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Marketers embrace Six Sigma strategies

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Proponents of Six Sigma, a quality improvement methodology for manufacturing that got its start in the mid-1990s, have for years said the discipline could be applied to processes away from the factory floor. Now b-to-b companies are using Six Sigma to improve marketing, sales and customer support.

General Electric Co., Motorola, Dow Chemical Co. and Honeywell, all leaders in implementing Six Sigma in their manufacturing operations, have realized efficiencies in marketing processes by applying Six Sigma concepts. By so doing, they may be in the vanguard at a time when marketing investments are being carefully analyzed. Six Sigma, they say, offers a path to saving marketing costs, improving relationships with customers and boosting the bottom line.

Dow Chemical first rolled out Six Sigma in 1999, across several divisions.

"Most of the time, Six Sigma is most readily deployed in manufacturing and operations environments," said John Guthrie, Six Sigma local champion for the Americas at Dow AgroSciences, a division of Dow Chemical that manufactures pesticides and biotechnology products. "When you move into marketing and sales environments, where the process is people to people, there are no wires or pipes connecting the inputs in the process," he added.

Six Sigma uses a standard process called DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control), that involves defining each step in a process, measuring various performance metrics and improving the process through recommendations by experts, who are trained in the Six Sigma process. The experts carry titles such as Six Sigma Black Belts and Six Sigma Green Belts, depending on their level of training.

AgroSciences' black belts

Dow AgroSciences, which has 132 Six Sigma Black Belts, has used Six Sigma on marketing projects including market analysis, market share growth and improving productivity in marketing processes.

"If you can gain one or two market share points it has tremendous impact," Guthrie said. "Every market share project we've done has been very successful in terms of realizing growth."

GE, another early Six Sigma adopter, first rolled out Six Sigma in 1995 and has used it not only to improve internal processes, but also to benefit clients under a customer support program called ACFC (At the Customer, For the Customer) that was rolled out in 2002.

At GE Commercial Finance, which has more than 300 Six Sigma Black Belts, the company uses Six Sigma to ensure data integrity, analyze share of market and other data, improve sales force effectiveness and increase customer profitability, said Sharon Garavel, Six Sigma leader at GE Commercial Finance.

"Six Sigma is ingrained in everything GE does," Garavel said. Using Six Sigma as an integral part of its program, ACFC has saved GE Commercial Finance customers an estimated $1 billion in the past two years, Garavel said.

GE sends Six Sigma experts to client sites to help them solve problems from selling equipment and services to improving customer invoice processes without charging them a fee.

Sprint calls for advice

When Sprint rolled out a new service option that bundled equipment and services as one line item on customers' bills, it called on GE Commercial Finance to help it streamline the process. GE sent in its Six Sigma Black Belts to collaborate with Sprint to see where the process could be improved.

"The tools that were brought to bear have been very successful and allowed our salespeople to be more efficient," said Tom Renner, group manager of Sprint product management.

"The support they provide helps [GE] enjoy more business with us," he added.

GE Healthcare is another business within GE that uses Six Sigma.

"We expect everyone to have a basic knowledge of Six Sigma," said Antoinette Gawin, general manager-strategic industry marketing at GE Healthcare Technologies, referring to the green belt level. In addition, GE Healthcare Technologies has 500 Six Sigma Black Belts. Together, these professionals solve problems such as streamlining the supply chain to optimizing work flow processes in emergency rooms.

"The process and analytical skills acquired through Six Sigma are key building blocks of our marketing competencies," said Srini Seshadri, chief marketing officer at GE Healthcare Technologies. "We've applied Six Sigma to sales force effectiveness, customer research and new product introductions as critical components of developing commercial excellence," he added.

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