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End-users are not your customers

End-users are not your customers

When asked if your IT staff is sufficiently customer-oriented, how would you respond? Would you describe how your senior IT leaders are responsive to their counterparts in the business? Perhaps you would tout the results of your last internal customer survey, with lots of top scores from key business colleagues, or boast that your IT teams are embedded among the business units.

But when I hear this sort of thing, what I think is -- here is another IT department that isn't customer-oriented at all. In fact, you are probably out of touch with your real customers--the people who buy your company's products and services.

If we define the customer as someone who buys the company's products and services, then it logically follows that the customer is external to the company. Therefore, customer-oriented employees consider what they do in the context of how this better serves the real customer. However, when I came to Direct Energy in 2005 it was common for the IT staff to refer to people inside the company as customers--a practice that totally ignored our real customer, the consumer of our energy services!

It's not the staff's fault. This problematic perspective starts at the top--with us CIOs. According to the 2008 State of the CIO survey, when asked to choose the three executive leadership competencies most critical to their role, only 10 percent of CIO respondents chose "external customer focus." Only 9 percent chose "developing external customer insight" as one of the activities on which they spend the majority of their time. If we aren't aware of what our customers are saying, then we are out of touch with our customers no matter how in tune we are to other employees.

Customers vs Colleagues

Customers and employees don't always want the same thing. If we listen to the customer rather than to other employees, we may understand that it is more important to resolve the customer's problem than it is to conclude a phone call quickly, as the call center managers might wish. While the average time to handle a call might be useful for measuring efficiency of a call center, it's not a great metric for ensuring customer satisfaction.

Pause for a moment and reflect on which metrics you use to measure your IT staff's performance. Are they focused inwardly on company processes or outwardly on the customer? For example, you could measure the number of customer complaints--an inward, process-oriented metric--or the number of times a customer is inconvenienced--an outward, customer-experience-oriented metric. (Hint: The latter number will be higher than the former.) If the IT team is acutely aware of customer issues such as inconveniences in doing business with you, then nothing less than gaining and retaining customers will be considered a satisfactory measure of success.

Are You from IT, or The Business?

Companies today cannot operate without reliable IT. Yet people in our profession use terms like IT and The Business as if it's age-old wisdom that IT cannot be a part of the business. This is inconsistent with the fact that IT is necessary for businesses to function effectively.

There is no longer any logical reason to keep the IT function separated within the enterprise, or to talk about the business as if it's distinct. An IT department--or any other department for that matter--that really thinks other employees are its customers or that it's separate from the business is moving toward being outsourced. Any internal department that is not adding value to the real customer may as well not be there.

People who are trained to serve internal employees think like outsourcers, looking for system requirements and specifications and providing quotes for systems work. If people can organize across functions to focus on the real customer--the one paying the bills--then they will look for customer requirements, specifications and quotes. The customer requirements are those that remove obstacles to customer satisfaction.

The customer specification is what will deliver what the customer has asked for. The customer quote is one that is lower than your competitor's costs, or is supported by your gross margins.

Finding Our Focus

At Direct Energy, we've changed what we say and how we think. The purpose of changing the terminology we use is to change our mentality and therefore our focus. Somewhat perversely, by reducing the use of the word customer, we increase our customer orientation.

Don't talk about the business either. Be the business. Find out what the drivers of customer satisfaction are for your company and review them with your team; stay up to date with sales activity, listen to customer calls, track online customer activity, know your competitors. Challenge what you're asked to do if you don't understand how the customer benefits from it. After all, it's the customer that pays your salary.

Kumud Kalia is CIO and EVP for customer operations at Direct Energy, and is a CIO Executive Council member in the US.

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