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CIOs as flight attendants? You heard right

It's time to meet the customers. The newest breed of CIOs is taking notes in retail stores -- and serving coffee on airplanes -- to boost bottom lines.

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- Now that they've tackled the board room and business processes, it's time for CIOs to put paying customers on their priority lists.

"CIOs are still wondering who they are," said Fernando Gonzalez, CIO at the San-Francisco garment manufacturing company Byer California. "The CIO is a business person who brings technology to the corporation," said Gonzalez, whose IT career spans more than four decades.

"But he should be looking beyond his company," said Gonzalez, who was among the 70 IT executives who attended the Marcus Evans CIO Summit held here this month.

Vladimir Bogdanov, CIO of Musicland Group Inc., drove home the connection between CIOs and customers during his presentation, titled "Looking Beyond Customer Service -- Thinking Through the Value Chain."

"The role of the CIO has changed," Bogdanov said. "Traditionally, he supported the end user within the organization. Now he supports the customer."

Bogdanov warned the audience not to make a common mistake: the information collected from customers when they make purchases is not enough information for IT pros to know what the customer needs from them.

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"Data collected in the store only tells half the story," Bogdanov said. "But what the customer does in the store -- what they look at, and touch, is also important."

To find out how the customer is interacting with products when shopping, Bogdanov sends his IT staff to some of the 900 Musicland stores to watch potential buyers cruise the aisles. The retail chain includes Sam Goody and Suncoast Motion Picture Company stores. Those observations led to a $1.4 billion Musicland project called "Graze" -- a multimedia, in-store digital entertainment cafÉ. Customers can choose the entertainment featured on a wall panel -- videos, movie previews or even their own photos -- by sending text messages from their cell phones. They can burn customized CDs, choose new ring tones and browse music -- a project that puts Bogdanov's IT team directly in touch with Musicland customers.

The team also looks at warehouse operations. One developer came back with a suggestion to conduct inventory with handheld scanners. "This not only saved time, but it helped with finding misplaced inventory, which contributed to higher profits for the company," Bogdanov said.

Geri Carolan, director of information technology, Frontier Airlines Inc., takes the CIO-customer relationship personally. Carolan , a former flight attendant, still spends a few hours every financial quarter serving passengers on airlines. "You have to walk in your customers shoes," she explained.

What does Carolan get (aside from sore feet)? Rather than inspire new projects, Carolan has returned back to her IT shop to quash projects that she figured customers wouldn't like once she watched frequent flyers in action.

According to Bogdanov, "In the end, if your customer is not happy, nothing else matters."

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