How To Escape Consumer IT Hell

Those smartphones and tablets are wonderful, except when they're not. Instead of telling employees they're on their own, IT must bone up on consumer tech support.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

February 24, 2012

4 Min Read

The consumerization of enterprise IT promises to lower costs, increase agility, and produce myriad other benefits. But don't expect any miracles from consumer tech vendor support. In fact, expect a lot of employee time to be wasted if your organization doesn't get involved directly with that support.

Having spent my career in enterprise IT, I'm used to seeing third-party tech support people trained to avoid giving you the service you're paying for. It's a high-stakes game that has a contract with a bunch of zeros attached to it. Because of all of those zeros, enterprise IT support generally provides a road for you to get what you need if you provide objective data and escalate the case to a higher level. While enterprise tech support folks attempt to conserve resources by holding back, they must eventually serve you or risk losing the contract.

But that's not the social contract with consumer tech support. Over the weekend I spent several hours in consumer support hell as I tried to fix a contact sync problem across several devices. I came to the conclusion that, in large volume, consumer support will drain every iota of productivity out of your organization.

I did all of the things that I'd normally do before an enterprise call. I researched the problem so that I had links to provide to the support tech. I gathered diagnostic logs, determined the fault domain, and came to the conclusion that it was a problem with the remote database, not my equipment. Then I pinched my nose and contacted Web-based tech support.

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I did expect to get the runaround. I didn't expect to spend more than an hour only to hear: "There is no way to know which record is creating the error. There are no tools available to me that could repair the database. Yes, you're correct in thinking that you'll have to burn everything down and re-create everything." I would have been happier if the vendor's support page simply said: "HAHAHA, YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN!"

After bouncing my experience off some other IT folks, I've come to the conclusion that this shoddy service isn't unique to this one vendor; it's just one example of the sorry state of consumer tech support in general. I also know some folks who work on the inside at some of these large consumer technology companies, and they hate and dismiss their support folks, too.

These call centers have the same objective as enterprise support centers: Get the customer off the line as soon as possible. But without the contract with all of those zeros attached, it's very difficult to incent the support organization to actually help consumers.

It's tempting to think: "Well, let's just not let our employees adopt consumer technologies." But that's not an option. Those agility benefits of consumer technology--when the technology works--are real. The consumerization train has already left the station, folks, and IT needs to get on board.

So what can IT organizations do? Start by adding value instead of reverting back to the "no" police. Identify which consumer technologies your company's employees are using. Proactive IT organizations are not only establishing ground rules on which technologies, or groups of technologies, they'll support, but they're also guiding users on which ones can be most beneficial. If you haven't, now is the time to take inventory and try to steer employees toward a small set of technologies.

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Note that I didn't say there can only be one technology. This isn't Highlander; it's consumerization. Folks will have different preferences, and the way to avoid chaos and the "splinterization of consumerization" is to present a small set of options instead of the universe of options or just one single option. Folks will put up with the narrow set if IT also offers decent support for those devices and apps.

Once you've narrowed the options, tweak your IT service management practices. Train internal pros in the black arts of supporting those technologies. Bottom line: Better to pay to get some IT folks up to speed on the latest consumer technologies than to have highly compensated execs getting frustrated with consumer tech support people and wondering why their company still has an internal IT function.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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