It was the end of a typical workweek, and I was unwinding with some local CIOs at a popular watering hole. We were discussing whether the people who use our services are internal customers, clients, or users. After a while, we got bored with this metaphysical equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and focused on the subject of keeping these people, whatever we call them, happy. Each of us gave our pet theory on what was required--business alignment, operational excellence, strategic portfolio management, or whatever.
When it came my turn, I said succinctly, "Superstars on the help desk," and took another sip of my Bombay Sapphire. "Look," I continued, "we agree we're only as good as our last project or, to put it another way, our last interaction with a client. It seems to me that since the help desk has the most contacts with people, we should make sure that the folks who answer the phones and resolve the problems get a lot of respect and are paid accordingly."
That comment enlivened the conversation. I heard: a) I was crazy because the applications analysts were the most important members of the staff; b) everyone was outsourcing help desks because they weren't core activities; and c) no self-respecting HR person would approve salaries aimed at attracting and keeping competent help-desk employees.
I said they had some good points, but I was sticking with my opinion. I related my own experience: Even though I increased our outsourcing last year in response to our CEO's latest call for budget cuts, I kept the help desk inside and fought for job-grade increases because I felt, and still feel, that the help desk is the front line of service and, done right, provides real value to the company. I allowed that the biggest obstacle to what I wanted to do came from Human Resources.
"When I went to the VP of Human Resources for higher help-desk job grades, she looked at me as if I were nuts. I was told we were in a cutback mode, and no other company had done what I proposed. It was a tough negotiation, but finally she agreed to support my position if I could show an overall budget reduction in keeping with the CEO's goals and could validate service improvements. Even after overcoming that hurdle, we had a lot to do. For starters, there were issues of whether incumbents could meet the new job qualifications and questions about whether talented people would transfer to the help desk."
I stopped talking and took another sip of my drink. One of my friends spoke: "What you did was risky. You wouldn't be telling the story if it didn't work. Just how did you measure the service improvement you had promised?"
I said, "That's exactly the major problem I faced. It's getting late. How about if I save the answer for next time?"
Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at [email protected].