VSJ – May 2008 – Work in Progress

David Burns, MIAP was recently appointed Associate Director of IT Services at IN Partnership, overseeing the smooth operation of the IT infrastructure while heading the development and implementation of new systems. Here he describes his philosophy on IT Customer Service and how to make it fit the business.

Not long ago my youngest daughter explained that the reason we have ears is so we can wear glasses. That has been her observation over a period of time. As I’m the only member of the family who wears glasses I replied, “So Mummy doesn’t need ears then?” My daughter was quick to reply, “And we need them to hear things”.

Over the last twenty years I’ve watched the IT industry change and today it’s radically different from what I first observed. If you ask my father what he’s seen, he’ll remind you that he started out his career in IT when PCs didn’t exist and mainframe computers resembled the enigma code-breaking machine.

With all this change it’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of IT. For many people in the industry, they exist to build and maintain systems. After all, that’s what they do and observe all day long. But that’s not the point.

IT exists to service the needs of businesses, organisations and individuals. Put simply, you have a job in IT because someone else has a problem. The sooner we recognise that IT is a service industry and not a manufacturing industry, the better we’ll understand our role and the importance of relationships.

If you’re working in an IT department within an organisation you may feel service is something others take for granted. Probably true. You may also feel that the organisation so depends on you for maintaining complex systems that it’s stuck with you and has no other choices. You’d be wrong. Business always has a choice and IT departments should never hold an organisation to ransom. People hate to feel that ‘s happening, whether it’s deliberately engineered or not. It’s been my privilege to help companies regain control and exercise choice. That way I know they can still operate, even if something happens to me. Now, you might wonder what happens when organisations regain control and whether they still employ the services of the professionals who helped them out of trouble. Quite often they do, because they like the work ethic and integrity of these individuals.

What I’m challenging people to do is to change their approach, lay aside all fear and secrecy and become employees who fit in the organisation. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that you might like to take with you on your journey.

Be generous with your knowledge. IT isn’t meant to be like the secret service! Choose to share your knowledge with your colleagues to ensure they can service the organisation when you’re away. You may have written a system but it doesn’t belong to you. You’ll be respected and have a greater chance of progression in an organisation when you are generous. But what if you’re no longer needed because someone else can do your job? There are always companies who need people with the right attitude. In any case, it’s far better to work in a team that has a knowledge pool we can all dip into. Don’t let the fear stop you.

Tell others what can be done. Telling people what can’t be done only adds to their frustration. Just because a solution means more work for us is not an excuse to shelve it. I have met some quite obstructive people in the industry who like to maintain the status quo either by not sharing their knowledge or making out things are just too difficult to change. Not only do these individuals hold up progress but they also make the integration of new members into the team very difficult.

A proactive approach is a breath of fresh air and will help people decide that they want to involve you in decisions. If you can, find out what the business plan is and think of ways IT can help the business to achieve its goals. Align your IT strategy to that of the business strategy and be part of the bigger picture.

Be human. This may seem obvious but sometimes we need to step back and see ourselves as others do. IT has its own language quite unlike any other. So, when we step outside the department, we need to remember to adapt our communication style. Most people just want to know if something can be done, what it will cost and how long it will take. They don’t need a recitation of “War and Peace” or unimpressive jargon.

Deliver what you promise. Intentions are not enough. Making it happen is what counts in business. If you’ve never set yourself a deadline then it’s time to make some changes. Small projects are easier to manage so my advice to you, when dealing with larger projects, is to break them down into smaller modules with target dates for each. Resist the temptation to say what others want to hear by setting unrealistic delivery dates. Better to be honest and deliver early than dishonest and late. Remember, your word should be your bond.

Offer the best. Some of the most successful sales people I’ve met or read about are successful not just because they could sell but also because they genuinely wanted what was best for their clients. Applying that to the IT world, exceeding the client’s expectation is easier when we have an attitude that wants what’s best for them. If IT professionals make the choice to spend five minutes every day helping someone above and beyond the call of duty, it’s possible to see an improvement in reputation in a matter of weeks. It’s all about thinking beyond our own needs and seeking out the best for our clients.

And finally…

Enjoy what you do. My son sometimes asks me, “Did you have fun at work today?” I like that. It reminds me that a career can be fun. I often ask my staff if they are enjoying their work because it gives me the opportunity to introduce other tasks they can enjoy alongside those things that can be tedious.

I’ve known people who take the approach that they enjoy 80% of their job and the other 20% they are not sure of. Whenever they find something they don’t like or if they have a “bad” day, they put it down to the other 20%. It’s a good way to maintain perspective and motivation. Enjoying what you do is key to lasting the course and staying happy. To those around you, a smile will always increase your face value.

Appearing in the Sunday Times Fast Track list of Britain’s 100 fastest growing companies, IN Partnership has won the Decision Business Magazine award for the most successful company in the South of England. You can find out more about it at www.inpartnersip.net. You can contact David at dburns@inpartnership.net.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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