There is currently a lot of good industry guidance and advice around how IT organizations need to get out and engage with their customers. This is essential in order to develop a positive and effective customer/supplier relationship, to also identify customer needs, and to set practical service-level expectations for delivery. All of this is a vital although often missed area of service management and service delivery, as part of service strategy and design, service level management, service catalog, business relationship management, and service portfolio management.
One difficult challenge with this is around how to actually get customers to engage and participate in this process. This can be used as an excuse sometimes, but it is a difficult topic – i.e. who do we engage with and how do we get them interested and involved? The cry of ‘we tried this before and no one was interested’ is a familiar challenge to any project trying to get moving and do the right thing by engaging and listening to customers.
It’s not of course acceptable to use this as an excuse (although granted in some rare situations it can be very difficult), particularly if this only then serves to prolong an IT-centric set of service level targets that don’t add any value to either the service provider or the customer – so here are a few tips to make this work.
There are no absolute rules for this, however it’s important to try and get a cross-section of customers (senior, bill payers) and end-users (daily recipients of the service), in order to get strategic and operational perspectives. Some key requirements and points of view can be missed if only one set of views is heard. There is also a need to cover different departments, customer groups, locations etc., as well as recipients of different technology services.
There’s no magic bullet here and if these feelings exist, this may be due to poor or failed communications in the past, so, at the very least, a new communications approach will be needed. The best advice is simply to be as open and positive as possible, making it clear that this is not the same old IT ‘take it or leave it’ approach, but a genuine and constructive initiative to improve the relationship and quality of service. Any reasonable person should respond to that, particularly if the content and approach to the meeting (and the subsequent planned actions) is also clear in advance.
Business people can often see IT projects and meetings as long-winded, jargon-filled talking shops and of little relevance to them – they also can feel that they are talked over and given choices that don’t mean anything to them (i.e. response times, system availability targets, etc.). Most of all they often feel that they are not listened to – perhaps by an over-keen IT organization that goes into solution-mode too quickly. So, meetings should be short (15-30 minutes), with a clear summary agenda (provide simple questions in advance), plus the IT representatives should try to avoid jumping into defensive or solution mode completely, avoid all jargon (including ITSM jargon) and focus on listening – let the customers have their say, it’s important to them.
What services do you use? What technology is important to you/ when? Who uses this, are there some specific times or business functions that we would know about? What would you like to see improved? How could we help you by delivering this service better? What could we measure (e.g. moments of truth) to identify the success or otherwise of the service? You can provide these in advance of the meeting – sometimes customers will use this as a guide for the meeting, or they may provide some written answers. Do still insist on having the meeting even if they send you their answers in advance – it’s an important stage in the development of the relationship, not simply a fact-finding exercise.
Don’t put customers off by telling them the meeting will be about ‘ITIL’ or SLAs’ or ‘Service Catalog’ etc. Frame the meeting simply as part of your improvement process, which will give your customers the opportunity to discuss their feedback and views on your service – outside of day-to-day issues, incidents, or problems, and also not part of projects. The meeting is simply about service quality and service improvement.
Finally – this is just stage 1 of this process, so it’s important to set out clear plans and actions from the meeting and any follow-up documentation or other meetings – that will start to build trust and belief in the relationship and get your customers on-side. Promises need to be kept and consistent communications delivered as part of this (re)-building process.
Of course it may also be difficult to hear negative criticism and the desire to defend or solve all ills at the meeting must be tempered with the needs of the customer to have their say. In fact, if the meetings are difficult, then you are doing the right stuff - the customer feels able to give you their views and you are listening!