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The Real Customer

In “12 ‘best practices’ IT should avoid at all costs”, InfoWorld‘s Bob Lewis asserts:

I enjoy Bob’s books and columns, but I have to side with the likes of Russell Ackoff and Vineet Nayar on this one. All of an org’s “enabling” functions: HR, QA, Finance, Purchasing, IT, etc; should indeed serve the direct revenue-generating business functions and treat them as paying customers. Otherwise, the natural tendency of these groups in hierarchical orgs is to turn into obstacle-inserting, unresponsive, monopolistic dictatorships. Of course, in the “real world” this rarely happens because rational adults are in charge – and Bob is right. What is your opinion?

  1. October 8, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Great post. I’ve never seen customer service as a subservient relationship (try getting snow tires from a frozen yogurt shop…no matter how much you repeat “the customer is always right”, you’re almost guaranteed to walk away empty handed). Rather the relationship is one of two different parties collaborating in the fulfillment of one of those parties goals. Obviously there are collateral benefits to the party providing the service, but the goals of the customer are the driver.

    You can’t always give what’s asked for, but you can help the customer get closer to what they need (even if you do nothing more than give them directions to the nearest tire store). Also, where the provider has multiple customers, subservience to one would likely harm the remaining customers, that’s not a viable long term strategy for the provider.

    I always find the “subservience” argument to be very puzzling. Is the person using that argument confused about the concept? Are they a reductio ad absurdium ranger, using loaded terms to provoke an emotional reaction? Or are they basing their position on the fact that some (on both sides of the equation) will misconstrue the relationship that way? That’s a danger, true, but using the errors of some to argue against the concept as a whole is way too broad a brush. Just because I sound like a bullfrog, does not mean the practice of singing is fatally flawed.

  2. October 8, 2012 at 11:20 am

    BD00, Ackoff also used to advocate strongly for treating internal departments as profit centers. If Marketing or Finance or Customer Service “pays” for the services it requests, it’s a completely different story than if IT is a free all-you-can-eat buffet. And the corollary is that if these internal markets can satisfy their needs better or less expensively in the open market, they should be free to do so.

    In the absence of treating internal departments as profit centers (since I’m aware of very few companies which actually do this), Gene’s suggestion of an organization comprised of departments which treat each other as partners in a common mission, rather than competitors for the CEO’s accolades is a great target to aim for.

    Just out of curiosity, how many people work in companies like this today. My current company is, but it is 15 people. My last company was 150, and had a high level of inter-departmental friction.


    • October 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm

      I’ve been lucky enough to work for such an organization, and while it wasn’t a well-oiled machine (after all, there’s humans involved), it was definitely one of the best run and most productive IT operations I’ve ever seen.

      • October 8, 2012 at 12:50 pm

        How were sales and costs tallied?

      • October 8, 2012 at 12:57 pm

        Network infrastructure and other “dial tone” type services were apportioned out based on size of the business unit. Development services were handled by charging back on an hourly basis.

        Two things that Charlie noted that I’ll reiterate: having the business pay for the services rendered made them pay attention to what they asked for (gold-plating dropped to near zero) and development having to compete with outside providers made us bring our A game.

  3. October 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for the input guys.

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    October 8, 2012 at 9:03 pm

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