Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top - InformationWeek
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Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top

IT touches more customers every day, which means IT staffs need people with emotional intelligence. IT chiefs must lead by example.

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 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.

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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.

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User Rank: Apprentice
8/14/2013 | 5:54:50 PM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
Three cheers, Jonathan.
World-class organizations are guided by their mission and vision, and by their core values. Core values are the organizationG«÷s essential and enduring tenetsG«Ųa small set of timeless guiding principles. Leadership, from the CIO on down, must set, empower, and reinforce this "tone from the top."
One of my [former] organization's core valuesG«Ųits primary valueG«Ųis Exceptional Customer Service. I believe that customer satisfaction is the fundamental measure of an IT organization's success, and we sought to be highly regarded not only for the quality and value of our tangible technical products and services, but also for our responsiveness, assurance, reliability and empathy.

To promote and strengthen this value, we developed in our staff a customer service orientation and skill set that focuses on creating new opportunities and competitive advantages for our internal clients. This is accomplished in three parts. First, all staff promoted into leadership positions, including a role known as G«£service managerG«•, are provided and encouraged to read a copy of the book IT At Your Service by L. Paul Ouellette. Second, we contracted to bring onsite the Ouellette and Associates two-day workshop G«£IT as a Service Organization.G«• Beginning with user support personnel who man the G«£front linesG«•, we trained 10-20% of our staff annually. Thirdly, we reinforced and exemplified this (and our other two core values, Expert Deliver and Value-Added Solutions/Services) with a quarterly awards celebration.

To measure the effectiveness of both the formal training and managementG«÷s reinforcement of positive customer G«£moments of truthG«• through rewards and recognition, customer satisfaction surveys are a prominent metric for the organization. The survey seeks to measure not only user perceived value and satisfaction with the tangible product or service, but as well the intangibles of IT staffs' responsiveness, assurance, reliability and empathy. The results of the survey are openly discussed in staff meetings, and used to plan improvements in products, processes, and staff training.
User Rank: Strategist
8/14/2013 | 12:53:49 AM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
Kindness is a tall order in corporate cultures that push employees hard for results. And most IT organizations have been forced to push hard during this past recession. Even as the economy revives, it'll be hard for many people to keep a little kindness in the day for those customers who really need it. But Jonathan is right; it is the magic ingredient. Charlie
User Rank: Apprentice
8/13/2013 | 10:09:46 PM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
IMO bad customer service is down to two things; broken business processes (someone has failed to do the customer journey) and a lack of employee empowerment.

In many cases "bad" employees are poorly motivated, tied to rigid business processes with no opportunity to use their discretion to solve a business problem.

To find out more:
User Rank: Strategist
8/13/2013 | 3:03:30 PM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
As I read through the article, I couldn't help but think you should have forwarded a copy to NSA and BAH. Perhaps it would have saved them a lot of embarrassment. :-)
User Rank: Author
8/13/2013 | 2:27:12 PM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
Emotional IQ has become more crucial as IT pros collaborate with an ever-wider set of people -- yet it is not a skill they're used to bragging about. And if you're hiring, how do you judge someone's emotional IQ? You don't have metrics to use to judge. You ask former coworkers. What other techniques do you use, hiring managers?
User Rank: Author
8/13/2013 | 2:23:26 PM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
It's tough to generalize. From my experience, customer service isn't Job 1 for a lot of financial, HR -- and editorial -- departments as well. Jonathan is right that great customer service starts at the top, with the culture established by executive leaders.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
8/13/2013 | 2:17:22 PM
re: Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top
That certain IT skills are in fact becoming commodities may be what FINALLY drives technologists to take this "soft skills" thing seriously -- because let's face it, most don't now.
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