What my clients taught me

I was very fortunate very early in my career to learn all anyone really needs to know about meeting clients' expectations.

It's very simple really, because all that's necessary is to treat our clients the way we would want to be treated when we do business with a commercial service provider.

But sometimes there's nothing harder than giving credence to a really simple idea. As IT professionals, we know how truly complicated things can be. At the time of my great lesson, I had been up to my neck in a project to rationalize the distributed systems of a large corporation. This company had made roughly two acquisitions every year for the previous six years. Its distributed systems were in chaos, since each acquired company had its own distributed systems and software. (Architecture? Be serious!) Documents or files created in one business couldn't be opened or used in another business or at the corporate level.

It was anything but simple.

We eventually hammered things into shape. Help desk calls went down. Documents could be sent and received and actually used. E-mails were proactively screened for viruses. Productivity went up. Businesses could collaborate better and faster, and the total cost of ownership of distributed systems technology and support went down significantly.

Having accomplished so much, I decided to find out what our clients thought of it all. I dislike survey forms, so I decided to do a personal survey, taking notes as I talked to each client. I got the questions down to three, set up an interview schedule with business, corporate officers and general management, and began in earnest.

My three questions were:

  1. What concerns do you have with the IT services that you receive?
  2. How would you characterize the IT support function that provides IT services to you today?
  3. What would you desire in your IT services in the future?

The first two questions were aimed at identifying specific short-term improvements, while Question 3 was intended to confirm these improvements as outcomes. More importantly, responses to Question 3 would give me insight into what clients saw as the most valued performance characteristics of any IT service provider.

After about 20 interviews, a pattern began to emerge. After 57 interviews, the pattern became so locked in that I've never had to do a survey again.

The responses to Questions 1 and 2 led me to implement IT management best practices and to improve the interpersonal and consultative skills of my staff. As a result, my staff became more focused on the client experience and on helping each other instead of being focused on ensuring that everyone's backside was covered.

But it was the responses to Question 3 that made the simplicity of it all blindingly clear. My clients' desired outcomes were in fact the same as mine for any service I receive. They wanted the experience to be quick, easy, accurate and pleasant. But I began to hear something else in their responses. In my clients' own words, here's what they expressed to me:

In terms of performance conduct, I want my IT service provider to be:

  • Proactive with regard to my needs.
  • A provider of exclusive services, if needed.
  • The best engineering provider.
  • An innovative partner and ally to the business.
  • Committed to me.
  • An exceptional performer.
  • The best technology supplier.
  • Responsive, informative, confident and creative.
  • Price-competitive and predictable.
  • Easy to buy from.

In terms of service results, I want my IT service provider to:

  • Understand my needs.
  • Deliver as promised.
  • Speak in my terms.
  • Alleviate my concerns and risks.
  • Guarantee my satisfaction.
  • Demonstrate sustained improvements.
  • Lead me to better ways.
  • Help me succeed.

In the many IT assignments I've had since that one, these IT service outcomes have stood the test of time. In fact I've never seen a circumstance where they don't apply.

In keeping with the idea that this is all very simple, let me say what those clients were telling me in a single sentence: "I probably won't remember what you say to me, I may not even remember what you do for me, but I'll never forget how you make me feel."

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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