Big IT mistake: Ignoring customer service

If you don't think a high quality customer experience matters to your customers, ask BlackBerry or the U.S. Federal Government how their brands are perceived these days.

My mobile phone rang on Sunday evening, in the midst of dinner with my family. Generally only friends, family, and clients have access to this phone number, so I answered despite an unfamiliar number appearing on the screen. A woman's voice came over the line, with obvious background noise and a low-quality connection, and she promptly launched into an unintelligible script.

It took three attempts to clarify that she was calling from Direct Buy, her heavily accented English making the company's name difficult to understand. I try to avoid being rude with unsolicited callers, but I cut off her pitch and hung up in disgust.

I'm not a Direct Buy customer, but they're apparently a membership club-style retailer selling major appliances, furniture, and durable goods, promising discounts on what are presumably high margin, big ticket items. Their website pitches expert assistance and is loaded with photos of high-end kitchens.

Cost isn't always king

Presumably someone in the corporate warren of Direct Buy has a cost model for customer acquisition, and has attempted to squeeze every penny out of the process by employing what sounded like a boiler room call center resorting to ambushing customers during mealtime. The obvious question is whether this approach would be more successful with higher quality (and obviously more expensive) agents, especially if your brand purports to provide expertise and higher-end products.

Unfortunately, many IT organizations take a similar approach to their processes, especially since IT is a cost center in most businesses. We attempt to wring every penny out of a process with little regard to the long-term cost and benefit. An obvious example is the help desk, where agents are often benchmarked based on ticket resolution times. Users quickly become frustrated by IT people constantly calling and asking if they can close the ticket, or worse yet, unilaterally closing it and forcing them to create a new one. Obsessing over ticket "resolution" times rather than implementing a satisfactory resolution generates "corporate entropy" rather than a successful service desk.

Similarly with large scale projects, there are workarounds and scope modifications justifiably implemented in the heat of battle to get a project done, with promises that these shortcomings will be corrected later. With the system live and the big dollars spent to get it in place, there's generally little appetite to revisit these incomplete items even though they might produce major business benefit for little additional IT cost.

The price of customer experience

It may be unfamiliar for many in IT to consider a somewhat mercurial area like "customer service," but as enterprise technology comes ever closer to paying customers, this benchmark should be considered just as closely as cost. As sales representatives and front-line employees become equipped with an increasing amount of corporate IT-provided technologies, you're now partially responsible for the experience your customers have when interacting with your company. When customers wait while systems are loading, or sales reps can't quickly produce a quote without a multi-day wait, your brand is tarnished. If you don't think a high quality customer experience matters to your customers, ask BlackBerry or the U.S. Federal Government how their brands are perceived these days.

Obviously not every company has the need or means to make every internal and external interaction exceptional, but the first step in understanding the right level of spending on customer experience is understanding your brand and corporate strategy. Spend some time with C-suite peers, particularly the CEO and CMO, and as you gain clarity into their goals, discuss how IT can help contribute to customer experience at the right level of quality. Rather than alienating potential customers in the name of cost savings, you can shift the discussion to creating a satisfying customer experience at an appropriate spending level.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...


We run a small IT shop for a govt agency with about 2500 users. One of the things we have successfully resisted, with the help of our customers, was to _avoid_ implementing the 'standard' help desk tracking software the Agencies above us use.

We tell them our customers do not care about calculating average length of call time or problem resolution or whatever. There is nothing in the tracking software that improves problem resolution. It just provides reports and those are pretty much useless.

The main reason we've been successful is because our users do have to use help desks from other Agencies occasionally and they rarely get help but they do get lots of ticket numbers they get to write down and a monthly report suitable for framing.

Logically, the only thing that should happen on a useful helpdesk--one that is tightly integrated to development--is that over time, the calls should get more and more difficult and take longer and longer to solve while all the regular problems get fixed via software updates.

That should be the goal of the help desk but that is rarely the goal of the folks directly managing a help desk separated from the rest of the organization.


The thing that many IT people fail to realise is that their job is as people-oriented as any sales department.  In many cases, the failure by staff in the IT department to communicate and manage the expectations of their "customers" can be a major cause of friction.  In fact if IT staff treat helpdesk callers as "customers" (and in a good way, not the "what can I gouge you for today" attitude that many retail shops seem to have) they can often reap the rewards in having a good rapport with their users who can become some of their strongest supporters. 

A regular update on happenings in the IT world can also assist in managing expectations.  Many users will call the helpdesk as a last resort, not the first step in resolving their issue, based on previous experiences. Often, the helpdesk can resolve issues on the first call, if they are called before the user has messed their system up completely trying to resolve the issue themselves. However if users are forced to wait long periods, or feel their issue is not treated with the urgency they need, they will feel resentment.  If the Helpdesk can explain that their issue is part of a bigger problem or that it requires further investigation, and they are updated on a regular basis regarding the investigation, most users are content to wait for a resolution.  Nobody enjoys being ignored. 


Hammer meet nail, nail meet hammer.  Bam!  Hit the nail on the head.

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