Keys to Delivering Superb Service

What do networking professionals expect in terms of service from a vendor? Here are a few tips from IT managers, contractors and customers about the importance of delivering good service.
Posted January 13, 2003

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

If you have to screen your calls to avoid an endless procession of headhunters and potential customers offering you ever-higher rates for your IT services, you can skip this article. In fact, you could probably write one of your own.

But for those mere mortals faced with keeping customers happy, here are a few tips from IT managers, contractors and customers about the importance of delivering good service.

What the Customer Wants

Carefully listening to the client and finding out what it truly needs is a key requirement for any type of professional practice. For example, according to Dr. Peter V. Scoles, senior vice president of the National Board of Medical Examiners, 85% of all medical malpractice cases are based on communication issues.

While similar statistics are unavailable for IT, a large number of IT consulting projects fail due to miscommunication. How many times have you heard or said, "But I thought you meant..."?

"If I don't understand what the customer wants, I can't design effective software," says Craig Nolin, senior software analyst for Litton PRC, Inc. of Virginia Beach, Va., who is responsible for the functional design, testing, implementation and customer support of maintenance software for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, complications frequently arise because customers often have only a vague concept of what they expect the technology to achieve. While they expect you to fill in the blanks, they may not end up being the type of blanks they expected.

"Sometimes they don't know what they want, so having a background in the issue at hand becomes a must," Nolin continues.

Even if the customer lays out exact specifications, however, that doesn't absolve you of the responsibility of making sure those specifications are correct and will achieve the desired goal. It is up to you to ask the necessary questions and make sure that you are producing what is wanted.

"Our customer is usually very explicit in spelling out the requirements for a new functional enhancement," says Jay Braun, a network engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "It would be quite simple to follow these requirements to the letter, but we also try to see 'holes' in any new requirement."

Keep it Real

The client doesn't want to hear how hard you are working on the project or how much you support his vision. The end result will speak for itself. But throughout the project, realistic status information -- including any bugs -- are always appreciated.

"I don't expect superhuman efforts or perfection and I don't want messages crafted to please me," says Steven Cooper, a developer for Rational Software Corp. of Cupertino, Calif. "I just want to know that the right work is done and that I am always well-informed, including when any mistakes are made or problems arise."

This starts right from the first steps when making a proposal. It can be tempting to promise the world when bidding on a project, hoping to cover any shortfalls with added funding later. But, if you want repeat business, make everything known right up front.

"I look for realistic work estimates, with unknowns and potential hazards discussed early," says Cooper.

It's true that being honest about what a project really requires may wind up costing you some potential contracts. But, if you lose the job, realize that what you are really losing is a lot of headaches and a customer who will be dissatisfied with whoever does get the cut-rate contract.

Take Responsibility

No matter what "escape clauses" exist in the contract, if you want repeat business, you have to take full responsibility for the successful outcome of the project, no matter if problems are someone else's fault.

"Customers do not expect perfection," says Braun. "They expect responsibility."

Braun says that over the past two decades he has learned that it is easier, when a problem arises, to assume that it is his fault and go in to try to isolate the cause, rather than waste time arguing about it.

"If it my fault, then it will be that much easier to fix," he says. "But if it is not my fault, I will at least be able to point out where the error is in a non-threatening manner."

That responsibility extends to making sure the product works out in the field. Braun says that users often identify bugs that can't be found by in-house testing and so his staff typically stays after hours to fix any anomalies so everything is ready for users the next day.

"Our 'second' workday sometimes begins when the users go home," he says.

Litton's Nolin agrees that follow-up is essential.

"Probably the single most important thing that I do after the software is in place, is to be responsive when the customer calls with a problem or a question," he relates. "If I don't answer their question or help them out quickly, they lose confidence in our ability to respond."

The Payoff

While it does require a bit of extra care and attention to deliver superlative service, you save time in the long run. It means you can spend your days producing, rather than in interviews or sales presentations. The customers will keep calling you back.

"I don't need heroics or slick packaging," says Cooper. "The value of a provider that understands you and consistently meets expectations is that you can increasingly rely on him."

A superlative service approach can also mean the difference between being retained by a client or losing out to a cut-rate competitor. And if you deliver good enough service, you may not even have to fight off the competition.

Take the case of On Assignment, Inc., a professional staffing firm with headquarters in Calabasas, Calif. When it wanted to upgrade the network connections to its 70 offices around the country, as well as updating the desktop and server software at those locations, it called the same company that had been supporting those offices. Yes, it could have gotten a lower bid, but many years of excellent relations was valued far higher than saving a few dollars by using an unknown quantity.

"Knowing the job will be managed well far outweighs any minor price savings we may have gotten from another vendor," says David Clements, director of Information Services.

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