By Harris Kern

Each year, Information Week takes a poll of its readers on the top issues affecting CIOs and IT departments. Each year, the issue of aligning IT to the business is at or near the top of the list. Key to the issue of aligning IT is the ability to maintain credibility, a feat that requires properly managing customer expectations.

As a consultant for the design and implementation of IT architecture, I’ve watched many IT organizations struggle to gain and maintain credibility with their customers. I hear the frustrations on both sides: IT managers frustrated at the pressure and lack of appreciation from their customers, and customers frustrated at the slow pace of systems implementation and poor quality of service.

These disconnects are disappointing but, in many cases, understandable. IT professionals are often unable to effectively manage their roles as service providers by aligning their customers’ expectations with their department’s ability to deliver services. Here are four lessons I’ve learned in working with IT departments and my customers that may help you better manage your customers’ expectations.

Start with the right attitude
Attitude is everything in business and in life, and there are hundreds of books available on how to build and maintain a success-oriented attitude. I won’t duplicate that literature, nor is it my place to help you feel good about yourself. Managing your customers is essential to your success, however, so I need to cover a few basics.

IT professionals often disconnect with customers early by not having the right perspective. IT professionals consider themselves computer scientists, rather than business people or service providers. But you’re in the service business, not the science business. Your customers care as much about computer technology as typical automobile drivers care about combustion technology. It’s your job to align yourself with your customers’ needs and explain your services in their terms, not yours.

The second attitude disconnect is not understanding the basic human psychology of expectation and satisfaction. Keep commitments. If you promise five widgets and deliver six, the customer is happy. If you promise five and deliver four, the customer is disappointed. The customer may get over the disappointment and adjust to the reality, but you won’t get full credit for your hard work.

Resist the temptation to alleviate short-term stress by over-promising future products.

In managing expectations, planning means the art of anticipating your customers’ next moves. Woe to the IT manager who is blindsided by a key customer who announces one day that he’s going to consolidate 12 warehouses into three during the next six months, or is doubling the size of his organization in the next 60 days. I’m continually amazed by the number of IT managers and CIOs who have no idea where their businesses are headed or how to respond when their businesses take a sharp turn. This is a recipe for disaster, because the last thing you want to be is on the critical path to business success without knowing what that path is. The pressures and “assistance” from upper management can ruin even the best IT shop.

How can you prevent these kinds of disasters? Understand your business and your industry. Read the trade press and understand the forces that are acting on your industry. Listen to your internal customers, learn their plans and concerns, and find out what keeps them up at night. This sounds sophomoric and preachy, but it seems that many companies do not involve their IT departments as an element of their business planning. Without integrating IT, your department can become a bottleneck. But through planning, you can meet customer expectations and become strategically valuable to your business.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate
You can’t manage expectations without communication. In fact, you can’t manage anything without communication. And in this case, if some is good, more is better. The customer continually needs to know how you’re making progress on her problems, what you will deliver, and what you need. Don’t let daily pressures crowd out the continuing dialog that is essential for success.

Don’t confuse customer contracts with communication. Having a signed requirements document and an approved budget is only the beginning of communication, not the end. Never let your team wander off into a vacuum to “do their thing” and deliver when the product is ready. Insist on frequent short deliverables from your team, and insist on customer involvement at each delivery, however small. Without continuing discussions, IT inevitably diverges from customer wishes, which leads to the traditional IT complaint, “We gave them just what they asked for, but it wasn’t what they wanted.”

Communication forces alignment at two levels: the IT professionals with their customers and, just as important, the customers with themselves. Customers almost never have a clear idea of the details of what they want, and if they get it, they will change their minds.

As much as IT managers complain about indecisive and demanding customers, there are sound reasons for this behavior. First, people almost always interpret their needs in terms of what they know. They are often best able to define their needs in terms of what they don’t like, rather than what they do like. The old saying “I’ll know it when I see it” is literally true.

It would appear that the best approach to satisfying the customer is to allow the customer to shop for the best answer. But IT managers are co-developing new systems and introducing new technologies, and don’t have the time or budget to allow their customers to demand to see the final product, critique it, and then discard what they don’t like. This process is a recipe for delay, budget overruns, and frustration. By negotiating continually over the features, functions, priorities, and acceptance of a new system, the IT manager can manage customer expectations to ensure timely completion within budget.

Exercise speed
One sure way to disconnect with customers is to begin a long-term, monolithic project developed on the traditional “waterfall” life cycle. Such a process assumes the product is a point solution that, once specified, can be developed in a vacuum, which is never true.

Successful IT systems must evolve with the enterprise, which means that the project team assumes that they will change continuously to meet the customer’s evolving needs. If this is true, customers will be happiest if the product is a continuous string of small incremental deliverables, developed quickly enough that the customers cannot become dissatisfied. This implies that systems are always under construction, and that the development process involves constant rework. With older technologies, this was not possible, but with modern objects, messaging, and multi-tiered architectures, it is.

Here are two examples to prove my point: one a success and one a failure. One of the best client/server system developers I know set a standard with his customers that his development team would make any customer-requested change of a minor nature in two weeks. Major revisions would happen at three-month intervals. He would meet with the customer, learn about her complaints, and offer a prototype solution in a week. If she liked it, he would put the change in production in another week. Customers never had time to be dissatisfied. His was the most successful system in the department, although the CIO was frustrated because it was never “finished.”

By contrast, I learned of a large utility that spent five years—including a year just for testing—and tens of millions of dollars developing a new customer information system. The slow pace of development meant that by the time the system was completed, the business environment for the utility had changed. Deregulation was eminent and the system wasn’t capable of accommodating the new reality without extensive rework. Customers are demanding major changes, and large portions of the system are now being rebuilt at great expense.

The project managers and CIO should have never agreed to spend so much time in development.

The key to aligning IT with the business is managing customer expectations. If you follow the suggestions outlined above, you can make that goal a reality.

The Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute is a consortium of publications—books, reference guides, tools, and articles—developed through a unique conglomerate of leading industry experts responsible for the design and implementation of “world-class” IT organizations. For more information, visit the Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute Web site.