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How to manage IT customer expectations

These days, an IT department simply delivering the latest shiny new technology is no longer enough. Communicating to set expectations, and then actively working to meet those expectations, is now a critically important part of delivering a good service to IT’s customers. Indeed, it is an important aspect of good customer service in almost any scenario. Think of an example of good service you’ve received in a restaurant or when having your car serviced, and of bad service: setting and meeting expectations may well have played a part.

Recently I arrived at a customer’s office and witnessed a growing queue of cars forming outside the car park. A man in a yellow bib stood in the entrance of the open car park gate. What ensued was a classic failure in communication and expectation setting.

The man blocking the entrance was studiously ignoring the gathering crowd. The waiting drivers started to speculate amongst themselves rather than approach someone that seemed disinterested in talking to them. “How long’s this been going on?” “Why can’t we get in?” “Is this going to take long?” In the absence of anything from the man in yellow, they began to speculate amongst themselves, considering potentially costly or time consuming alternatives. When some of their estimates of “it should only be five minutes or they’d tell us something” did not come to pass, the level of frustration continued to heighten, which the workman continued to ignore.

Finally, one of the drivers, by now quite angry and frustrated, approached the man, found out the what, why and when via what looked like quite an unpleasant conversation. He was then able to report back so that the queuing employees could make an informed decision on their next step (wait, park somewhere else etc).

I have seen a lot of IT departments inadvertently take on the role of the ‘man in yellow’, leaving customers in the dark and with growing frustration (or, even worse, growing apathy). The man in yellow did not put himself in the place of the queuing people and consider what he might want if he were in their place. An IT department not setting expectations and not communicating to their customers often appears to be falling into the same trap, particularly when it comes to Service Desk calls.

So, how are you going in terms of managing expectations with Service Desk calls? Are you the ‘man in yellow’?

Here are some questions IT staff and management can ask themselves and answer from the perspective of the customer as a starting point:

Setting expectations

  • Have I set an expectation, e.g. around the response, next update, or resolution of an incident
  • Is the expectation I have set actually realistic?
  • Does it meet the customer’s needs? (While noting that the needs of the individual must be balanced with the needs of the organisation)
  • Have I kept the customer aware of progress?

Meeting expectations

  • Have I met the expectation(s) I committed to meet?
  • Have I got the right tools and I am using those tools correctly to facilitate doing this well?
  • Do the IT Service Desk tools I have at my disposal help me to best meet those expectations?

The impact

Setting and then meeting expectations builds trust and confidence. Failing to set expectations, or setting them and then failing to meet them has directly the opposite effect. And losing trust is far quicker than building it!

This rule applies to whole departments, i.e. an IT department delivering services, support and projects to their customers, as well as to individuals anywhere in any kind of organisation or relationship.

So, why aren’t we all doing this well?

A great way for an IT department to start managing expectations is to implement Service Level Agreements (SLAs). These represent a target for IT and a guideline to IT’s customers in terms of the service they can expect. One example of an SLA would be “we will respond to 90% of Priority 3 incidents each month within 4 hours”. A lot of IT departments, however, still either do not have these in place or do not actually work to them even when they do have them. Which begs the question, ‘why not?’

While some effort is required to draft usable Service Levels/SLAs around response and resolution of incidents and requests, and then to get the IT staff to start behaving in accordance with them, the main reason I see that IT teams do not want to implement SLAs is that they harbour some fears in regards to them.

I frequently find that IT teams fear setting these Service Levels because they are concerned about not meeting them, or not having the flexibility to adjust on the fly to changing business needs – or indeed some perceived loss over control of what task they will attend to next. This is a fundamental mistake, but understandable.

In fact expectations exist regardless of whether you set them or customers invent them; and correctly set Service Levels around response and resolution actually allow you to gain control rather than lose it, by clearly prioritising your customer facing tasks and then working to priorities which match the priorities of the business.

Some key misconceptions

  • ‘It is better to set no expectation at all than risk not meeting one.’ In a vacuum, customers will form their own expectations anyway, and be just as frustrated when they are not met!
  • ‘If I call or message them and let them know when I get back to them, they’re just going to ask for it quicker’. Customers who trust their IT department generally only push for this when they have a genuine need. Plus, it is far better to find out that this is urgent and that they need a quicker turnaround time up front, rather than 4 days later when they are fuming!
  • ‘It does not matter too much if don’t get back to the customer at the time that this response SLA says, does it?” Yes, it does! As before, trust and confidence are very precious commodities that take time to build but are quick to erode. If you cannot meet a commitment, for example around the resolution of an incident, get back to the customer as early as possible and revise the expectation. It makes a big difference that you’ve been proactive in keeping them up to date.
  • ‘I’ve drafted and published the new Service Levels, my work is done!’ Actually, that’s only half the battle. The ‘man in yellow’ may well have belonged to an organisation with a great and well documented customer service approach! Focus also needs to be applied to getting the staff to change their behaviour, particularly when some are generally uncomfortable speaking to customers. Good organisational change techniques should be applied and management should follow up via the appropriate performance management and review process. In some instances, some coaching, mentoring or training can assist also.

Benefits to IT

Over time, an IT department which is a trusted its customers actually gains increased freedom to do what it needs. Managers are given more leeway and less scrutiny. They are also less bogged down with escalations that they are expected to respond to.

In a future post I will discuss the perceived roadblocks to setting up Service Levels and Service Level Agreements via the practices of Service Level Management. These roadblocks discourage IT managers from taking the next step, but in fact can be overcome or worked around.

In the meantime, try not to be the ‘man in yellow’!

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