Friday, August 22, 2008

Passive customer service lends itself to outsourcing

In Ending the Whining I lamented the lack of basic customer service skills that sometimes gives IT a black eye. A friendly word or focus on presenting IT discussions in terms of business phraseology can go a long way in assuaging this divide. However, and perhaps paradoxically, taking the customer service concept too far has crippled many IT organizations.

In some IT shops, you will hear repeated references to “the customer,” as in “the customer is looking for this to be completed in three months,” or “I have a meeting with my customer on this project.” Rather than referring to the ultimate buyer of the company’s goods or services, these misguided souls are referring to their non-IT colleagues. While long advocated as the ideal for IT organizations to aspire to, reflecting on the ultimate expression of customer service shows why this might not be such a good model for IT after all.

Lessons from the call center

The ultimate customer service organization is the inbound call center. Cheery phone representatives stand by, waiting for the next customer request to come in, and attempt to solve the customer’s problem as quickly and efficiently as possible. These call centers are generally managed very closely, using detailed metrics as their central measure of efficacy. The primary metric for success looks at volume: How many customers can we satisfy in a given amount of time at the lowest possible cost? Many call centers use technology to track each reps time per call, the resolution of the call, and in some cases, go down to the detailed level of tracking how much time each rep spends away from his or her telephone. In extreme cases, phone reps must “log off” their telephone with different codes depending on whether they are using the bathroom or going on a lunch break.

What’s most notable about this type of call center is that it’s completely passive. Action is only triggered by a customer ringing the call center, and once they are on the line, the ultimate goal of the call center agent is to get the customer minimally satisfied, and off the phone as quickly as possible. Does this sound like your IT organization? Under the guise of “improved customer service” and “efficiency,” many IT departments are trying to emulate the call center, quietly waiting in the wings until action is prompted by an external force. Project tracking suites track analysts’ time nearly as closely as the call center rep, and the ultimate goal is to deliver each task at the lowest acceptable quality level in the shortest amount of time.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Shared service dogmatists might be wondering what’s wrong the picture painted above. After all, if IT can knock out acceptably satisfactory projects at or below time and budgetary constraints, all while exemplifying the old bromide of being “seen and not heard,” where’s the problem? The problem is that when administered in this manner, IT is a commodity, pure and simple. Inbound call centers were at the forefront of the outsourcing wave for good reason: They were a commodity and easily seen as a cost to be minimized. A voice on the other end of the phone that struggles to speak the King’s English might annoy a few customers, but if the quality is minimally acceptable enough not to alienate too many of them, the decision to outsource is easy to justify in financial terms. By emulating this model, IT looks increasingly easier to outsource. Paradoxically, the more you excel in the passive customer service role, the more you are perceived as a commodity to be outsourced without a second thought.

Beyond customer service

As you look around the organization, the least passive departments and functions are the most rarely outsourced and most highly prized. Sales and marketing are perhaps the most active functions, determining who to sell to and how to sell to them, and actually executing the sale. Despite many water cooler conversations suggesting otherwise, executive functions are also rarely outsourced. The noisiest and most active functions are also perceived as the most valuable.

While good manners and some social skills can be gleaned from customer service organizations, the active role played by the most valued elements of the company should be the ultimate role models of IT. People in IT often express the frustration that their opinions are not valued, or in many cases, even listened to. This is perhaps the most insidious expression of the spiral into the customer service trap. Just as you would not call a customer service call center looking for complex advice or guidance, the IT organization stuck in the customer service morass is regarded as a group of order takers, not peers who are working in the best interest of the true customer of the organization.

Instead of passively waiting for the call from an internal “customer” demanding a preconceived solution or commodity technology, actively consult with and pursue your peers with new processes and technologies that will further your relationship with the real customer: the person or company that purchases your products or services.

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