Seek to satisfy evolving customer needs

Our members’ high expectations of us evolve with outside influences.

I knew we needed to reposition ourselves to meet their new outlook for mobile access anytime.

AAA has an internal process, which we call the next best practice, for finding and sharing new ideas. As CIO, I look at emerging technologies and match them with potential business applications. The challenge for me as a business leader is to turn this examination outward, looking at opportunities from a consumer perspective.

As someone who loves to travel, I am of course familiar with wanting and expecting to be able to interact with companies online and through mobile devices. And leaders across AAA are aware that we have to adapt to that if we are going to move beyond being the travel adviser for Gen Y’s parents.

For our business, I know that walk-in locations and traditional websites have their place, but AAA clubs could offer our members more, with a new channel that connects the two through a bricks-to-clicks model. We have more than 3,500 travel agents and destination experts scattered across 1,100 locations. Members want to get in touch with those experts and their knowledge from wherever they are, whenever they have a question.

The idea that I pitched as a next best practice was to make all our local agents’ experience available anywhere, through any outlet. Looking at our offerings from an outside perspective, I realized that our customers appreciate our deep, trusted knowledge, but living in a connected world, they will expect more convenient access to it.

The idea, launching this month as iTravel Advisor from AAA, would provide this wealth of information and local expertise in a way that helps educate and entertain our customers, rather than forcing them to navigate the complexities of the Web. Whether they access our offerings online or through mobile devices or kiosks, travelers will be connected to the destination experts who can help them most with information, advice and a fully visualized travel experience.

Just knowing what you as a customer would want isn’t enough to provide the leadership focus needed to be a true business peer. To apply that perspective and focus to our business and marketplace—and generate more ideas like iTravel Advisor—I dedicated time to creating relationships with our customer-facing employees. You should take the time to hear and experience the everyday interactions of those people serving the customers. I have found it’s much easier to create this opportunity if you approach the business leads one-on-one and help them formulate new ideas around their business model.

The CIO role is changing, and some in the position are still attached to the idea that IT is a science. But the application of technology is an art, especially when it comes to working with others in an organization to create new value. To be successful as a customer-oriented IT leader, you have to be willing to stretch outside of your comfort zone.

One of the biggest challenges to creating this kind of widespread change to core, legacy operations is the barrier that employees put up. IT hasn’t traditionally gotten involved in customer interaction, and change management in this area requires CIOs to really get out there and sell their vision. You have to bring great passion to the initiative and share how much you personally believe in it every time you speak about it.

I found it helped to bring the iTravel Advisor to life visually. Before I started setting up in-depth conversations, I put together models of the possible new experience. For solutions like this that are all about improving interaction, it does help to be able to show what you mean instead of just saying it.

In the end, providing and selling a new customer experience is a team effort. You must build your IT organization to focus on customer needs and the solutions we can develop to provide greater value. To build this capability, get your people to live in that culture. Every meeting, every presentation, every casual conversation between IT staff or with other parts of the business should center on how we are helping create or improve the company’s customer services and products.

Once you’re pointed in that direction, take your ideas as far as they can go. AAA is a federated organization, so ideas from one club may not be adopted across all of them. But one day, the national club CEO was in the back of the room when I presented the iTravel Advisor concept to one club technology organization. He was so intrigued that he suggested bringing it to our national meeting. That was the watershed point for a new travel service model for AAA.

As the program rolls out, we are already talking about other potential enhancements. It is always possible to make the customer experience even more special and customized, and IT will continue to be a driver for that change. As CIO, you have to use every chance you are offered to have a bigger impact on your customers.

Brent Stahlheber is SVP and CIO of the Auto Club Group, AAA’s national organization, and a member of the CIO Executive Council.

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