vendors.

However, it is less likely to become a trend in traditional companies where the CIO doesn’t interact with consumers. In nontech companies, heads of sales, service or marketing – executives who already has strong customer empathy -- are more likely to be appointed to chief customer roles.

“What you want in any industry is someone who has a high level of empathy and knowledge about the customer,” Leaver says. “In most other industries the CIO is not the one who’s got that.”

Lillie, who acquired this empathy by joining customer engagements, recently joined Baack to share best practices with executives from Equinix customer "The principles of how you map and instrument a customer journey with listening paths that you can combine into a common platform that you can draw insights from is precisely we're they're at. And they're way down the path."

Lillie also tapped Jeanne Bliss, who engineered customer experience transformations at companies such as Microsoft and AllState, to help him make customer experience services a strategic differentiator for Equinix.

Lillie's promotion comes at a pivotal time in the market. Equinix stands at the vanguard of the market for colocation services, in which companies rent data center space from providers to get their servers closer to cloud providers, which reduces data transfer costs.

Catalyst Paper CIO Paul Einarson, under pressure to cut costs following the acquisition of two paper mills, recently told that he has closed a data center and moved its servers and networking functionality to a colocation facility.

The market for colocation services will reach $55.31 billion through 2021, with a compound annual growth rate of 14.45 percent, according to Research and Markets.

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