Do Your IT Professionals Ever Talk (or Listen) to You?

If not, they may not be truly fixing the problem.

In many organizations, IT gets a bad rap mostly because of the perception of its poor customer service. Clients feel poorly treated and share this with colleagues whenever they get the chance. IT's reputation suffers, and everyone's unhappy.

We believe IT professionals truly want to help others. However, they tend to focus on the technology, not the client. They believe their job is to fix problems, and they expend considerable time and effort doing so. Unfortunately, little time is spent communicating with clients (and sometimes even with you, their manager) during a problem resolution process. So your clients incorrectly assume that nothing is being done and become frustrated. Once they start complaining to their peers, the organization's perception of IT takes a hit.

Upon studying this further, we believe it's primarily a communications-related problem that sometimes has two dimensions. The first aspect is noted above: the communication with clients and other stakeholders during the problem resolution process is lacking. The second compounds the first: IT professionals often use "geek-speak," which few outside of IT understand. Naturally, this frustrates everyone and makes non-IT folks feel inferior. In addition, technologies used in business settings are typically more complex than the consumer electronics that workers use and manage at home. This sometimes makes workers skeptical about the amount of effort required to support business technologies, adding a feeling of defensiveness that can carry into future help requests.

As CIO and former Library Director at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Dawn suggests that a great customer-service model may actually be found in libraries. IT departments and libraries are similar in that they are both service organizations that also simultaneously manage large collections of things: hardware and software, and books and databases, respectively. Librarians have had a couple of hundred years to build their reputation for being service-oriented, while the field of information technology is still only a few decades old. Thus IT professionals often have to respond and react more quickly to problems posed by technology, without the "luxury" to spend extra time with the clients they are helping.

Nonetheless, it may be useful to consider the librarians' approach. Reference librarians focus their work around the library users rather than around the information materials they provide. Instead of solving users' information questions, librarians try to teach their patrons how to do their own research, and they assist them in using library technology. A key component in this work is communication, both face-to-face and through the marketing of library services.

A primary skill of librarians is knowing how to conduct the "reference interview" in which the librarian endeavors to find out the patron's real question or information need. Before any answers are provided, a reference interview helps librarians set the groundwork for communicating with their users. Throughout the reference transaction the librarian checks in with the user, and, when the information need is satisfied, the librarian will typically ask if there is anything else that she can do for the user. The user will leave the library with his or her problem solved and also with the idea that he can always return to that librarian for assistance in the future.

While the majority of problems brought to IT are addressed to the satisfaction of their clients, there are a couple of common scenarios that stand in the way of a successful outcome. For example, it sometimes happens that clients think they know what the problem is, and IT acts immediately on that assumption. Often times, the problem is misdiagnosed and requires more time for resolution. Alternatively, IT technicians may disregard the client's assessment of the problem, leaving him out of the resolution process and feeling foolish.

Unlike librarians, IT workers may be communicating more by phone, email or texting and do not have as much time or opportunity to communicate with each person face-to-face. But early on, during initial help desk transactions or other calls for assistance, IT professionals can conduct a "technology interview." During this conversation the client should have the opportunity to explain his/her understanding of the problem, and to receive acknowledgement -- though not necessarily agreement. Although the client may be desperate to get his computer fixed, the "technology interview" will be time well spent, saving time in the long run, and helping to build a constructive relationship.

An Action Plan for Improving Customer Service

The solution is to work on shifting the orientation and language of your IT team, which will pay big dividends! First, this improves IT's reputation across the organization, which in turn improves morale. IT professionals are more inspired by being viewed favorably by their peers. Second, improved departmental reputation results in more collaboration with other departments and greater strategic involvement with the goals of the organization. Finally, this can mean fewer budget battles and, in many cases, increased funding. It's not an impossible effort, as we'll show below.

IT Department Internal Actions:

  1. Acknowledge that your IT staff is service-oriented in a different way. Show that you value their willingness to respond to problems at odd hours and to stick with repairs until they are accomplished. Often their efforts take place behind the scenes, unnoticed by those who are being helped.
  2. Look for a peer department, especially in other service functions with a strong reputation for high levels of customer service, such as a library. Find out how they do it, and see if they'll partner with your IT to help change things.
  3. Create a shared vision with that department and with IT for improving IT's customer service ratings. This gains supporters, hopefully a majority whom you'll need to help along the way. This vision should include a high-level action plan.
  4. Assess IT service skill ratings/levels, current practices, etc. to find gaps or areas of weakness so that you can address these early on and to establish a baseline on which to build. Deficiencies in technical skills can be addressed through professional development goals set with each staff member. Likewise, training is also available to help with communication skills and to address the "geek speak" syndrome.
  5. Begin to implement the plan and include your IT team members from top to bottom as much as possible. Use the goals identified in their performance plans to engage them in departmental improvement. Don't be afraid to adjust the plan along the way as necessary.
  6. Assess the program and measure the improvement. Solicit feedback from clients using online surveys, focus groups or interviews.
  7. Celebrate any success along the way, and recognize the contributions made by individual staff members and groups within IT. Such recognition will build momentum (the "flywheel effect"), which is critical to making and sustaining progress.

IT Depatment External Actions:

1. Communicate with the entire organization about IT.

IT groups tend to be reactive; they respond to clients' problems. But good IT departments are also proactive in ways that are rarely publicized. For example, when a piece of hardware is approaching "end of life," IT will plan ahead and replace it before it fails. When a major software application is due to be upgraded, IT will plan to roll the new version out to the organization.

When new staff is brought on board, IT will make sure that they have the right equipment and applications to do their jobs. In making these projects happen, it is necessary to communicate with the affected clients. However, IT can also brag about these accomplishments to the entire organization through newsletters, portal announcements, email messages, and in the departmental annual report. Clients are often surprised at the projects that IT accomplishes on their behalf.

Increased communication can also improve the degree of transparency related to technology changes, problems or improvements. Perceptions of good customer service can be damaged when clients are blind-sided by outages or even changes that IT sees as improvements. A communications plan that provides structure for informing the organization about changes -- both planned and unplanned -- can assist IT in providing the information the organization needs in a consistent and transparent way.

2. Create an IT users group or advisory group with representatives from other business units of the organization.

This group will advise and advocate on behalf of IT and share what they learn with the rest of the organization.

As perceived IT service ratings improve, work to make IT more visible in other ways. Consider ways to partner with other organization units. Encourage your IT staff to serve on committees or participate in non-technology-focused projects. Attend organization functions. In order to develop more empathy on the part of IT team members (and, as a result, better service) for clients, it is helpful to know our clients away from their computer problems. Remember, this effort will be a process.

Summary

Outstanding customer service involves a lot more than just sending your people to customer service training. It requires a mind-shift for most IT professionals and also for the organizations they serve. Good planning, excellent communication, ongoing practice and encouragement will change the performance of your IT team, and improve the rest of the organization's perceptions of IT along the way.

Dr. Dawn Thistle is Executive Director of Information Technology & Media Services, Assumption College. Robert F. Johnson is Director of Product Marketing at Atrion Networking Corp. where he's responsible for market analysis, developing new products and co-leading the company's managed services business line.

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