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Trying Harder In Hard Times Wed 24 Dec 08

IT departments with poor customer service might not survive the recession.

Customer_Service_Heres_Kate Perhaps the most common topic at holiday parties in Houston this year was the ramifications of Hurricane Ike, which hit us pretty hard in early September. The conversation typically started on what I call Phase 1 of the hurricane--the damage it caused and the resulting cleanup and reconstruction.

Since many have successfully completed Phase 1, or are well on their way, the conversation would typically quickly move on to Phase 2--dealing with the insurance companies. I think it's fair to say the frustration and exasperation levels of dealing with insurance companies easily go beyond those of dealing with the hurricane itself.

Typically the conversation would go something like this:

"The insurance company is dragging its feet. I'm on the third (or fourth or fifth) adjuster. They keep asking for the same information, even though I've already given it to them. They don't return my calls and want to give me a lot less than they should. I don't understand why it has to be such a hassle."

A sharp IT guy would look at this and see a number of ways that process and system improvements could greatly improve the situation. Unfortunately, these suggestions wouldn't be welcomed by the insurance companies--it's to their competitive advantage to be inefficient and provide poor customer service.

The aim is for the claim filer to become so frustrated that he is willing to settle for less, just to complete the process and get some reimbursement--thus saving the insurance company money. And since all insurance companies have the same incentive and operate the same way, no one has to worry about their poor customer service driving their customers to the competition. It's just normal industry-accepted practice.

So how is this relevant to IT? Let's just change a few words to the story above:

"The IT department is dragging its feet. I'm on the third (or fourth or fifth) analyst or helpdesk technician. They keep asking for the same information, even though I've already given it to them. They don't return my calls and want to give me a lot less than they should. I don't understand why it has to be such a hassle."

Think that might sound familiar to the users of IT? But unlike the insurance companies, poor customer service is not in IT's best interest.

First, IT doesn't "profit" from this type of behavior as the insurance companies might. It leads to IT being thought of as a cost that should be minimized rather than a value generator that should be invested in. This is obviously not the way we want to be thought of at budget time, especially in the current financial climate.

We've always talked about wanting a "seat at the table," to be thought of as a strategic partner. However, even it we really are working on strategic values, we need to keep in mind that the perception of IT will be most impacted directly from the type of customer service we provide. It may not be fair, but as the saying goes, perception is reality and we need to realize that and act accordingly.

Second, and most importantly, customers of IT do have a practical alternative that is very willing to give great service. Specifically, they can go to the dreaded "shadow" IT. Shadow IT is the unofficial IT group that exists in many companies. Shadow IT is that engineer who knows a little bit about coding, or the Excel spreadsheet wizard over in accounting. Shadow IT can even be someone outside your company that your customers rely on to suggest software solutions or offer to give them a program or two.

Although well intentioned, these shadow consultants present a number of problems for IT in the areas of documentation, support, security, governance and Sarbanes-Oxley, among others. Although shadow IT may lie dormant, it is always there and available to companies. They like shadow IT because it knows their business, is responsive to their needs and happy to customize a solution.

Companies rely on shadow IT when they're not getting what they need from their IT departments. IT would be well served to remember this as we make our budgets and plans for next year.

Under the current financial environment, we will be called on to make some hard decisions. This may include cutting back on customer service. However, before we do, keep in mind the ramifications and choose carefully. By reducing customer service, we may be mortgaging our future status and the current "mortgage" crisis is quite enough, thank you.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

Customer Service" photo by Here's Kate

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