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Emergency Room Syndrome in ITSM and Real Life

By | June 7, 2016 in Service Desk

Emergency Room Syndrome in ITSM

I was trying to get support from a supplier recently and, after considerable delay in reaching a service desk agent, I was upset to be able to hear the boredom in his voice.  It was a routine call perhaps, but I was having a domestic crisis and needed something fixed that day. Why was this guy sounding so uninterested?

In the ITIL® Service Transition book, the authors made up a term to describe this: “Emergency Room Syndrome”. In that book the term is used to describe the need to remember – as a front-line service agent – that however routine the job and the situations become to you, it is essential to remember that many customers are experiencing disruptive events for the first time. They will be upset, possibly frightened and probably tense and stressed. Good agents will not only be aware of that, but will respond and support that level of crisis, offering calm but interested support and prioritizing in accordance with the customers’ needs, not their vision of routine.

Common to You but Unique to Them

The Service Transition book analogizes this attitude to that needed in a hospital emergency room, where the doctors and nurses have seen it all before but for each patient, it is new and frightening. The service desk agent I spoke to on the phone that day did not act in this way, so I had no choice but to calm down and let his routine approach lead (eventually) to getting my crisis assigned to an engineer….who luckily came and fixed things for me.

Intrigued by the term “Emergency Room Syndrome”, which I hadn’t seen used for a while, I Googled it to see how common it is. To my surprise, it seems different people had each invented the same phrase to mean different things. Even more entertaining was that other meanings also make sense and have value in a service management and customer care situation. So I thought it was worth looking at, and sharing in this blog, as it can help you deliver good service management, just like the kind of Emergency Room Syndrome that ITIL talked about. Here are two uses of the term with lessons for us in IT service management (ITSM).

Talking to Angels

Perhaps the least expected example is found in a book that is about talking to angels to ask for help. Many people tend not to seek outside salvation until faced with damaging emergencies. But it is an aspect of customer behaviour we are familiar with in service management. Instead of alerting us when things start to look wrong, or while there is time to correct it routinely, we don’t hear until the situation is extreme, when it has to be fixed immediately or cause business damage. Avoiding this, mentioning things early or at the first warning sign can make a major contribution to keeping services going rather than having to react in an emergency – which is rarely efficient, and always risk laden.

Going with the Adrenalin Flow

Another disparate use of the term is featured, among other places, in a professional book on global health governance. What the author refers to here is how it seems easier to wait for a crisis and respond than to put effort into preventing a crisis. That is a message close to the heart of every competent availability manager. Amazingly, it seems customers/users are more impressed when we fix things than when we prevent things from going wrong. Skill in the emergency room is more valued than keeping folks healthy, when all logic says we should feel the opposite.

What’s the Message?

Just a bit of fun with words maybe, but it does show some things of value to us:

  • Be sure that others have the same understanding as you when you use a phrase.Technical and business jargon, for example, can be a source of misunderstanding. ITIL terms like incident, problem, utility and warranty might have clear meanings to IT staff, but will be used to mean different things by the rest of an organization. The IT department supporting a police force might find the term ‘incident’ has a precise meaning amongst their users – a situation requiring the attendance of a police officer!
  • Emergencies have multiple influences on our behaviour.Understanding the diverse impacts of emergencies is, or at least should be, important to us in service management. Planning and agreeing courses of action to take, during an emergency, is sensible preparation. Realizing that things may feel like emergencies to others, even if they don’t to you, is important too.
  • Customers have an important role to play in avoiding emergencies by reporting initial symptoms rather than waiting for major issues to manifest.Try to encourage this proactive behaviour by ensuring there is a simple mechanism for communicating concerns, and that customers are not blamed or ridiculed by IT for raising concerns. Adopting the approach used by airlines and air traffic control of reporting and investigating ‘near misses’ is an idea worth considering within many ITSM environments.

Stopping the Fire Is Better than Putting it Out with Style

The lesson for us in ITSM could be as simple as this: avoiding emergencies is better than solving them. When you see emergencies as routine and normal, then you can unconsciously be delivering bad customer service.

Does your organization reward the fire-fighters more than fire preventers? If so, perhaps it’s time to question that.

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Roy Eldar

About Roy Eldar

Former SysAid VP Support, with over 15 years’ experience in IT and large-scale production operations, Roy was responsible for the cloud infrastructure that powers SysAid and for our signature customer-centric support. Outside of work, Roy is an avid photographer, who also loves road cycling.