You're now free to move about the network: Airlines offer IT a glimpse into customer service

Like the airlines, IT departments can use the threat of an emergency as an enabler for bad service or provide high-quality customer service to increase their long-term value.

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If you've spent any time traveling by air, you probably heard the scratchy voice over the intercom admonish you that "flight attendants are primarily here for your safety." I over-groan internally when I hear this since it's a quip that often serves as a warning sign of bad service ahead. After all, if the flight attendant is here "primarily for my safety," then any other concern, like providing a friendly smile or refilling a drink, can be ignored as it's outside the realm of safety.

No one doubts that it's critical for flight attendants to ensure the safety of passengers, especially in the case of an emergency; however, emergencies are more often the exception rather than the primary activity. While not as important or exciting as shuffling passengers down an emergency slide and evacuating a sinking airplane that just performed a water landing, the traveling public is far more likely to encounter an in-flight snack than an in-flight oxygen mask deployment.

Extending this line of thinking, a significant majority of travelers will more likely form an opinion of the airline based on these rather mundane interactions with the cabin crew, versus an event that's, thankfully, rare enough that few actually experience it.

SEE: Electronic communication policy (Tech Pro Research)

Fasten your seat belt

Many technology organizations experience a similar challenge. We're expected to prepare and respond to significant and costly emergencies ranging from widespread infrastructure outages to malicious actors attacking our networks, and we spend months preparing for these events and installing and maintaining preventative measures to avoid them. While this is noble and important work—and almost on equal footing as preparing to manage an aircraft and its passengers in an emergency—just like the average commercial airplane flight, all of these activities and training remain outside the view of the people we serve on a daily basis. Much more of our day-to-day role is the equivalent of refilling sodas and providing assurance when a flight is delayed.

Like the airlines, we can use the inescapable threat of an emergency as an enabler for bad service. You may not have a recorded message on your help desk line announcing that "Our service desk is here primarily for your IT safety," but excessive hold times, and analysists who are more concerned with closing a ticket than resolving an issue communicate your views readily enough. Constantly downplaying the significance of any initiative or suggestion unrelated to security or disaster recovery further cements the impression that your IT shop has decided to ignore the 99% of its activities that aren't related to a disaster. While these activities could become completely irrelevant in the event of a disaster, it's a risky and uncomfortable bet to ignore them.

Prepare for landing

What I find maddening with flight crews that espouse being there "primarily for my safety" is that it need not be a mutually exclusive proposition and, in fact, a bit of focus on the 99% of the airline experience can create significant long-term value through positive customer sentiment. Similarly, IT leaders deciding to be well-prepared and equipped for managing IT emergencies need not require you to abandon any hopes of providing high-quality customer service.

If you're concerned about time and funding, there are few better ways to increase access to funding than providing a superlative customer experience that makes your colleagues happy to pay for the obvious value you provide, versus having to divert scarce resources to an inflexible and unfriendly part of the business that's there "primarily for their IT safety."

SEE: 10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Just as it costs the airlines essentially nothing to impart some training and standards on how to provide friendly customer interaction, there are dozens of no-cost and low-cost opportunities for you to make it clear that IT exists for the safety and service of its users. Start by changing your tone as the organization's leader and rather than allowing poor customer service to hide behind a priority on technology "safety," demonstrate through words and actions that IT is also here for service. Build standards into performance metrics and evaluations that consider customer service in addition to more traditional technology metrics and provide training on soft skills that help create a more service-oriented IT shop.

Like an airline emergency, it's absolutely incumbent that we as IT leaders are prepared to handle the situation professionally and effectively. However, that's (hopefully) not the way we spend the majority of our days. A bit of emphasis on the other 99% of our jobs, providing friendly and professional interaction with our peers and customers, can go a long way.

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Image: shironosov, Getty Images/iStockphoto