A year ago, if you were in your mid-30s, drove a domestic car, and made between $US30,000 and $US40,000 per year, chances are Mattress Giant was trying to get your attention. However, if you fitted that profile, you probably weren't interested in what Mattress Giant had to say. That's because you weren't a customer of the Addison, Texas-based specialty bedding retailer. But the company didn't know that. For years, Mattress Giant annually poured more than $US2 million (or 10 per cent of its annual revenue) into advertising to a demographic that simply wasn't listening. And what would you guess was the information source that drove this misguided strategy? Siebel? Oracle? SAP?
None of the above. It was . . . gut feel.
As the new CIO for Mattress Giant, I was in a jam. Just prior to my coming on board, the company's CEO had halted the implementation of an integrated point-of-sale (POS) and ERP system 35 per cent of the way through the project. The sales force had complained that the integrated POS and inventory/distribution system was too complicated to use. They also claimed it was costing the company sales volume. In the meantime, Mattress Giant was flying blind, without any real business metrics or customer information. And although the CEO's concerns were well-placed, I felt that it was only a matter of time before the absence of such data would choke off the company's growth. Somehow, I had to convince the CEO to change his mind.
Learning the Language of Springs and Coils So where do you start when you need the blessing and trust of the CEO? Particularly one who, early in the process, informed me that I was asking him to put his whole company at risk for the sake of a computer system. Earlier in my career I would have begun with a well-researched technology plan, accompanied by a strong ROI analysis, a thorough project plan and maybe even a colourful PowerPoint presentation. But this time I chose a different path.
I turned off my computer, cancelled my meetings and got elbow-deep in the business. With the blessing of the executive vice president for sales, I visited our retail stores, talked to the salespeople, watched the sales process on the floor and learned the Mattress Giant language of sales. I even tried my hand at selling mattresses. I heard people talk about the IT department and what they said wasn't pretty. I also went to our distribution centres, studied the delivery procedures, loaded delivery trucks and participated in the existing physical inventory process. I added myself to the distribution list for customer service e-mail to learn what our customers had to say about us. I lived and breathed the company's operation for more than a month.
In today's enlightened IT world, "knowing the business" seems like a clichA©, but in reality, its importance cannot be overstated. Not only was I able to get a crystal clear view of what the issues were with the existing process and what the problems had been with the ERP implementation, but I was also able to build more credibility with the CEO than I could have imagined. I could now speak with him in his own language, and ensure that my future memos, e-mails and reports were not only read but understood. I became an informed adviser. But this was no guarantee that my project would get approved. This was only step one.
My next journey would take me to the CFO's office. It was important to understand the mechanics of expense and project approval. I worked late into the evenings with the CFO creating a real case for the return on technology spending. We focused on finding the immediate hard-cost reductions and business benefits that made the ROI for the ERP/POS system work. As a result, I had a co-author for my IT proposals. In fact, they were no longer IT proposals at all; they were business proposals that involved technology expenditures. In the end, my CFO became a strong ally in the boardroom.
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