Satisfying IT customers may be a bad idea

Be careful of the term "customer satisfaction." Well-intentioned yet poorly selected goals frequently lead organizations to do exactly the wrong things.

by Paul Glen

Most IT departments I encounter say "customer satisfaction" is among their key goals. Unfortunately, this idea seems to lead too often to poor results. While the sentiments are laudable, the law of unintended consequences seems to interfere. Goals are tricky things. Well-intentioned yet poorly selected goals frequently lead organizations to do exactly the wrong things.

For example, think about the Avis car rental people. Their slogan is "We Try Harder." I imagine them emphasizing the importance of trying harder every day. And being a good company, the staff responds by trying harder all the time. That's nice in a motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of way, but as a customer, I don't really care how hard they try. I'm concerned with how well they succeed. If they offer me flawless service and great prices without breaking a sweat, I'm thrilled. If I'm treated to long lines and high prices from earnest and overworked staffers, I'm not a happy customer. There are no good grades for effort.

My observation is that customer satisfaction is generally one of those goals that misleads people on both words: customer and satisfaction. And what may seem like a petty case of semantics leads well-intentioned professionals astray. Inappropriate metaphors make poor foundations for reasoning about day-to-day decisions.

IT departments don't really have customers; they have clients. The dictionary definition of customer is "one who purchases a commodity or service." People striving for customer satisfaction tend to think of a customer as someone who's involved in a transaction, someone standing in a checkout line making a discrete purchase.

But IT customers, even if they are paying ones, aren't involved in a short-term deal. They're involved in a long-term relationship with a group of highly skilled professionals. They're really clients, which the dictionary defines as "people who engage the professional advice or services of others." And the dynamics of a professional partnership are quite different from those of a commodity transaction.

Using the image of a customer often leads to the "customer is always right" mentality that's so necessary when every transaction is a new deal. But in this case, the customer isn't always right. Clients come for expert counsel, not sycophantic submission.

Satisfaction comes from experience, not technology. Most people in technical departments assume that their clients judge them by the quality of their technology. Of course, this seems like a natural assumption. Technology is what they're buying -- isn't it?

Customers may judge their satisfaction in large part by the quality of the products they purchase, but clients don't. Since clients look to you for expertise, they're rarely in a position to judge the quality of your work.

While clients can usually distinguish between adequate and inadequate work, they may not be able to distinguish between good and brilliant work. If they knew enough to differentiate, they probably wouldn't need your help.

So instead, they judge the quality of your work based on proxies. They judge based on the experience of being a client rather than the beauty of your code.

Imagine that you hired a lawyer to write your will. How would you decide if you were satisfied? Your decision probably wouldn't be based on whether the will was written in perfect iambic pentameter. Assuming the legal document contained the key things that you requested, you would judge based on the experience of working with the lawyer.

Did you receive the deliverables on time? Did you get explanations in language that you understood? Were you condescended to? Was the price as promised? Was the lawyer available when you wanted to talk?

Satisfaction in professional relationships is based more on the experience of the relationship than on the quality of the product. Using customer satisfaction as a goal too often leads to efforts to improve satisfaction by improving the product, emphasizing the one thing that your clients probably won't notice.

So instead of focusing on customer satisfaction, a better goal is to create a quality "client experience." When you do that, both you and your clients can share in a more satisfying relationship.

Paul Glen is the author of the award-winning book "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer, 2003) and Principal of C2 Consulting. C2 Consulting helps IT management solve people problems. Paul Glen regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to He can be reached at