CXO

10 ways to forge strong end-user relationships

Building rapport between tech staff and end users can go a long way toward smoother IT operations.

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Image: iStockphoto.com/Monika Wisniewska

More technology purchase decisions are now being made by end users, and these decisions are often void of IT input. When end users are asked why they go around IT, they say that it takes too long for IT to make a decision. Some even say that IT staffers tell them they're too busy to look at a new solution. However, if you are an IT manager, you already know that it's vital to develop strong relationships with end users in the business so you can ensure that the IT that gets done is really of business benefit. Here are 10 things IT leaders can do to improve the IT/end-user relationship:

1: Create internships and exchanges

In a practice that is now several decades old, IT and end users arrange for employee "exchanges," where an end business user who interacts heavily with IT gets assigned to IT for three to six weeks and an IT'er with heavy involvement with the end business is assigned to an end business unit for the same amount of time. The goal of the exchange is to foster greater understanding on both sides of how business and IT work so that more effective working relationships can be created. The results from these programs are mixed. In some cases, business units and IT become resentful because they want their loaned employees back before the exchange commitment is over. But in other cases, the exchange is highly successful because specific goals for a short-term project on both sides are defined and accomplished.

2: Move to an "account rep" concept

The best IT performers are those who treat internal end users like customers. This begins by never taking end users for granted. Since IT is a task-oriented discipline with a task-oriented staff, it is hard for IT leaders to drive home the importance of treating end users like customers. In today's environment, however, it is vital for IT'ers to do this — because the commercial vendors who circumvent IT and go directly to the end users are certainly doing it! To facilitate the move to an "account rep" IT concept, IT leaders should put training programs in place for interpersonal interaction and soft skills and include end-user interaction as a key performance factor in IT performance reviews.

3: Enroll IT in business training

Some years ago when I was a beginning systems analyst, my company enrolled all the systems analysts and programmers in a manufacturing training program that taught us about purchasing, manufacturing production, developing demand forecasts, and managing inventory. These were night classes and at the time, we groused about having to do the classes after work. But for our company, a major manufacturer, the training investment paid off. We became knowledgeable about what manufacturing production managers, purchasing agents, and inventory managers had to worry about — and what their IT systems needed to do for them. Consequently, we designed and developed better systems.

4: Move service SLAs into performance reviews

IT professionals will improve their service levels for end users when their raises and promotions are based on how they do. Especially for IT personnel who work consistently with end users, developing a balanced performance review that includes human interaction skills as well as technical performance will impress upon IT'ers the importance of performing equally well in both areas.

5: Implement "difficult user" coping strategies

Getting along with business end users isn't a one-way street that's solely dependent on IT. Let's face it: There are difficult end users. Often, a class in negotiation skills can assist IT'ers who must work with these resistant and uncooperative users. It is also important for IT leaders to be sensitive to these difficult users and where they are, because it might be necessary for the IT manager to have a conversation with the user's boss to overcome an impasse or to give personal assistance to the IT employee who is charged with working with the user.

6: Develop sensitivity to different cultural environments

If your company has international operations and employees, and IT is based in the United States, it is important for IT'ers interacting with international users to be sensitive to different cultures and customs — and possibly to have some foreign language skills. Getting IT projects implemented depends heavily on understanding, communications, and cooperation. These factors loom even larger when you are working across borders.

7: Form effective liaisons at the C-level

CIOs can best serve their organization by getting out from behind their desk and developing open and collaborative relationships with other C-level executives. The power of these well-formed relationships is that they extend a spirit of cooperation to employees at all levels in all organizations. This makes life easier for the IT staff assigned to getting projects done.

8: Improve the CIO relationship with the CEO and the board

Unless the CIO makes a strategic case for IT with the CEO and the board, IT will be relegated to a second-tier "engine room" function with little or no influence or perceived value to the business. Most CIOs get this, but some still don't. CIOs can best help their organizations and those who work for them if they show their CEOs just how IT delivers value to the business that affects revenues and cost savings. If they succeed in doing this, CIOs also have a shot at presenting IT initiatives directly to the board, where they can earn face time for themselves and promote the vital role IT plays in the organization.

9: Use plain English to explain IT's value to the business

When I was a CIO, I had one CEO who told me that technology "intimidated" him. It took a lot for him to admit this, because it is hard for most CEOs to acknowledge areas of weakness (or fear) to their subordinates. As a result, most CEOs won't tell their CIOs that they are nervous and that they possibly even feel inept when it comes to technology topics. Instead, they secretly enroll themselves in offsite technology seminars. If you are a CIO, understand that you might work for a CEO who feels like this. Always explain any technology project or strategy in plain English and avoid technical jargon and acronyms. The more you can build a tech comfort level for the CEO, the further you will go with your IT.

10: Create visibility on IT projects

As a CIO, I once had a major system conversion to perform. From the business point of view, this massive conversion was delivering no business value, because all we were doing was transplanting a manufacturing system on another computer platform without making the system better. To do this, we had to freeze work on any new user requests and enhancements. System conversion projects are always high risk because of this. To defuse the potential for growing end-user frustration while we were performing this conversion, I published weekly bar charts that showed the rising percentage of the project that was completed. I sent this out to all C-level executives and their immediate subordinates. It didn't make anyone like the conversion any better, but it gave them visibility of our progress, and that really helped.

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Other tips?

Does your IT department consider good end-user relationships a priority? What measures have you taken to build rapport with internal customers? Share your experiences with fellow TechRepublic members.

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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