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The Cult of Omphaloskepsis

I’m a big fan of Rob England’s ‘The IT Skeptic’ blog (http://www.itskeptic.org/blog). While I don’t always agree with Rob, I love the way he challenges ITSM dogma and gets me thinking about service management in a different way. And he writes in a wonderfully irreverent style too. Definitely recommended reading (the discussions that follow each post are usually good, too).

Recently, Rob has been blogging about the dangers of what he calls the ‘Cult of the Customer’, the danger of IT relentlessly driving for service improvement and saying ‘yes’ to customer demands no matter the cost.

Most of what Rob says is sound and uncontroversial, e.g.“Examine your assumptions around ‘customer first’… There is such a thing as over-servicing the customer”, or “Do you really need a dazzling self-service request catalogue? Is that the best possible use of scarce funds, or is it just ‘ooh shiny’?”

However, what motivated me to write this article was Rob’s statement that a valid reason for IT providing poor service to the business is when…. “the governors of the organisation want the service to be crappy. The dial is set to crappy as a result of a conscious decision to put it there. Wonderful IT service simply isn’t part of the business strategy. The organisation doesn’t need it. Not-for-profits for example, who’d rather spend the money on changing the world.”

He’s right, this can be a valid reason. Not every organisation needs 24×7 support or services designed for 99.9999% availability or to meet a 5 minute recovery point objective.

But, there’s also a danger that “We can’t provide better service than we already do because the business doesn’t want to pay for better service” will be used as an excuse. In this case, the dial remains at “crappy” because IT lacks a continual improvement mindset, or because IT is totally inward-looking and too focused on technology.

Here’s some excuses we’ve heard over the years:

  • “We can’t improve availability without re-writing the app and upgrading all the hardware”.
  • “Our 2nd level guys shouldn’t be speaking to customers, that’s the job of the Service Desk”.
  • “We don’t want our IT managers talking to business managers – that would just open up a new channel for demand”.
  • “We don’t do satisfaction surveys. We already know what everyone thinks”.
  • “We’ve done a process maturity assessment so we know the areas we need to improve”.
  • “No-one likes the Service Desk because it’s under-resourced”.
  • “We can’t expect our guys to be customer-friendly, they’re techies”.

Unless you’re an IT department that is already as efficient, effective and respected as it can be, then providing better service does not have to cost the business any more than it does already.

Improving customer service can be pretty easy. For example, by requiring support staff to always verify with customers before closing their support calls. You can stop hiring geeks with no interpersonal skills. You can make sure that not everyone on the Service Desk goes to Steve’s leaving lunch at the same time. You can discourage 2nd level teams from letting support calls disappear into black holes. You can implement customer satisfaction surveys and do something with the findings. And improving IT service levels is sometimes possible without adding significant cost, too. For example, you can improve your Change Management and testing processes so you stop accidentally bringing services down when you make a change.

The problem is not that IT departments are too focused on delighting/over-servicing the customer at all costs (what Rob calls the ‘cult of the customer’) – show me one of these IT departments and I’ll show you a hundred that are failing to meet even the most basic needs of their customers – it is that they are too inwardly/technology focused. I’m going to call this the ‘Cult of Omphaloskepsis’ (look it up!).

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