Want Good IT Customer Service? Visit Your Library

By Dr. Dawn Thistle  |  Posted 08-29-2011

Want Good IT Customer Service? Visit Your Library

In many organizations, IT gets a bad rap mostly due to a perception of poor customer service. Clients feel poorly treated and share this with colleagues whenever they get the chance. IT's reputation suffers -- as does your own as CIO -- and everyone's unhappy.

Upon studying this further, I believe it's primarily a communications-related problem that has two dimensions:

  1. Communication with clients and other stakeholders during the problem-resolution process is lacking.

  2. IT professionals often use "geek-speak," which few souls outside of IT understand.

Naturally, this frustrates everyone and makes non-IT folks feel inferior.

I believe IT professionals truly want to help others. However, we tend to focus on the technology, not the client. We believe our job is to fix problems, and we expend considerable time and effort doing so. Unfortunately, IT professionals often spend little time communicating with clients (and sometimes even with their CIO) during a problem resolution process. As a result, your clients incorrectly assume that nothing is being done and they become frustrated. Once they start complaining to peers, the organization's perception of IT takes a hit.

In addition, workers have become accustomed to using and managing their own consumer-grade computing devices at home, and often fail to understand that the solutions used in business settings are typically more complex and sophisticated than their personal devices. This ease-of-use perception can make workers skeptical about the amount of effort required by you to support their business technologies, adding a feeling of defensiveness that can carry on into future help requests.

As CIO and former Library Director at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, I propose that a great customer service model may actually be found in libraries. IT departments and libraries are similar in that they are both service organizations, which also, simultaneously, manage large collections of things: hardware and software, or books and databases, respectively. Librarians have had a couple of hundred years to build their reputations for being service-oriented, while the field of information technology is still only a few decades old.

Let's consider the librarians' approach. Reference librarians focus their work around the library's users, rather than around the information materials they provide. Instead of solving the information questions of users, librarians try to teach patrons how to do their own research and assist them in using library technology. A key component in this work is communication, both face-to-face and through the marketing of library services.

A primary skill of librarians is being able to conduct the "reference interview." This is how the librarian endeavors to find out the patron's real question or information need. Before any answers are provided, a reference interview helps librarians set the groundwork for communicating with users. Throughout the reference transaction the librarian checks in with the user and, when the information need is satisfied, the librarian will typically ask if there is anything else that he or she can do for the user. The user will leave the library with his or her problem solved and, as well, with the idea that he or she can always return to that librarian for assistance in the future.

While the majority of problems brought to IT are addressed to the satisfaction of their clients, there are some common scenarios that stand in the way of a successful outcome. For example, it sometimes happens that IT clients think they know what the problem is, and IT acts immediately on that assumption. Often times, the problem is misdiagnosed and requires more time for resolution. Alternatively, IT technicians may disregard the client's assessment of the problem, leaving him or her out of the resolution process and feeling foolish. In some of these cases, though, the client may actually be correct in their assessment of the problem.

Unlike librarians, IT workers are more likely to be communicating via phone, email or texting, and won't have as much time or opportunity to communicate with each individual face-to-face. However, it's still possible during the initial engagement for IT professionals to conduct their own version of the librarian's "reference interview."

During this "technology interview," the client should have the opportunity to explain his/her understanding of the problem, and to receive acknowledgement--though not necessarily agreement. Although the client may be desperate to get his or her computer fixed, the "technology interview" will be time well spent: it will serve to speed problem resolution and help to build a constructive relationship between user and IT.

An Action Plan for Improving IT Customer Service

The first step for the CIO is to work on shifting the orientation and language of your IT team. This improves IT's reputation across the organization, which in turn improves morale. You'll find that your IT professionals are more inspired when they are viewed favorably by their users and their peers.

An improved departmental reputation results in the opportunity to increase collaboration with other departments and brings you into a role of strategic involvement in shaping the goals of the organization.

In the long run, this can mean fewer budget battles and, in many cases, increased funding. It's not an impossible effort, as we'll show below.

Here are seven action steps you can take within your IT organization to improve customer service:

  1. Acknowledge that your IT staff is service-oriented. Show that you value their willingness to respond to problems at odd hours and to stick with repairs until they are accomplished. Often, their efforts take place behind the scenes, unnoticed by those who are being helped.

  2. Look for a peer department in your organization. Especially, seek one in another service function that has a strong reputation for high levels of customer service, such as a library. Find out how they do it, and see if they'll partner with your IT organization to help change things.

  3. Create a shared vision with the peer department for improving IT's customer service ratings. This vision should include a high-level action plan.

  4. Assess IT service skill ratings/levels, current practices, etc. to find gaps or areas of weakness so that you can address these early on. This enables you to establish a baseline on which to build. Deficiencies in technical skills can be addressed through professional development goals set with each staff member. Likewise, training is also available to help with communication skills and to address the "geek speak" syndrome. For example, when Assumption College IT team members undergo performance review, they prepare a self-evaluation. This evaluation reports on their progress with their goals for the year, which, in turn are linked to the IT Department's Strategic Plan. As part of the review, they use the Strategic Plan to set goals for the coming year, as well. Skill development or acquisition is an important part of their personal performance plan.

  5. Begin to implement the plan, and include your IT team members from top to bottom as much as possible. Use the goals identified in their performance plans to engage them in departmental improvement. Don't be afraid to adjust the plan along the way as necessary.

  6. Assess the program and measure the improvement. Solicit feedback from clients through online surveys, focus groups or interviews.

  7. Celebrate success along the way. Recognize the contributions made by individual staff members and groups within IT. Such recognition will build momentum, which is critical to making and sustaining progress. Staff recognition is powerful and should not be left only to the CIO. For example, at Assumption we have been using a big, ugly but funny inflatable trophy, which we pass from person to person as we feel the urge to express appreciation for a job well done. The kudos are recorded in a notebook that travels with the trophy, as well as on the department portal page. Whenever the CIO receives a compliment about a staff member, it is also posted on the portal.

Another step we've taken at Assumption College is to hold quarterly half-day all-staff meetings. Rather than use these meetings as opportunities to report on current projects, we use them to explore more abstract questions, such as:

  • "What are our values?"

  • "What is our mission in relation to that of the College as a whole?"

  • "What is our vision for IT?"

As we explore these questions, we have begun to find commonalities as a team, as well as areas where we disagree. This has been important, because we now understand that we cannot assume that we are all moving together toward the goal of providing excellent customer service.

We also hold an annual retreat. The retreat has been an opportunity to work on planning, reviewing the past year, and exploring new ideas. Along with the professional commonalities mentioned above, we find that we share other interests that we would otherwise not have known about. We find that we serve our external clients better when we know -- and serve -- our internal clients well.

Don't Overlook External Actions

Your success does not depend solely upon actions taken internally by your IT department. It also requires constant communication across your enterprise.

IT groups tend to be reactive; they respond to clients' problems. Good IT organizations are also proactive in ways that are rarely publicized. For example, when a piece of hardware is approaching end-of-life, IT will plan ahead and replace it before it fails. When a major software application is due to be upgraded, IT will plan to roll the new version out to the organization. When new workers are brought on board, IT will make sure that they have the right equipment and applications to do their jobs. It's okay for IT to brag about these accomplishments to the entire organization through newsletters, portal announcements, email messages, or in a departmental annual report.

For example, "Get Connected" is the Assumption College Information Technology & Media Services newsletter. Published at least three times a year, it contains information about new services, updates and upgrades, and staff accomplishments.  Along with a section of the campus portal and regular portal announcements, the newsletter allows us to inform and also to brag about what we do so well. Occasional articles written by students for the campus newspaper also serve to get the word out in a positive way.

Clients are very often surprised at the many projects that IT accomplishes behind the scenes on their behalf.

It's also helpful to invite members of other departments or business offices to IT department meetings to speak about the value that IT has brought to them. This will help to emphasize the importance of partnerships with the rest of the business. It's also an opportunity to recognize IT team members who have provided excellent customer service.

Taking this level of communication a step further, you can create an IT users group or advisory group comprising representatives from other business units of the organization. This group can advise and advocate on behalf of IT and share what they learn with the rest of the organization. For example, The Assumption Technology Advisory Committee consists of faculty, students, alumni and administrators, along with representatives from IT. This group has been the source of great ideas, as well as input about our services. The Chair has spoken to the Faculty Senate about IT activities, helping to mitigate frustration with changes in our administrative software, for example, but has also helped promote events such as our Technology Showcase. The student representatives have been especially effective in reporting back through the Student Government Association.

As perceived IT service ratings improve, work to make IT more visible in other ways. Consider ways to partner with other organization units. Encourage your IT staff to serve on committees or participate in non-technology-focused projects. Attend organization functions. In order to develop more empathy on the part of IT team members (and, as a result, better service) for clients, it is helpful to know our clients away from their computer problems. Remember, this effort will be a process.

Increased communication can improve the degree of transparency related to technology changes, problems or improvements, preventing your clients from being blind-sided by outages or befuddled by changes that IT sees as improvements. A communications plan that provides structure for informing the organization about changes--both planned and unplanned--can assist IT in providing the information the organization needs in a consistent and transparent way.

Outstanding customer service involves a lot more than sending your people to customer service training. It requires a mind-shift for most IT professionals and also for the organizations they serve. Good planning, excellent communication, ongoing practice and encouragement will change the performance of your IT team, and improve the rest of the organization's perceptions of IT along the way.

About the author

Dr. Dawn Thistle is Executive Director of Information Technology & Media Services, Assumption College. Current projects include the implementation of a new ERP system, the development and support of a new web site and portal, and the upgrade of all campus network electronics, including expansion of the wireless network. Prior to this role, Dr. Thistle was Library Director at Assumption and Head of Reader Services, College of the Holy Cross.