Can you guess who is responsible for IT in the majority of British businesses? The information systems director? The IT manager? The finance director? That hoary relic of a distant age, the dataprocessing manager? That trendy American import, the chief information officer? No, it is none of these. In three-quarters of British businesses, the person in charge of IT is the managing director?s secretary.
In spare minutes between typing, diary-keeping and accounting, fobbing off unwelcome callers and soothing emotional brows, ordering the loo rolls and generally holding the ship together, she is also responsible for procuring, maintaining, supporting and backing up the firm?s computer systems (which, in a very small company, may reside entirely on her own desk).
Although small businesses offer some of the most promising marketing opportunities for PC products (low installed base, high sales growth, plenty of scope for support and services with no IT professionals in-house), they have been largely ignored by the PC industry, which seems more interested in the sexier home market or the high-volume corporate arena. ?Just trot along to the superstore and they?ll sort you out,? is a common reaction from vendors. No wonder many small businesses end up with wholly inappropriate technology and get put off the idea altogether.
Secretaries generally get a raw deal when it comes to PCs. They are the ones who must stay behind or come in early to do the backups, who must hang on the phone to tech support when something goes wrong, and get covered in boot-blacking when they change the toner cartridge. And although they are frequently the hardest-working and most stressed people in the organisation, they are often saddled with hand-me-down PCs which the firm?s more highly paid members are too proud to continue using (despite the fact that in most cases they remain perfectly adequate for their limited needs and aspirations).
So if there is a cast-iron marketing opportunity for any open-minded PC vendor, the MD?s secretary is probably it. The question is, how to reach her? (I am not being sexist, by the way ? regardless of the sex of the boss, secretaries are nearly always female).
Advertising in women?s magazines or the features pages of middle-market newspapers would be a good start. Some women?s titles have reported considerable interest when they have run features on computing ? ostensibly with a family/education focus, but much of the information is equally relevant to business. It might be necessary to rewrite some of the ad copy in English, and spend more time explaining what the products could usefully do rather than how fast they went, but that would be no bad thing.
Or how about the direct approach? There would be a neat irony if the MD were to answer the phone, only to be asked, ?Can I speak to your secretary, please? I?d like to discuss your information technology requirements, and it would be rather over your head.? Alternatively, vendors could recruit a former secretary or two to sell direct to their peers on a franchise basis, as Habitech is doing in the home market.
Microsoft and others are pushing their products in schools in the hope that ex-pupils will equip their businesses with them in later life, so a few approaches to secretarial colleges and agencies, offering cheap software, information packs and free awareness lectures, might not go amiss either. And for the hapless secretary who is struggling on with the old 486SX her boss no longer wants, why not help her produce a fully costed efficiency study, detailing how much time and money the firm would save if she bought a brand new Pentium Pro?
This secretary-friendly approach could be extended into the products themselves ? with who knows what benefits to the PC industry as a whole. Something tells me that if people like my mum were in charge of buying software, they wouldn?t shell out #300 for products which were full of bugs or stuffed with features they were never going to use.
No one who has ever bought an expensive child?s toy and seen it reduced to scrap within a week would buy a PC or peripheral that was not capable of surviving the rough-and-tumble of office use. And if anyone in the office is going to go blind or get RSI, it is usually the poor secretary who has to bash away at a PC for hours, so PC and software ergonomics would soon have to improve.
Even the styling of PCs and printers might take a turn for the better. Stiletto monitor stands and pink PCs with matching modems would doubtless go down like a lead balloon. But it?s about time someone created a demand for kit that does not look quite so much like pieces of discarded hospital equipment.
So next time you knock up a presentation and need an image to represent the ?typical customer?, instead of the clip-art bloke in pinstripes or the woman with the shoulder pads, why not use the picture of the grimly efficient woman behind the office desk?
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