One of the great revolutions of the past twenty years in American business is the ascendancy of the customer. It’s now much more than a cliche that the customer is king. And the concept is as true for internal customers as for external customers. The rise of packaged enterprise systems and the rapid growth of outsourcing mean IT customers have more choices than ever, and our experience is that they’ll exercise those options if they’re dissatisfied.

Yet we still find many IT departments that don’t focus on customer satisfaction and instead use their institutional position to control their customers. But over time, by not satisfying their customers, IT puts its budget and continued employment at risk. Here are some suggestions for getting and staying in tune with your customers.

Why you should care about customer satisfaction
Obviously, satisfaction is important because it’s an indicator of service quality. If customers are dissatisfied, it’s probably because their needs have not been met for some time. When customers become vocally dissatisfied about IT performance, it suggests a systemic failure to communicate and properly set expectations with the customers.

Watch for telltale signs of dissatisfied customers. Here’s a brief customer-satisfaction quiz:

  • What’s the size of your service request backlog in number and in time to complete?
  • Do customers resist serving on your review boards and committees?
  • Do customers control their share of your IT budget, or does IT dictate priorities and project funding?
  • Do customers have a choice of service levels, and are there auditable metrics on the quality of service?
  • Are customers going around IT departments by setting up local mini-IT functions?
  • Are you having trouble getting support for your initiatives and budget requests?
  • When you implement a new system, does the complaining die away in days, weeks, months, or never?
  • Do you have major system outages of multiple hours or even days in duration?

If you can easily answer yes to most of these questions, you can be sure you have dissatisfied customers, even if they’re not complaining to you directly. In fact, if they’re not communicating their dissatisfaction, you’re in even bigger trouble. In my experience, when customers stop publicly griping, it’s usually the calm before the storm.

Improve the situation
What can be done to improve satisfaction? Here are some simple steps you can take to make customers more satisfied.

Meet expectations
Customers who expect more than they receive will be dissatisfied, no matter how good the service is. If your department has a reputation of giving customers “happy talk” (future promises to keep them at bay), watch out!

Believe customer complaints, not their vision
Customers are not necessarily the best determiners of technology choices. They tend to define their needs based on what they know, not what’s possible. However, if you offer options, customers can select among the options and articulate flaws. Customers are best able to help articulate flaws in interfaces, usability issues, and functionality. Don’t criticize these complaints; instead, note and correct them as soon as possible.

Customers are notoriously bad at helping define directions for system development or in helping define architecture. There are some exceptions to this rule—people who have had training in reengineering are a possibility—but IT, not customers, needs to be the keeper of the IT vision.

Empower your customers
A common IT complaint is that customers set up their own “shadow IT” departments and don’t use the institutional systems. This is particularly true in high-tech organizations with an abundance of computer-literate staff, who are often frustrated at the slow pace of change and the lack of control over systems they use daily.

There are two solutions to this problem. One is to become an IT dictator, refusing to allow your customers the freedom to move forward on their own. But if you do this, your customers will revolt. The second solution is to empower the customers by giving them some control over setting priorities.

Involve your customers
Customer involvement is essential for the success of any system. Some IT managers believe they can work with the customers through a requirements-definition process, create a design document, and then turn it over to their developers for delivery. Wrong! Customers must be involved at each step, through techniques such as functional walkthroughs, conference room pilots, and frequent discussions about business plans and future needs. IT must assume that every system will change throughout its lifecycle.

Don’t ask customers technical questions
Consider this scenario: In a recent meeting for a new customer-management system, a project manager was trying to decide whether the project needed a high-availability server with automatic failover, or whether an inexpensive, off-the-shelf server would suffice. She said her customers told her that 99-percent uptime would be fine and that they would put it in writing in the specification document. Therefore, she could buy a single standard server.

Wrong answer! This project manager had fallen into a common trap. She asked her customers for a technical answer. Even worse, she was going to try to hold them to it! Do the math. Ninety-nine percent uptime for a 12×5 system implies total outages of about three days per year, which is unlikely to be acceptable to anyone, especially for a customer-management system. Having a signed document saying that 99 percent is okay will not save you when the complaining starts.

Measure the quality of your service and communicate it with your customers
To satisfy the customer, you need independently verifiable performance metrics. Good IT shops measure all aspects of their performance and regularly communicate the quality of their work.

Metrics have several important effects. First, everyone knows the quality of the work and often can use the metrics to prevent problems from becoming critical. Second, metrics become the basis of objective discussions with customers about the quality of service and the cost of making it better. Customers won’t support your efforts to improve service unless you can objectively demonstrate what they receive and why.

Test yourself against outside sources—your customers do
Every IT department should regularly benchmark itself against the standards of IT best practices and be prepared to act on the findings. There are many ways to do this. Compare yourself against the many surveys conducted in the trade press, such as CIO magazine or Information Week. Consultant organizations such as EDS or industry watchers such as Gartner maintain databases of best practices and standards of productivity and efficiency.

Conduct benchmark discussions with your peers in other companies. As long as your benchmark partners are not direct competitors, most companies are willing to share ideas. One good source of benchmark data is suppliers, who are often eager to share ideas so they can improve their commercial relationship with you.

Outsourcers and consultant companies who are eager to demonstrate their capabilities are continuously approaching your customers. A lot of outsourcing companies prey like wolves on weakly performing IT organizations. Compete and control your destiny—or someone else will.

Keep your attitude positive and your frustrations in check
IT management is not primarily a technical function; it’s a service business. When you become frustrated with your customers, remember you’re in your job because they have theirs. We see frustrated IT managers who wish for a better class of customers: “Why can’t my customers be more technically literate and trainable?” Dream on. Take your customers as you find them.

If you become frustrated and lose your poise, you’ll lose your ability to communicate, and you’ll “push back” instead of listening. Your customers will become dissatisfied with your service. Maintaining a positive attitude is the key to customer satisfaction. Let that fact guide your IT initiatives.