A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Monday, June 09, 2003

How well do IT staff communicate with their customers, the following contribution wonders?

A Cup of Coffee and a Croissant, Please.

That is a simple request that is heard thousands of times every morning in the City of London. Yet, what is a croissant, what is a cup of coffee, and does the interaction mean the same thing to the customer and the waiter?

The assumption that a cup of coffee is just that, and that a croissant is a croissant is too simplistic. A latte, an espresso, a cappuccino, a black americano, a pain au chocolat, a plain croissant, are all within the scope of satisfying that simple request.

The coffee shop provides a range of services and products, much in the same way we do to our customers. We, as Group IT, in all our various hues of responsibilities, provide many cups of coffee and many croissants every day; and, like the waiter in my favourite caf�, we know our range of products and how quickly we can offer them. Much like �Mario�s� we have a lot of customers. The problems we face are similar in essence, especially with customers who pop in for the first time, or who do not call so often, or with those who are in a hurry. They assume that what they have in mind we have in mind, they assume because this is a �caf� they can get anything their friends can get in Starbucks in Chicago or in Pret a Manger in Los Angeles.

It is not their fault because, as customers, well, they are right. The problem lies in the ways expectations are raised or lowered. Do we tell our customers what is actually available? How do we respond when we know that we can only offer them a limited range of options � even when, as is the rule, the reason for a limited range is perfectly legitimate from a business perspective?

Another question that comes to mind automatically is, how much entrenched are we in our own ideas and perceptions about what users mean (when they call to report an error), or we think they mean? How much do we let them know when we do a fix, when we repair a desktop, build a server, offer VPN, configure a PDA, offer advice for best ways to work with technology, or, when we have to explain that what they want will be available in the next upgrade? Talking to users can be frustrating, annoying, boring, superfluous, unnecessary. On the other hand, explaining � in English � why something the user did broke his/her computer, why an action in Groupwise is a bad idea, (as in attaching a 10Mb file to an email and send it to ten people in the company and ten outside the company) can be of enormous benefit to both the users and ourselves.

Should we not consider, in the field, the communication of information instead of simply the management of information for others? Are we too paternalistic in our approach to our users? Do we talk to them enough? I believe that if we talk to our users and make them participate in the decision making regarding a request they may have � provided we give them accurate information about what are the business options, the pros, the cons and the potential risks for each option � or simply let them know what alternatives are available to them (other than email when there is a good business case from their perspective to send a 10Mb attachment to twenty people) we will perhaps find, that, little by little, the next time they will call they will ask for a �doppio ristretto�* and thus they will save time both in the making of the �coffee� and in the serving it.

* doppio/dopple ristretto: double very strong espresso
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