Satisfying the customer

Many IT departments 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. Here are some of the principles of customer satisfaction and offer suggestions for getting and staying in tune with your customers.

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 functions?
  5. Are you having trouble getting support for your initiatives and budget requests?
  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 duration?

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 possible.

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 12x5 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 customers.

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 efficiency.

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 Institute helps IT professionals solve problems and simplify the management of IT through consulting and training based on the best-selling Enterprise Computing Institute book series.