Customer service: It can make the difference between the failure and success of IT organizations and the enterprises they serve. Trouble is, it's scarcer than ever. Nobody's been able to bottle it. But don't blame bad customer service on employees; blame it on leadership.
At one organization I worked with, poor planning for an outdoor event led to hot, hungry/thirsty employees who didn't get bathroom breaks lashing out at a VIP's little kids ... and to a subsequent backlash.
On a positive note, entrepreneur Ron Burley recently related a story of how his staff wanted to "fire" a pain-in-the-butt customer, but when the company's leaders stuck with the customer and fixed his problems, which weren't even caused by the company's software, it landed a much-needed $4 million deal based on that one customer's recommendation. In my own recent experience, after I had abandoned an order on Harrys.com because I couldn't find my credit card, a friendly email clearly from a human, not a bot, not only made it easy for me to reorder, but turned me into a customer for life.
[ What are you reading? Check out these books: 5 Books For Aspiring CIOs . ]
We're quick to cite "bad" employees. But how would we react if teachers blamed all their classroom problems on "bad" children? As students react to their teachers, employees react to environments that leaders create.
When leaders react badly to employee candor or criticism, it creates an environment of fear and leads to bad decisions. When the environment starts to feel like a prison, with surveillance cameras and mother-may-I bathroom breaks, expect employees to act like prisoners -- thinking about escape instead of how to solve customer problems.
Research suggests most employees are model prisoners: enthusiastic in front of their managers but focused on escape when the guards -- er, managers --aren't around. Only 30% of workers are fully engaged in their jobs -- that is, truly willing and focused even when their managers aren't involved, according to a recent Gallup survey. Prisoners, even model prisoners, are lousy at customer service.
I tell my staff that customer service consists of two components: kindness and competence. My take is that we as a tech industry spend too much time on competence, because we're lazy and that part's easy. We must take action as leaders to ensure that employees have the time, space and inclination to let their kindness show.
IT is a helping profession that touches more and more customers every day. As technical skills become a commodity, the magic combination of those hard skills with soft skills such as emotional intelligence and empathy are what turns IT from a mere service provider into a business partner.
But soft skills aren't just for line employees -- leaders must display them most of all.
Leaders must reduce the internal fear factor, so that employees don't throw customers under the bus in an effort to save themselves. Leaders must have the courage to do the right thing, even at personal job risk, as opposed to blindly following the stupid policy. They must be willing to defend their employees who do the right thing. And leaders must make sure that employees, while challenged, aren't under so much stress that they snap at your most important customers.
Helpful hint: They're all your most important customers. You don't know who that future $4 million customer is going to be.