The (Internal) Customer Is Always Right!

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Being service-oriented does not always come naturally for programmers. Training and expectations tend to shield IT professionals--particularly those just entering the field--from the realities of the job and just what they will encounter. The responsibilities to their teams and other departments frequently come as a surprise.

There is a maturation process that goes hand in hand with a developing IT career. I once spoke with a soon-to-be college graduate who had inflated expectations of what he could expect from his entry-level job placement. Even though he'd gone to technical school after graduation from the big university, his opinion of the role and place of IT, particularly within a large company, was misguided. After repeated attempts to show him some accumulated wisdom, I remembered my own stubborn path to enlightenment on the same issue and accepted that he will understand in time.

IT staff exists to serve the needs of the business that supports them. They are a cost center. For those programmers whose job it is to crank out code for marketable software products, this concept has less meaning. For the rest of the IT world, however, comprehending this point is critical to career success. The best programmers and IT managers understand the business they support; they are poised to leverage that knowledge to improve the company's bottom line. Being a cost center, however, means that investments in systems, software, and development tools are not automatic. Some programmers are more interested in the latest technological toys than the company's performance. Which is more important? Infrastructure upgrades will happen, but they must be justified to the corporate bean counters. It is not a fundamental right of the IT department to expect a blank check to purchase every novel utility. For a solid give-and-take between IT and the core business, IT organizations that have not already done so should make a fundamental change in their self-perception and learn how to best support their customers. Functional training and good interpersonal skills are vital to the arsenal of every programmer.

Again, the best IT departments understand their employer's business. Some programmers may initially lack specific technical or programming skills, but they'll acquire those, and the deficiency is made up by a solid understanding of why they do the things they do. In this way, they become more of an analyst and while being no less of a programmer, and they become more valuable. IT managers should partner with functional business units and arrange training for their people. Ideally, this training should be comprehensive, not just a two-hours-and-out scenario. And it should be repeated at regular intervals. Consistent exposure to the front-line personnel goes a long way toward building an image as a solid service organization. Lying in the shadows is the threat of what could happen if IT does not grasp the basics of the business. This threat comes in many forms, including IT staff members being replaced by cheaper programmers or, worse, failure of the whole business.

There is a blind spot in the minds of IT personnel that prohibits them from fully comprehending that the work they do can certainly be performed by less-expensive talent. The high salaries and narrow focus enjoyed by some of the most experienced in the profession is in fact detrimental to long-term job security. It is always possible to find more cost-effective methods of doing things, and in our world, the most common method is outsourcing to a firm that undercuts the cost per full-time employee while providing superior service through highly trained analysts with specific business skills.

The key word here is "service." An outsourcing firm, by its nature, is a service organization. It sells and delivers service not only as a value-add, but also as a product. Because it relies on good relations as much as the talent of its staff, an outsourcing agency must place customer relations at the top of its priority list. With competition being what it is, outsourcing companies cannot afford to adopt the smug, we-are-irreplaceable attitude so prevalent among many IT workers.

The outsourcer's attitude is the attitude IT shops must adopt. You must be cognizant that your jobs can disappear in favor of equal talent with better response rates and skills coming in at cheaper prices. None of this means that you have to abandon the methodologies and best-practice efforts that you take pride in. It does mean that you must find a way to sell to the business units the fundamental reasons why you do them and how the business benefits. This is another argument for well-rounded education and superb people skills. You do not have the luxury of arrogance.

What basic changes must you make in order to emerge on top of a crowded heap? The first step is acquiring the business-related knowledge I mentioned. The remainder of the process is threefold. You must first accept without question and without remorse that your IT shop is a service organization--a cost center, pure and simple. Your reason for existence is to serve the business units. Next, you must realize that you are indeed replaceable. At any given time, your company can replace you with someone more cost-effective and user-friendly. Finally, you must take proactive steps to educate yourself--and your staff if you're an IT manager--in ways that can be utilized to provide better service, foster better relations, and prevent the worst-case scenario from materializing.

You Are a Cost Center!

Ask yourself what your company does for profit. What is the core product or service? The answer to that question will tell you what business your employer is in, and if that answer is not IT consulting, software products, online services, or something similar, then your department is automatically branded a cost center. In other words, you provide no tangible assets to the bottom line, but you do eat up funding. Software licenses, salaries, hardware, service agreements, and such all siphon off dollars from the balance sheet without adding anything to the other side.

This is deceptively simple, and yet it is a difficult concept for many to grasp. A poll of less-experienced programmers would likely reveal, as was the case with my young friend, a complete ignorance of their place in the organizational food chain. Face it; workers in the business units are gunning for your funds, and most of them would rather see your head roll than to be told they cannot have their report or program feature immediately. Of course, you are probably supporting not just one department but several departments, and it is not possible to give everyone top priority. This can add to the frustration, and it underscores the importance of mastering some soft skills, which I will touch on shortly.

Understand and accept that your purpose is to serve the needs of the business, not the other way around. This does not mean IT is not important. It is impossible to stay competitive without a quality IT organization, which is all the more reason to make sure that yours is better than anybody else's who might be trying to sell their outsourcing services to your executives. Some companies will provide for training and skill enhancement as a way to motivate IT and help foster strong working relationships, but many others will not--perhaps cannot--spare the expense. They have a business to run, and if you become too disgruntled or complicated to help them do it, they will find someone else who will.

Right now, somewhere a few miles from your data center, there is probably an IT consulting firm with a white paper ready to thrust under the face of your organizational executives in a effort to market outsourcing services. The arguments will range from a heightened service commitment to a savings of salary expenses. While it is true that it is difficult to replace specific business knowledge, it is not difficult to find out-of-work IT personnel with similar industry experience who are hungry for work.

We are not irreplaceable, and we have to stop acting as if we were. Period. Otherwise, we will find ourselves on the firing line very quickly. There are ways that IT professionals can add to their worth beyond the technical expertise.

The Importance of Softer Skills

What do programmers need to be able to do besides coding modules? They must be able to relate, sell, and otherwise communicate modestly, graciously, and effectively. These soft skills are, in fact, essential in today's environment, where there is no restriction on the type of job that may be outsourced and many white collar jobs are being sent overseas. Programmers need an edge; programmers need to provide what management guru Tom Peters describes as "outrageous customer service."

The first thing an IT neophyte may ask is, "Am I not already providing tremendous service if I provide superior code?" The answer is yes...and no. A programmer who consistently produces error-free or at least error-reduced code is a valuable commodity, and this willingness to pay attention to detail should not be regarded lightly. This skill alone, however, is not unique.

The skills necessary to foster better relations and shine more positive light on IT are worth mastering, not just for the benefit of your current position but for the advancement of your career. As with many things, people skills are the most common element missing, yet the most important element to have. Mastering these skills will provide better public relations for your IT shop and will set you apart during the next job interview.

An organization is a collection of diverse persons--all of them having their own habits, prejudices, and needs. The ability to navigate through the minefield of egos and emotions is mandatory. It's important that programmers grasp the urgency of seeking out the necessary training. That urgency is reflected in the common theme here: You must become more cooperative--and therefore more valuable--than the next individual.

Many training courses are available to help you turn yourself into a superior service provider. You may face resistance from the business sector and, if you're an IT manager, even form your staff itself. Your programmers may feel that corporate money is better spent on developing their technical skills. To a certain degree, that's true. Were it not for the outsourcing capability, it may be cheaper in the long-term to spend a few dollars to keep your staff current with the latest trends than to have to advertise for, recruit, and replace them when they leave for greener pastures. Nevertheless, helping them integrate more effectively with their internal customers should be the first priority.

If you're a programmer, you may get resistance from an IT manager who fails to comprehend the reasoning behind spending the precious training budget on "frivolous" classes. The training is anything but frivolous. It is, in today's market, imperative for IT managers to help their people communicate and cooperate with their customers.

It does not matter what terminology you use. Call them business partners, internal customers, or associates, but always understand that they are the reason you have a job. It is their business you are supporting, and every decision you make must be relevant to the business needs. Your role is to serve, and your responsibility is to serve well. Live and preach this gospel, and you will build a successful relationship with your customers.

Steve McGuire is an author and IT consultant in North Carolina. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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