By: Harris Kern: In conjunction with the Enterprise Computing Institute

One of the great revolutions in American business that began
in the 1980s (and is still underway) is the ascendancy of the customer. It is
now much more than a cliché that the customer is king. And today this is as
true for internal customers as it is for external customers. The rise of
packaged enterprise systems and the rapid growth of outsourcing mean that IT
customers have more choices than ever, and our experience is that they will use
them if they are dissatisfied. Yet we still find many IT departments that are
not focusing on customer satisfaction and are using their institutional
position to control their customers. But over time, by not satisfying their customers
they are putting their budgets and continued employment at risk. We are going
to discuss some of the principles of customer satisfaction and offer
suggestions for getting and staying in tune with your customers.

Satisfaction is important because it is a lagging indicator
of service quality. If customers are dissatisfied, it’s probably because their
needs have not been met for some time. When customers become vocally
dissatisfied about IT performance, it suggests a systemic failure to
communicate and properly set expectations with them.

Watch for telltale signs of dissatisfied
customers. Here is a brief customer satisfaction quiz:

  1. Are
    customers resisting serving on your review boards and committees?
  2. Do
    customers control their share of your IT budget or does IT dictate
    priorities and project funding?
  3. Does
    the customer have a choice of service levels, and are there auditable
    metrics on the quality of service?
  4. Are
    customers going around IT departments by setting up local mini-IT
  5. Are
    you having trouble getting support for your initiatives and budget
  6. When
    you implement a new system, does the complaining die away in days, weeks,
    months, or never?
  7. How
    often do you have a major system outage of multiple hours or even days in

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions we can
guarantee you have dissatisfied customers even if they’re not complaining to
you directly. In fact, if they’re not communicating, you’re in big trouble. In
my experience, when customers stop publicly griping it may be the calm before
the storm.

What can be done to improve satisfaction? Here are some
simple steps to making customers more satisfied:

Meet their expectations

A customer who expects more than they are receiving will be
dissatisfied no matter what the absolute quality of the service. If your
department has a reputation of giving customers happy talk, or future promises
to keep them at bay — watch out!

Believe their complaints, not their vision

Customers are not necessarily the best determiners of
technology choices. They tend to define their needs based on what they know,
not what is possible. However, if you offer them options, they are able to
select among them and to articulate flaws. Customers are best able to help
correct flaws in interfaces, usability issues, and functional deficiencies. These
flaws should not be criticized, but listened to and corrected as soon as

Empower customers

A common complaint we hear from IT is that customers are
setting up their own shadow IT departments and are not using the institutional
systems. This is particularly true in high-tech organizations where there is an
abundance of computer literate staff who are often
frustrated at the slow pace of change and the lack of control over the systems
they use daily.

Involve customers

Customers must be involved at each step through techniques
such as functional walk-throughs, conference room
pilots, and frequent discussions about business plans and future needs. IT must
assume every system will change throughout its life cycle.

Don’t ask customers technical questions. That’s your job.

In a recent meeting, discussion turned into uptime
requirement for a new customer management system under development. The project
manager was trying to decide if the project needed a high-availability server
with automatic fail-over or if an inexpensive, off-the-shelf server would
suffice. She said her customers told her 99% uptime would be fine and that they
would put it in writing in the specification document. Therefore, she could buy
a standard, single server. Wrong answer!

This project manager had fallen into a common trap. She had
asked her customers for a technical answer, and even worse, she was going to
try to hold them to it. Do the math! Ninety-nine percent
uptime for a 12×5 system implies total outages of about three days per
year, which is unlikely to be acceptable to anyone, especially for a customer
management system. Having a signed document saying that 99% is okay will not
save you when the complaining starts.

Measure the quality of your service, and communicate it with your

There are several important impacts of metrics. First,
everyone knows the quality of the work, and often can use the metrics to
prevent problems from becoming critical.

Second, metrics become the basis of objective discussions
with customers about the acceptability of service, and the cost of making it
better. Customers will not support your efforts to improve service unless you
can objectively demonstrate what they receive and why.

Test yourself against the outsourcers — your customers do

Every IT department should regularly benchmark itself
against the standards of IT best practices and be prepared to act on the
findings. There are many ways to do such a benchmark exercise. Compare yourself
against the many surveys conducted in the trade press such as CIO magazine or
Information Week. Consultant organizations such as EDS,
or industry watchers such as the Gartner Group
maintain databases of best practices and standards of productivity and

Conduct benchmark discussions with your peers in other
companies. As long as your benchmark partners are not direct competitors, most
companies are eager to share ideas. One good source of benchmark data is
suppliers who are often eager to share ideas so that they may help improve your
commercial relationship with them.

Good candidates for benchmarks are your internal service
bureaus, such as help desk, or data center operations, or customer service
functions, such as system administration or training. If your results are
seriously out of line with industry practice, begin improving them right away. Outsourcers
and consultant companies who are anxious to demonstrate their capabilities are
continuously approaching your customers.

Keep your attitude positive and your frustrations in check

IT is a service business. When you become frustrated with
your customers remember that you are in your job because they have theirs. If
you become frustrated and lose your poise you will lose your ability to communicate.
You “push back” instead of listening. Your customers will become dissatisfied
with your service. Maintaining a positive attitude is the key to customer
satisfaction (and indeed many other things in life).

The Enterprise Computing
helps IT professionals solve problems and simplify the management
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