“IT is About More Than How To Keep the Lights On”

Purchasing Power CIO Prakash Muthukrishnan makes big changes to build the ultimate customer experience.

Working to maintain customer satisfaction is often seen as a never-ending battle, but for Purchasing Power’s chief information officer and 2015 ATP Innovations award winner Prakash Muthukrishnan, positive customer experience is a golden rule. “In everything I do, I want to be an advocate for the customer,” he says.

From his tenure as technology advisor at Blockbuster to completely reshaping Purchasing Power’s IT focus, philosophy, and execution excellence, Muthukrishnan has one goal in mind: improving customer experience through technological integration and innovation.

Muthukrishnan—who came to the United States in 1990 from India to pursue graduate studies in computer science—quickly developed a fascination for what he refers to as “the intersection of business and technology.” His interest in enterprise technology, matched by a lifelong love of movies, meant that a job as advisor to the CIO at Blockbuster was a perfect fit. He joined the company at a difficult period in which Blockbuster had attempted to introduce media advances that customers were not yet ready to embrace, such as movie-dispensing vending machines and streaming video, and later lagged behind upstart competitors (Redbox and Netflix) who succeeded in doing what Blockbuster had already attempted. It taught Muthukrishnan an important lesson not only about the importance of a company evolving to serve its customer base, but also about innovation. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how innovative you are,” he says. “You’ve got to nail the timing.”

After moving to Manhattan Associates, a supply chain software company, Muthukrishnan found success in both educating prospective buyers and working with them after the fact to ensure successful implementation. “Once somebody purchased our software, I used to represent them internally. I always wanted to place emphasis on the customers,” Muthukrishnan says.

Muthukrishnan’s commitment to integrating new and innovative technologies to serve customers made him an ideal candidate to serve as Purchasing Power’s inaugural CIO, a position he secured in 2014.

The Atlanta-based specialty e-retail organization has grown in leaps and bounds by working with large corporations and government agencies to offer its workers products through its employee purchase program—frequently products that they would not be able to afford on their own otherwise. Employees are able to attain goods and services that are deducted directly from their paychecks either in full or installment payments. The organization has been recognized for eight consecutive years as one of the fastest growing companies on the Inc. 5000.

In fact, it was Purchasing Power’s focus on customer-centric service that drew Muthukrishnan to the company. “Our customer, on average, is a woman with two children earning less than $70,000 a year. When the washer or dryer breaks, she doesn’t always have money saved to just go out and buy a new one,” he explains. Muthukrishnan wanted to find a way to help serve those who work hard and could benefit from Purchasing Power’s mantra: empowering the customer to a better life.

Muthukrishnan came to Purchasing Power at a pivotal moment for the organization, a time when growth was not only encouraged, but essential. While he currently oversees six divisions, his first day was substantially different. “Our IT team—I wouldn’t call it an IT team, actually—what we had was a group of loosely assembled developers,” he says. That was enough for Muthukrishnan. Over a year-long redevelopment that was admittedly difficult, Muthukrishnan was able to put together a team of like-minded and collaborative developers and engineers. “I wanted a team with a specific point of view, a specific set of values,” he says.

His time as an advisor at Blockbuster serves Muthukrishnan on two fronts. It has encouraged him to give his teams full autonomy to think creatively, and it has also shown him the importance of sticking together, a belief underlined by one of his role models, Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famed British explorer whose team survived a disastrous Antarctic expedition in one of the most extreme “stick together” stories in modern history. Shackleton’s ship was trapped in ice, causing it to be slowly crushed. The crew escaped by camping on the ice until the season changed and the ice started to melt, then launching lifeboats. Muthukrishnan says the famous explorer is always first on his mind when it comes to leading his own teams. He stresses that his teammates are not there to take orders; he wants thought leaders and innovators no matter the task.

Within one year at Purchasing Power, Muthukrishnan and his team achieved a number of significant milestones. As he joined the company, its website offered roughly four thousand products, but now boasts more than forty-five thousand. Small details yielded huge results. In one case, merely including a link to Purchasing Power’s site on an employee benefits portal immediately spiked both visits to the site and consumer transactions. “Nobody thought about it, but sometimes innovation can come from just looking at things differently,” Muthukrishnan says.

While his passion for customers is evident, it’s Muthukrishnan’s capacity for and commitment to innovation that continues to drive his work. “IT is about more than how to keep the lights on,” Muthukrishnan says. “It’s about more than cost-cutting.” He feels that innovation and development should be guiding principles; holding the line is just not an option. This philosophy seems to be the prevailing one on his Purchasing Power team.

Innovation means that Muthukrishnan has his sights set on further improvements for the customer experience. New and improved platforms are currently helping the IT team to streamline the website experience for consumers regardless of the device being used, be it a smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer. “We want to make sure our customers have a uniform and integrated experience,” Muthukrishnan says.

A new marketing platform is allowing the Purchasing Power team to run more effective campaigns and also offer more personalized recommendations based on a user’s previous shopping experiences and other profile information. Muthukrishnan’s reasoning for this continual revamping is succinct but earnest. “The user experience is the most important thing,” he says. “You cannot ignore your customers.” It’s why he continues to search for new and emerging technologies to empower not only his team, but also his customers.