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Optimizing IT Customer Service

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IT organizations typically provide services for up to thousands of recipients. But limiting your user community to a handful of key customers, and negotiating realistic expectations with them, can improve the quality of services for all customers.
This article is adapted from Rich Schiesser's forthcoming book, IT Systems Management (Prentice Hall, targeted for publication December 2001, ISBN 0-13-087678-X).
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One of the best ways that IT infrastructures can provide quality services is to identify their key customers and negotiate reasonable expectations. Once those are agreed upon and consistently met IT customer service can truly be optimized.

Identifying Your Key Customers

Consistently meeting or exceeding the expectations of your key customers is one of the best ways to ensure that you're providing excellent customer service. In transitioning to a service-oriented environment, infrastructure professionals sometimes struggle with identifying who their key customers are. A frequent comment I hear in this regard is that, since all company employees in one way or another use IT services, then all company employees must be our key customers.

In reality, however, there are usually just a small number of key customers who can serve as a barometer for good customer service and effective process improvements. For example, you may design a change-management process that dozens or even hundreds of programmers may be required to use. But you would probably only need to involve a handful of key programmer representatives to assist in designing the process and measuring its effectiveness.

Various criteria exist to determine which of your numerous customers qualify as being key to your operation. The following are seven common characteristics of key customers found in a typical infrastructure (although IT departments should identify those criteria that are the most suitable for their particular environment):

  • Someone whose success critically depends on the services you provide. Infrastructure groups typically serve a variety of departments within a company. Some departments are more essential to the core business of the company than others, just as some applications are considered mission-critical and others are not. The heads or designated leads of these departments are usually good candidates for key customers.

  • Someone whose satisfaction assures your success as an organization. Some individuals hold positions of influence within a company and can help market the credibility of an infrastructure organization. These customers may be in significant staff positions such as those found in legal or public affairs departments. The high visibility of these positions may afford them the opportunity to highlight infrastructure achievements.

  • Someone who fairly and thoroughly represents large customer organizations. The very nature of some services provided by IT infrastructures result in these services being used by a large majority of a company's workforce. These include email, Internet, and intranet services. An analysis of the volume of use of these services by departments can determine which groups are using which services the most. The heads or designated leads of these departments would likely be good key-customer candidates, provided that they accurately reflect the views of the majority of these users.

  • Someone whose organization is a large consumer of your services. Some departments within a company are particularly major users of IT services, just by the nature of their business. For airlines, it may be the reservation and ticketing department. For companies supplying overnight package delivery, the key department may be the one overseeing the package-tracking system. When I headed the primary IT infrastructure groups at a leading defense contractor and later at a major motion picture studio, the key IT user departments were design engineering and theatrical distribution, respectively. Representatives from each of these groups were solid key-customer candidates.

  • Someone who constructively and objectively critiques the quality of your services. A key customer might not always be associated with a department whose use of IT services is critical or high-volume. A non-critical and low-volume user may qualify as a key customer due to keen insight into how an infrastructure may effectively improve his or her services. These individuals typically have both the ability and the willingness to offer candid, constructive criticism about how best to improve IT services.

  • Someone who can significantly influence the business impact of your company. Marketing or sales department representatives in a manufacturing firm may contain these types of key customers. In aerospace or defense contracting companies, it may be advanced technology groups. The common thread among these key customers is that their use of IT services can greatly advance the business position of the corporation.

  • Someone with whom you share agreed-upon reasonable expectations. Almost any infrastructure user, whether internal and external to either IT or the company, can qualify as a key customer if they have reasonable expectations. Conversely, customers whose expectations are unreasonable should not usually be considered key customers. The old adage of "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" doesn't always apply in this case. In fact, often the reverse occurs. The loud voices of customers insisting on unreasonable expectations are often ignored in favor of listening to the constructive voices of more realistic users.

The issue of reasonable expectations is a salient point and cuts to the heart of sound customer service. When IT started getting serious about service, it initially espoused many of the tenets of other service industries. Phrases such as the following were drilled into IT professionals at several of the companies at which I worked:

  • The customer is always right.

  • Never say "no" to a customer.

  • Always meet your customers' expectations.

As obvious as these statements may seem, the fact is that you can rarely meet all of the expectations of all of your customers all of the time. The more truthful but less widely acknowledged fact is that customers sometimes have unreasonable expectations. IT service providers may actually be doing a disservice to their customers and to themselves by not refusing an unrealistic demand. This leads to the first of two universal truths that I've come to embrace about customer service and expectations:

An unreasonable expectation, demanded by an uncompromising customer, and agreed to by a well-intentioned supplier, is one of the major causes of poor customer service.

I've observed this scenario repeatedly within IT departments throughout various industries. In their zeal to please customers and establish credibility for their organizations, IT professionals often agree to project schedules that can't be kept, availability levels that can't be reached, response times that can't be met, and budget amounts that can't be maintained. Knowing when and how to say no to a customer is not easy, but techniques are available to assist in negotiating and managing realistic expectations.

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