Good Customer Service Isn't Just About Customers

A couple of months ago, I described the incredibly poor customer service I received from several technology vendors ("Customer Dis-service," Oct. 20). Based on those experiences, I will probably never buy from those vendors again. Last month, I purchased a new laptop, which failed and has been replaced -- twice. Despite my frustration, I was impressed with the excellent customer service I received from Office Depot's technical support specialist, and that experience got me thinking.

Not every business can afford to offer customers Ritz-Carlton-level service. But even companies that compete on "lowest price" recognize that they must provide basic customer support or buyers will go elsewhere. The smartest IT shops also know that good customer service affects how the corporation perceives and interacts with them. Here are just a few of the ways:

Executive team respect.Business executives expect highly reliable support for their IT systems. Providing good customer service will not guarantee respect for IT, but poor service creates the impression that IT is uncaring and unresponsive to business needs. Negative perceptions can lead to IT being excluded from strategic business discussions.

Political capital.When problems arise, IT is expected to communicate frequently and provide personalized assistance regarding any unresolved issues. How IT responds to problems can either add to or subtract from its political capital. After one Fortune 500 company's BlackBerry server failed, its well-respected IT department called every BlackBerry user to ensure that each device was operating properly. At a different company, the CEO had difficulty receiving e-mail on his BlackBerry. Customer service took three days to return his call, then simply stated that he should remove and reinsert the battery. This interaction severely eroded IT's political capital.

Shared problems. IT organizations that provide excellent customer service build bridges between the business and IT and foster cooperative partnerships. When IT is perceived as a partner, a late or over-budget project is more likely to be perceived as a company problem rather than an IT problem. One Fortune 500 company with an excellent IT department launched a program to modernize a major part of its business platform, which required significant systems renovation. Five years later, the program was significantly late and over budget. Despite software difficulties, the executive team rallied around the CIO and took joint responsibility for the program's overruns.

Customer retention. Satisfied customers are usually repeat customers. Internal departments that are unhappy with IT are more willing to listen to sales presentations from outsourcers, software vendors or systems integrators. They are also more likely to select a new software platform or establish new project directions before IT is invited to participate.

Employee retention. Customer-focused organizations usually treat their employees as fairly and respectfully as they do their customers, resulting in a motivated and stable workforce. Organizations that mistreat customers generally mistreat their employees, too, often resulting in high turnover. Turnover is expensive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that replacing an employee costs one-third of his total compensation. In addition, the number of college graduates earning computer-related degrees is decreasing, while aging workers in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan are approaching retirement. As a result, it's becoming difficult to find qualified replacements for IT staffers.

Good customer service requires both process and attitude. Robust processes are needed to track and resolve complaints, and the right attitude needs to start at the top. Effective customer service provides significant benefits to the IT organization. Leverage excellent customer service to retain your customers, your employees and your corporate political capital.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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