Why the CIO-CMO relationship is crucial to post-pandemic success

As COVID-19 became a global concern earlier this year, it quickly became clear that life and business were about to undergo major shifts. Suddenly, as social distancing took hold, unemployment spiked, and buying habits changed—often radically. Companies large and small had to adapt their marketing, advertising, and operations strategies to match a new and completely different reality.

“The pandemic is a wake-up call,” says Peeyush Dubey, CMO at global technology consulting firm LTI. “Companies need to re-examine every stage of their acquire-grow-retain customer life cycle and think more digitally than ever before. The relationship between the CIO and the CMO has become more important than ever.”

A healthy approach

Digitally transforming a company is difficult enough in the best of times. However, in the era of the novel coronavirus, it’s nothing less than critical.

“COVID-19 alters how businesses view engagement across every touch point,” says Glen Hartman, head of Accenture Interactive, North America. At the same time, “the pandemic has served as an accelerant for digital transformation — and the need for relevant, personalized, and contextual experiences.”

While many CIOs and CMOs are better aligned than they have been traditionally, many haven’t established a formal framework for communication and collaboration, Dubey notes. And in many cases, IT systems and marketing technology investments weren’t in sync before the pandemic.

“The companies that will emerge stronger are the ones where the CIO and CMO take joint ownership of customer experience,” he says.

A starting point for the journey is to recognize that an organization must respect employees and customers — and deliver safety, convenience, and value to everyone. This means both CMOs and CIOs making a real attempt to jointly understand their preferences and needs.

Success hinges on the ability of an enterprise to apply data in the right way in order to identify current behavior and trends and match them with the right technologies and features, said Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, in a recent interview with Global Dialogues.

“Digital technology needs to be tailored to the right expectations,” he said. This requires constant dialogue between CMOs and CIOs about how to make the customer experience more relevant. “Every company thinking about their digital DNA has to pivot. They have to think about things from a consumer-centric perspective,” Narayen added.

CMOs and CIOs also must review all projects and establish priorities, together. The CMO – seen by 90 percent of business leaders as the internal advocate for customers, according to an Accenture survey – must communicate business needs to the CIO and other leaders, who can then determine what enterprise technology and tools are required.

“[CMOs] are capable of connecting different lines of business,” Hartman says. “They can ensure consumer needs are understood and met with innovative solutions.”

When CMOs and CIOs align on how to rethink customer interactions, innovation can flourish. For example, a growing number of retailers, including Best Buy, have now made it easy to order online and pick up the purchase curbside. Others have turned to improved online ordering, better shipping visibility, and contactless payment systems. Meanwhile, apps that make it easy to shop from home are proliferating, including augmented reality beauty mirrors and virtual tailors for ordering custom clothing. These major innovations don’t come about, at speed, without deep collaboration among the marketing and IT teams.

Michael Krigsman, an industry analyst and host of CXO Talk, says a broader and deeper understanding of how to apply technology has become essential. Part of the problem is that enterprise IT systems don’t necessarily align with today’s marketing requirements: They were never designed to take into account rapidly changing behavior and consumption models, which have been further accelerated by the pandemic, he says.

Bridging this gap requires every CMO-CIO discussion to start with customer experience and branch into tools, technologies, and approaches that support this notion, says David Clarke, global chief experience officer at PwC. This process can no longer take place in quarterly strategy meetings; it has to happen in real time and reflect today’s fast-changing environment.

“It’s important to recognize this is an existential crisis, and the starting point … is to focus on how to become more relevant as a business,” Clarke adds.

Finding creativity in crisis

The odds of business success greatly increase when CIOs and CMOs take joint ownership of the customer experience, Dubey says. A few crucial factors enter into this equation. First, there’s a need to display “creativity in crisis.” This means looking for new and different ways to handle things like customer ordering, product delivery, and support.

Second, channel mix, trust issues, and community responsibility must be elevated to every discussion point. As teams work remotely, IT systems must accommodate processes and workflows across the web, apps, and telephony. Finally, marketing analytics is an essential compass.

“Data and facts are often the best way to improve relationships and elevate a conversation to the organization level,” Dubey says.

While every business must find its own path through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, one thing is entirely clear: a customer-first framework is paramount. CMOs and CIOs must work together to ensure enterprise technology fully supports the needs of employees, who do the work to make certain customer demands are met.

“The CIO-CMO relationship has always been important,” Krigsman says. “But COVID-19 has led to a rapid and dramatic shift in the way people work, shop, and live … It’s a critical time to re-examine relationships, strategies, technologies, and investments.”