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EXECUTIVE COUNSEL - Selling Your IS Organisation's Skills

EXECUTIVE COUNSEL - Selling Your IS Organisation's Skills

Charles Williams, vice president of information resources, knew he was in trouble his first day on the job at Georgia-Pacific Corp. when he picked up his telephone and waited 15 seconds for a dial tone.

"We were in bad shape," says Williams, who joined the Atlanta-based forest products company in 1993 as its director of enterprise network services. "We had 23 separate data networks. Each group had built its own network, with its own IT staff and support staff. Anytime you tried to cross a boundary, it didn't work."Today Williams points to Georgia-Pacific's citation in the 1997 CIO-100 as evidence that the company has turned that situation around. Williams claims the turnaround wasn't caused by technology-it was marketing. Borrowing an idea from his former employer, The Walt Disney Co., Williams and the company's Information Resources group developed a detailed marketing and services plan for managing long-term technology projects and daily operations. The goal was to get Georgia-Pacific's divisions, long accustomed to complete autonomy in their technology decisions, to want to do business with the IR group again. And it worked.

"Things got better in a hurry," says Roger Grahl, group director for Georgia-Pacific's paper divisions and an internal client of Williams' IR organisation. "I saw big improvements virtually overnight-so much so that we pulled projects we'd given to external integrators back into the company."The concept of being a service organisation and the need to treat employees as clients are well understood by CIOs. As familiar as that message is, though, it has been difficult to implement. How can any IS organisation have time for soft skills when there's real work to be done?At Georgia-Pacific and other IS organisations, the answer to that question is the discipline of marketing. The cornerstones of marketing theory-how to mix product, price, distribution and promotion strategies-are the foundation for a new way of doing business with internal clients.

"If your reaction is that it's not your job to do marketing, my answer is that you're already doing it," says Anita Leto, senior consultant for Ouellette & Associates Consulting Inc., a consulting company based in Bedford, New Hampshire, that assists companies in building and marketing a client-focused IT culture. "What your people say in meetings sends a marketing message. What they say in the elevator sends a marketing message. You can bet that outside vendors have a methodical approach to the message they send, and you've probably noticed that the business side of your company eats it up."Define Your ProductThe first cornerstone of any marketing plan is to identify your product or service in a way that is meaningful to your clients. This doesn't mean writing an unintelligible mission statement that no one reads. It means giving your clients a clear understanding of what you do for them and reinforcing that message in every client contact.

"CIOs in general are not aware of the impact their organisations have," says L.

Paul Ouellette, founder of Ouellette & Associates and author of How to Market the IS Department Internally: Gaining the Recognition and Strategic Position You Merit (Amacom, 1992). "Last week I worked with an organisation of tremendously hard workers. Most were working 60-hour weeks and had been doing so for 12, 15, 18 years. But the survey we did showed that clients would drop them in five minutes for someone who just gave them the feeling of being more responsive. The organisation had done a terrible job in creating an awareness of their value."Like any successful company, as an information executive you need to choose a product message that communicates what you do best. Don't try to send the message that you're high-end consultants when what you're really good at is reactive problem solving. Your message should be consistent, communicated by every member of your organisation and visible on every memo, Web page and newsletter your organisation creates.

"We wanted to present ourselves as being the best at operational excellence, of making things work smoothly," explains Susan Greger, director of utility project services, who helped write Georgia-Pacific's first marketing plan in 1993. "We weren't bleeding edge. We didn't try to present ourselves as experts in emerging technologies because that's not what the company needed. We were problem solvers. We wrapped that message in a commitment to excellent service."At Hagerstown, Md.-based Allegheny Power, a utility that services five Middle Atlantic states, the IS organisation has distilled its product message down to three words, emblazoned on its logo: experienced, responsive, dedicated. Jerry Sefcheck, director of information services, wants those words to mean as much to his clients as the swoosh on your 9-year-old's sneakers means to everyone on the playground. "Our actions should speak louder than words, but the fact is we needed to sell ourselves a little bit," Sefcheck says. "We've been experienced, responsive and dedicated all along, but I think it helps to put out our chest a little bit about it. Anytime people see our logo, they connect it with the service we're trying to provide."Like any Madison Avenue campaign, your product message needs to have time to develop. "Our advice is to stick to one message and not to change too quickly," Ouellette & Associates' Leto advises. "Focus your message, and stay with it for a couple of years."Demonstrate ValueThe second cornerstone of any marketing plan is price. In the context of marketing your IS organisation, price can be defined as the notion that the value you bring to business is greater than its cost. "Internal IS organisations need to ensure that their costs are competitive with outside service providers," says David Kahl, program director for GartnerGroup Inc.'s IT Executive Program in Chicago. "And much like [retailers], which are experts in marketing, IS should publicly disclose its fees as compared with the competition. When the value delivered is consistent with the price being charged, then IS is competitive."At Allegheny Power, the IS organisation's pricing strategy took the form of detailed service-level agreements with many of the business units it services.

Employees calling the help desk, for example, can choose what level of service they require. If the problem needs immediate attention and the call is made during normal business hours, IS employees are required to respond within 15 minutes and resolve the problem within an hour.

"People were afraid that clients would misuse that, but we haven't found that to be the case," says Amy Petrillo, an internal business consultant with Allegheny Power's IS organisation. "When clients have a clear understanding of costs, they don't necessarily want to pay for 100 percent responsiveness. We give them the choice."A detailed pricing strategy is all the more critical for long-term projects, particularly those that have the potential to run overbudget and past project deadlines. Frequent updates and negotiating with your internal clients before committing to increased costs will go a long way toward making even overbudget projects successful in the minds of your clients. "IS managers usually have a very strong sense of integrity, so they end up bashing themselves when projects go overbudget," Leto says. "A marketing approach would be to say, 'We're going to go over our budget, and this is why it's good for the company.' It's a way to still have integrity but to say things in a positive way so that things go forward."Organise a Marketing TeamThe third cornerstone of any marketing plan is a distribution strategy: Through what means are your clients going to access the services you provide? While every IS organisation invests in a variety of channels through which their clients do business, a marketing approach to IS management would evaluate each of these channels from the client's point of view. "Internal IS organisations must make themselves and their services as convenient to use as outside vendors have made their products and services," advises Kahl.

In addition to using customer feedback to improve the effectiveness of help desk personnel, application development teams and onsite support people, Georgia-Pacific and Allegheny Power both have reorganised to support their marketing plans and in many ways resemble marketing organisations more than typical IS organisations. Each has created a management team whose sole responsibility is to manage internal client satisfaction, similar to the way account managers monitor a company's high-end accounts.

IS account managers often spend more time in their client organisations than in their own. They attend their client organisation's staff meetings and often have a desk at their client's location. Like any good account manager within a marketing organisation, IS account managers succeed by understanding clients' needs and by providing services that meet those needs. Their goal is to develop a long-term relationship with clients based on mutual trust and respect.

Whether they carry the title "account manager," "client services manager" or "business consultant," as they do at Allegheny Power, their role is to make clients feel their needs are understood.

"I see myself mostly as a facilitator," says Bob Kreha, a business consultant for Allegheny Power's IS organisation. "I get the right people in touch, I minimise frustration and I make sure the image of IS is responsive. I'm in the business of getting away from the old idea of IS, that if you ask them for something, they take two or three years. I come back to IS and remind them that there are real people with real needs out there. It's no different than if we were dealing with the public at Sears."Georgia-Pacific characterises the role of its account managers as "soft sell, long term," a marketing strategy for high-end customers. The Information Resources organisation has put its best people in the role, many of whom command six-figure salaries. The sales approach is so subtle that Williams' internal clients rejected the term "marketing" when asked to describe their relationship with the corporate IR team.

"There was a time when we had a very adversarial relationship between corporate services and the divisions," says Georgia-Pacific's Grahl. "It's not that way anymore. I prefer to think of it as a partnership rather than an [adversarial] customer-vendor relationship. We have a much stronger relationship than that."The most immediate benefit of creating account managers within the IS department is the sense clients get that IS really does understand the needs of the business. "In the old manner of doing things, IS focused on systems rather than on customers," says Tom Kloc, controller for Allegheny Power. "Now there is a huge focus on customers and their needs. My business consultant [from the IS department] has a major responsibility for understanding my needs. She participates in my staff meetings. She even sees things that aren't working together well across locations in my department and finds solutions. She proactively recommends what resources IS has to help me be successful."PromotePromotion plans ensure that the IS organisation will communicate to every constituency that has a need for its services. The promotion plan usually entails a mix of strategies, depending on the urgency of the message as well as the managerial level and technology needs of the client.

You might already be promoting your organisation, using such diverse channels as technology fairs, T-shirts, monthly newsletters or a particular Web page, but unless these tactics are grounded in a focused marketing message, you're probably missing the target, advises Leto. "A lot of our clients use these promotional techniques, but they don't focus the message. You need a methodical approach, not just, 'Quick, we need a brochure.'"The biggest obstacle to a successful promotion might well be your own employees-and it is with them that your promotion strategy needs to begin. "No matter how beautiful a plan you create, a single employee's comment in a hallway can undo it," Leto says. "You must communicate to your staff what the marketing message is. You need to do nitty-gritty skill building on how they should answer typical criticisms. You need to get everyone involved."And, of course, you need to wholeheartedly believe in your message for it to succeed. Becoming a market-driven organisation requires a profound shift in thinking for many CIOs, from an emphasis on technical excellence to a realisation that their internal clients' perception of the IS organisation is at least as important to their success as technology.

"I'll be quite honest with you, I was uncomfortable with the whole notion of marketing," says Allegheny Power's Sefcheck. "Our whole culture went against it. We took for granted that we didn't need it. But I finally came to the realisation that to get back to the people who had an outdated impression of us, we needed to learn how to sell ourselves."Sefcheck's feelings are typical: There appears to be widespread lack of comfort among CIOs about the need to market, even among those IS organisations that are doing it. It's a feeling Ouellette says CIOs need to overcome if they ever expect their organisations to become true service organisations. "When I ask CIOs what they think about marketers, they tell me that they don't trust them," he says. "But marketing truly is simply creating an awareness of value. We all generate impressions. Don't blame your clients for having the wrong impression of you. That's your problem, not theirs. To create a good impression takes effort. It takes a disciplined thought process. It takes new skills. It takes marketing." Garnering Ink Many IS organisations have found that positive press from outside the organisation improves their status in the company.

Your marketing efforts shouldn't stop with your internal clients. Not only do you want the word to get around inside, but good coverage outside your company may help retain and attract top employees. "The more information services organisations can create positive light for themselves in the press, the more people will want to work there and the stronger the organisation becomes," says David Kahl, program director for GartnerGroup Inc.'s IT Executive Program in Chicago. "It's self-perpetuating."If you're new to the idea of seeking press coverage for your IS organisation, here is the collected wisdom of some of the best public relations experts in the business.

1. Work with your experts. Make sure your public relations department is involved with your publicity efforts. Many IS organisations seem to think of their public relations experts as obstacles, when they are really the best people to help you target your message, to find the appropriate editors and writers to listen, and to make sure your message reflects the position of the company as a whole.

2. Target your market. Develop press contacts that best serve your business goals. Having a personal relationship with the editor of a small trade magazine in your field might count for more than 100 press releases to larger, less-focused magazines. A reporter's attention span is sometimes as short as the next deadline, so the more you can do to target your message to a publication's particular needs, the more chance you have of seeing your story featured.

3. Don't say anything you don't want to see in print. If you're being interviewed and you suddenly feel you're headed into shaky ground, take a deep breath, take your time and start speaking only when you feel you are certain of the facts.

(Claire Tristram, who writes frequently about the business of technology, can be reached at tristram@concentric.net.)

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