It’s not every day a chief executive hits a 10-year anniversary. But at SMG, we’re committed to doing what it takes to keep great people around for the long haul.
We caught up with our Chief Information Officer Dennis Ehrich to pick his brain about his time at SMG, as well as the future of all things data and technology.
Where were you before SMG, and what did you expect when you made the move?
I spent 5 years at H&R Block before SMG found me. Before that, I spent time at Accenture working in retail banking, insurance, and credit card processing. Both of those experiences taught me the importance of planning, managing change, managing great talent, and working with great people.
Coming into the role, I expected to solve very tactical, specific issues that tend to happen when a company is growing fast. My role has changed a lot since then, and once we were able to keep the lights on, we started to focus on leveraging our technology to drive efficiency. That’s a constant work in progress, but we’re getting better all the time.
We’ve also started thinking more about our solutions as an ecosystem our clients can use all or part of to meet their business needs. I love being able to continually disrupt the way we do things to get better, faster, and smarter. I knew I’d get the chance to make real, meaningful, and long-lasting changes here, and I was ready to do that. Once I got here, I knew I’d be here a while.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen since you’ve been here?
What we do here now is wildly different than what we did when we started. We started out in physical paper reports that we’d mail out to restaurants. Fast forward 10 years, and we don’t mail anything at all! All reports are posted digitally. We email our clients updates. Reporting is done online and in real time. Apps make that reporting even more accessible.
Over time, I’ve been surprised at how agile development has changed the game in the way it’s increased the way we’re able to serve our clients. We’ve been able to create a real efficient, predictable, solution-driven software factory of sorts. Our products have grown to be increasingly high-quality, high-performing, and innovative. We’ve shifted from a pretty narrow set of technologies to a relatively progressive set of new, open-source technologies that let us offer our clients tools that are specific and relevant to their individual businesses.
When we started, SMG considered itself a research company—and now we like to think of ourselves as a research company powered by great technology. My goal is to push us even further to become a data-driven company. Today our biggest challenges are to continue to push our own boundaries in terms of technology and data—providing an open architecture to let our clients easily integrate and interact with our products and services using APIs.
What are your predictions for the future?
Customers have more ways to communicate with brands than ever before—Twitter, review sites, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Communication happens privately, publicly, anonymously, and non-anonymously—and navigating these channels for brands can be really complicated. We’re always trying to stay ahead of these changes and help our clients (and future clients) find better ways to talk to and serve the people that keep their businesses growing. That means finding new ways to capture data and make sense of it.
In terms of industry predictions, retail clients have to recognize that they have significant competition from digital-only brands and retailers. Those brands that will win have to create reasons why customers should come into their store. That means creating phenomenal customer experiences that blend different channels into the in-store experience.
Restaurant brands are facing big, disruptive change in the way they operate with the rise of mobile ordering, third-party delivery, and shifts in customer preferences. Getting customers what they want in a fast, convenient way should be their biggest focus. I think technology will play a big part in how brands will solve for this.
Finally, I believe all industries should keep an eye on the power coming from machine-learning technologies—artificial intelligence, the internet of “things” (wearables, sensory analytics, etc.). Our ability to listen to our customers and understand the customer journey is growing every day—which can help us at SMG get smarter in our analytics and help our clients know the best ways to respond to the changes.
How do you think you’ve changed over the last 10 years?
I've learned how to listen better. I've hired people who are much smarter than me, and they've taught me a ton about nearly every aspect of what we do at SMG. I have a habit of diving straight into the problems—which hasn’t always proven to be the best approach in solving them. I've learned to hold back my enthusiasm a bit and take a moment to learn from the incredibly smart and challenging people around me.
Something that hasn’t changed is my love for golf. I remember a few years ago, I attended a few client golf events, and I came back from one weekend event to business cards on my desk that read “Chief Golf Officer.” I was hoping that gesture meant I could eventually shirk my CIO responsibilities and do that full time, but that has yet to happen.