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

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

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