‘Hallway marketing’ and other ways IT can win more respect

It’s almost a cliché that the first item cut in a slow economy is training. Not for Ben Berry at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). The frugal CIO has hired consulting firm Ouellette & Associates Inc. (O&A) to host a workshop this fall for his direct reports and IT staffers throughout the state government. The topic: marketing the value of IT.

For many IT professionals, the idea of marketing the services they provide every day might seem like a useless luxury. But Berry says marketing IT internally has never been more necessary, particularly to avoid what he calls the double-edged sword of cutting IT services to lower costs.

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“If the organization cuts the IT budget with a full understanding of the value being delivered, that’s one thing,” Berry says. “But if they cut the budget and service levels go down, the customer is getting hit twice. So it behooves us to be able to speak to what IT does so people understand what they’re doing as they make these decisions.”

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Even Dan Roberts, president of O&A, acknowledges that there are misunderstandings surrounding the topic of marketing IT, including a widespread association of “marketing” with “hype.” But CIOs who have embraced the concept say marketing is less about glitz and more about being perceived as the partner of choice when business clients want to get something done. That’s increasingly important, says Roberts, as increasingly hungry external vendors, outsourcers and consultants pitch compelling messages to top execs looking to reduce IT expenditures.

“We’re in a competitive world, and clients can just as easily hire Bill and Ted’s Excellent Training Adventure,” says Janet Craig, a training leader in Bayer Corp.’s internal business and technology services group. http://www.bayerus.com/About/BayerInUS/bbts.aspx

While the term “marketing” can throw IT people off, she says, it’s a crucial practice for her group, which depends on billable hours from internal clients. In fact, through its marketing efforts, Craig’s group has expanded its mission from supporting IT implementations to facilitating soft skills.

Then there’s the flip side: Marketing can also lend perspective on what you can’t do, particularly as budgets get slashed, says Ron Bonig, who recently retired as CIO at George Washington University.

While at GWU, Bonig hired a full-time marketing communications professional to help promote IT’s accomplishments, such as the way it met strategic goals and fulfilled service-level agreements. But the marketing professional also helped IT convey why it wasn’t able to pursue desired initiatives, particularly when IT was responding to top-level budget decisions.

Ways of marketing IT range from the formal to the informal and from the tactical to the strategic. Here are a few ideas from IT leaders who have launched marketing campaigns.

Find opportunities in written communications

With the help of the marketing specialist, Bonig tried to turn any communications emanating from IT into marketing tools. One of the most prominent is the department’s annual report, which not only reports on IT’s accomplishments, but relates those successes to IT’s strategic plan and the university’s goals as well. The report also lists resources saved, awards won and conferences at which staff members have spoken. It’s distributed on a USB flash drive, tucked inside what looks like a formal invitation to read about IT’s progress and plans.

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The marketing specialist ensures that all communication is jargon-free and, where appropriate, incorporates a subtle marketing spin. For instance, a message reporting a weekend system outage due to maintenance might include a reminder of how long it’s been since the last outage. Or a virus warning might note that the university’s infection rate is low compared with those of other universities.

“We’re always selling our story,” Bonig says. “From that, people get the idea you’re competent, effective and driving hard to support the goals of the organization. If you lose that, you’re pretty well screwed, because then you lose your budget, people and respect.”

Create customer ‘touch points’

Berry has established multiple layers of what he calls “touch points,” or opportunities to communicate with business users. One is his annual customer satisfaction survey. While his recent survey revealed an 85 per cent satisfaction rate (above his target of 83 per cent), it also showed only 70 per cent satisfaction with the ability to obtain needed information. That, Berry says, gave him an opportunity to improve service.

Other touch points include an intranet-based electronic brochure, which features video coverage explaining the goals and critical decision stages of IT initiatives, such as a mainframe software consolidation project. Additionally, Berry is researching whether the help desk could use Twitter to send alerts about service outages, and PC technicians now solicit direct feedback by giving users survey cards after servicing their computers.

Develop client profiles

Everyone wants to feel understood, which is why sophisticated marketing efforts strive to apply a personal touch. At Bayer, personalization is achieved by creating profiles of the most important clients Craig’s group works with. The profiles include information on whom the clients report to, and their level of authority, special interests and hot buttons, such as a desire to be a technology leader, keep costs down or not waste time.

Before a client meeting, the group can review the profile to see what matters most to the client, which topics to avoid and whether to keep the meeting short. “If they’re always worried about managing time, we don’t want to keep them talking about golf for hours,” Craig says.

Employ ‘hallway marketing’

A marketing mind-set can’t stop at the top levels of IT; the entire staff needs to understand and accept that marketing is now part of their everyday jobs, since every word they utter fosters a negative or positive perception in the client’s mind. “You need to embed a 24/7 marketing mind-set throughout the organization, not just in one or two people,” Roberts says. “They should speak positively of IT every chance they get, whether in a meeting, the elevator or the parking lot.”

This often means changing the very language the IT staff uses. At GWU, Bonig launched an initiative to train IT groups throughout the university to improve their customer service and communication skills. Among other things, participants in the two-hour sessions learned what to say and how to say it. The training emphasized that every communication — whether written, spoken or conveyed through another form of interpersonal contact — needs to be positive and should relate to IT’s annual goals, which were provided to each staffer in writing.

A big change was learning not to say no, Bonig says. Instead, he says, staff learned to “put a price on ‘Yes.’ ” In other words, instead of saying something can’t be done, explain that it’s an extra service that will cost more. At GWU, that sometimes means involving an account manager, who consults with the service catalog to create the formal terms of providing the service.

Improvement was encouraged through friendly competition in the form of awards presented to groups that showed the most progress, says Bonig. But success took time. “It was easier to get managers to change the way they communicated than some of the staff members,” he notes.

See yourself through the client’s eyes

Berry also undertook a yearlong effort to educate all 700-plus employees in ODOT’s central service organization — which included IT, finance and HR — to become a customer service organization. Embedded in the training was the notion of marketing the group’s services.

Part of the training was to help employees learn how they’re initially perceived by customers, he says. That led to a review of all customer touch points, which raised a number of questions: Are clients asked to fill out too many forms or follow too many processes? Is the Web site too onerous to maneuver through? Are the responses to common help desk questions readily accessible? Do voice-mail messages sound friendly? The review also covered the physical setup of the office. Now the desks face the door, so employees can greet visitors more easily.

Create slogans

It might feel corny to adopt a marketing slogan or catchphrase. But doing so can help unify IT around a meaningful purpose and keep the group “on message.”

“It’s very akin to the elevator speech — why are you in business, and what have you done for me lately?” Berry says. ODOT, for instance, is introducing the slogan “IT delivers information,” which is supported by a graphic of a train moving through a modern cityscape.

Of course, you don’t want to get too flashy, particularly in these days of cost sensitivity. “No one wants to feel they’re being marketed to,” Roberts says. “If you’re too professional-looking in your marketing materials, clients start to ask, ‘Why are we wasting money on this?’ ”

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Source: Computerworld

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