Some CIOs get a kick out of how large their offices are, others, the cost of their cars, Arup Choudhury, CIO of Eveready, is proud of the time he spent cooped up in a delivery van.
And he should be--it's what got him into the core team at Eveready, the one that formulates the business' strategy.
Between September of 2006 and March of 2009, Choudhury and his IT team made 10 visits every month to the company's direct customers-- its distributors--to figure out how they could help. The best way to get to the distributors was to accompany Eveready's delivery vans, something that's hard to imagine other CIOs doing.
"Basically, somebody from the IT team, including myself, would go into the market with sales officers and area sales managers and interact directly with distributors. The objective was to understand what Eveready could do to make their business function better," says Choudhury, who rates the need of meeting customers as very important, an eight out of 10.
Their forays unearthed long-standing issues among the company's distributors. A standard complaint, Choudhury says, was that Eveready's claim settlement process was very slow. According to his interviews, it could take the company between six and eight months to settle distributor claims.
Choudhury took up their complaint with Eveready's commercial team and asked them for the reason behind the delay. That's one of the first lessons in collecting feedback, he says. Keeping an open mind and giving both parties a chance to air their views is critical or you could find yourself charging into a challenge that doesn't really exist. "It's vital to separate negative feedback from hoaxes," he says.
That can be harder than it seems, especially for CIOs or IT staffers who meet customers for the first time. The adrenalin rush that comes from meeting with live customers--compared to poring over feedback forms or listening to their peers give them a lecture--and having the ability to do something about a customer's complaints can sometimes make IT leaders forget that there are two sides to every coin. Some go as far as making promises to customers to fix the problem--something anybody who has watched medical dramas knows you should never do.
"[CIOs or IT staffers who talk to customers] should be careful of not jumping the gun. They should not make promises on the spot without engaging in a detailed discussion. There could be repercussions to the organization. Maybe, the problem is something that an organization doesn't intend to solve. They should totally avoid 'spot-fixing' also because there is a chance that distributors could feel the company has made a lot of promises but hasn't delivered on them," says Choudhury.
Back at Eveready's headquarters, Choudhury pieced together the challenge of the claims delay. Eveready subsidized the cost its distributors incurred from running trucks or vans from the distribution center to retailers. To claim the subsidy distributors needed to inform Eveready how many kilometres their vans had done in a given month. The process, Choudhury learnt, used a paper-based approach, which was part of the reason it could take up to eight months before a claim was processed.
That was certainly something IT could do something about.
But there are times when the IT department can't do something about a customer's problems, and that's something IT has to accept. In Choudhury's case, for instance, because he doesn't tell them he is from the IT department, one of the first complaints he gets is about margins. His standard reply is that he will pass it on to the business.
To get around the claims challenge, Choudhury and his team created a sales force automation software called 'eFact' and hosted it on a public cloud. Now, sales folks could input a claim for a distributor using SMS or a pre-installed Java application. This cut the time it took the company to turn around a claim to just a month.
That made distributors--and Eveready's management--happy. "After I started interacting with customers we got feedback that they were happy with Eveready's eagerness to help them. Business relations improved and that's when I also got into the strategic role. Other than handling the IT function, I am now part of a core team that formulates Eveready's future business strategy. We set short-term (one-three-year) and long-term (seven-10-year) goals for the company."
eFact also fulfilled another need: It kept a tally of how much a retailer sold, and monitored how much inventory a distributor had in stock. This was one of the primary reasons Choudhury decided to go out to the field in the first place.
Prior to 2005, Eveready's secondary sales data was compiled by sales personnel on the field. Because they used manual processes, business got sales reports later than it wanted. To get around the problem the IT team introduced a more integrated solution.
But the business realized that despite the new system there were discrepancies between primary and secondary sales data. As a result, "there was an unnecessary stock build up happening at the distributors end. That's when we decided to go take a look at the market to better understand how secondary sales worked," says Choudhury.
Today, eFact allows Eveready to have an accurate and almost real-time report of what's selling and what's not. Apart from that, the exercise of meeting distributors face to face, also provided a great learning ground for his IT staffers, says Choudhury. Initially, he remembers, his team did not know how to approach distributors because they had never spoken to customers directly. Choudhury told his team to think of distributors as internal customers. "When you meet customers, you have to be a very patient listener. You talk less and listen more. Just turn into a blotting paper and soak in all the information," he says.
Little did Choudhury know then that his greatest challenge wouldn't come from his staffers.
For a CIO, part of the challenge of meeting customers face to face is the fact that it's someone else's job. That makes toe-treading a very real possibility.
That's exactly what happened at Eveready and it ended Choudhury's three-year customer interaction initiative.
What triggered the beginning of the end was one visit Choudhury made to a distributor that had been doing business with the company for 25 years. The distributor complained that the company's sales people were pushing him to buy new stocks of tea (Eveready also has a tea business)--despite the fact that he had old stock the company wasn't taking back. If tea is more than six months old, retailers won't put it on their shelves.
"A distributor actually showed me stock as old as one-and-a-half to two-years old. The distributor complained that his money was being blocked and that he wasn't able to invest in other lines of business," says Choudhury.
When Choudhury brought this up during a feedback session, the branch manager and area sales manager were contacted and were asked to explain the situation. It was the last straw on the camel's back.
"A lot of negative feedback that was discussed during meetings was taken in the wrong sense. The sales guys started thinking that we are infringing on their territory. The resistance from the sales team meant that we had to stop it," says Choudhury.
But Choudhury is undeterred. In his mind, 2009 was also time for the company to be more internally-focused--a cycle, he knew, that would make a full circle.
"Our customer focus had to stop because in the last two-three years our managers were focussing on product diversification. As a result, discussions had to focus on internal solutions than external ones. Now, when these products are being launched, there is a high possibility that we will start meeting customers again," says Choudhury.
And Choudhury will be ready.