My first interview, via email, was with Don Chapman past President of Novell Canada. The topic? What else, the recession.
This interview, via email, was with Steven Woods. Steven is one of the founders and CTO of Eloqua.
Chris Herbert: We're in a recession! What are the top 3 challenges facing CTOs during these troubled times?
Well, I've always viewed the role of a CTO a bit differently than some do. I see a CTO as being first and foremost a business person, and secondly a technologist, rather than the other way around. It is a dual role though, and much of the role comes down to translation. Translation of business needs into technology requirements, and translation of technological capabilities into business opportunities.
This doesn't change during a recession, it just shifts focus a bit. Marketers (we sell to marketers) are affected by the downturn as much as anyone. They are under pressure to make a dollar stretch further, to operate with less headcount than they did before, and to justify every dollar of their budget. As I talk with marketers, I bring that message home to our product teams and ensure that it is our key focus in all areas of our business. Our main focuses recently have been directly related to that.
If you look at where we've been allocating our investments, our three main focuses tie directly to those three realities of today's marketers. We've added capabilities to our entry level products to reflect the reality that today's buyers may not have the budget for a larger investment, but will still need to solve challenging business problems. We've invested in areas such as integration, setup, and best practices that used to require effort, to make sure that the technology bears that burden, and the marketer can get the value out of the platform without effort. And we've focused a significant investment in tools to measure, understand, and present ROI.
CH: What are the top 3 things a CTO should focus on?
I think the three areas a CTO needs to focus on are:
1) Customers – listening, understanding, and empathizing with the customer (or prospect) situations you see before trying to solve them with technology. Once you've done that, a healthy dose of challenging reality is necessary. You can fall into a trap of "automating a bad process" if you don't ask whether it really has to be done the way it is currently done. If you can dig down to the real underlying business goal, then you have a great opportunity to deliver value. If you just hear a description of what's done today, you're often not getting deep enough to uncover true opportunity.
On the flip side, CTOs need to remain involved in communicating what value the technology offers, once it's complete. I view the role of CTO as having a significant marketing focus. Communicating the value of a technology, especially one that really changes a paradigm is not easy. I spend a lot of time with our marketing and sales teams, and with our prospects in the field, thinking through prospect challenges, and coming up with better metaphors, better explanations, and better ways to show the value of what we offer. I think this aspect of the CTO role is often one that is underemphasized, and I think that leaves a lot of value on the table.
2) Technology – this is an obvious one, but CTOs need to guide the technology decisions that are made. Investments in a technology choice can have far-reaching consequences in terms of what is possible or not possible down the road. Likewise, delaying a decision in an technology choice can sometimes be the wisest if there are likely to be more, better, and easier possibilities that come along shortly.
The pace of innovation is so rapid these days, if you're not watching carefully, and extrapolating what the future holds a little bit, you run a significant risk of making a mistake.
3) Innovation – innovation is a stranger animal than most realize. In its early stages, it often needs to be sheltered, protected, and even hidden. True innovations, are, by their nature, very different. People will ask "which customers have asked for this", "what revenue can you commit to from this", "where are the market surveys showing the need for this", and "who else has succeeded with this". If you can come up with solid answers to those questions, you are not innovating.
Find a couple of really smart people who have an idea they want to make successful, if you can, get them a very innovative customer or two to work with, and then give them the time and support to succeed or fail. The role of a CTO is to provide them the air cover to allow this to happen.
CH: The sales pipeline is looking bleak. The deals are no longer flowing. The sales director looks to the leadership team for help. What three things could a CTO do to help the sales team whether the storm?
It all comes back to communication. The value of any solution can be explained in numerous ways. I've spent a lot of time in the field with our prospects, having some great conversations. The more you dig in and understand the realities of their situation, the more you have a chance to see an opportunity where your technology can help. You have to really listen, ask a lot of questions, and seek to understand.
Budgets are being cut – but where, which areas of the budget, where is money shifting from and to? Are there staff cuts, has headcount money shifted to outsourcing budget? Revenue projections are down – but are some areas remaining strong that you want to shift resources to? Are you planning to target existing customers more? Specific verticals? Different geographies?
The more you can understand the prospect's business, the more you see opportunities for your technology that might not be in the standard sales playbook. Once you uncover them, sales can do a great job in replicating that success, but as CTO, you are in a unique position to identify opportunities on the fly.
CH: I understand you've recently published a book. Did this experience give you some insights or relate to your role as the CTO of a Eloqua?
I did, it just released – it's called Digital Body Language. The book explores the transition that is happening in marketing. If you look back prior to the information resources of the Internet, people needed to connect with a salesperson to get their information on a product or service. As the salesperson was that conduit, they had an opportunity to read that prospect's body language – crossed arms, smiles, frowns – and understand what messages resonated, and where they were in their decision-making process.
Now that prospective buyers get their information online, they no longer need the salesperson as information conduit. This means that the challenge of reading body language now is on the marketer, who must read their Digital Body Language – what messages they respond to, what information they find interesting – and use that to better guide any communications with them.
It has been a great experience for me, as I had the pleasure of interviewing around 40 of today's top marketing teams, who are exploring this transition in depth in their businesses. Spending that much time with each of them, diving deeply into their business challenges, provided wonderful insights into how their business was evolving, and how marketing as a whole was continuing to evolve.
CH: What are the 3 most important things a business professional should do to thrive during these tough times?
Keep listening to customers and working harder to understand their needs at a deeper level. Needs evolve with the business climate, and we've had a significant disruption in the business climate, so there are great opportunities for those who identify them.
Never stop innovating – so many of the world's greatest companies started during a recession. Think about what will make you successful in 5 and 10 years, and get started on it.
Make one customer happy at a time. We're in a downturn, which has reduced the volume of marketing messages, and social media has hit the mainstream, which amplifies the voices of every customer. Make that your investment. Do what it takes to make a customer truly happy, and they will talk to their peers. It's the most effective and most economical form of marketing there is.
Thank you Steven for the advice. To read Steven's bio click here.