When Lisa Garafolo graduated from college last year with a computer science degree, she was delighted to land a job in the hottest information technology career track: electronic commerce.
But as operations coordinator in the interactive division at the world's largest florist, 1800-FLOWERS, Garafolo found herself doing things she never would have anticipated: answering telephones, assembling gift baskets and giving customers advice on what kinds of flowers to send on Mother's Day.
"I'd expected to be more of a traditional systems analyst. But I love this job," she says.
Does Garafolo, who has invested years preparing for a technical career, resent what might be viewed as a lack of job focus?
"Not at all. I've just learned that the technology by itself isn't important. It's how you apply it that counts," she says. "This is how I plan to build my career."
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The firm's multitrack training program, called "Floraversity", was designed to make employees experts in many areas.
The premise behind Floraversity is that even though an employee has a primary job responsibility within a certain function, they will be called upon to exercise knowledge of the floral industry and 1800-FLOWERS in particular, says Neil Halloran, director of corporate training.
And IT workers such as Garafolo who have gone through Floraversity will find themselves increasingly valuable at a company where customer and business needs come first and drive IT initiatives.
So, rather than resenting the time spent in horticulture classes, Garafolo and her colleagues are more likely to find that the knowledge will be key to career success, says David Foote, author of a Meta Group Inc report on IT careers and managing partner at Cromwell Partners LLC, a Connecticut-based IT staffing consulting firm.
Garafolo is responsible for the content of the firm's sites on the World Wide Web, America Online and The Microsoft Network. She makes sure that product information and all editorial, reference and graphic materials are accurate, up to date and interesting enough to keep customers coming back.
She works with interactive division teammates to make sure online orders are processed swiftly and accurately, customers' problems and enquiries are answered immediately and that all other parts of the electronic sales cycle run smoothly.
Garafolo spent her first weeks on the job learning every aspect of the floral business: arranging bouquets at a retail store, taking customer orders and tracking fulfilment of those orders via 1800-FLOWERS' global distribution network. She completed training that immersed her in everything from Hypertext Markup Language and Rainman, AOL's proprietary programming language, to how to care for exotic flowers.
And on holidays, just like everyone else at 1800-FLOWERS, Garafolo stops what she's doing and answers the phones. Those varied skills have turned out to be critical. That's why Donna Iucolano, director of the Interactive Services Division, rates 1800-FLOWERS' cross-functional training program so highly.
Iucolano oversees a staff of 15 full-time employees. Most, like Garafolo, hold traditional computer science degrees. There are also workers who have earned MBAs, as well as marketing professionals and employees promoted from one of the telecentres or other operational areas.
Technology-savvy repeat customers such as Lana Mountford say that attitude makes all the difference.
Mountford, an analyst at Stanford University's IT department, lives in a remote Pacific coast town and has little time to go to stores. So she goes online. Mountford estimates she racked up Web purchases of between $US12,000 and $US16,000 last year. She gives 1800-FLOWERS high marks, mostly because the technology is so skillfully integrated into an understanding of what the customer wants.
"They include quality photographs and detailed descriptions of products. There's also a terrific variety of choices," she says. Mountford also is impressed by the technical standards. "The graphics load very quickly [and] the links are always functional," she says. Perhaps most important, there's a personal touch to the site design that could have come only from intimate knowledge of the business, she says.
"You get the same feeling logging on to their online store as you would get calling them on the phone or walking into a retail florist," Mountford says.
Too many retailers put up Web pages designed by technical specialists "who don't know anything about marketing or about the kinds of customers who will be visiting the site," says Matthew Kinsman, an analyst at Cowles/Simba Information Services in Stamford, Connecticut. "1800-FLOWERS has a well-thought-out online strategy that recognises the personal touch is critical, especially to get the repeat customers."
Facts on 1800-FLOWERS
BASE: Westbury, New York
WHAT: The world's largest florist with 130 company-owned retail stores and 2500 "partner" florists. Online stores are at America Online (keyword: flowers), The Microsoft Network (in The Plaza) and the Web (www.1800flowers.com.).
FINANCIALS: This year's revenue is projected to be $US300 million; online revenue will account for 10 per cent of that. Last year, there were about nine million purchases of flowers via all channels.
INTERACTIVE SERVICES DIVISION: Established in 1992 to pursue non-traditional opportunities using emerging technologies, the division employs 15 workers who have a mix of technical, operations, marketing and horticultural skills.
ONLINE AWARDS: Gold Site (NetGuide); 100 Top Cyberstores, five out of five stars (PC Computing); A "Must-See Site", four out of four stars (Excite); three out of four stars (Magellan).by IDG staff