From its headquarters in Regent's Park, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is responsible for some very rare breeds. Nick Napier, head of information and communications technology for ZSL is also responsible for a valuable breed, customers.

ZSL is more famous for its two attractions, London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, but the society is also a world leader in conservation and animal research. "ZSL is a charity, the majority of income comes from our visitors", Napier explains in a meeting room adorned with images of the beauty of the natural world. "Running the zoo successfully creates a surplus for conservation programmes and animal welfare." ZSL has conservation programmes running in over 30 different countries.

"Throughout the zoos there is a very strong conservation message and it is how these messages are communicated that we engage with visitors" he says.

The zoos attracts 1.6 million visitors a year, and with the majority being British residents, the charity is reliant on those visitors providing a Gift Aid contribution as part of their entry, allowing ZSL to claw back some revenue from the Treasury. "People are always surprised that we get no government funding," he says.

A good spring and summer in 2009 meant that when CIO met with Napier just as the tourism season was getting into full swing, they were expecting high visitor numbers and a good year. "We are having a good year; other visitor attractions are having a good year as there is a good number of people staying at home in the UK. We are a good brand, London Zoo is high on people's lists when they come to London," Napier says.

In 2007 Napier and other senior management sat down and planned out the strategy, looking primarily at what was holding the organisation back from growth. "We identified where our main customer contact was. We found everything was inter-related and we needed to look at the processes and how they could be improved.

"We had a lot of back office processes that glued the customer information together that were cumbersome and prone to error and knew that this would jeopardise growth." ZSL had a number of different databases for membership, fundraising, scientific relationships and business relationships. "We were aware that there was a lot of information on these people that we couldn't understand. The various points of contact are numerous. You may only come as a visitor with the kids, but you may also be interested in conservation. The issue is trying to understand who these people are and then develop the customer relationship management.

"People come here and have a really good day out and they discover that there is a lot more going on than they realise."

As a result Napier and the IT team needed to re-engineer the processes for connecting and retailing to visitors and members. "All the previous systems on their own worked OK, but we had three large pools of data." Napier has selected a range of systems from Blackbaud, which specialises in software for the not-for-profit sector. Blackbaud has provided ZSL with a set of different applications that all work together to provide support for the ZSL fundraising, ticketing, Gift Aid and web communications needs.

"The solution we have put in strengthens the back office and really puts in the foundations for the business. The project had the support of the directors from an early stage. We were confident it was the right strategy to do and will deliver a return on investment within two to three years," Napier says.

Napier began looking for an integrated ticketing and fund raising package in March 2008 and specified the business needs. Blackbaud was selected in February 2009 and total implementation and configuration will be completed in October 2009. Napier was also looking for a toolset that deliver analysis systems on top of the ticketing functions. With Blackbaud, ZSL is able to buy these and integrate as and when they are ready. ZSL is already building data cubes ready for slicing and dicing.

"Knowing that we were buying into an organisation that already had some experience in the sector was important. We are a small organisation and didn't want to spend lots of time developing. I don't want a big technology department writing code," Napier says.

"People have expectations now of how organisations deliver tickets, of their online communications," Napier says of the customer benefits. Online customers can now purchase a ticket online, print off a bar code ticket and be straight into the zoo without queuing.

With the systems now all in place, Napier and his colleagues are now assessing the CRM strategy of ZSL, which involves working with marketing teams on communications and the appointment of a CRM manager to extract the most from the technology. "The key thing for us is to look at conversions, such as thanking people for using Gift Aid and then offering them more. Our members need to be offered more. With any organisation you really are at a point where you are a customer and then it becomes membership. CRM aims to keep this process moving."

Although first impressions of conservation and zoo keeping may not imply heavy IT usage, Napier said everyone in the organisation is an IT user, including the keepers. This is the result of a major re-organisation of ZSL. "Six or seven years ago ZSL re-organised and brought in some new heads of department to bring in some expertise from the outside. I came into look at how we run all IT from networks to the web enabled tools for academics. My focus has tried to be what the technology can do for the business. For the first two to three years it was about re-developing the infrastructure. It needed some rationalisation and the organisation had not realised what IT could do for it. We are a number of years behind some businesses, but we can learn from them," he says.

Napier arrived at ZSL having had a career in the not-for-profit sector and then into broadcasting. He started out at the Royal Festival Hall, the other side of the Thames River to ZSL before a career in Rome developing subscriber management systems for a TV channel that broadcast into the middle east. He is now also deputy finance director for ZSL. "My boss is responsible for estates, IT and procurement, I'm there to assist. In organisations of this size IT often sits under finance so it all fits in nicely as both interact right across the organisation."

Across the road from the ZSL HQ building the animals are increasing their tropical calls as the sun beats down, customers queue and the systems ensure the entire environment is sustainable.