Enterprise-level Applications: Interview with TJ Crawford, Director of Professional Services

TJ_CrawfordTJ Crawford has been with Twelve Horses for almost eight years now, and in that time he has implemented many complex business automation and multi-channel marketing strategies for a variety of our enterprise level clients. With more than twelve years of experience in website design, application development, and integrated online marketing, T.J. is a master of melding web applications and technologies with database management and customer interaction. Whether the conversation is centered around multi-channel marketing, data replication, content management, ecommerce, Salesforce integration, or an amalgamation of all of the above he has plenty to share. It is for these reasons that I thought I’d chat a little with TJ to see what he is up to.

What are you most excited about right now?

It is not any one item, product or industry but technology period. There is a lot of fantastic innovation and discovery going on. I just saw the Space Cube, which is a computer condensed into a 2-inch cube. It has decent memory, USB, VGA output, Linux operating system etc. Something that used to take up a whole room can now easily fit into your hand. A large number of our cell phones have more computing power than NASA had when we went to the moon. There is just a plethora of technological innovations going on out there. Moore’s Law is in full effect for not only hardware but innovation as well. And where I get excited is finding that innovation and bringing it to use.

What changes have you seen in the company since you first started?

I actually have the proud designation of being the first Twelve Horses North America employee going back to when we merged in 2002. It was at that time that we went from being a 12-person web development shop called, Aztech Cyberspace to an international email marketing company…overnight. At first we focused on email software solutions but quickly found that people still need web services and integration; so we made sure those areas had the proper people and resources. We had our MessageMaker platform and Content Management System already, but over the years we developed quite a few more systems (Compliance, Automated Alert Systems, Membership Managment, Ticketing etc.). We went from being a web service company to a software company, to where we are now, which is a full-scale web development company helping automate and streamline all of the above. We have the brains (the people) as well as owning the development and IP for several software platforms.

And it makes perfect sense for us when you look at it from a competitive position. Most interactive companies don’t own their own solutions. They have to go out and find an email provider, a website designer, a content management system. Because we own them we are not limited to some 3rd party’s off-the-shelf feature sets.

What is new in enterprise-level application development?

Different industries are asking for different things. For instance, the financial industry is very focused on security. If they send an email they want to be sure the information in that email is secure. Having data portability is also really important. Sharing information internally, with 3rd parties and vendors, but doing it securely. Also, where the data is actually stored.

We are still very focused on technology systems that allow us to  alleviate physical resources. Figuring out how we can automate and pull the labor out of it so the company can focus on how to make the business better, not just simple execution of processes.

Also, the ability to track data and put together actionable items. Just tracking is no longer enough. Don’t tell me I have 10,000 visitors, but tell me what they want. You not only have to provide insight, but you need to integrate it with multiple applications so you can get more of a holistic and aggregate view.

Tell us about a difficult challenge you’ve recently been faced with?

It is really the people equation. We can’t automate  a solution around people acting differently depending on the variables within a situation. While there is fuzzy logic built into many systems, we can’t really automate a relationship decision, or a decision that is based on loose variables involving the human element.

For instance, clients place value on the relationship – the history, loyalty, and personality – you can’t automate that. We use Salesforce, love Salesforce, and have dedicated employees who only work on Salesforce; but Salesforce cannot go out and meet with a client.

What are you currently working on?

I have taken a very active role in business development because of our recent product developments. For instance, with our CMS system we have done 3 major new releases since the beginning of the year. Going out and talking to our customers is very important. Internally, you can talk to project managers, developers, and designers, and while they can give you great feedback, you have to get the full balance. You’ve got to know what your clients are doing, and what they are struggling with. You need their feedback. If you are not out in front of your customers hearing what their needs are, what their goals are, then you can’t build a great solution. That is how you bring real value.

We have a lot going on particularly with our CMS and supporting application development. The applications are much like plug-ins. For instance, we have a lot of CVB clients, so we have developed a stakeholder application for them. It gives the hotels, eateries and other businesses within the community access to manage content on the CVB’s site. It gives the stakeholder control of their interest and removes the labor component from the CVB.

Also, I’ve been working for quite some time on a ticketing system. The ticketing industry has been going through a lot of changes. Technologies have improved dramatically since the early 90s when many of these original ticketing systems were being built. A lot of old ticketing systems focused on the operational side, but they overlooked the marketing piece of it. Also, if you don’t provide some of that data on what your customers are buying and their demographic information, purchasing habits, etc, then you’ve really falling behind. There is also a lot of opportunity to take these transactions to the mobile environment, both on the payment side as well as using your mobile device as the ticket itself.

What would be your one piece of advice for database and online marketers out there?

Work smarter not harder. Find ways to bring exponential value to your clients both internally and externally. Don’t just implement changes to save a penny but sacrifice your brand by ticking off a client. Also, over the years I’ve seen companies invest a lot of money developing or buying closed systems. But to get into a system that does not take into account the other systems within your company, or integrate with them, is shortsighted. If they don’t play friendly with other companies and other solutions then you should be suspect. Getting locked into these long term contracts with closed system means they basically don’t have to develop new solutions and features and compete for your business as aggressively. That is why companies like Google have done such a great job. Many of their systems are open and continue to add value. They continue to innovate at a breakneck pace.

Custom vs Out-of-the-Box?

A lot of clients think they need a custom solution, but they really don’t. You have to ask, what is the cost vs benefit? Sometimes we have customers that come to us and the solution just doesn’t exist. So we have to determine whether or not it makes sense. An example of that is an economic development authority we recently worked with. They were shopping for an event management solution. We showed them what we could do, as well as what some other competitors were doing. They did a considerable amount of research and after that came back to us. They couldn’t find one that fully integrated with their systems or managed their groups the way they wanted. So we built it; and the ROI has far exceeded their and our expectations.

When TJ is not busy strategizing, scoping, and architecting technology solutions, he can be found playing golf or hanging out with his wife and twin boys. He even on occasion finds a little time for abstract blogging.

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