A few years ago, Meg Chapman attended a training program for GE senior leaders on how to implement the management philosophy known as lean. Larry Culp, who had recently joined GE as chairman and CEO, had placed lean — the idea of cutting waste and working more efficiently — at the heart of GE’s turnaround. It has since been implemented at a wide variety of manufacturing plants, where it’s streamlined production processes, improved safety, and resulted in millions of dollars in savings.
But lean grew out of the manufacturing world of assembly lines — and Chapman was a marketing person, leading GE’s Online Demand Creation team. Could lean techniques, she wondered, also be employed to sharpen marketing responses to get relevant information out to potential customers more quickly and efficiently? Over the next four years, Chapman’s marketing team — which supports GE Gas Power, GE Steam Power, and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, three of the businesses that make up GE Vernova, GE’s portfolio of energy businesses — set about to do exactly that, pioneering a novel approach to lean, a mix of lean’s assembly line tenets and new ones developed from scratch.
The result: Marketing team employees have used lean concepts to shave thousands of hours from their workload while dramatically improving their ability to respond to customers in smart, targeted ways. “Lean’s empowering,” Chapman says. “It does slow you down initially — understanding bottlenecks, building all the standard work. But once you do it, you can fly.”
It was daunting at first. They couldn’t find concrete examples of lean having been used in marketing before, but they found useful parallels. Lean’s core purpose is to eliminate waste. At a factory, that means getting the most out of physical assets like equipment, inventory, and space. In marketing, the team realized, the most precious resource was their own time. To ferret out wasted effort in their day-to-day work, they created “value stream maps,” breaking down each task into individual steps to zero in on bottlenecks.
For example, Nicolette Weinbaum, then GE Power’s digital marketing manager, led an effort to refine the process for creating and promoting webinars, livestreamed sessions with technology and industry experts that the team organizes for customers. It took more than eight hours to put together a custom email list for each webinar. For a webinar on advanced aeroderivative technologies, they might want to target engineers, or if the subject was improving performance in cold climates, they would focus on clients in Northern Europe and Canada, among others. But the team’s customer database, compiled from equipment sales, lacked job titles and locations for most of their contacts. Even worse, the data was spread across several platforms, requiring the team to comb through a hodgepodge of Excel files.
To simplify the process, Heather Hewlett, a customer support manager on the sales development team, and four colleagues worked with the sales department to obtain more detailed contact information from clients — and consolidated the resulting data onto one platform. Marketing staff can now cull a webinar audience in a quarter of the original time and be more confident that they’ve identified the appropriate customers. Moreover, the framework has helped the team sail through other projects. “There’s no more ‘How did I do that last time?’” Chapman says. “It’s clear as day: This is how it’s done.” And rather than stifle creativity, adds Weinbaum, “when you take that mental load off, you have all this clear headspace to be creative and innovate.”
Chapman and her co-workers also take advantage of a range of digital tools, which have helped them jettison dozens of steps from their workload. Much as manufacturers rely on robotic equipment for maximum efficiency, Chapman’s team developed an automated customer outreach system to help meet demand without compromising service or overtaxing her staff. This automation also enables the team to deliver more customized content, elevating customers’ online experiences. Visitors to the website might start with a podcast and then be invited to a more in-depth webinar; if they indicate an interest in lower-carbon fuels, they are directed to an interactive hydrogen calculator to determine the resources required and how it can lower their power plant’s carbon emissions.
Customers who request more information about a new turbine receive an automatic email, tailored to their interests, within five minutes. With some 38,000 addresses in their send-to list, the team now saves more than 880 hours a year that they previously would have spent crafting manual responses. “We’re a small team, and inquiries are coming in all the time from everywhere in the world,” Hewlett says. “Even if a customer submits a request while I’m asleep, they can continue with the experience. When I’m back at my desk in the morning, I am ready to take them to the next step. Before, those conversations would take days. Now they’re taking hours.”
A recent example: A customer in Asia Pacific who visited GE’s website to learn about aeroderivative turbines completed a “contact us” form and received the automated email response. Chapman’s team passed the lead to the local sales executive, who deduced that the customer wasn’t ready to buy yet. But because the GE team had set up the automatic outreach system, Hewlett says, “we already had a whole set of content queued up for customers who, based on their behavior, seemed interested in an aeroderivative unit.” Over the next few years, the customer received six more personalized emails with information about GE’s aeroderivative product line. When he came to a decision, he returned to the website to request a price on a particular turbine. The local sales team followed up, and five days later they were on their way to closing a $100 million deal.
“Online communications kept that relationship going,” Chapman says. All told, the automated outreach system saves the marketing team approximately 6,440 hours per year, equivalent to the work of more than three employees — time they can now devote to more in-depth conversations with customers.
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