When dealing with a commodity product or a service, one way to offer differentiation is through superior customer service. Here are a few ways to apply this lesson to your IT organization.
I've been a customer of American Airlines (formerly US Air) for about six years and a few hundred flights, as they offer the largest number of destinations out of the Charlotte Douglas airport, which is about 30 minutes from my home. Airlines are largely regarded as a commodity, and so I steer the majority of my travel to the airline with the best flight options from my "home" airport.
This past weekend I flew Delta, an airline I haven't flown in quite a while. While the "hard product" (airline lingo for the planes and the seats) is largely the same across the industry, I came away impressed with Delta's attention to customer service, effective use of humor, and close monitoring of its service.
Many IT organizations have a significant commodity component. An IT help desk or server-provisioning process is largely the same across companies and industries; however, attention to customer service can make all the difference in the world.
Customer service need not equal cost
A major mistake many commodity service providers make is assuming increased customer service always maps to increased cost. In many cases, a superior customer experience can be provided through a lower cost or more efficient means, leaving the customer happier and your balance sheet healthier.
I was impressed that Delta had optimized its economy class check-in at LAX airport, separating the kiosks from several large desks designated for baggage check-in. While kiosks are nothing new, my home airport has jumbled them in with manned service desks, resulting in slow lines as customers linger in front of unused terminals.
Similarly, many IT help desks live and die by "tickets," insisting that users go through a cumbersome process to create and manage a ticket as the price of admission to IT support. Contrast that with an ingenious idea I'd seen as a client: adding a couple of roving IT staff to major company events to set up an ad hoc desk for IT problems, where people who happened to be at a company event could drop by for assistance. Over 80% of the problems were solved in about two minutes, without tickets, routings, escalations, and the overhead meant to control access to IT services.
"Self-help" tools are lower cost, but they're often more cumbersome than picking up the phone. Just as Delta clearly invested in making its mobile app highly usable, spend the time and up-front cost to make your self-help tools easy to use, effective, and informative, and you'll see your customers happily use the lowest-cost channel, as it's also the best experience.
Fun can be, well, fun
There's a delicate balance between making airline safety announcements dull, dry, and theoretically informative, versus attempting to capture passengers' attention with humor. Airlines have tried performing off-the-wall or even offensive stunts, or flight attendants took it upon themselves to add comedy, which fell flat. Delta's safety video applied popular viral web videos to lighten the mood of an otherwise boring aspect of flying.
While humor can be a difficult area, especially in certain cultures, IT need not be awash in specialized terminology, inflexible procedures, and grumbling staff that seem to be counting the seconds until retirement. It's intuitively obvious that people who enjoy what they are doing are more productive and happier, yet so much of corporate culture seems designed to wring every ounce of fun out of the workplace. Set the example as a leader by not taking yourself so seriously, and demonstrating that one can work hard and deliver excellence while also having fun doing it.
Surveys that work for everyone
Many IT organizations have adopted post-service surveys in one form or another. Some send multi-page periodic surveys that attempt to capture anything and everything about the organization, while others automatically send a survey after every ticket. What most fail to do is provide a meaningful and pithy metric, instead relying on odd 1 to 5 scales, or the consultant's favorite "Would you recommend this to a friend?" an odd question to ask when your "customers" are captives of your internal IT organization.
Delta became rather famous in customer service circles for adopting "Would you hire this person to work for you?" as its sole post-call question. This question cuts to the heart of the quality of the service, while respecting the respondent's time and intelligence. It also provides Delta with a metric that's readily understandable, instantly interpreted, and doesn't require a massive marketing campaign and periodic effort that becomes so painful the results are often ignored. It's a great example of a highly effective customer service tool that's also less expensive than the alternative.
One of the great mistakes of high-quality customer service is the assumption that it's always more costly than sub-par service, especially in commodity businesses where cost easily becomes an excuse for low quality. "We can't afford good customer service" is not only an ill-conceived excuse, but tedious and inflexible processes, downtrodden employees, and useless metrics often cost your organization more in the long run.
If a US-based airline can differentiate one of the most cost-sensitive products around through superior customer service, so can your IT organization.