by Meridith Levinson

Inside an IT Marketing Campaign

Feb 01, 200612 mins
Consumer ElectronicsIT Leadership

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’ 50-person IT department. He’s raved about them in presentations to executives at Simmons’ 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 multipronged effort consisting of a brochure and articles, weeklong educational events for users and, most importantly, an ongoing effort to instill 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 behavior, 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 & Co.’s IT practice.

Yet marketing can be a killer app for IT departments. A CIO magazine survey published in 2004 linked marketing efforts to more transparent IT value and cost, higher customer loyalty and increased productivity from IT staffers. (See “The Secret Weapon: Internal Marketing,” and “IT Marketing Smarts,” Page 22.) 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.

IT Spirit

Simmons is a midsize company reporting $870 million in revenue in 2004 and has 3,300 employees who are distributed between the Atlanta headquarters and 20 manufacturing plants around the United States, as well as 65 retail stores. One of the IT group’s first marketing initiatives was a brochure for this far-flung business audience, advertising the full range of services that IT provides.

Creating the brochure was harder and more time-consuming than anyone had anticipated. The toughest aspect was clearly and concisely articulating IT’s services in a way that would resonate with customers. Tina Novack, manager of user support services, says she and other IT managers began the project by putting together spreadsheets that listed the responsibilities and activities with which their groups were tasked. They then worked on turning their descriptions into pithy statements.

Lisha Wentworth, a senior consultant at Ouellette, says it often takes time for IT professionals to gain a deep understanding of what’s important to different sets of customers and to communicate those points in layman’s terms. Although today’s CIOs typically understand the need to “speak business,” their employees are trained to think in terms of features rather than business benefits, says Wentworth, who facilitated a training seminar on internal IT marketing for Vann and his senior managers.

Vann says that just coming up with the brochure’s tagline—”We turn ideas into reality”—took half a day. IT managers called on their colleagues in Simmons’ marketing department for ideas on how make the brochure look contemporary.

When a copy of the multicolored, trifold pamphlet landed on the desk of one of IT’s most demanding customers in January 2003, it had the desired effect. “I had always thought of them as a help desk,” says Ling, now the company’s vice president of innovation. “This gave me a good idea of what they really do.” Ling wasn’t the only one who noticed: Managers inside Simmons’ manufacturing plants didn’t toss the brochures in the trash but instead tacked them to bulletin boards in conference rooms.

The next step in marketing the IT group’s new attitude was Spirit Week, a five-day event in the fall of 2003 designed to educate customers in more depth on IT’s services and to give customers an opportunity to get to know the IT staff. This idea originated with five IT managers who had attended the Ouellette marketing seminar.

Over a period of three months, IT planned games, scavenger hunts, tours of the help desk and about a dozen 45-minute classes on a variety of topics, including computer use at home, virus protection and security. The classes were intended to give users quick, general tips. IT managers encouraged staffers to teach classes by positioning Spirit Week as an opportunity to showcase their expertise. The classes had user-friendly names such as “Make the Bed” rather than, say, “AS400 and ERP.” Attendees were given door prizes such as flat-screen monitors, laptops, calling cards and beach chairs—all donated by IT vendors contacted by Spirit Week organizers.

Fifty percent of the corporate staff attended Spirit Week. The event was so successful that IT staged a second Spirit Week in 2004. Because the first event had targeted only headquarters staff, IT paid for two employees from each manufacturing plant to attend the second Spirit Week. Welcoming committees from the IT group greeted the plant employees (many of whom were visiting headquarters for the first time) at the Atlanta airport with big signs emblazoned with Simmons’ logo and accompanied them to the main building. That greeting was more than Southern hospitality; a good first impression is smart marketing.

Spirit Week was also a morale booster for the IT department, says Tracy Underwood, Simmons’ former director of Internet operations and one of the people who conceived of the event. Although Spirit Week required many IT employees to work extra-long days over several months, they were excited about the opportunity to get creative.

Hallway Marketing and Flapjack Fridays

While brochures and Spirit Weeks are high-profile ways to communicate a marketing message, the ultimate goal of an internal marketing initiative is to inculcate a customer-service attitude among IT employees. Informal “hallway marketing” demonstrates the IT department’s attitude day-in and day-out. Actions speak louder than brochures.

“We look at every and any kind of interaction with a customer, whether it’s a training class or a help desk call, as a chance to market the department and a chance to represent the department,” says user support services manager Novack. “When our folks go out to the [manufacturing] plants on implementations, they’re representing the whole IT group. That one person may be the only IT employee the workers at the plant ever meet.” IT workers must now travel to a certain number of plants each year as part of their performance plans.

The user services group meets face-to-face with all new employees, not only to show them how to use systems and applications but also to demonstrate that IT is approachable. When customers call the help desk, 75 percent of those calls are resolved the first time around. If a call needs to be sent to an application developer or network engineer, the help desk always follows up with the caller to make sure the problem was solved. It’s basic stuff, but important.

John Graves, Simmons’ applications project manager, has his direct reports keep logs in which they record every interaction with a customer. Frequency of communication counts in his staff’s performance reviews. “My big thing is making sure my staff doesn’t think we want them to be at their desk programming all the time. It’s OK for them to get up and talk with their customers,” Graves says.

For his part, Graves gets together regularly with non-IT coworkers outside the office to play tennis or knock down pins at the local bowling alley. In this, he is following the example set by Vann, who frequently takes his business customers to meals and sporting events. Graves says his efforts to keep in touch have sometimes served to ease tensions when IT is running behind on a project.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of Simmons IT’s ongoing marketing efforts is Flapjack Fridays, a weekly breakfast that the IT department cooks for all comers from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Graves and a few of his colleagues started Flapjack Fridays as a way to get businesspeople to visit the IT group. The hope was that if you feed them, they will come—and they do. (People fill a tip jar the IT department places in front of its griddles to cover its costs.) Flapjack Fridays and a newer lunchtime counterpart, Wiener Wednesdays, have done much to humanize the IT department for customers, Graves says.

Graves says the marketing effort has become even more important since IT moved from the eighth floor of Simmons’ headquarters—where the corporate staff works—to the seventh floor in late 2004. Because he no longer sees his customers on a daily basis, Graves has to remind himself every few days to get up from his desk and check in with them.

At least one of those eighth-floor customers mourns IT’s move downstairs. Ling says the eighth floor has less energy and fun since IT left. “Their culture so breathes fire into our culture,” he says. “They are the most fun people, most caring people and most interesting people in the company. Not having them on our floor is a loss.” The man who once thought Simmons’ IT was incapable of even the basics is now an IT marketer in his own right.