A few years ago one of the engineering VPs I provided IT support for called me up and asked if I could help fix a problem with his laptop. I told him he could open a helpdesk ticket and that they would take care of him. He refused, so I opened the ticket for him and kept him apprised of the situation, and they fixed the problem without a hitch.
Why would he refuse to place the call himself? When I asked him this very question, he replied, "Oh, they are just the 'Helpless Desk,' because they are rude, and they will do nothing for me. I was confident that you would take care of me by fixing the problem properly and keeping me informed about the situation until it was resolved."
Another time, I was interviewing someone for a systems admin job. He had an impressive resume with lots of IT buzzwords and certifications. He looked like a good match until I asked the candidate what his ideal job would be. He replied, "I would love to manage a data center with hundreds of machines and no people. People just get in the way when I am managing machines." Needless to say, he did not get the job!
You are probably wondering, what was the problem in these examples? Clearly it wasn't technical competence. In both cases, it was that they did not have a customer-focused mindset. A friendly attitude, a smile, and good communication skills can go a long way toward helping you support your company's IT infrastructure and keep your job. By being focused on your users, you are creating satisfied customers and in the process ultimately delivering more value and productivity for your company.
Customer service is nothing new, so why do so many IT people ignore it at their peril? We will explore the reasons why being technically competent is simply not enough these days, and why top-notch communication skills are the new IT differentiator in today's highly competitive IT job market. We'll also cover some basic customer relations skills that will help you perform your technical job faster with fewer distractions.
So what exactly does customer-centric IT mean? Craig Bailey, president and founder of Customer Centricity, Inc., explains, "As companies continue to downsize, they need to get the most out of the resources they have. Technology is not the answer; it is only a tool. To build a customer relationship, you need to build 30% processes and 50% people skills, training, and empowerment. Only 20% of the relationship is based on technology."
This seems counterintuitive; aren't IT people hired for their technical skills? Well, if you talk to any good IT manager, they will tell you that, "You can teach bits and bytes, but what's hard to teach is a customer-centric attitude," says Bailey.
How can I learn to be customer focused?
It sounds complicated, but fortunately -- unlike the latest version of Cisco IOS -- there are just a few simple rules to learn that will help you get started in delivering better services to your users so that you too can be winning friends and influencing people -- even your company executives.
- Understand the problem from the user's perspective
While you might think the problem is a bad routing table, the CFO is thinking that she will not be able to deliver the annual SEC filing on time because the network is down. She is worried about losing valuable time, not the technical details of rebuilding the ACL list. She may fear that you will make it worse and not fix the problem. When you communicate with her, skip all the technical details and instead just tell her that there are some problems with the network, and that if they are not resolved in time, you will arrange for alternative means to deliver the files. She will be relieved that you understand her concerns and are working for her best interests.
- Set proper expectations
Setting the expectations of what service you are providing is the key to winning users to your side. For example, let's say you have been working on replacing a bad hard disk in your marketing VP's system. He is anxious because he has a big presentation to a major client coming up. So what do you do? You could just immediately start working on it in an attempt to get it fixed as quickly as possible. That sounds like the logical way of approaching it; after all, you are maximizing your efficiency, right? Wrong!
You need to first communicate to the VP that you are replacing his hard disk and while you expect that it will be done by the end of the day, if there is a problem, he will have some alternatives that will allow him to deliver his presentations, provided he has copies of the files. Again, you have addressed your customer's concerns and set the expectation that there are alternatives if copies of his files are available.
- Provide timely and useful status updates
As Bailey puts it, "You've promised your customer a status call, but don't have an answer yet; well, call them anyway -- they are expecting you to." If the status changes for either good or bad, by all means tell your customer. They will appreciate your concern for them, and they will have a better understanding of what you are doing for them "behind the scenes." If these anxious executives understand that you are working hard to resolve their problems, they are going to be much more sympathetic when you run into the inevitable difficulty.
- Learn from your experience
After you have resolved the issue, resist the urge to simply sit back and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. While it's still fresh on your mind, review what happened from both the IT and the users' perspectives. You should look not only for what went wrong, but what you did right and what you would do differently next time. Ask your users the same questions. You will learn valuable lessons for improving your IT infrastructure and your customer service skills.
- Understand the problem from the user's perspective
- Set user expectations properly
- Get the user on your side
- Set up regular channels of communication
- Provide regular updates of the status even if nothing has changed
- If things change -- good or bad -- communicate this without delay
- Celebrate the wins and understand how you can improve the next time
Now that you have a better understanding of how developing your customer communication skills can help you deliver better IT services, you can see that it is a win-win situation that will make your customers happier and your IT job more secure. What more can you ask for? OK, that sweet laptop with the cool new 16" flat screen would be really nice...