A mobile strategy that puts customers first and employees in limbo

The consumerization of IT will change everything for certain employees, as a mobile strategy that puts customers first attests.

I was at CVS this morning buying toilet paper and checked out at the self-service register. No lipstick. Didn't bother to fix my hair. And certainly not thinking about mobile strategy. I was in and out of the automatic doors without exchanging a word with another soul. A CVS employee was nearby, ready to help, but no help was required for this transaction and there she hovered, like a ghost.

Apart from feeling a subliminal gratitude that buying toilet paper is less embarrassing than it was in the past, I take this type of transaction for granted now. In the blink of an eye, it's become routine for me and tons of other customers at countless other chains. But I couldn't help but wonder how long CVS will see the wisdom in keeping employees whose services are needed less and less every day. There was a time when there was a person in the elevator who got you to the upper floors by pressing buttons.

Of course, as CIOs know all too well, a similar trend is playing out in the enterprise as employees take more control over the technology and data they use to get their jobs done. But this consumerization of IT, as we call it in CIO circles, is just the beginning of the problem. These same apps being leveraged by employees are also being taken over by customers.

A case in point is the story of Phillip Easter, director of mobile apps at American Airlines, who has built terrific mobile apps for customers that are in essence the same application being used by AA frontline employees. The decision to open its systems to customers is at the heart of American's mobile strategy and is seen as an important differentiation from the competition, said Easter, who I met at the Enterprise 2.0 conference (E2.0) in Boston this week.

A CVS employee was nearby, ready to help, but no help was required for this transaction and there she hovered, like a ghost.

One of the issues the airline had to come to grips with as it pushed this mobile strategy was who should know what when. As an American Airlines Platinum frequent flyer in my household can attest, passengers with smartphones often discovered that their flight had changed even before the agent at the gate did.

"Now we have new mobile technology in the hands of the employees, so they get the information at the same time as the customer," Easter said. But the synchronization was not made lightly. There was "an interesting debate internally" over whether the employee should get the information "a little sooner" than the customer, he said.

"At the end of the day, we want to be as transparent as possible," Easter said. So now both customer and employee devices use applications with real-time data. Think about that! Customers are able to mine the same data space as employees, without a lag.

Customer comes first, but at what price to the employee?

When it comes to mobile strategy, the data mismatch between customers and employees is becoming a big deal for companies, said Scott Snyder, president and chief strategy officer at mobile solutions provider Mobiquity Inc., and an E2.0 panelist.

For starters, business-to-employee (B2E) apps are traditionally handled by IT, while business-to-customer (B2C) apps "live in marketing." With mobile apps, those two domains need to come together -- or risk the kind of mismatch his firm frequently sees. To wit: a kiosk plunked down in a retail store that allows customer to order directly from an iPad, coupled with store employees whose pay is based on in-store sales.

"You want employees to be ambassadors in the customer experience. You don't want this mismatch," Snyder said. The "ripple effects" of a mobile strategy must be taken into account. His firm, for example, recently built a mobile app for Panera Bread that allows customers to customize their orders and send them directly to the kitchen. What happens when 60 customized orders flood into the kitchen?

Some companies in the retail space are figuring out how mobile apps reorder traditional business operations -- and this sector probably has much to teach other sectors, Snyder said. Sephora, the cosmetics emporium, for example, has managed to meld the store and mobile experience nicely, with store reps armed with customer data, right down to their favorite brands, as soon as the mobile-appified customer walks through the door, he said. Zipcar is also rapidly adapting to the new mobile app reality, as I reported in my last column.

But here's the thing: Whose information is it, anyway? Once the customer gets ahold of the keys to the kitchen, the keys to airline systems data, the keys to the car -- literally -- without going through any middleman, then the service sector (which, by some accounts, has been holding its own in this economy) becomes an endangered species.

Let us know what you think about the column; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

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