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1980s: Professional life

Reflections on a life in database marketing: Merlin Stone
In 1980, at the age of 32, I left academia for a spell in industry. I joined the European HQ of Rank Xerox, where I worked in business planning and competitive intelligence, monitoring and forecasting the devastating impact of Japanese copier manufacturers on our business. I had been consulting to Rank Xerox for a year, working on the relationship between service satisfaction and perceptions of response and repair times, merging service records with the perceptions survey results and analysing the file using SPSS. A central finding was that the halo effect was alive and well. Unreliable machines made customers think that engineers took longer to arrive than they actually did!

Another part of my responsibilities was to help Rank Xerox develop a framework for managing its emerging systems business (word processing, daisy-wheel printing, laser printing and the first true windows product, the Xerox 8000 information processing system, based on the original Star workstation whose windows idea was adopted by Apple). I was one of the few managers who learned how to use a word processor (I insisted that one should know how to use the products one sold). This attracted many wisecracks from senior managers. "Got a new job, then, Merlin?", they asked, when they saw me tapping away. Given the importance of Xerox’s service contract business (made possible by the unreliability of their machines), I decided to learn more about service. I worked with an independent consultant, Dr Tony Wild, who was working on Xerox’s problems and who educated me in the intricacies of spare part management. This co-operation resulted later in our book, Field Service Management, the first book (we think) compiled on the Xerox 8000 system.

In those days, Rank Xerox’s business planning community used APL to manipulate the many matrices needed for complex, interlocking plans. Then, along came one of the first spreadsheet programmes, Visicalc. We bought an Apple IIe and (unbelievably, these days) asked university academics (operations researchers from Sussex University, my alma mater), to programme a model for analysing Rank Xerox's service business.

In 1983 I was given the opportunity under the Rank Xerox networking scheme to allow managers to leave and contract back while working from home. I took it. This gave me a free Xerox 820 computer together with its massive 8" floppy disk drives and daisy-wheel printer. Meanwhile, I answered a job advertisement for a senior post at Henley Management College and negotiated it down to a part-time post, giving me a great foundation for a consultancy career. One of my tasks at Henley was to develop a short course for senior marketers, Marketing – the New Realities, which I did in conjunction with the consultancy Marketing Improvements. It was great training for me too.

My confidence in dealing with senior management was greatly boosted by Jim Coulson, a wise consultant from California who ran several senior management development programmes for Rank Xerox. He asked me to present on them while I was still at Xerox and gave me a contract to work on them after I left the company. He also gave me work, including some at Xerox’s laser printer division in Los Angeles. I had a lot of luck and some really good friends!

I was by then something of an expert on computer marketing, did many projects for computer companies and wrote a book, How to Market Computers and Office Systems, with Hamish Macarthur, an experienced IT analyst and consultant. I developed a training programme on the subject which I ran in many countries. With Hamish, I wrote regular articles on IT marketing for the main magazine for recruiting IT marketing and sales professionals.

As luck would have it, at the same time I was asked to contribute to a training programme being run for Rank Xerox UK’s marketing department by an experienced training consultant, Kevin Martin, whom I'd met while working on other training projects. A senior member of this department was Mike Wallbridge, who managed the company's marketing communications. When in 1984 he moved along with many others to British Telecom to help with the newly privatised company's marketing, he contacted me and asked me to see him.

Mike was very kind, telling me I was the only marketing person in Rank Xerox (whose management was dominated by ex-sales people) who had made sense to him. Could I help him with his massive programme for creating and using British Telecom's first truly national customer database? Ever the optimist, I reasoned that because I knew about the marketing of computers, and the associated skills and change management requirements (which I had learned about from Kevin), I could learn about the use of computers in marketing. So I entered the world of database marketing. By now, Kevin and I had formed a company, and we needed all the good people we could get to help British Telecom.

At that time, the main very large users of customer databases were the big direct mail marketers, such as The Readers Digest, American Express and mail order catalogue operators. Barclaycard had recently burst onto the scene, while utilities generally used their customer databases for emergency service management - central heating maintenance contracts were relatively new. In the next few years, company after company lined up for the services of our business, mainly to help them implement new marketing approaches using customer data. The most dramatic success was achieved by Direct Line, who had launched in 1985.

British Telecom dominated our client base, but British Airways, British Gas and others completed our portfolio. It was then that I started my Database Users Group, so that companies could learn from each other. Its first members included British Telecom,. British Airways, Homebase (one of the first loyalty card operators with its Spend and Save scheme) and others.

British Telecom’s Customer Communications Unit had the tough task of rationalising a myriad, fragmented communications initiatives, to create more effect at lower cost. Mike’s project resulted in the company being able to write to all of its customers with the same (or relevant) messages. Managing this Unit required real skill, and Adrian Hosford had been recruited from ICL to build a team of some of the best marketers in the UK. He succeeded, and I am still in contact with many of them, who taught me so much about direct marketing.

One of the critical influences on my early work was my connection with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). They were the main supplier of database marketing technology to British Telecom. I learned much from its senior people, particular Nigel Backwith and Bob Shaw (Bob and I wrote one of the first books to explain how to do all this – Database Marketing). Andersens referred me in to British Airways. And it was from Andersens that I recruited Neil Woodock (now Chairman and CEO of The Customer Framework) into our company.

Customer database technology was then "clunky", as they put it. Databases were not relational, but in most cases flat files, which made processing them expensive and time consuming. Relational databases had appeared, but they were expensive and required complex programming. The culture of data management that we accept as normal these days was absent, and many corners were cut and errors made. Many marketing managers had no idea what a customer database was, what it could do, and its benefits, so much of our work involved communication, explanation and training.

With the databases came contact centres, but it was - compared with today - a cosy world. All you needed were addresses and telephone numbers, as e-mail and mobile telephones were rare. Instead, we had faxes, pagers and other now rarely used devices, which generally were not top priority - just getting the basics of name, address and fixed-line telephone number onto databases and learning how to use them was the focus of most of our clients. For business contact databases, life was as yet uncomplicated by the emergence of home working (though I featured in BT campaigns along with my family as one of the first true home workers). The idea was just taking root that small business customers were more effectively managed using Telephone Account Management (a telephone and a customer database rather than a cheap sales person). Yes, this was, another book, this time with Chris Wheeler, one of my consulting colleagues. The vital contact histories were another matter. As they resulted from telephone calls and direct mail exchanges, they introduced an additional set of concerns about data quality.

I decided in 1989 to go back into Academia. This led me to a Deanship of the Faculty of Human Sciences at Kingston University, from which position I was able to support the privatisation out of the university of what was to become the Institute of Direct Marketing, still a global leader in developing the skills that we all need.