Customer service is more than individual action

It's important that all staffers are aware of priorities and empowered to make snap judgments about what should be done first.

I began my life in the world of the gainfully employed when I was 16 in a little office supply store in my hometown of Owego, NY. From those earliest days manning the cash register and helping customers find the products they needed, customer service was driven into me as a mantra. Once I graduated from college (well, after the first two years, anyway) and moved into my first role in the world of IT, the lessons I learned at Mullen's Office Products remained with me. Now, at 37 and as a CIO in what many would consider a medium-sized business, I look back on those lessons with a different eye and a modified outlook.

I started my first IT job in 1994 and performed a wide variety of tasks, from handling support calls to designing and implementing networks to creating and maintaining complex database applications. All the varied work I did, however, had one common theme: It supported the needs and goals of the organization. Obviously, that's the purpose of many internal IT departments at nontechnology companies. IT exists to help everyone do their jobs more effectively, and the phrase "customer service" is often used to describe the process of ensuring that coworkers' needs are met in a reasonable way.

Because this phrase is so commonly used, I wanted to provide some of my thoughts on what I consider to be examples of good customer service, but before I begin, I want to explain that I believe that the phrase "customer service" means more than just helping individual users with a problem with Word or creating a report for another office. Instead, I believe that, for IT, the phrase should be considered as more of an organization-wide mentality that permeates the way that we do certain things as well as answers the "why" of why we're doing a particular project or task. "Customer service" to me means that we're doing our part to support the needs of the entire organization even if it occasionally means that an individual need or want is not met or is prioritized contrary to the desires of that individual.

We rarely say no, but we're not order takers either. We've all been told that a failure to say no from time to time will lead to chaos and disruption as too many irons end up in the fire. Understand that I'm not saying that I never say no. Instead, what I'm saying is this: When someone comes to us with a request, there's generally a reason behind it. We don't simply look at the request and dismiss it (OK... obviously, we do every once in a great while). Instead, if the request simply makes no sense or is contrary to other goals, we work with the requestor to find an alternative solution that meets his original goal as closely as possible while ensuring that the solution meets the needs and goals of the organization. In fact, just this week, we faced such a situation. A request was submitted that would have been a mess to clean up later and would have created major problems for another campus division. Working with the user, we identified the right way for the need to be serviced. The end result: The original need is met and two other challenges were solved by virtue of the solution. I call that a win-win situation. When we have to say no, we do it respectfully. From time to time, everyone has to deliver bad news. I think most people understand that not everything is going to go the way that they hope. In these kinds of situations, the "no" is delivered in a way that we hope won't further upset the "customer." Obviously, the person will already be upset, but we try to avoid compounding their disappointment by treating them like jerks. It's OK to say no from time to time, but it's not OK to mistreat people in the process. Frankly, I see this take place far too often, and people excuse it away as being "assertive." There is a fine line between assertiveness and acting like an arrogant jerk who has no clue about how to interact with others. From the perspective of the person being told no, it might not matter in the moment how the message was delivered, but hopefully, over time, it will. And, believe me, if you treat someone like crap, they won't forget it, and once someone gains a reputation for this kind of behavior, his days are numbered -- or at least they should be. The Golden Rule applies. Requests and projects are not prioritized by who you are, but rather by organizational need. Believe it or not, if the president of Westminster College calls the help desk because he's having a problem with his computer and, at the same time, we find out that a computer lab has gone down and is affecting a professor's ability to teach, guess which problem gets solved first. The lab. Our business is education. Or mission is education. Our president lives and breathes the mission. When a request comes in, it is gauged against all other open requests and prioritized against the needs of the organization as a whole. At different times of the year, this might mean that the exact same set of requests is handled differently. For example, in the example above, if we had a lab go out over the summer and the president also had a problem, we'd address the president's issue first since the lab is not in use. In working this way, it's important that all staffers are aware of priorities and empowered to make snap judgments about what should be done first. I insist that my staff understand what's going on around them and have placed most of them on various campus committees in my place in order to improve this awareness. This reiterates the fact that our "customer" is the organization as a whole.

Customer service is generally considered as a one-on-one interaction, and that is certainly one aspect of the overall customer service experience. However, when it comes to the success or failure of IT, the entire organization needs to be considered "the customer" and requests need to be handled in ways that make sense in that scope. That shouldn't be read as minimizing interpersonal interaction; in fact, I believe it's just the opposite. If everyone is working from the same set of organization criteria, this should be par for the course. All of this is built from successful interpersonal interactions and by raising awareness beyond the individual and to the entire organization.