Organizational demand for IT departments to contribute value directly to customers is at an all time high. Many organizations are interfacing IT staff directly with customers. There's tremendous opportunity in this synergy. But under the wrong circumstances this interaction will be nothing but a burden that decreases the organization's ability to provide value.
The following five steps are the foundation of successfully fostering this relationship to delight customers.
Traditionally, customer needs are passed through many levels of management and mediation. Decisions are made and tasks are delegated to subordinates.
This is prevalent with technology where individuals outside IT find communicating about technology challenging. They resort to telling individuals in IT what to do in an ineffectual attempt to control the outcome.
This creates a culture of individuals who are accustomed to doing what they are told. They lack the information and the experience necessary to develop the capacity to make decisions. Their contribution is limited to the task at hand.
This has deleterious effects for the organization alone but when individuals reach out to customers the problem is magnified. When customers are allowed to work with individuals who are only accustomed to doing what they're told we can only expect one of two outcomes.
First, individuals will simply do whatever the customer asks for. Instead of one boss they'll have several. How can we possibly expect every request to create value for the customer? In reality, the majority of the requests will prove fruitless. If every request is acted upon equally the value the organization creates for the customer will rapidly decline.
Second, individuals will pass every request back up the chain of management and wait days and weeks for their next marching orders. Most of the requests will fall through the cracks and the customer will end up disappointed.
However, if a culture exists where individuals are empowered to make decisions based on a shared vision of their organization's future, then they'll be able to leverage their direct interaction with customers to enhance the value they create.
Think of this as decentralized decision making. Everyone knows what direction the ship is headed. Instead of the limited capacity of a central authority to make every decision, the creative capacity of everyone is harnessed to accelerate the journey. There's virtually no delay in correcting course as anyone can detect even the slightest deviation.
Inevitably, someone is going to suggest certain individuals shouldn't talk to customers. Perhaps because they feel these individuals don't have the skills necessary. I've never seen a case where this wasn't a self-fulfilling prophecy. If individuals aren't given the opportunity, how can we ever expect them to develop the capacity?
By excluding an individual we're failing as an organization to leverage their full potential. We'll create discontent and a feeling of inferiority. And even worse, they'll miss out on crucial, firsthand information that's vital to making effective decisions.
Of course there's no need to force interactions with the customer. If someone is comfortable silently listening, so be it. I've always been pleasantly surprised by the contribution of individuals who frequently remain silent; they've usually been listening very carefully.
Just because individuals are empowered to make decisions internally, we cannot assume they'll be comfortable doing this with customers.
Customers are going to ask for everything that comes to mind. Customers will rarely think through an idea before it just comes out of their mouth. Especially when it's not on their dime to act on it.
Organizations cannot afford a culture of "Yes" as the only answer to every request. Individuals have to be free to ask why, to probe, and to learn from the customer. They'll have to work hard to find the needle of value in the haystack of nonsense.
Without the ability to ask why, and even say NO, individuals will be back to taking marching orders. And there's no guarantee these external marching orders will have anything but negative consequences for the customer!
The best way to create a culture of wise decision makers is to make sure everyone understands how working with the customer can be valuable and is in agreement about how to do it.
Once individuals are comfortable asking why, they'll occasionally find that customers ask for things that are already available. Customers just may not be aware. When this happens it's an opportunity to consider how customers are educated and see if there's a way to help other customers become aware too!
As long as the interactions are fruitful, strive to keep them consistent. Everyone appreciates a familiar face. Consistent interactions will build a level of trust that itself will be of immense value to the customer. Encourage individuals to build rapport, show respect and develop this trust.
Customers can be negative at times, often bluntly. This won't be the case if they have a consistent set of individuals that they trust and respect.
These five steps will solidify a lucrative relationship between individuals in IT departments and customers to radically improve the value your organization provides to customers.