Monday, July 27, 2009

Connecting with the customer

There are typically two situations when connection of an IT department with the customer at a significant level occurs. One when initial requirements are being threshed out and the other when there is a problem or issue that needs resolution. Organizations nowadays are relatively mature in their handling of the second situation where issues and problems are reported and resolved. This has been mostly due to implementation of incident handling and help desk processes and advents in help desk tools and applications. However, the interaction with customers during requirements is usually not handled very well. Furthermore, a more proactive approach to customer management is largely missing in most organizations.

The ITIL body of knowledge provides the Service Level Management process for exactly this purpose. The SLM process, which exists in the Design stage of the ITIL lifecycle, essentially performs two main functions:

  • To determine the level of IT service needed by the business (customer) and

  • To identify whether the required services are being met or not and if not, why not?

By the successful performance of these two functions, SLM helps to maintain and improve the IT service provided to the business. But more significantly, the SLM process and the Service Level Manager (the SLM process owner) create and maintain a relationship with the customer. It is through relationships that the ability to truly satisfy and even delight the customer can be achieved. The reason for this is that it is rare for the customer to truly understand what they want in technical terms. Therefore, they do not put down in a detailed requirement specifications document all aspects of what they want. The IT staff members following the spec document then faithfully produce a product or service that does not truly delight the customer but meets specifications. To truly understand the unstated and unspecified needs and desires of the customer, a relationship must them be established and maintained by the IT organization. That way, the customer can be guided into including, in a spec document, what they really want but are unable to put down specifically.

The service level manager, therefore, should have both technical skills and relationship skills which include communication and negotiation skills. The service level manager should also be able to act as an emissary for both sides, the customer as well as the IT service provider.

The SLM process consists of the following high-level steps:

  • Cataloguing the services

  • Implement Service Level Agreements

  • Monitoring, reporting and review of actual service levels

  • Review of Service Performance and adherence to SLAs

  • Implementation of service improvements as needed

Of course each of these steps has several steps of their own and relevant inputs and outputs. However, it is by following these steps that an IT organization can ensure proper customer service in a proactive fashion.

The old style of informal and unregulated contact and interaction with the customer is no longer the appropriate method of carrying out business. Every IT department should have a formal point of contact with the customer(s) and a proactive process of ensuring service quality and constant improvement. There is no way of avoiding or bypassing this requirement any longer.

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