by Ken Rau

October 2007

Winning IS Management Practices: Practice 1 – IS Marketing

It is often said that to be successful and contribute recognizable value, the Information Systems (IS) organization should “run IS like a business.”

It is often said that to be successful and contribute recognizable value, the Information Systems (IS) organization should “run IS like a business.” And we do to a certain extent. What is the Help Desk, but IS Customer Service. Many IS organizations call it that already. Systems Development is R&D without the “R.” Networks and infrastructure is IS’s version of manufacturing or operations. Then there is the Office of the CIO, the Project Office, the IS Controller; all with counterparts in business. But, in all of this, have we not missed the most important and perhaps most useful “run IS like a business” analogy of all?   What corresponds to the business function “Marketing” in the IS organization?

But what would such a function do? If it was patterned after the business’ Marketing function, it would be responsible for such processes within IS as:

  • image
  • public relations,
  • sales,
  • pricing, and
  • customer care;

processes all but missing in most IS organizations today. Useful pursuits? Let’s see.

Enhancing IS’s Image: It has been said that the only functional area in business more disliked than IS is Human Resources. Whether true or not, the jest does speak a truth – IS has an image problem in most organizations which is, for the most part, perception and not reality. While the root cause of most IS image problems is the endemic introverted personality of IS, the symptoms can be treated. What’s needed is the design, development, internalization and delivery of clear, compelling, consistent messages about IS’s direction, purpose and accomplishments. To contribute to an improved IS image, the development of these messages should not be approached informally, but rather as a mini-project or initiative, culminating in the coaching of the IS staff in how to deliver the appropriate messages in customer contact situations. A little effort in this regard can significantly improve IS’s image.

Public Relations: Image is about perception – it’s soft, qualitative. Conducting Public Relation (PR) campaigns is much more overt. Its about “getting ink” for IS as they say in the publications business. Its purpose is to make sure IS’s customers are aware, informed, and formally notified of planned or completed IS events. Large system development projects often do this via project newsletters. Less common, but equally effective as an IS PR tool is the generation and publication of periodic IS newsletters to the user base. Typically such newsletters describe plans and happenings in the department, such as information about new application systems and releases, how to contact and access the IS help desk, training schedules, and reminders about IS standards and procedures. Several IS organizations I know now publish an annual report on IS to all its stakeholders. A conscious, planned program of IS PR builds interest and even excitement among both IS customers and providers. Everyone likes to be recognized for their contributions and see them documented in print.

Selling the IS Product Line – “Ya Want Fries With That Transaction?” Selling is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we think of marketing IS, i.e. pushing the services and offerings of IS. Selling is clearly a key part of the IS marketing concept. Put in its most positive light, by selling IS services I mean ensuring IS’s customers are aware and take advantage of all features and functions available to them from IS services including applications, infrastructure and equipment. Many potential customers of IS are unaware of the possibilities. Often, in the rush to implement new systems or services, not all features are immediately put to use. These latent capabilities often provide the most value to the business. By pointing out these features (“Ya want fries with that transaction?”), returns are increased, user satisfaction improved, and respect for IS augmented; all at minimal cost to the business.

Pricing: The IS analogy of the business marketing process of pricing is generally referred to as chargeback, in which the costs of providing services to IS’s customers are allocated to the consumers of those services. Most large IS organizations are involved with charging for their services, but few approach it as much more than an accounting exercise.  As such, it is the cost of services that is the focus of the allocation, i.e. getting the costs out of the IS budget, and achieving a near or actual zero cost basis. Other than perhaps in the year of introduction, user behavior is seldom altered as a result of these charges, particularly when the chargeback algorithms used are laced with techno-babble that is indecipherable to most users.

But what happens when we approach the pricing process with our IS Marketing hat on? A more business-beneficial result. If pricing for IS services is disassociated from costs, improved customer outcomes or behaviors (e.g. adoption of new services, reduction in the use or abandonment of services targeted for elimination, and/or more frugal use of expensive services), are achieved. Additionally, pricing of services, when disassociated from the specific resources consumed in their generation (processing cycles, disk space consumed, etc.), can be based on units of consumption more familiar and comfortable to the user such as: invoices produced, paychecks generated, orders entered or reports requested. Unit pricing has been found to have a more profound impact on changes in customer behavior than a strict cost of service approach to chargeback. Other, even more imaginative approaches to charging for IS services and resources often result when a market-oriented pricing approach is considered.

Customer Care:  IS departments, like any business, are constantly being asked to excel in three dimensions simultaneously: quality of services, operational efficiency, and customer care. That’s it, when you think about it, isn’t it? There isn’t anything else. But you know what? It can’t be done, i.e. you can’t excel in all three at once. If you try, you won’t be consistently outstanding at any one, let alone all three, and you’ll just wind up with a mediocre muddle.

Deciding when is the right time to focus on customer care is the key. One CIO who was a turnaround specialist said, “When I arrive at a company with a troubled IS department, I first ask myself what is at the heart of the problem. Usually in these cases it is a quality of service issue – basic blocking and tackling stuff. Fixing this takes a year or two. After that I usually find the next area on which to focus is customer care – making sure the customers of IS are satisfied – that they feel they are our most important concern, and that we are out to delight them.”

Summary: This article began by asking why, if IS is the “business within the business,” do so few IS organizations today include a marketing department. In exploring the topic, we considered the role and benefits to IS and to the business of establishing in IS the classic marketing processes of image, PR, sales, pricing, and customer care; all missing processes in most IS organizations today. If formalized and exploited, these processes hold the promise of improved productivity, enhanced customer service, and the realization of IS’s pursuit of becoming the complete business within the business.