When it Comes to IT Value User Opinion Doesn't Matter

By Hank Marquis

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There is a service value chain in which the customer role specifies and funds, the user role consumes, and a producer role fulfills. The term "user" describes the recipient of the benefits a service facilitates. User is a role that interacts with and consumes the service defined and paid for by a “customer” role.

In business, users often work for and report to customers. For example, sales staff work for the VP of Sales, truck drivers work for the VP of Logistics, and so on. Sometimes the mantle of customer falls on a group or executive committee. In all cases, the responsibility of the customer is to establish objectives and manage resources in ways that allow users to accomplish those objectives.

Customers both define and fund the activities required to facilitate accomplishment of the objectives they establish. Customer and user both interact with the producer, but at different times and with varying responsibilities. The relationship the producer has with customer and user is quite different; as is the relationship customers and user must have. Not understanding the proper interplay, sequence and responsibilities of each role is very often the root cause of IT application, service, and project failures. Abdication or assumption of responsibilities of any role can turn failure into catastrophe.

Users interact with IT applications and services funded and defined by customers to accomplish business objectives established by customers. Therefore, the customer role, and the directives and opinions it expresses should be most important to IT. Trouble is close when IT loses focus on the customer role and closer when IT tries to assume responsibilities outside of its corporate jurisdiction. Whenever the service provider loses sight of whose opinion really matters failure is sure to follow.

All too often well-meaning but misguided IT staff and management either attempt to make decisions they shouldn’t – even for the best of reasons. We see these problems all the time – service desk staff delivering service "above and beyond"; ill-advised efforts to "exceed expectations"; and so on. Moreover, in the end, all these misguided labors usually result in unexpected consequences – usually making life in IT worse than it would be otherwise.

Consider what happens when self-motivated staff at the service desk focuses on "delighting users" and routinely exceed agreed service levels as defined in service level agreements (SLA). This can and does happen all the time and usually because staff work weekends, stay late, come in early, and generally work harder than they agreed or need to. Such noble efforts are doomed to fail because they implicitly reset the SLA. Now, when the normal course of events catch up to these big-hearted overachievers, and they have to fall back to a sustainable workload (when they simply meet but do not exceed the SLA), users revolt. By exceeding agreed service levels, they have raised the bar unnecessarily, and often unsustainably. The purest intentions and desires to help have resulted in unsatisfied users who complain to their customers, who then berate our erstwhile staff. Talk about “no good deed goes unpunished". There’s a reason IT is the most stressful occupation on earth.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

It is not the fault of compassionate service desk staff that unhappy customers regularly lambast the CIO. Rather this problem arises because these same customers do not take responsibility for their users or even try to really understand what their users actually need. To compensate for the lack of direction and support from customers IT often incorrectly responds by over-servicing. Customers contribute to and compound the issue because often they do not interact with IT. Many IT managers have never even met or spoken with their customers, except when things go wrong of course.

Many IT managers experience real frustration simply trying to get on his or her customers' calendar and, should they get a meeting, all too often the customer has very different objectives than do the users who IT supports every day. In response to this disconnect between customer, user and producer, IT often (incorrectly) assumes the mantle of user advocate, lobbying the customer about what he or she ought to be doing to properly service users. Since customers are responsible for users, such efforts often alienate customers – who wants a third party intervening into his or her "personal" business? It is not the role or responsibility of the IT organization to assume automatically that it must compensate for poor customer guidance. In fact, when IT exceeds it authority and tries to compensate, it just multiplies the problem.

This problem is not unique to IT either. By way of example that we all can probably understand, consider medical service providers. One problem healthcare insurance shares with IT is that the user (the patient) is not the customer, the insurance company is. This creates a mismatch in managing the delivery of service. In healthcare insurance, the customer (who pays for it) is the insurance company, but the patient gets the service.

Of course, patients interact with the healthcare service provider. So, whose opinion matters most to the provider? The customer (payer) or user (patient)? Our hearts say it must be the patient because we all intrinsically understand the provider-consumer relationship. However, herein lies the fault, and this fault arises because it breaks the fundamental understanding of the roles and responsibilities for service provision that we all have: customer's pay, users consume, producers deliver, and that is the "law of services". Moreover, this law applies to all services, not just healthcare or IT.

Think about it for a moment. Imagine having someone else that knows very little about you order a pizza for you, sort of a "pizza surprise" if you will. The customer pays for a very nice broccoli pizza, not knowing of course that you detest broccoli. As the user (consumer) of the pizza, what are the chances that your pizza would satisfy you? Would you even eat it? Would you go somewhere else? Perhaps you would complain – and complain loudly and often – to the chef. Finally, what if the chef (producer) in a well-intentioned desire to satisfy you assumed responsibility for the poor guidance from the customer and made you a new cheese pizza at their expense?

No business could last very long in such a condition, which is why we all intrinsically understand the "law of services". When we break this service production and consumption "law" there is very little chance of satisfying or balancing the needs of the stakeholders. Disrupting the service value chain and the flow of responsibilities of the customer, user and producer roles invariably results in chaos and failure. Breaking the consumer-provider service relationship by confusing, abdicating or assuming roles and responsibilities rarely results in satisfaction among or between users or customers or providers.

Whose Opinion Matters Most?

The same disconnect arises in corporate IT. The customer (the business) pays for and defines services, but users (the employees) consume them. Whose opinion matters most to IT – customer or user? From a provider point of view, the customer is paying so they matter most; but from a service delivery perspective it is the user, or at least we in IT think it ought to be, so the user matters most. It obviously cannot be both. What is the proper role of IT in this situation?

Users do not work for IT they work for a customer. It is usually outside of our corporate jurisdiction for IT to mandate service levels based on user opinions. Imagine IT dictating to the VP of Sales what services, applications and features they need and can have to make the numbers. Picture how broken such a sales application – designed by non-sales people who do not know how to sell – would be. No VP of Sales worth his or her salt should ever accept such an arrangement, yet it is the default position of many.

Things go from bad to worse when customers hand over such decision making to IT. When customers abdicate responsibilities, and IT assumes these responsibilities, there is very little chance that either will be satisfied.

Customers should listen to users and make sure they properly equip them with services from IT. Customers should interact directly with IT as they do with every other branch of the organization.

Many argue that IT is simply too technical for business leaders to comprehend. This is a condescending and shallow position on both sides. While many customers will not or cannot take responsibility for properly defining requirements, most customers have never even met or talked with IT staff and management. Few have made any effort at all to really understand what his or her users really need to be successful, let alone how IT operates. The CEO often goes to ribbon cuttings, and drops by the Sales department to checkup, or visits Marketing to provide input for advertising. When was the last time a CEO “dropped by” the data center, or the VP of Sales visited the service desk?

Abdication Does Not Mean Assumption

I know what some of you are right now thinking: "That's exactly why we ask customers and users what they want, we collect requirements and build or customize to suite." And I say that is why you constantly hear customers complaining about the very IT systems that they (the customers) have approved!

Abdication of responsibility by customers and assumption of that responsibility by IT does not and cannot solve the problem. In fact, it is precisely the cause of the “IT problem” so many have right now. We in IT cannot mandate the relationship between customer and user, nor can we direct customers to do the job they ought to do. However, we might be able to facilitate it through measuring service quality requirements from a human (e.g., user) point of view. We could then provide this information to the customer to help with their decision-making regarding IT funding. If we in IT could move off technical operational metrics and develop true quality of experience measurements, customers could understand the options and make more informed decisions.

Yet, even this is fraught with issues. Consider what happens if the customer decides they do not care if users like the systems they approve. Most users hate the IT systems they have, and not for any reason IT can control. Think about sales people – the backbone of many corporations. Any good salesperson has a network of buyers they have assembled over time. Often this network is why the company hired him or her in the first place. The last thing such a sales person wants to do is input all that valuable and hard-won information into a company database. It is their livelihood after all and if they leave the company, why should the contacts he or she fought so hard to gain remain with the company after they leave?

For this reason many sales people (not all of course) hate sales systems, all sales systems. These types actively circumvent the tools provided. They invent faults and weaknesses in order to justify not using them. They complain about the sales system and support that IT provides. Does this user opinion and dissatisfaction mean the service is of low quality? Does it mean IT is not doing its job? In addition, if the customer does not care if his or her users like it or not, should IT care about user opinion? How should IT handle these users? What is the role of IT in this scenario?

Time for Change

Of course, we all "care", but we should not and must not exceed our authority and try to take action on our own to "fix" the situation. What we should do is try to create an environment where customers can interact easily with IT instead of abdicating, or worse, undermining IT operations with studied disinterest except when things go wrong. It is our responsibility to develop a means of working with our customers, engaging them and giving them the tools required to make effective decisions.

What would happen if IT measured user satisfaction in human, job-based terms and had rational conversations with customers about the findings? Forget about inside the data center technical metrics – few customers will ever have time or inclination to interpret such techno-babble. Think instead about an "outside-in" approach based on actual quality of experience. Instead of speeds-and-feeds how about human-based, emotional, functional job metrics. How different would things be if users were accountable to their customers based on knowledge provided by IT? Imagine the business improvements possible with an empowered and engaged customer.

Finally, let us not forget that customers are 50 percent of the service equation, and that any effective service requires customer and producer to work together. Customers must take proactive responsibility for their consumption of IT as well as their users. You do not have to learn to speak "IT", but you do need to take the time to help IT show you the ramifications of your decisions in business terms. Visit the data center, attend some IT meetings, swing by the service desk, make the effort to engage and we will meet you more than half-way.

Hank Marquis is practice leader for Business Service Management at Global Knowledge. You can reach Hank at hank.marquis@globalknowledge.com.