IT services account managers: Planning globally, acting locally

IT could learn a lot from Tip O'Neill.

Perhaps you don't remember O'Neill. He was the speaker of the House during the Reagan years. What brings him to mind is his political mantra: "All politics is local." O'Neill knew that a successful politician needs to be close to his constituents, engaged in their issues, attentive to their concerns and seen as a force working in their behalf.

What's true for politicians is true for IT professionals.

Both business unit managers and technology consumers are big fans of decentralizing IT. They want it carved up by geography, by lines of business, or some other scheme, with control passed to the local senior business manager. This mania for local control isn't just an affirmation of O'Neill's mantra. It seems to be simple human nature.

We all tend to feel cut off and ignored when the people we rely on or care about become more distant physically. Move out of town, and relatives will feel that you care less about them. Get elected to office and then spend all your time in the capital, and constituents back home will feel that they are being ignored. Centralize IT in the home office, and IT's customers are sure to feel underserved. This feeling even seems to affect decentralized organizations. Unless you are right here, you are nowhere.

Experience shows that the issue is not centralization or decentralization, but disenfranchisement. But when IT staff become engaged with their users, both the image of IT and the perception of the services it provides go up. After all, all politics is local. Unfortunately, centralization is a long-term trend that's unlikely to lose favor at a time when cutting costs has become so important. Senior IT managers cannot spend all their time on the road, visiting customers. But they can empower a special group of people to do exactly that.

The concept of IT account managers sprang up in emulation of technology vendors that discovered that customers could be kept happier if technical experts, whose job was to focus exclusively on customer issues, were sent into the field. Each account manager (also called a customer service manager, IT liaison or relationship manager) supports a region, a line of business or some other IT customer segment. They are seasoned IT professionals who are knowledgeable in all of the IT services provided to their customer base. Their job is to spend considerable time with users, understanding how they use technology and resolving problems.

The best account managers are chosen not only for their skills but also for their proven aptitude and desire to work closely with IT's customers. They are able to sit down with senior business management to discuss IT's long-term plans one day, and the next to patiently work with frustrated users who cannot get the help desk or corporate IT to resolve technology problems.

What account managers are not is a super help desk or a desk-side support function. They are IT's ambassadors. They help customers plan and use IT, and even assist department heads in budgeting for IT resources. They represent IT at gatherings or individually in customer offices, and collect information to help IT understand how it can better support its customers.

Account managers provide an IT presence wherever they go. They are the local IT franchise supporting a subset of IT's entire customer base and all the IT services relevant to that subset. Account management provides a number of services that benefit both the customer and IT, including the following:

Offering a quick business-knowledgeable response to IT issues that simultaneously reduces the need for customer interactions with central IT. The account manager can more quickly resolve problems in the field, consistent with local culture, often without having to involve corporate IT. If contact with central IT is necessary, the account manager can knowledgably locate within IT the information the customer needs.

Serving as a single source of IT information. Account managers represent all of IT to a customer. They either can answer all customer inquiries or know where to find the answer.

Providing personal, relationship-based service. While traditional support, such as the help desk, is product- or service-focused, account management is customer-focused. This provides the customer with a single human face of IT, which can foster a strong and more lasting bond.

Improving customer satisfaction. An account manager is someone customers feel is on their side and whom they could talk to about technology.

Bettering IT's understanding of customer business and technology needs. Account managers can function as both a business advocate within IT and as the best-positioned IT person to understand the customer, his business, what technology he has, how well it is working, how satisfied he is with it, what technology he could use, and how he could use it.

Validating the service offerings. Account managers are uniquely positioned to help validate that IT is providing the right services to its customers.

Account management is a way to put the face of decentralization on IT without losing the benefits of centralization.

George Tillmann is a former CIO, management consultant and the author of The Business-Oriented CIO (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). He can be reached at georgetillmann@optonline.net.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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