The CIO’s Job Description: Top-Notch Sales Executive

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

If I had to name just one quality that I thought made franchise CIOs successful, I would say “sales prowess.” You read that right, I said sales. The best technology in the world will not be implemented unless a whole bunch of people are “sold” on the idea first. I believe that my experience in sales plays a much larger role in my current position than my background in technology. I doubt that I would even be in this role if it weren’t for spending hundreds of meetings in front of potential clients.

Getting new technology approved in a franchise system can be extremely difficult (unless, of course, it is mandated by compliance, regulations or the CEO). There are a whole lot of “chiefs” who need to be convinced that this is the right thing. Each one has different needs, different agendas, different backgrounds and different communication styles. The CIO must “run the gauntlet” if she wants her project to see the light of day. Any misstep in this process can doom a great project.

Let’s say that you are the CEO of a midsize retail franchise chain and that your CIO has just suddenly retired to a bungalow in Bora Bora. You have done your search and have narrowed it down to two candidates to fill the role.

One of the candidates (let’s call him Mark) has worked his way up through the IT ranks over the years: starting as a helpdesk technician, moving into system administration and then application development, and most recently leading an 80-person IT team for a large manufacturing client.

The other candidate (let’s call her Carla) has been in technology sales for her entire career. She started in account management, moved to account executive and has recently overseen a sales team for an IT application company that produced $50 million in revenue.

So all else being equal, who should you chose? Carla. That is not even a tough decision. Carla knows technology and has proven that she can be successful when selling products and ideas. Mark may know technology better—and at a deeper level—but, at the highest level of the organization, that is less important than knowing how to interact with others.

I know there are several IT people reading this who are saying, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s not fair. You are supposed to put in your time, pay your dues and climb the ladder. Pulling a sales person in isn’t fair!”

Knowing technology is basically the entrance fee. I strongly believe that project management is the number-one skill to get you into middle management (manager and director) and that sales is the number-one skill to get you into an executive position. My advice to anyone looking to climb the ladder: Use multiple ladders. Make sure that you spend time managing projects and being involved in sales and marketing.

At an NRF panel earlier this month, McDonald’s CIO David Grooms was asked by the moderator what he would tell people his primary job is. Grooms said, "I'm in sales," and then added that he wanted his staff to say, "We make hamburgers."

So what do I mean by “sales”?So what do I mean by “sales”? It’s not all about presentations and PowerPoint slides. And a sale is more than just doing a dog-and-pony show to executives. That sale has to be made to the functional heads of each business unit. A sale needs to be made to the franchisees, maybe to the store managers and most definitely to the IT team. I think that people often overlook the value of selling into the IT team itself. One of the easiest ways to kill a project is to “inform” the team what is happening versus involving them in the process itself.

Although I am not always successful, I try not to be the IT leader who says, “Oh, by the way, we made the decision to do this technology project, and we need to get it started next week.” It is important that the IT team provides input into the design and implementation plan. This approach is not a democracy because the leader retains the right to make the final decision. Rather, it’s an understanding that having the option to provide and receive input and feedback is an important part of the process. Projects always encounter issues, delays or budget problems. If your team is not 100 percent behind the project, their efforts to overcome these issues may be diminished.

When it comes to launching new technology initiatives in most companies, the IT leader is dealing with the executive team and the business unit functional heads (marketing, operations, finance, etc.). Working in a franchise chain adds a whole layer of complexity that most people do not understand. If there are 100 franchisees in a system, there will be 100 different situations to deal with.

If you brilliantly sell an initiative to the chain's CEO and COO and to all of the business units, it will likely get approved. But if you don't do an even better job of selling it downstream to the franchisees, the initiative will ultimately fail and you'll get blamed. Most technology deployments only work to the extent that people on the frontlines use them and use them routinely.

RFID and CRM data are two of the most obvious examples. Those initiatives have three hurdles: selling them to the chain; getting the franchisees to pay for them; and getting the franchisees to actively use them. A POS deployment really only has two hurdles: selling to the chain and selling to the franchisees so they will pay for it. (Isn't that enough?). In other words, once franchisees deploy it, they'll obviously use it and data will automatically flow to where it needs to be. The need for stores to deploy with they're supposed to deploy is something that Burger King is now trying to enforce—through lawsuits—with some of its franchisees.

But with RFID tracking promotional items—as Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble discovered--or CRM, even if these technologies are deployed, success is based overwhelmingly on how often and how intelligently the stores use the data generated.

If the deployments are ignored, then ROI has no chance. And all of those sales efforts to the chain and to franchisees will have been wasted and you'll be blamed. Franchisees can't merely be sold on the technology purchase. They have to be converted into cheerleaders so they can convince their employees to use the new system routinely.

Having a deep understanding of the technology will not be what makes you successful in this environment. Instead, success will be largely determined by how well you can communicate your ideas and tailor the message to your audience. Franchisees are not going to care that the technology is built on the .NET framework, but they are going to care that the pilot results show a 2 percent savings to COGS (Cost Of Goods Sold).

For those people who are looking to make the leap to the top IT spot, my strong recommendation is to invest in your sales skills. Maybe that means reading a sales book, maybe it’s joining Toastmasters or maybe it’s attending a course at the local community college. Whatever path you take, improving your sales skills will pay dividends in other parts of your life, whether that is buying a car, interviewing for a job or just improving your relationships in general.

What do you think? Love it or hate it, I’d love to gain some additional perspectives. Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected].