I’ve spent too much time on airplanes over the course of my career, logging over a million miles crisscrossing the globe. One of the few privileges of “air travel overdose” is that you’ll often get upgraded, and I’ve spent a bit of time in first and business class. While the public perception of champagne and caviar is long gone on most carriers, there’s still one treat on longer domestic and international flights that never fails to put a smile on my face: ice cream.

A glass or two of booze and lackluster reheated meal aren’t quite as exciting as a couple of scoops of vanilla and some chocolate sauce. There’s something I find delightful about the idea of ice cream while cruising at 30,000 feet, since it seems like such an unexpected and surprising treat. When you consider the logistics for a moment, it’s really not all that impressive. The entire cargo hold of the plane is essentially a deep freezer once the plane gets to altitude, the ice cream is often pre-scooped into the same glasses used for drinks, and it’s simple and fast for the flight attendant to add some sauce and nuts to the glass and move on to the next task. However, all this doesn’t change the fact that you’re having an ice cream sundae on an airplane.

Ice cream with your IT

So what does ice cream on an airplane have to do with IT? It’s a perfect example of finding an opportunity to provide a compelling experience to an otherwise mundane aspect of a service. Serving meals on a flight is similar to many IT processes: it’s expected to be done right and in a timely manner, and is usually only recognized if it goes wrong or wildly exceeds expectations. Furthermore, it’s a fairly complex technical process that’s often performed by staff with wildly varying degrees of relevant training and passion for the task.

Like many IT employees, the average flight attendant must be reasonably competent in a dozen different tasks, and probably hasn’t received anything beyond a few hours of culinary and customer experience training. Just as your average project manager or programmer has focused his or her training on the technical aspects of the job, the average flight attendant has focused on safety and emergency response training, yet both interact directly with the people who ultimately pay the bills of your organization.

What’s so perfect about ice cream on a flight is that it’s a foolproof way to delight the paying customer. Even someone with absolutely no skills in the kitchen can put a spoonful of toppings in a cup, and whereas the extreme environment of an airplane is challenging for most desserts, it’s perfect for ice cream. Similarly, there are opportunities in your IT organization to play to your strengths, and delight your customers without pushing your staff or budget too far outside their comfort zone.

Would you like chocolate sauce with that help desk ticket?

Perhaps the easiest way to identify these opportunities is to personally consume your IT services on a regular basis. Call your help desk, request a new service, sit in on a call with a project team, or otherwise approach your IT organization from a customer’s perspective. Your strengths are also what likely frustrates your customers. Most IT organizations are perceived as bureaucratic and robotic, which presents ample opportunities to shatter this impression. Rather than a convoluted email response to a help desk ticket, demanding that users ONLY WRITE ABOVE THIS LINE or admonish them that THIS EMAIL ADDRESS IS NOT MONITORED, how about a quick phone call acknowledging the request and offering to answer any questions? Instead of focusing solely on technical metrics, consider a few innovative metrics that focus on customer satisfaction? Use your technical prowess and process excellence to do something silly that delights your customers, much as the extremely serious military organization responsible for tracking nuclear missile attacks, NORAD, tracks Santa Claus every December.

Much like many IT organizations, with a long-haul airplane flight there are thousands of technical systems and processes that must be followed with utmost care to generate a successful outcome. It’s easy to become focused solely on everything from wind shear to weight balancing and forget that your passengers will likely remember the ice cream more than your complex fuel loading calculation.

Also see:
How IT can use unexpected upgrades to please users
Run your IT like a circus, in a good way
5 mobile apps every network administrator and helpdesk professional needs
Faster, flexible, forward looking: How to make IT more responsive to business (ZDNet)