Think about messages you send

Information technology managers don't spend a lot of time thinking about their marketing messages. The ones I'm talking to don't realize they have any. But when we start to talk about the things they are communicating to their business colleagues and clients, it soon becomes apparent to most of them that they are running a marketing campaign without realizing it. Unfortunately, that means they are mostly sending messages that say "We can't help" or "We don't want to be involved" or "We can't be trusted" -- not exactly the messages they want to send.

You might not like it -- or even believe it -- but every interaction with users is an exercise in marketing. Here are some examples.

The newsletter: Most IT organizations publish a newsletter. In it, there's usually a chart showing how well IT is doing: system availability, response times, helpdesk calls, that kind of thing. What the IT department doesn't realize is how these few square centimetres undo all the good work it has done. From the user's point of view, the only availability that matters is 100 percent, and any time spent waiting on the phone for the helpdesk (or working with a slow application) is time wasted. These communications actually undercut the credibility of IT. Instead, talk about trends, or turn help calls into human interest stories -- anything that doesn't awaken "can't win" responses in users.

The project: The client's project is ready to start, and what's first on IT's agenda? A study of what tools should be used this time around. From the client's point of view, this is work the IT organization should have done long before the project got under way. Every step in a user's project that can be seen as IT internal work rather than "moving this along to completion" work, sends a message of laziness (IT didn't do what it should routinely do) or indecision (aren't IT people supposed to be the experts on all these things?). Move everything that can be perceived as internal work outside the project. It is better to do the study in August and have a public start in September than to start in August and do the study as the first deliverable.

The planning interaction: For many companies, planning season is upon them, and relationship managers from IT are out trying to learn what their clients want in the coming year. Usually, these excursions start with a simple question: "So, what are you thinking of doing next year?" This approach freezes the relationship immediately. To develop the relationship, think ahead. Then you'll be prepared to approach business managers with something like this: "We'd like to share some things we've researched that might help you as you plan." That shows your interest in their future requirements between plan cycles. Now when you ask, "What are you thinking for next year?" you've already contributed something better than the IT equivalent of "Hi, I'm Sam, and I'll be your waiter tonight. Can I take your order?"

Contradictory messages: Business managers passionately hate getting mixed messages. Often, IT sends many. Architecture has one, the development people another, and there's a third when a problem occurs. Manage each client as an "account"; have a strategy for each. Never finger-point in public; never go off on a tangent facilitating only your area's interests. Now, what are you selling? If it's not helping you, fix the message!

Bruce Stewart is a former CEO and senior VP and director of executive services at Meta

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