Manage your LAN with a customer-driven focus

Being in charge of a local area network isn't all switches and wires. New managers of LANs also need to understand their network users. Here are some tips for becoming customer-focused.

When you're promoted to an IT management position, one of your biggest challenges is to become proficient at working with network users. Gone are the days when you could be successful by immersing yourself in the details of a specific project or task. In the management environment, success will most often be based on your ability to balance the technical needs of a LAN system with the more subjective needs of its users.

At first glance, it may seem easy to identify and work with your customers or the people who will directly or indirectly benefit from your unit’s efforts. However, it is a much more challenging task than it appears. Becoming truly customer-focused does not usually come naturally and takes considerable effort for most of us.

User's-eye view
It is not always enough for the LAN system to be outstanding technically. It is also important to understand what motivates users to view the system as being outstanding and to address those issues as well. For managers of a LAN and related staff, I recommend the following steps:
  1. Look at users with a fresh outlook and not through your assumptions and biases.
  2. Understand the characteristics of your users and what factors will influence how they view their work.
  3. Understand what impact problems with the LAN will have on the work your users do.
  4. View your users as partners in the process and take advantage of their opinions and feedback.
  5. Be aware of the complexity of factors that influence customer satisfaction.

Examine your own assumptions
The best way to begin the process of understanding your customer base is to examine your own assumptions of the people who use your services. Has it been your experience that users of computer and network equipment don’t have a clue about what it takes to build and maintain the system? If so, does that cause you to be annoyed or to view them in a negative light?

Your perceptions of the people your unit is serving can have a subtle—or not so subtle—impact on how you interact with them. It is always a good idea to scrutinize your own attitudes and assumptions about your customers to make sure that you're not sending negative signals to those you are trying to help.

Know thy customer
Try to learn as much as you can about your customers. Find out their names, educational backgrounds, tenure with the organization, experience working with IT products or services, and how they fit into the structure of the organization. In general, people like to talk about what they do and why it is important. Meet with the people your unit serves and gather as much information as you can about them. It will give you an important edge in finding ways to serve them effectively.

What will happen if the network crashes?
It's good to know what users your unit serves directly, but it is even better to also know who your users’ customers are. That way, you can better understand the impact of LAN problems. For example, your work unit may provide IT support for a division that maintains vital statistics records for a state public health department. You can’t really understand (or value) the work of the vital statistics unit without understanding the impact of a failed computer network on its customers: doctors, public health professionals, the public, and so on.

Use your customers to build a high-quality product or service
There has been a tendency in more traditional management approaches to view the end user of a product or service as an inanimate object—accepting of the service but not really being part of the creative process. More recent management models, such as total quality management, view the user or consumer of a product or service as a partner in the process. The premise of this trend is that users who are involved in determining how a network is set up and operated will be invested in the process and view it more positively.

Understand what makes customers satisfied
In a perfect world, users would automatically be happy with a network that functions effectively and without interruption. Although a well-running network will go a long way toward making people happy, it may not always be enough. Customer satisfaction is often based on a variety of factors beyond performance, all of which a manager has some control over. These factors include:
  • Customer expectations—A group of users who are told by senior management that a newly installed network is the best and will solve all of their problems may not be satisfied with a “functional and well-running” network. In other words, the level of customer expectations can play an important role in the level of satisfaction with a product or service.
  • Feelings about the manager and technicians—The perceptions people develop of you and your staff can play an important role in how they view your product or service. Technicians who do not interact in a positive way with users may compromise what is actually a high-quality product or service.
  • Responsiveness to customer feedback—One of the worst things a manager can do is to ask for the opinion of users and then not follow up with action. Any process that solicits feedback from users or consumers needs to include a highly visible response. If changes are made based on customer feedback, be sure to let people know what has occurred. If changes do not happen in response to the feedback, let people know why changes could not be made.

To illustrate these points, consider the following scenario: A new LAN administrator in a small company was given a mandate by senior management to “fix” the LAN. The LAN system had experienced considerable downtime over the previous few months, which was adversely affecting productivity and employee morale. The administrator, who had previous experience upgrading LAN systems, set out to create a smooth and well-running system for the company.

He felt confident in his knowledge of such systems and did not see the need to include users in the process. After a few months, the LAN was operating smoother with far less downtime. However, a survey conducted by senior management of LAN users did not show increased satisfaction with the system. In fact, the level of satisfaction had actually diminished somewhat.

Puzzled by this result, a new survey was conducted to gather more information. Results from the new survey showed that people had not felt part of the process of “fixing” the LAN system because they had never been approached for feedback. Issues such as greater access to software and responsiveness to individual users’ computer problems had not been addressed. The administrator had succeeded in affecting the broader issue of network downtime but had ignored many other issues that were driving people’s dissatisfaction with the system.

The moral of this story is that a manager needs to spend the time to understand the variety of factors that can affect customer satisfaction. Addressing the obvious issues is often not sufficient to have a real impact on problems found in the work environment.

Final thoughts
Managers who ignore the opinions and needs of those who use their products or services do so at their own peril. The successful IT manager will learn to balance the technical, objective requirements of a LAN system with the more subjective and ambiguous perception of its users.

If you’d like to learn more about the issue of client-driven management, I recommend Customer-Driven Project Management: Building Quality into Project Processes. 2nd Edition, by Bruce Barkley and James H. Saylor.

Questions for the author
Steven Watson has 10 years of management experience. Through his work with IT staff and contractors, he has developed an understanding of the issues faced by IT managers and how their priorities differ from those of nontechnical colleagues. As a new manager in a technical environment, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.


Editor's Picks