Does your IT department create an "experience"?

I recently spent a few days with my family at Disney World. I had lived near the park and visited hundreds of times, but I am still amazed by the care and effort that is put into creating an "experience" around visiting. The details each guest participates in are perhaps the most obvious incarnation of the experience: a boat ride is required to get to the Magic Kingdom to reinforce the feeling you are going to a far-away place, to the reference to employees as "cast members."

While we in the IT leadership community might consider much of this as form over function, Disney is a well-known and effective user of technology and disciplined student of management. A smiling, costumed "cast member" works in concert with systems and processes that ensure the plush Mickey doll has just the right amount of stock on the shelf next to him, and ridership reporting and analysis systems direct guests to a disused ride rather than requiring they wait in a long queue.

Similarly, if you have visited the Apple store you will notice there are no cash registers. A costumed sales rep explains products and pulls an iPod with a credit card reader out of his pocket when it comes time to make a purchase. For a more IT-oriented example, Cisco separates problem capture from problem resolution. Rather than forcing someone who is contacting their service desk to answer rudimentary questions, then be transferred around the company and spend time on-hold, calls are rapidly answered by someone whose sole function is to record the problem and provide an identifying number. While this is nothing new, with Cisco the problem is quickly and competently routed to the right party, and a knowledgeable technician from the right department calls back literally in minutes, rather than forcing the caller through a gauntlet of voice prompts and long hold times. In short, thought was clearly put into how to make these processes deliver the best possible customer experience, using technology and humans in the functions each does best.

Where these companies are interacting with their customers, they offer high-touch, seemingly old-fashioned customer service. What moves this into an experience is that the high-touch front-end is supported by technologies that increase customer service, rather than getting in the way of its delivery. In management, many of us may see this as an either-or choice: spend money on inefficient "high-touch" services or deploy a cheap and efficient, but less friendly, solution. This need not be the case, and often the most effective services are those where the technology melts into the background, becoming the "special sauce" that builds an experience, rather than the star of the show.

Considering the human touch points in any process, be it your helpdesk call center or a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system rollout, will shift your objectives from how to feed a system, to how to build a customer-focused experience. The most unwieldy processes and systems, and usually the least successful and most expensive to implement and maintain, are often designed with little or no regard to how someone would actually interact with the process in order to do their job.

While the work of an internal IT organization may not place as much value on the experience as Disney or Apple, experience should not be completely ignored. Pondering how each function of your organization helps an end-customer experience or makes the job of internal personnel easier or quicker has an obvious financial benefit that might not be apparent when you are considering only technology and data. This may be as easy as having IT staff catalog new enhancement requests personally, since they can clarify a diffuse requirement into something that can more readily be analyzed and dispositioned. Or, it could be providing pushback to the VP who wants the new CRM system to require 87 categorizations and data fields for a new lead, a task that is obviously detrimental to the experience of the poor salesperson who will have to use the system.

While experience is hard to create, it can build undying loyalty and immense value to what might otherwise be a commodity. An IT department that delivers compelling experiences can't simple be outsourced and lessen budget pressure since it delivers much more than just an OK service at the cheapest cost.

There are lots of amusement parks, but only one Disney. While building an authentic steam engine to transport employees around HQ while wearing a mouse costume is probably overkill, creating an experience need not be that complex.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...