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JOANN Stores hires new CIO to push customer experience strategy

JOANN Stores' announcement of a new CIO hire is another signal that engaging customers is increasingly part of the CIO portfolio.

JOANN Stores has hired Varadheesh Chennakrishnan as its new CIO, tasking the veteran executive with advancing a customer experience strategy for the 75-year-old fabric and craft retailer.

JOANN's announcement comes less than a year after the Hudson, Ohio-based company opened its first concept store, which includes new customer-facing technologies, such as touchscreen kiosks for personalized shopping experiences, special orders and livestream capabilities that are being rolled out to some of the company's other 865 stores.

Prior to joining JOANN, Chennakrishnan was at Ulta Beauty, a chain of beauty stores in the United States, headquartered in Bolingbrook, Ill.

In announcing the hire, the retailer explicitly tied the appointment of Chennakrishnan to its efforts to reinvent the customer experience at JOANN, stating he will help "the company optimize and innovate to create the ultimate craft experience, wherever the customers are."

JOANN's president and CEO, Wade Miquelon, said Chennakrishnan's arrival comes amid major changes at JOANN, including investing in new operations systems and expanding the ways in which customers interact with the retailer.

The move reflects a growing C-suite focus on customer experience (CX), as well as the need for CIOs to play a significant role in shaping customer experience strategy as part of larger digital transformation initiatives, according to analysts and executive surveys.

Varadheesh Chennakrishnan, CIO, JOANN StoresVaradheesh Chennakrishnan

"The risk of not engaging your customer, the risk of not making it effortless to do business with you means someone else can come along and do this," said Don Scheibenreif, vice present and distinguished analyst at at Gartner.

Companies will increasingly compete on their customer experience, Scheibenreif said.

He pointed to a 2018 Gartner survey that found 81% of marketers with CX responsibility believe their companies will mostly or completely compete based on CX by 2020, up from 67% who believed that to be the case in 2018 and 60% who thought that true in 2016.

CIO role in customer experience strategy

At the same time, there's an increasing recognition that CIOs must have a big role in shaping CX strategy, because technology drives so much of how companies interact with customers today and in the future, Scheibenreif said. Chatbots handle customer phone calls, and AI aids in targeted messaging, while CRM systems manage the company's interactions with current and potential customers.

A 2018 Gartner survey found 81% of marketers with CX responsibility believe their companies will mostly or completely compete based on CX by 2020, up from 67% who believed that to be the case in 2018 and 60% who thought that true in 2016.

Nicole France, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, said companies recently increased their focus on CX after recognizing that they'd lost clarity in their understanding of customers as they focused on implementing new technologies and driving their digital transformation.

She said companies have focused on these new technology capabilities without developing clear customer experience strategies on how they should effectively use them to engage existing and potential customers.

"We've almost gotten so distracted by the bells and whistles that we have forgotten about why this stuff is important," France said.

She said companies need to take a unified view of CX by breaking down barriers that exist between the different departments that interact with customers. CIOs are in a good position to do this, as they work with all the various systems throughout the company.

"They can take a very broad view of the customer relationship across all the technologies," she added.

CEOs name CX as top goal

Studies show that CEOs are placing a premium on CX.

The 2018 Digital Transformation Study from Constellation Research, published Jan. 1, 2019, reported that 50% of responding executives said the most important goal for their digital transformation strategy was to "reach and engage customers more effectively," making it the No. 1 goal out of the 10 identified in the survey. In fact, the goal of engaging customers came in ahead of building a competitive advantage and implementing new, data-driven models -- Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on the list of top goals.

Similarly, Gartner found in its surveys that executives are placing a high priority on customers. Its CEO Top Business Priorities for 2018 and 2019, released in May 2018, found that the customer is the No. 5 top priority among executives surveyed.

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