When Harnath Babu signed up as Aviva Life Insurance's CIO in mid-2011, he probably wasn't aware that he'd soon be standing at the center of a three-way intersection. Rushing at him in thick and fast from one side, were complaints from Aviva's internal users. Then, there was the increased pressure that the business put on his team as it saw new levels of competition. Finally, Aviva's end customers demanded that it keep up with a world dominated by mobile phones.

"When I joined, there was a lot of noise in the organization in terms of IT. By noise, I mean internal employees were not very happy with our services and how IT responded to their problems. My first focus was to change that situation. I had to build a rapport with the last mile guy," says Babu.

That last comment, almost an after thought, is what makes Babu special.

It's obvious that there was plenty of work on the boil when Babu joined Aviva 18 months ago. And in that sense, Babu is similar to many of his peers who have to deal with a greater number of project requests ever since the economy lost steam two years ago.

But, his decision to fix the problems of Aviva's customer-facing employees--the "last-mile guys"--first; to prioritize their needs above the melee of demands coming his way, puts him in a more rarefied field of his peers. In a 2011 survey CIO carried out, only a third of Indian IT leaders said that "external customer focus" was one of the leadership competencies that they thought their organizations needed the most.

"If you want to continue serving customers and ensuring that your organization moves forward, it should be mandatory for CIOs to spend at least 15-20 percent of their time talking to customers," says Babu. "It's critical for CIOs and IT teams to interface with customers."

It's hard to say whether Babu actually spends that much time with end customers; the average CIO spends much less, and at a recent CIO roundtable over 90 percent of Indian attendees vehemently disagreed with the need to interface directly with end customers. But, there's no denying that Babu ensures Aviva's IT team is focused on the external customer. One of the ways he does that is by creating a task force he calls the 'IT Connect' team. Their job is to get into the shoes of the folks who have the customer's ear--including Aviva's agents and customer representatives--and give Babu weekly reports of the various challenges they face. From that list he identifies the top five issues of the month.

The decision to create the 'IT Connect' team couldn't have been easy, since it needed to be carved out from his existing IT team. Babu's IT Connect team comprises four regional managers from four metros, who have other full-time responsibilities, and supporting staff, who are outsourced resources.

What works in Babu's favour is that his organization puts the customer at the center of things. Aviva has multiple ways of interacting with end customers and its agents. It deals directly and indirectly with them using established methods. One of the primary channels it uses are customer satisfaction surveys, which is measured using the Net Promoter Score (NPS).

This ecosystem softens the resistance that many IT departments have with talking to customers on a prolonged basis. "CIOs talking to the outside world may not really be an exciting proposition. It is important to cultivate the culture within the organization. Subsequently, CIOs and IT teams will also talk to the customers," says Babu.

For other IT departments who want to create time to meet with customers, the lack of time and resources is a real-world challenge they will have to get around. It's even harder for CIOs who are constantly grappling to deal with IT budgets, vendor challenges, and resource crunches. "Every day," says Babu, "is a new fight."

For Babu, making time to focus on end-customers--and the people interfacing with them--means shaving time off other major activities, including architecting and finalizing solutions, talking to vendors, building relationships with business users, and doing team reviews.

His task force, he says, discovered some interesting trends. First, more end customers were demanding mobile solutions so that they could transact without being tied to a PC or a laptop. Another was that the company's agents were losing customer leads thanks to the way Aviva stored information.

Both discoveries had incredible bottom-line impacts.

"There were customers who complained to agents regarding the difficulty they found in logging online or talking to agents every time they wanted to know about a new plan or get the status of an existing policy. They were looking for mobile solutions," says Babu.

So that's what he gave them. Babu's team created mobile apps for various platforms which are already available in Apple's iStore, Blackberry apps store and Google Play, allowing customers to check how their funds are performing while on the move.

Babu also got his team to create a lead management solution that runs on smart­phones and more basic mobile phones. The idea he says was to stem the amount of leads the company's agents lost--leads Aviva paid for--because leads were allocated manually using Excel sheets and conversations were recorded on a notepad or Excel sheets.

"This system helps an agent maintain the lifecycle of a customer from lead to conversion," says Babu. It also ensures that a sales lead can be re-allocated--if any of Aviva's agents decide to leave the company--which increases both customer and agent satisfaction. In addition, it allows agents to carry e-brochures, instead of rummaging around for a hard copy, which helps them make a sale.

"We produced a result of 95 percent plus positive results for Voice of Customer (VOC) through the IT Connects program. Management was very happy. Also, when I joined I used to get between 400 and 450 mails a day regarding escalations. Today, I don't even get two," says Babu.

Getting Organized About KYC

Babu's IT Connect team is not a flash in the pan. It's not a one-time exercise to figure out what IT can do to keep the end customers happy.

That means there's a constant barrage of suggestions coming in.

There's a danger right there. Listening to every suggestion and trying to solve every problem could easily overwhelm a CIO and his team. It's one of the reasons CIOs, who are already over-burdened, try to avoid talking to customers.

"When you talk to a lot of customers or agents, you will inevitably gather a lot of feedback. It's important to have your antennas up constantly. Customers might expect a fancy solution from your company but you have to check how viable it is for the business. It is very critical not to fall into the 'fulfilment trap'," says Babu. "Devise a proper feedback collecting mechanism to record and analyse problems so that you can present your business case to management. It is also important that you do a proper cost benefit analysis before proposing a solution."

He also suggests that CIOs who send out IT staffers to collect customer feedback try to control the conversation. "With technical guys you can have some communication challenges. You have to structure the way the communication happens. Our team was provided with a preset questionnaire made by the solutioning team and they are supposed to stick to the script. I'd like to invest in technology which would automate customer connections and make the job easier for us."

Finally, he says, that it's also important for CIOs to slow down. "CIOs are known to be emotional. As a matter of fact, all technical guys are emotional, which is evident from the fact that they jump to a solution before even listening to a problem." says Babu. "It's important for CIOs to listen."