The Essence of IT: Customer Service

Stress

In a recent conversation with some family members, the subject of Customer Service came up. The comparison of horror stories commenced as each person in the conversation relayed what they felt was the worst experience – eveh. One participant spoke of the “Snotty Cashier”, another told a tale of “The Waiter From Hades”, and yet a third spoke in low towns of the “Flatulent Stewardess”. Many chortles and gasps were expressed during these lurid tales of exceptionally bad service, then all eyes turned toward me. “So cousin, do you have a story?”

I smiled slightly as I spoke, “Customer Service is a two way street, with one way signs pointing only at you.”

Whether you are the customer or the worker, Customer Service is all about the Self. It is a matter of perspective, be it either as a customer seeking service or as a service provider, and both require the highest level of competence. Early in my Web Development career, I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about the finer points of providing quality customer service. My world encompasses emotionless computers that do as they are told and code that will not complain if I use a bad character, it just won’t function. I would sit at my desk all day, banging out code, websites, images, articles, reviews, reports, fixes, and the occasional video. I wouldn’t have to worry about customers, only that web services function properly and look awesome. Oh, how naive! Truth be told, a person working in any form of Information Technology should be required to work in the Customer Service Field for at least a year before contemplating the IT career path. The most critical lesson I’ve learned in my chosen field is that everyone is my customer. Everyone.

The Hierarchy of Service

The hub of IT is Customer Service. It is perhaps one of the most looked over requirements of any IT department. I can throw around buzz terms like Best PracticesITIL and ITSM that will get the noggins waggling back and forth with screams of, “Those are industry standards and have nothing to do with customers!” Then I’d shrug and ask who came up with these industry standards, and why? Who makes the requirements? Who demands the code be perfect and the software to work? Well, my fellow geeks would say the boss, and they are right. I propose that the boss is the Primary Customer. Then I would extend that and ask just who is the boss? When you really think about it, the boss is not your team lead, the supervisor, the manager or even the director. It is the owner of the company – or the board of directors. Those executives sitting in their posh corner offices. They say, “We want software our customers will want to use!” and that directive tumbles down hill to you.

I’ve stipulated the top-brass of the organization is the Primary Customer (or PC henceforth). The PC wants its own customers to use the software, site or service the company creates, thus passing the responsibility down the chain until you, oh cubicle inhabitant, get to make your magic. Now you have to consider the Outside Customer (OC) in your planning. You know, that person who logs onto the internet for some browsing. That person who stumbles upon the website you contribute to or support. That person who buys your employer’s product or service. Yes, THAT customer.

Wait a minute! You don’t “do” websites? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make that assumption. However, you do work in IT, yes? Managing the host servers, programming the database, cleaning the caches, coding the CRON. You do that stuff and more, yes? Ok, just wanted to confirm that. You, too, contribute to the website those “designers” are making pretty pictures for. But I digress.

There is one more customer type I haven’t mentioned, and that is the one you deal with day in and out – the Internal Customer (IC). This is the Customer Service Representative (CSR) that primarily speaks to those OCs in your stead. This is the Accountant who needs to balance the budget. This is the Supervisor who needs to check a worker’s file. This is also the President of the company, who reads reports. Every person who uses a computer, phone or gadget owned by the company is your customer. If whatever the IC is using doesn’t work, guess who they call? You. And yes, you are then to provide help or fix whatever is broken – a service. You speak to them, listen to their issue, work out the problem and then ask if there is anything else you can assist with. The CSR is happy, and you go back to your air-conditioned cave.

You just performed customer service.

Who Deals with Whom

There are three different types of customers the IT department deals with.

  1. Primary Customer – the executive branch of a firm
  2. Outside Customer – paying consumers
  3. Internal Customer – fellow employees
IT Customer Diagram
Obligatory Flow Chart of Customer Service Flow in a Small to Medium Business (proves I work in IT)

There is a reason they are numbered, for this is the Priority of Service – basically who matters the most. Depending on your position and responsibility level within your IT department is who you talk to and deal with the most. Directors and Managers have to deal with the PC more than anyone else; if you don’t have middle management, the PC comes to you directly. This is especially true for small and medium sized businesses where budgetary concerns keep the IT department very small, eliminating middle management.

In those small to medium business (the majority of businesses, mind you), you are The IT, and I mean that in all possible ways. You deal with everyone, even the OC. The IC isn’t expected to know everything, thus tech calls from the little old lady who’s tea cup doesn’t sit right on her computer’s cup holder go directly to you. You talk to people in and out of the company structure, sometimes even talking to vendors. You juggle and struggle, and somehow maintain everything. You are also the first to burnout in a crisis.

Through it all, you deal with all sorts of customers in some way. You should know how to deal with customers – thus, you should have some Customer Service training.

To Train or Not To Train

When an organization claims to be Customer Service Oriented, training must be provided for all staff members. The expense of the training may be daunting for a lot of firms, but in the long run it pays off with happy consumers, happy employees, and more revenue resulting in profit. Any company that claims to be customer service oriented and thinks it doesn’t need to train its IT staff is ultimately hurting itself.

IT workers should look at their jobs as being completely service oriented. Not only is training required in your chosen specialty, you also need to consider diversifying your skills. So you know Linux in and out, consider looking into Windows Server software as well. You don’t need to have a certificate from Microsoft, but you do need to look at how users are managed at minimum. Or maybe you just wrangle with databases all day and you are well versed in query languages for many flavors. Okay, take a gander at how the software actually interfaces with your data. Your data is worthless if the software cannot access it. Ultimately, learn how to talk to people outside of your climate controlled area. All of that supports the specialized niche of Information Technology Service Management (ITSM). It is not just about software, it is about dealing with people. Ultimately, all the code and tech in the world is to service people.

Ask whomever is higher up than you to provide some Customer Service training. Dale Carnegie classes are touted to be excellent for leadership training, but their Customer Service courses are perhaps the best I’ve ever experienced. If at all possible, enroll. The accountants might choke on the pricing, and that is expected. There are other organizations that provide good training and should at minimum teach the basics. Justify this training to the leaders in your company – after all, you are a cornerstone of operations with tendrils in every department. I’ve yet to experience a company that will not find some way to help an employee improve their skill set. Even by letting you out early to attend a course shows initiative on behalf of the employer. Besides, that employer will appreciate your initiative, and will remember that at review time.

If you are unable to justify the cost to your employer, then consider doing your own research. There are many resources all over the internet – just ignore the parts where these resources limit who is what. The roles are not important, the skills are. Go to the library, just to get away from the computers for a bit, and read books on customer service practices. My favorite is Customer Satisfaction: The Other Half of Your Job (linked to Amazon Search Results). The edition I have was printed in 1991 – there are more modern editions – it’s the one book that really did it for me. I read through it monthly. I’ve used it when I was a manager myself, training my staff in how to deal with the Internal Customer. I highly recommend it and similar books from the Fifty-Minute Series.

Give Good Service, Receive Good Service

As I stated to my cousins, Customer Service is a two way street. When an irate accountant screams at you over the phone that your software is glitchy, how should you respond? When the CEO barges into your cubicle demanding his printer be fixed last month, when do you react? As the sales manager thrusts his smart phone at you stating his email isn’t being updated and the cashier insists the scanner is broken while a consumer points at the kiosk wanting to know if it is secure… (deep breath) …do you shut down?

By learning to provide good customer service, you will find these seemingly unreasonable people actually start to calm down. The tools of an IT person’s trade are not just a keyboard, monitor and mouse, but communication and understanding – surprisingly the utter essence of customer service! By listening to a person’s needs, confirming what those needs are, providing for those needs, clarifying those needs are met, and offering assistance for other needs – you just performed Good Customer Service. That person calms down, is happier, and you just got another brownie point.

big doughnut reward
photo credit Roy Niswanger

If you keep your cool, follow what you have learned from your personal research and sponsored training, you will find these people become more reasonable and easier to deal with over time. Eventually, they might even wave and say hello, offering you a share of their morning pastry! No longer will you be the zombie kept in a freezer, but you will become a contributing member of your organization who is respected not only for your knowledge, but your rapport as well. People will want to be with you, share stories with you, and may even become friends with you. In the end you will find you have less stress to deal with as all those customers (the PC, OC and IC) are not as demanding, cranky, belligerent, and dense. You’ll find you have more time to actually do what you do best, and people will appreciate the time you take to do it well.