Today, the MCI Friends and Family calling plan is widely recognised as a marketing triumph. But it almost never got off the ground because of a feud between the company's IT and marketing departments. The idea for the calling plan, which sprang from the marketing department, was to set up a web of discounts for each customer who signed up a relative or friend for the MCI phone service - a fledgling David trying to take on AT&T's Goliath. According to marketing's plan, customer A could get a discount when calling customer B, and customer B could get a discount when calling customer C. In addition, customer A could get the same discount for calling customer C. But Ditchfield recoiled at the idea, fearing that his IT staff would not be able to adapt its architecture to accommodate the complicated algorithms and database needs the plan would require. He and his IT staff responded with a watered-down version of marketing's idea.
"We came back and said we could sort the top three to five customers and give them a discount for [calling each other]," he says.
Marketing replied: "Did you not hear us? It's a relationship chain."
Ditchfield now realises that his initial reaction was wrong. But so was the marketers' counter-reaction - if IT couldn't build what marketing wanted, the company would find an outside consultant that could, thereby threatening the credibility of the IT department.
Ditchfield was the one who finally broke the impasse, gathering the best employees in IT and marketing to meet and work out a plan. Deep down, he knew the Friends and Family plan held tremendous potential; it could, after all, be MCI's first real chance to break competitor AT&T's dominance in the residential calling market.
And sure enough, seated together in the same room, the IT and marketing professionals began to compromise. IT discarded the notion that marketing's relationship chain idea would be impossible to implement. The marketers came to realise that they would have to sacrifice some of the extra features they wanted, such as the number of people who could be included in a discount chain. When the multidisciplinary group began to hash out details of the plan, harmony won out over discord. Infected by marketing's enthusiasm, the IT staff even became excited by the challenge of such a groundbreaking project. From then on, Ditchfield says, things went more smoothly.
"It really appealed to the primal lust that systems people have," Ditchfield recalls. "It was that type of breakthrough that we needed."
What Ditchfield learned during this exercise was the value of bringing IT and marketing employees to the same table and how important it was for IT to speak the marketers' language. He discovered that when he and his IT staff talked in terms of the impact that excessive demands for new technology might have on the bottom line, the marketing department listened. Instead of saying that IT didn't have the servers to support a project, Ditchfield learned to say that the project would be too expensive and would hurt the company's profitability.
"We used to explain [technology] to the point of pain," he adds. In the Friends and Family campaign, he and his IT staff learned to talk about sales first and software second. "You have to stay at the business level with [marketers] most of the time," he says. "Once I became more of a business person, I could go to my people and say: I don't want to hear about architecture [when dealing with marketing]'."