Creating a Customer-Centric IT Culture

Ann All

It's sometimes tough for IT professionals to provide good customer service. It's not because they don't want to, but because IT organizations tend to stress efficiency over empathy.


Several months ago I attended a presentation by Tom Pierce, an ITIL practitioner with 23 years of experience who now works for AT&T. In discussing why the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) doesn't directly address customer service, Pierce said many IT pros are uncomfortable with the vague and somewhat emotional nature of customer service. He compared some ITIL practitioners to a new restaurant owner who creates a plan for how to replace his stove if it fails before he begins building relationships with customers. Not all IT pros engage help desk users in conversation, he said.


Some IT help desks are more customer-centric than others, of course. When I interviewed Steven Zink, Ph.D., vice president of Information Technology and dean of University Libraries at the University of Nevada, Reno, he told me about an unusual blend of roles in which the IT help desk is combined with the reference desk in the main university library and librarians and IT staffers work side-by-side.


It's part of a larger practice of IT staff working within business units that Zink said has worked well for the university. In the case of the help desk:

If you think about a library, librarians are very techie but also very service oriented. Our librarians are exposed very intentionally, and have been for 15 years, to this intermingling of cultures. I've often said our help desk at the university would never be able to work for an uncaring IT help desk in the private sector. ... Librarians listen very well and will do anything to get an answer. The last thing they would say is, "I'm sorry. I'm going to send you a manual." In libraries, the reference desk is very high on the status. It's just the opposite in IT organizations. We have movement out of both, both laterally and vertically. It was a grand experiment that's worked out very well.

Writing on his Mysimpleprocesses blog, Glenn Remoreras says creating a customer-centric IT services culture is neither quick nor easy. He writes:

... You don't create culture by merely creating or declaring mission statements and rules. You don't create culture by simply implementing new applications and best practices copied from other successful IT organizations. Culture happens through consistent behavior over time embedded and encouraged by leaders.

He offers five suggestions:

  • All team members, from frontline service desk employees to managers handling customer engagements, should focus on building meaningful relationships with their customers. They may be surprised to find this focus yields efficiency gains. As Remoreras writes: "This practice will help IT to understand the requirements and needs of the business and allow them to align their services accordingly."
  • All team members should be encouraged to contribute to the attainment of group objectives. Spreading work around will foster teamwork and collaboration.
  • Team members should be encouraged to identify patterns and uncover root causes of recurring issues. A proactive approach to problem solving is always better than a reactive one.
  • Customer service should be stressed in all aspects of training, beginning with the onboarding process for new employees.
  • Team members should be encouraged to explore new and creative ways of solving problems. This includes a tolerance for failure, writes Remoreras, since "when you create something new, you don't always succeed." I've written several times about failure's place in an innovative culture, most recently in October.

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