by Mark Settle

Minimizing the distance between IT and your company’s paying customers

May 08, 2019
IT Leadership

Most IT organizations receive feedback from their company’s paying customers through functional teams that each possess a unique perspective regarding true customer needs. Establishing communication channels that promote more direct interactions with paying customers can improve IT’s business effectiveness and, in some cases, ensure its survival.

Apollo 13
Credit: Universal

The majority of IT employees have no direct contact with their company’s paying customers. Their understanding of customer needs, desires and preferences is obtained through a complex web of internal business functions. Each function has its own unique mix of priorities, politics and personalities that can warp the customer demand signals received by IT. The further IT recedes from direct interactions with paying customers, the greater the risk that the demand signals it receives are incomplete, inaccurate or irrelevant.

Measuring degrees of separation from paying customers

An obscure Hungarian author named Frigyes Karinthy originally suggested that any two individuals on earth could be connected to one another through five or fewer social relationships. He used this theory as the basis of a fictional short story called “Chains” that was published in 1929. Four students at Albright College subsequently popularized this principle by inventing a game in the 1990s called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” This game is based on the premise that anyone involved in the Hollywood film industry can establish a social connection between themselves and the actor Kevin Bacon through five or fewer intermediate relationships. The number of relationships required to establish a connection is referred to as an individual’s Bacon Number. Google has fueled the popularity of this game by establishing an online search routine that calculates the Bacon Number of anyone in the film industry!

Although Bacon Numbers are a frivolous metric, they might actually play a useful role in quantifying the degree to which the members of an IT organization or the activities they perform are connected to their company’s paying customers. A Customer Bacon Number is not a frivolous metric since paying customers are ultimately responsible for the success and survival of any business. What are the degrees of separation between a Business Systems Analyst and a paying customer?  What is the Bacon Number of an application enhancement project versus a network upgrade?  How many individuals within an IT organization spend the majority of their time working on activities that have a Bacon Number of four or greater?  When viewed in this light, Bacon Numbers might actually serve a useful purpose in identifying opportunities for establishing a clearer line of sight to paying customers across an entire IT organization.

Reducing your organizational Bacon Numbers

Direct customer interactions can play a critical role in focusing the attention of IT leaders on initiatives that will reduce customer friction, boost customer satisfaction and ideally increase revenues. IT organizations supporting B2C businesses will generally find it much easier to observe or participate in such interactions firsthand. If their company maintains retail outlets, they can personally visit brick and mortar stores to gain an appreciation of how customers navigate shopping aisles, deal with stockout problems or resolve checkout issues.

If their company maintains an eCommerce site, they can configure product placements and navigation paths in highly customized ways to address the needs and interests of many different types of customers. Finally, if their organization maintains a customer support center, they can participate in support calls to obtain personal insight into the frustrations customers experience regarding product delivery, quality or warranty issues.

Establishing opportunities to interact with paying customers in B2B businesses is more difficult but still possible. Some potential activities include:

  • Assisting in the qualification of sales leads, either through direct participation in outbound marketing calls or in developing procedures for prioritizing prospective customers;
  • Supporting field marketing events by working in a product display booth at an industry trade show or attending customer user group meetings;
  • Managing or participating in online customer communities designed to provide feedback on a company’s products or business procedures;
  • Assisting with order entry, invoicing and shipping during end of quarter crunch time.

Indirect interactions that reduce the degrees of separation without eliminating them altogether are useful as well. Examples include:

  • Establishing specialized Concierge Desks within the IT Service Desk team that are exclusively dedicated to support your company’s sales, marketing and professional services representatives who deal with customers on a daily basis;
  • Attending quarterly business reviews in which changes in customer buying behaviors or overall product satisfaction are being discussed.

In a former life I worked in a company that had established a specialized reward program for IT staff members called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Winners were given time off from their normal IT duties and allowed to accompany sales representatives, field marketers, professional service consultants and procurement specialists in their day-to-day dealings with our company’s customers and suppliers. This reward was extremely prestigious. It was exclusively given to our most productive and exceptional staff members, usually in recognition of some recent accomplishment.

Participants inevitably returned from their temporary assignments completely overwhelmed by the practical ways in which business operations were actually being conducted within our company in contrast to some of the theoretical practices that were routinely discussed at Corporate Headquarters!  Awardees returned to their normal IT duties doubly energized to do a better job of serving the needs of our customers and suppliers in the future. The organizations that hosted the awardees were also pleased with the opportunity to expose their daily operational challenges to an IT representative through direct on-the-job experience. IT leaders everywhere would be well served by establishing similar programs within their firms.

The voice of the customer is the key to survival

IT leaders seeking to make their organizations business relevant and strategically impactful need to establish communication channels that provide more direct exposure to the voices of their companies’ paying customers. They cannot rely solely on third- or fourth-hand customer demand signals transmitted through functional organizations. Unfortunately, there are no universally prescriptive solutions for establishing such channels. Leaders need to leverage their understanding of their company’s business model as well as their personal creativity in crafting feedback channels that reduce the line of sight to paying customers.

Staying attuned to the voice of the customer is not only critical to the survival of individual companies but it’s equally critical to the survival of an IT organization. Experience has shown that IT activities that are several steps removed from direct customer interaction, such as data center operations or end user laptop support, are frequently outsourced.

Other activities that improve the efficiency of internal business operations or create new revenue-generating capabilities are more likely to be treated as core organizational competencies because they have shorter lines of sights to paying customers. Even under those circumstances, however, IT teams run the risk of being outsourced if they consistently fail to discover and address true customer needs.