22 Sep Demolishing the antiquated IT customer-service model
One of the greatest disservices done to corporate information technology was introducing the concept of a customer-service model. In many IT organizations, you will hear constant references to “the customer,” referring not to the people who purchase the company’s products, but rather to people in other business units requesting something from IT. This model of IT as a vendor and anyone else as a customer implies that this customer must be sold to, serviced, and then quickly abandoned in order to make way for the next “sale.”
This distinction is not only foolish, but counterproductive. IT is neither a separate entity with distinct goals, nor is it solely an internal-support organization, servicing one “customer” and then moving on to the next. Why does this distinction persist?
Treating IT as a customer-service organization is often the easy way out for a chief information officer. While serving customers can be a difficult task, it is a passive endeavor. A customer-service organization stands on the sidelines and is invoked at the whim of the customer, striving to quickly and quietly do the minimum amount of work that will make the customer marginally satisfied. The outcome is generally binary: you either satisfy the customer or you do not.
Regardless of the outcome, you have dispensed with that customer and may move on to the next one. There are no difficult decisions or maverick thinking, and the chances for success or failure are effectively passed from the CIO’s hands to the customers. They set your agenda, they pass judgment on your level of success or failure, and they ultimately decide your fate. This style of CIO does fine as long as they keep their heads down, customers happy, and costs reasonable.
Forget about promotions
This style of CIO will also never be considered for advancement to COO or CEO, nor will they be seen as particularly valuable when talk of outsourcing or reorganization comes to the forefront. They have succeeded in the ultimate IT sin: turning IT from a potential strategic weapon into a shared service.
Every internal organization in a successful corporation must pull its weight in contributing to continued success of the company as a whole. While HR does not directly deal with the production or sales of products and services, it serves a critical function to the company when done well. Similarly, the successful IT organization does not exist merely to provide a commodity service when needed; rather it should be involved in, and responsible for executing corporate strategy. In effect, IT’s ultimate customer should be the one buying the company’s products, no different than sales or marketing.
There are two highly effective tools for demolishing this antiquated customer-service model. One of the most effective was recently suggested to me by the CIO of the international arm of a large software company: instituting a “tour of duty” program that allows people in traditional business roles to spend some time working in IT, while IT staff takes a stint in a traditional business role. Not only does this provide staff with experience in different areas of the organization, but business process knowledge is brought directly into the IT organization, and technical competency becomes embedded throughout the company.
No longer is IT a silo, staffed primarily based on technical ability, but IT becomes a horizontal organization, influencing and providing direct expertise rather than the former, passive customer-service model.
The second trick to getting out of the customer service morass is a change in mindset. Old ideas about serving “customers” and attempting to be a passive shared service should be rendered outmoded. IT is just as legitimate a part of the organization as finance or marketing, and creating this artificial subordinate relationship does nothing to help IT’s position within the company. As already mentioned, customer service is a passive business, and a successful IT organization should be anything but passive.
You must avoid the urge to simply put a veneer on the problem by applying fancy new vocabulary to the same old attitudes. IT must see its relationship with the rest of the organization as one of equals. IT may have to expand its knowledge of business functions, but it will be rewarded with increased exposure and influence throughout the organization. IT projects will become collaborative efforts, rather than being perceived as an annoyance that must be tolerated by the rest of the corporation, ultimately subject to its every whim.
Killing the messenger
In its dealings throughout the organization, IT can no longer act as a messenger, capturing requirements and relaying them to developers. Instead IT should help determine how a business process can best be facilitated through technology. IT is no longer in the customer-service business, but now in the process re-engineering and strategy implementation business.
By playing a more active role throughout the organization, IT will begin to see opportunities for improvement or use of existing technologies and processes in other areas of the company. Instead of slogging through the latest requests from “the customer,” IT can instigate a collaborative effort to improve the company. If your IT organization can truly be an equal part of the business, the CIO is vaulted out of a maintenance position to become a leader who can both execute and provide the vision to improve the organization and service the true, paying customer.
This change represents a combination that is both indispensable and far more interesting than waiting for the latest internal customer-service challenge.
Previous articles by Patrick Gray
• Patrick Gray: Supercharge business value with breakthrough IT
• Patrick Gray: Death by deliverables a project management pitfall
• Patrick Gray: With tech implementations, it’s NOT the methodology, stupid
• Patrick Gray: Fire your CIO? If he’s not implementing strategy, show him the door
• Patrick Gray: Five steps to buying the right package software
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