Computerworld

Managing relationship managers

Are engineers really 'not good' with dealing with customers?

In the tech movie spoof Office Space, one employee trying to save his job explains to efficiency experts that "engineers are not good at dealing with customers."

An increasing number of CIOs recognize that, like the engineers of the movie's soulless corporation Initech, some of their companies' IT staffers aren't very good at dealing with customers either. To address the problem, they've created positions with titles such as business relationship manager or customer relationship manager to help them relate to internal customers.

The people holding these jobs are charged with changing the perception of IT from that of a passive dispenser of requested services to a proactive provider of business value. But their success has been as mixed as the visions of the CIOs who employ them. Here are three different approaches.

Walk first; run later

After consolidating the IT infrastructure of 25 executive agencies in 2006, the state of North Carolina's Office of Information Technology Services in Raleigh surveyed state workers and discovered that they thought communication between the agencies and IT was poor. State CIO George Bakolia responded by creating a business relationship management (BRM) unit to improve communication and foster trust.

Most new processes in state government have a strong IT component, but IT often isn't consulted early enough for maximum effectiveness, says Wendy Kuhn, director of BRM. "By establishing this relationship of trust, we're hoping to change that," she says.

The business people want to have a single, responsive point of contact in IT, Bakolia says. So he looks for "excellent communicators who can relate to customers and articulate to the techies in IT what the business really needs."

With that emphasis on communication, three of the four people who have been hired as relationship managers do not have IT backgrounds.

Kuhn says that the group will gradually transition from just reacting to service issues to studying the IT needs of internal customers and recommending changes. Bakolia agrees. "Our longer-term goal is to have them work on strategic issues," he says, "but no customer is going to allow this business liaison to intervene on business re-engineering before we've established trust."

Brian Layh, one of the relationship managers, says being an advocate for business customers within IT can be challenging because he needs to work "both sides of the fence," and that includes pointing out areas where IT can improve.

Layh looks forward to providing strategic advice to agency heads. "It's not hard for me to see new ways that technology could help agencies meet their business goals," he says. "We just need the relationship to mature enough where we can pursue that."

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Strategic focus

When John Shea became CIO at Eaton Vance Management in Boston a year ago, he inherited an IT organization that included six internal customer relationship managers. The positions had been created to deal with service problems. "We had a bad reputation as an IT group," recalls Frank Wertz, director of IT client management. "The CRMs were added in 1999 because we wanted to calm the noise down."

At first, the CRMs responded to tactical needs, says Wertz, who worked as one before being chosen to lead the group. He recalls helping executives from a newly acquired line of business navigate the initial shock of integrating their systems. "If they had tried to solve that by working with project managers and application developers on their own," he says, "the communications would have broken down fast."

Today, each of the CRMs covers five or six related business units at the investment management firm so they can develop expertise in areas such as finance, investment and equity, Shea says. The CRMs meet with business leaders to discuss their strategic project needs, and then IT's project management office prioritizes those requests.

Some of the CRMs were recruited from within Eaton Vance's IT department; others were originally consultants hired to assist on IT projects. Shea says that finding people with the right mix of skills has been difficult.

"They have to be client advocates, and that is a different skill set than most IT people have," he notes. "They have to know the business and be able to prioritize that unit's IT needs."

Shea sees the customer relationship manager role as part of a larger effort to break down barriers between business and IT, but he acknowledges that there are still challenges to work through. For example, some business line executives consider the customer relationship manager an extra layer of bureaucracy, and some CRMs have effective relationships with a few of their executive partners and not with others, he says.

One exasperating problem is that because of the CRMs' tactical origins, business groups still sometimes treat them as a help desk. "We're struggling to maintain the strategic level rather than the tactical level," Shea says.

He is quick to admit that the customer relationship manager role is a work in progress. "We've created this structure, and it's not perfect right now," he says, "but we are working on making it better."

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Shifting gears

Ten years ago, Ralph Szygenda took charge of IT operations at General Motors, a highly decentralized $US200 billion company with 7,000 different information systems. As CIO, he created five IT positions, called process information officers (PIO), to push corporate IT standards -- getting all engineers to use the same CAD program, for example. Eventually, those PIOs helped eliminate 4,000 of those 7,000 IT systems.

Szygenda accomplished this by using what he calls a "matrix" of regional CIOs, who oversee IT services for all the business units in their regions, and global PIOs with deep expertise in business areas such as supply chain or manufacturing quality that transcend regions.

"If you have to convince the business leaders to give up an information system, you had better be seen as a business expert and not just an IT person," Szygenda says.

The PIOs have IT experience, but they also tend to have experience in business process improvement in the auto industry.

Szygenda purposefully created organizational tension that is worked out in what he calls "debating society" meetings. "The CIO has a view of today's needs, and the PIO has a longer-term strategic vision," he explains. "This way, I always have two views in front of me -- the local and the strategic -- and can't get snookered by one or the other."

Terry Kline, global product development PIO, agrees that the matrix setup drives contention about issues such as which CAD program to standardize on. "But this process forces them upfront," he says. "On the back end, they're much tougher to deal with."

Kline, whose auto industry experience includes stints as a director of IT and a CIO, describes the PIO job as a great challenge. "Often, the CIOs own the budget and the resources, so you have to be an educator and convince them to do something," he says. "You have lots of different bosses and customers: design centers, engineering centers, business line bosses, regional CIOs and Ralph. At some point you have to set the direction, or they are going to set the direction for you."

Kline says that line managers see him as a critical piece of their business team. "I am one of the few people who visit every engineering center," he says, "so I often end up playing the role of conduit between regional vice presidents to spread the word about best practices such as how we share data."

In 1999, GM complemented the PIOs by creating business process officer (BPO) positions that also line up horizontally across the company. The BPO makes decisions about unifying and streamlining efforts across the global corporation's business units, whether they involve IT or not. For instance, a BPO might shift production from one plant to another to gain efficiencies.

When a change involves computer systems, a BPO has a ready partner in the PIO. "When the business process officer sends out a message that he wants to be able to engineer any product anywhere in the world he sees fit, it makes my job easier," says Kline.

Szygenda says that Kline and BPO Bob Lutz "practically live with each other. They speak exactly the same language."

In many organizations, relationship managers fail because they're not seen as business leaders, Szygenda says. "The key is that these people have to be business-oriented and measured by business results," he says. "If you asked our head of engineering about Terry Kline, he would say, 'He's a whiz -- a business whiz.'"

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Managing with less

Princeton University CIO Betty Leydon likes the concept of relationship managers, but she doesn't have the budget to create the positions. Still, that hasn't stopped her from working to improve communication between IT and her customers -- the heads of administrative units and academic departments.

Soon after she arrived on campus in 2001, Leydon asked her 280 Office of Information Technology employees to volunteer as "ambassadors" to develop personal relationships with executives in the 50 academic and 30 administrative departments at the Ivy League university.

"Sometimes departments are limited in their use of IT because they don't know what is possible," she says. "The ambassadors can fill them in regularly on what IT can do for them."

Surveys show that the program has improved the perception of IT responsiveness, Leydon says. And feedback to ambassadors has led to a strategic collaborative software initiative and a push for digital signature technology.

"The ambassadors aren't the perfect solution," Leydon notes, "but they were the best I could do given budgetary constraints. They are another link to our customers, and their focus on immediate needs can translate into strategic projects."