As a consultant trying to gauge your client’s IT capabilities, you’ll obviously spend most of your time talking to people inside your client’s organization, such as senior management and department heads. If you’ve already done that, you should have a mental picture of the IT organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

The other set of technology users the company may have is external clients, which we’ll define as an organization outside of the company that buys products and/or services that are supported by the IT organization being evaluated.

In this article, we’ll focus on the process of evaluating your client’s external clients as you continue your IT assessment.

Third in a series

This is the third article in a series on IT assessment by consultant Mike Sisco. Our first article covered tactics for reaching senior management, while our second installment talked about the information you’ll need to gather from your client’s company departments. The next article in this series will focus on the IT department.

What to ask external clients
Typically, external clients—and especially those that buy technology products or services from another company—are geographically distributed. Since it may not be feasible to visit all of the clients, how should you then go about your discovery process?

First, determine if there are client surveys, user-group meeting feedback, help desk logs, letters, or other documentation in the company that might provide indications of how the external clients feel about their technology support. You should only review data from the past 12 months or so. Anything older than that is probably not relevant to a current assessment.

If you are lucky enough to find recent documentation, read through it and make notes of consistencies that you see, good and bad. Remember, the purpose of your search is to determine issues that are systemic within IT vs. those that are anomalies.

Second, identify whom you want to interview and how you want to interview them. You can do this by asking key people in the company who their top clients are. You should also ask for a few who represent the very best and the very worst clients. Make sure you also get the names of a few longtime clients and a few new clients.

Once you have your list together, ask the appropriate people in the company to give each client a call to introduce you, describe your purpose, and to set up a time for a 30-minute phone interview or a visit if they are local. You might also fax these external clients a list of questions that you will be asking. I always prefer to visit the client whenever possible because I can get more information from a face-to-face interview, but it is not necessary. Phone interviews work. The key is to prepare the client for your call.

Build your interview questions using what you have heard from senior management and the department managers of the company. In those interviews, you have gathered some information and/or opinions that you’ll need to validate. You are about to begin interviewing a new group segment that can help you determine if many of the impressions you have gained so far actually hold true.

In addition, you may want to create a short profile for each client that you can refer to during your interview. For example, I always like to have the company name, the contact’s name and position, products or services they buy from the company being evaluated, whether they are “happy” or “dissatisfied,” etc. Referring to these key points will prompt you to ask more pertinent questions.

Figure A lists some sample questions to consider:

Figure A

In the questionnaire above, the blank line always refers to the company you are evaluating. You might think that simply sending this questionnaire out to survey the company’s clients might be enough, but I wouldn’t recommend this. If the clients would actually complete the form and send it back to you, that would be quite helpful, but even when using e-mail, I find that most clients don’t want to take the time; they would actually prefer to have a short meeting or phone call.

Prepare to interview the company’s external clients just as you did with the department managers: Develop a set of questions to help you validate what you heard from the senior managers, keep an open mind, and look for implied issues. Be organized and get right to the point during these interviews to avoid wasting someone’s time. Remember, in this particular process, you are acting as an extension of the company you are trying to evaluate. Good manners and client service skills are required.

When you hear something during an interview that suggests there might be an issue, explore it until you determine if it is well founded. If you had concerns from earlier interviews about an issue, you may ask the client about it, but do not lead the client. It is important for the client to feel that you are unbiased in your discovery. This will make them more comfortable, and they will probably be more open in their discussion.

At the end of the interview, it’s always a good idea to summarize the input and conclusions that you have gathered to verify that you’ve heard the client correctly. Once you have it right, write these points down for future use. Also, don’t forget to thank clients for their time. Courtesy goes a long way and can only help your efforts.

When you have completed your external client interviews, assemble your notes and quantify your conclusions while they are still fresh in your mind so you can be sure that you’ve included all pertinent information.

Checklist of conclusive information
After your interviews, make sure you’ve answered these questions for your assessment:

  • What do the clients like about IT?
  • What do they dislike?
  • Are user-group meetings in place, and are they needed?
  • How well does IT support the clients’ day-to-day needs?
  • How well does IT anticipate their needs?
  • Is IT responsive to critical issues?
  • Does IT understand the client’s business?
  • Does the client have a healthy dialogue with IT?
  • How smoothly do changes/enhancements take place?
  • Is the technology sufficient for the client’s business, or are there key needs?
  • Does the client view IT as a partner?

After you complete this third stage of questioning, review all of your conclusion notes from these interviews, as well as from your discussions with the department managers and the senior managers. You now have enough information to form a fairly strong outline of your assessment of the IT organization’s capabilities.

I’ll remind you that this is still a one-sided view, but it should be the view that you take with you as you begin discovery of the technology components of the company.

A negative client impression of IT is not necessarily reality, but it certainly indicates an issue that needs to be addressed. But remember to stay objective. Your mission in an IT assessment is to provide an unbiased evaluation that, if all goes well, will lead to a few changes or adjustments that help both the client and the IT organization.

Mike Sisco is president of MDE Enterprises, an IT management training and consulting company based in Atlanta. Check out MDE’s IT Manager Development Series for more of Mike’s advice.

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