Inside an IT Marketing Campaign

Inside an IT Marketing Campaign

It's become a truism that CIOs must speak about IT's processes and possibilities in the language of business. Yet some CIOs are uncomfortable with marketing efforts - the dreaded "M" word. They tend to regard marketing as an instrument of deception, manipulation or just plain hot air

How Simmons Bedding's CIO cosied up with his internal customers and changed the perception of IT


  • The difference between hot air and customer-oriented marketing
  • How to inculcate marketing smarts into your IT staff
  • Why marketing brochures must lead to hallway marketing

When Kurt Ling joined mattress maker Simmons Bedding in 1999 as its vice president of branding, he didn't get a computer for three weeks. Needless to say, he couldn't get much work done. The IT department finally procured a PC for Ling, but failed to consider that he might need a printer too. Eventually Ling blew his stack: "Do you want me to just buy a stupid printer on my own?" he hollered at an IT employee in his office. "Oh no. You can't do that," the staffer responded flatly. Ling thought he had entered a Dilbert comic strip.

Yet seven years later . . . in spite of that and subsequent frustrating experiences with IT, Ling has become one of the biggest champions of Simmons's 50-person IT department. He's raved about them in presentations to executives at Simmons's annual National Leadership Meeting. He believes that IT has become the most customer-focused group in the entire company. He says the service IT now provides exceeds his expectations. And, he says, "I know that our systems aren't the most up to date, but I've got to tell you, I wouldn't trade our IT department for anything."

How did this change in perception happen? In response to his own epiphany about bad service from IT, Simmons CIO Wade Vann launched an IT marketing campaign - a multi-pronged effort consisting of a brochure and articles, weeklong educational events for users and, most importantly, an ongoing effort to instil a service mentality and customer focus among his IT staff. Vann grades his employees on their contacts with customers (as Simmons users are now known) and tries to model, with his own behaviour, his belief that every interaction with a business user is an opportunity to market IT.

It's become a truism that CIOs must speak about IT's processes and possibilities in the language of business. Yet some CIOs are uncomfortable with marketing efforts - the dreaded "M" word. They tend to regard marketing as an instrument of deception, manipulation or just plain hot air. CIOs have themselves fallen victim to technology vendors' overblown promises, and they fear looking like blowhards in the eyes of users. Marketing even runs contrary to what many CIOs do, which is manage (read: downplay) users' expectations of IT, says Paul Willmott, a partner in McKinsey & Company's IT practice.

Yet marketing can be a killer app for IT departments. A CIO (US) survey published in 2004 linked marketing efforts to more transparent IT value and cost, higher customer loyalty and increased productivity from IT staffers. Done right, IT marketing goes far beyond slick brochures; it's about getting to know your customers and demonstrating the IT group's value, says Martha Inman Lorch, founder and president of Market Perspectives Group, a consultancy that offers training in marketing IT value internally. Or as Vann puts it, marketing "is really about giving the customer what they want and staying in touch with the customer". And what self-respecting IT department doesn't want to do that?

Vann's IT Awakening

Vann had clocked 14 years in IT at Avon's direct mail division when the head of the division talked him into becoming its director of customer marketing in 1989. Several employees had left the marketing department, and the president needed someone dependable to head it. This experience as a consumer of corporate IT services irrevocably changed Vann's views on how IT departments should function - and the way he managed them when he moved back into IT four years later.

After his first year as a marketing director, he called the man who had replaced him as Avon's director of application development and said: "What you're doing is all wrong. All the processes and procedures you have in place for setting priorities work great for the IT department. But it doesn't work for me as a customer of your services."

What Vann didn't like was all of IT's red tape. Whenever he needed a project done, such as getting a system in place for analyzing and reporting on customer histories, the response was invariably: "You know, Wade, we're backed up. We have all these other projects going on. We'll review your request at the next project review meeting." The irony was that Vann had set up these policies and procedures. But as a customer he didn't appreciate being brushed off. "Customers don't want to hear about the problems you have in IT," he says now. "What I wanted to hear was: 'I got your project. We'll review it. If it's justifiable but we don't have the resources internally to do it, we'll bring consultants in to get it done as quickly as possible'."

This experience on the other side of IT made Vann realize that, while IT can be innovative and proactively envision business opportunities, fundamentally it is a service function, he says. He wanted a second chance in IT so that he could do it right.

When Vann became IT director for Broyhill Furniture in 1992, he didn't abandon the standard governance procedures for prioritizing IT projects, but he made sure his customers knew their needs were important to him and his staff. "Flexibility is the key to success in any business and especially in IT. What could be the number-one project today could be number three tomorrow," he says. "You can't jump back and forth all the time, but if somebody really does have a special project that comes up, you've got to be willing and flexible enough to work on that project. That's why it's so important for CIOs and IT managers to have a solid understanding of the business: So when things come up, they recognize whether or not it's important."

Soon after arriving at Broyhill, Vann read the book that has become his professional bible, IS at Your Service, by L Paul Ouellette of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, which gave him more tools to make his IT department more customer-focused. Vann brought his marketing mind-set and toolbox to Simmons when he joined the company in 2000. He has preached customer service and marketing, worked it into performance reviews, and given his staff the freedom to be creative and have some fun in their marketing efforts.

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