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Negotiating and Managing Realistic Customer Expectations

While heading an extensive IT customer service effort at a major defense contractor, my team and I developed a simple but effective method for negotiating and managing realistic customer expectations. The first part involved thorough preparation for face-to-face interviews with selected key customers, and the second part consisted of actually conducting the interview to negotiate and follow up on realistic expectations.

Changing the mindset of IT professionals can be a challenging task. We were asking them to focus very intently on a small number of customers, when for years they had emphasized just the reverse. The criteria described in the previous section helped immensely to limit their number of interviews to just a handful of key customers. Getting the IT leads and managers to actually schedule the interviews was even more of a challenge for us.

This reluctance to interview key customers was puzzling to our team. These IT professionals had been interviewing new hires for well over a year and had been conducting semiannual performance reviews for most of their staffs for some time. Yet we were hearing almost every excuse under the sun as to why they couldn't conduct a face-to-face interview with key customers. Some wanted to do it over the phone, some wanted to send out surveys, others wanted to use email, and many simply claimed that endless "phone tag" and schedule conflicts prevented successful get-togethers.

We knew that these face-to-face interviews with primary customers were the key to negotiating reasonable expectations that in turn would lead to improved customer service. So we looked a little more closely at the reluctance to interview. What we discovered really surprised us: Most of our managers and leads believed that the interviews could easily become confrontational unless only a few IT-friendly customers were involved. Many had received no formal training on effective interviewing techniques, and felt ill-equipped to deal with a potentially belligerent user. Very few thought that they could actually convince a skeptical user that some of their expectations might be unrealistic, yet still be considered service-oriented.

This realization temporarily changed our approach. We immediately set up an intense interview training program for our leads and managers, which specifically emphasized how to deal with difficult customers. Traditional techniques such as open-ended questions, active listening, and restatements were combined with effective ways to cut off ramblers, negotiate compromise, and agree to disagree. We even developed some sample scripts for them to use as a guideline.

The training went quite well and proved to be very effective. Interviews with key customers began being conducted by leads and managers from all across our IT department. From the feedback we received about the interviews from both IT and our customers, we learned what most felt was the most effective part of the interview. We referred to it as the notion of validate, negotiate, escalate.

We stressed to interviewers that when their interviewees were in fact key customers, they should validate that the customer did indeed critically need and use the services that we were supplying, and ask about their current expectations for the levels of service provided. If the expectations were reasonable and obtainable, then the type and frequency of measurements to be used were discussed and agreed upon. If the expectations were unreasonable, negotiations, explanations, and compromises were proposed. If these negotiations didn't result in a satisfactory agreement, as would occasionally occur, the interviewer would politely agree to disagree and move on to other matters.

Afterwards, the interviewer would escalate the unsuccessful negotiation to his or her manager, who would attempt to resolve it with the manager of the key customer. This method proved to be exceptionally effective at negotiating reasonable expectations and realistic service levels. The hidden benefits included clearer and more frequent communication with users, improved interviewing skills for leads and managers, increased credibility for the IT department, and more empathy from our users for some of the many constraints under which most IT organizations function.

This empathy that key customers were sharing with us leads me to the second universal truth concerning customer service and expectations:

Most customers are forgiving of occasional poor service if reasonable attempts are made to explain the nature and cause of the problem, and what is being done to resolve it and prevent recurrences.

As simple and as obvious as this may sound, it's still surprising to see how often this basic concept is overlooked or ignored in IT organizations. IT customers and providers alike would all be better served if it was understood and used more frequently.

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