End Users Are Not Your Customers

Direct Energy's CIO is trying to change the perception that IT's customer is the internal employee in order to foster a focus on what matters most. The language he uses to talk about customers, colleagues and IT projects is key.

If I were to ask you if your IT staff is sufficiently customer-oriented, how would you respond? Would you describe how your senior IT leaders are responsive to their counterparts in the business? Show me your scorecard with all service levels met? Perhaps you would tout the results of your last internal customer survey, with lots of top scores from key business colleagues, or boast that your IT teams are embedded among the business units. But when I hear this sort of thing, what I think is, Here is another IT department that isn't customer-oriented at all. In fact, you are probably out of touch with your real customers—the people who buy your company's products and services.

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If we define the customer as someone who buys the companys products and services, then it logically follows that the customer is external to the company. Therefore, customer-oriented employees consider what they do—all that they do—in the context of how this better serves the real customer. However, when I came to Direct Energy in 2005 it was common for the IT staff to refer to people inside the company as customers—a practice that totally ignored our real customer, the consumer of our energy services!

It's not the staff's fault. This problematic perspective starts at the top—with us CIOs. According to the 2008 State of the CIO survey, when asked to choose the three executive leadership competencies most critical to their role, only 10 percent of CIO respondents chose "external customer focus." Only 9 percent chose "developing external customer insight" as one of the activities on which they spend the majority of their time. If we aren't aware of what our customers are saying, then—logically—we are out of touch with our customers no matter how in tune we are to other employees.

Customers Versus Colleagues

Customers and employees don't always want the same thing. If we listen to the customer rather than to other employees, we may understand that it is more important to resolve the customer's problem than it is to conclude a phone call quickly, as the call center managers might wish. While the average time to handle a call might be useful for measuring efficiency of a call center, it's not a great metric for ensuring customer satisfaction.

Pause for a moment and reflect on which metrics you use to measure your IT staff's performance. Are they focused inwardly on company processes or outwardly on the customer? For example, you could measure the number of customer complaints—an inward, process-oriented metric—or the number of times a customer is inconvenienced—an outward, customer-experience-oriented metric. (Hint: The latter number will be higher than the former.) If the IT team is acutely aware of customer issues such as inconveniences in doing business with you, then nothing less than gaining and retaining customers—that is, growing the company—will be considered a satisfactory measure of success.

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