The tyranny of the VIP

And some suggestions on how to avoid it.

red carpet vip
Thinkstock

It was five o'clock on a steamy summer day. I was the manager of a Service Desk and almost all of my guys were done for the day. It was just me and one of my best agents, Doris. The phone rang and Doris fielded the call as usual. Brief exchange of words. When she hung up, she called me to her side.

“It was so and so (it’s been so long I forgot his name). He's a VIP”.

You can imagine what happened next. I had to call one of our field technicians, many of whom were already on their way home, turn back (and if you've ever driven in Puerto Rico's metro area rush hour, you know that this is difficult!). We got a hold of a very brave agent, who volunteered to turn around and go assist the VIP. Upon confirmation that a field agent was headed to headquarters, Doris called the VIP back to let him know that a tech was on the way.

“That’s OK. It can wait until tomorrow”.

*click*

Doris and I looked at each other for about 15 seconds. And we laughed. The tension was off. We called the tech to let him know he could head home; he was none to happy that he had to double back home. I apologized to him for that. We documented our ticket and I wrote an email to my management to let them know what happened. CYA and all that.

What did the VIP want? He wanted to watch a video off of a CD and his computer did not had the necessary drivers to see them.

Looking back to it, it sounds funny. And I laugh every time I remember that day. But it shouldn’t have happened that way. We, the company that provided that service, boxed ourselves into that situation. There was no base understanding about what a service was, or what were the vital business functions that we had to support. It was all operational, knee-jerk, reactive actions around handling failures. Which is typical in many organizations out there. But the tyranny of the VIP made things worse. Much worse.

Case in point. Same client, same year but later. The organization we supported was hit by a big virus (Blaster or Sobig). We were dead in the water. I was informed by management, mine and theirs, that we should prioritize providing support…to the VIPs. I questioned this. Why do we have to do this, I asked, if we have our revenue capture capabilities down as well? Why don’t we restore services that are essential to the client. “No. The VIPs first.”

The word was given. We had to put the VIPs back on their feet first. It took us three days to put the agency back on its feet overall.

To be fair to them, and us, service based thinking wasn’t as prevalent as it is today; we were in the golden days of ITIL v2, and we handled that poorly. And the contract was drafted with a heavy bent towards incident handling and operational work. But if I had a time machine, I would go and tell my old self to tell my management that the contract was a trap. At least as it pertains to its treatment of VIPs, among other things.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the need to recognize and support VIPs. For one reason or the other, they have earned that right. And in certain types of organizations, like the military or government, is an unavoidable fact of life. But there has to be a basic expectation that vital business functions come before the potential needs of the VIP, unless the vital business functions is inextricably linked to the VIP role (think, for example, the President, a General, a Governor, an Ambassador or a CEO).

How can you make the distinction and satisfy both the needs of the businesses and the VIPs? Don't look into operations for this, since incident or problem management will not give you a straight answer, unless you actually learn from mistakes and improvements identified there. You could start by going to three very specific lifecycle capabilities: business relationship management, demand management, and continual service improvement. Here’s how:

Business relationship management (BRM)

BRM is tasked with the establishment of a relationship with the customer and identifying customer needs to ensure that the provider can meet them. A well run BRM process will provide the necessary tools to identify the needs of this group of people while managing and setting expectations with them and everyone else in the organization. It is through BRM that we can work with other capabilities in the framework to define and deliver updated requirements for our services.

Demand management

There are two specific activities in demand management that I would highlight for understanding the relationship with the VIPs: patterns of business activity and user profiles. Using these two activities in combination will provide the necessary information to serve the demand with appropriately matched services and service levels. This could present the opportunity to develop differentiated service packages for these people, updated policies or an updated strategy that takes into consideration their particular needs, as well as the entire organization.

Continual service improvement

Continual improvement has to be a mindset that everyone in the IT organization has, from top level management all the way down to the service desk. There is always something that can be improved, no matter how small. How can you ensure that handling the desires of the VIP does not consume the entire organization? Ask! Make sure that resources understand that situations can always be fixed. Engage the VIP in conversation as well, or leverage their assistants, to understand how services can be improved. These improvements can go into any of the organization's service management capabilities

In the end, the tyranny of the VIP doesn’t come from them. It comes from within the IT organization itself. If you’re smart about it, and you leverage your capabilities wisely, you can satisfy both the vital business functions of the organization and the desires of the VIPs.

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