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Where To Begin? December 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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As some of you may have noticed, I like to extract lessons from the day-to-day incidents that surround us.  If I’m able to extract some little nugget from an experience, I count it as a worthwhile event.  Imagine my delight to uncover five lessons in a short, two minute encounter earlier this week.

I was in line at a local craft shop. The fellow in front of me was part of a larger group of dads and their kids, making crafts as Christmas gifts.  Apparently, they all paid on arrival, but this dad had discovered he had a 50% off coupon in his wallet.  He was asking for a refund of half of his fee.  And thus the lessons in poor service began.

  1. Develop policies that punish your customer. The salesperson immediately responded with “We do not give refunds.”  The customer was taken aback but undeterred.  He asked again, pointing out that he had just paid a few moments before. Apparently, the policy does not address timing, so again, the request was refused.  When the customer asked again, we moved to lesson two.
  2. Blame someone else. The salesperson then shared that this wasn’t her policy, but instead had been created by “accounting.”  I wondered how big the accounting department might be at a little mom-and-pop store like this one, but no matter. Someone else had set this policy, and we were all powerless to change it.
  3. Pass the buck. When the specter of “Accounting” did not seal the deal, the salesperson called over another employee.  Unsurprisingly, she confirmed the bad news: that was the policy, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It became clear that both employees had been taught lesson four:
  4. Don’t care. It was obvious that these two had no vested interest in making this person happy.  For whatever reason, their engagement with the company simply involved showing up, doing their job, and going home.  Apparently, long-term customer satisfaction did not figure into their performance review. As a result, we finally got to lesson five.
  5. Offend a member of a larger group. This guy was part of a group of dads.  You can be sure he told each one of them about the refusal.  You can be sure that when the group has to pick their next outing, this store would not be on the list.  For want of a small refund and a bit of kindness, a whole collection of families were alienated.

This whole conversation took less than five minutes before the dad finally gave up.  The salespeople had no idea of the damage they had done, and neither would the store owner, who was not present.

Good customer service is hard, but bad customer service is so easy.  For all of us in service organizations, we need to remember that good service is a continuous effort and even a slight slip can create lasting damage.

The unhappy dad went back to his child, and I moved forward to pay my bill.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask if I could use his coupon.

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Fighting Fires November 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Few phrases will sharpen the mind of an IT professional more than “we have an outage.”  Outages are to be avoided at all costs, the bane of our existence.  We all work diligently to build systems that will never fail.  We build in redundancy so that users will never know that a particular piece of equipment went off-line, or that someone kicked a cable out of the wall.  We are definitely a belt-and-suspenders crowd.

In a sense, that’s a shame.  Don’t misunderstand; I’m certainly not advocating more frequent outages as a way to spice up our day-to-day lives. But if you never have an outage, you’re missing a big opportunity: the chance to see your staff really shine.

Good IT people rise to the challenge of an outage.  Mindful of the impact, not wanting to disappoint customers, challenged by the technical problems, a good operations team will do amazing things to get their systems back up and running. It is a privilege just to watch them in action.

As much as your people make things look easy when all is going well, you are quickly reminded of how complicated their world really is when things run off the rails.  The many levels of abstraction coupled with the intricate details make it almost impossible for any one person to fully understand how all the pieces fit together.  A good team will play off one another, sharing information and supplying clues that collectively solve the problem.

How does this happen?  It certainly isn’t by chance.  Good operations teams develop a deep sense of ownership for the systems they tend.  It isn’t “a system;” it is “their system.”  Typically, they built it from the ground up, know every bit of software installed on it, and configured most of the settings themselves.  Like a mechanic and an automobile, a systems administrator forms bonds with their systems that will pay off when the chips are down.

To outsiders, this sounds a bit odd and even creepy.  But anyone who has been in operations understands this completely.  Each system is special and requires specific attention in unique ways.  You cannot typically step up and just take control, you have to know how and why each component was added and maintained.  Great operations people have this knowledge and use it to their advantage when needed.

Make sure you give IT people the chance to own their systems.  They need to be included in the design and development early on, integral to the decisions that drive the system design.  As the systems mature and develop, your people will acquire the knowledge that will really make them shine when things go wrong.  And may you never have a chance to see your people at their very best, when they are digging out from a disaster.

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Arbitrary Boundaries November 13, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Recently, I received notice that one of my vendors had added me to their online customer portal and made me part of the “Eastern Region Group.” Apparently, this gives me access to certain forums and resources shared by everyone in the East.  I’ll confess: I don’t get it.

I understand why this vendor might divide their customers into regional groups.  Presumably, they assign local resources to each group to improve response time, reduce travel costs, and increase customer satisfaction in some way.  But does this have any value or meaning from the customers’ perspective?

It seems that in this day and age of global communication, sequestering customers by geography is so… last century.  The idea that you are doing so in an online forum that transcends time and distance is delightfully ironic.

But it doesn’t just happen online.  How many customer receptions have you attended where tables are arranged and labeled by geography?  Is it really important that I sit with other people from the East?  Aren’t there interesting people from the West that I might want to speak with?  Why not just divide us by height, or middle initial? I suspect that’s just as effective in creating good conversation as anything else.

What’s really happening here?  An internal organizational tool is being exposed and applied externally, without providing value to the customer.  Those internal tools have clear value in managing costs and personnel.  Externally, they are confusing and create false divisions in your customer base.

This problem doesn’t just exist in sales organizations. How often do we expose architectural limitations or development constraints, much to the dismay of our customers?  Try explaining size limits on email to someone who just wants to send a big, business-related file to a customer.  They get annoyed and you look petty.

The root of this lies in our failure to identify with and become champions for our customers, from their viewpoint.  While we may have many useful internal mechanisms that allow us to operate effectively, very few of those mechanisms have any meaning to our customers.  Instead, they seem arbitrary and restrictive.

We need to develop a service model and world view that makes sense to our customers.  We need to interact with them in that model, and never ask them to step outside of it.  As needed, we need to translate their requirements from that space to our internal world.  Our internal model is probably more complicated than our customers think, and that’s OK.  We are supposed to translate from their simpler model to our complex one on their behalf. There’s a special name for that translation: “customer service.”

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Skin In The Game November 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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With clouds on everyone’s mind these days, more and more CIOs are beginning to consider cloud-based services.  There are still a lot of concerns with this, depending on the system or service you seek to move to the cloud.  In particular, what happens when the cloud goes down?

When negotiating with cloud service providers, the conversation inevitably turns to service level agreements.  Typically, a vendor will promise some level of availability, with some prorated refund if the service is unavailable for an extended period of time.  Thus, if a service is unavailable for more than 24 hours, you might get one-thirtieth of your monthly service fee refunded.  Less than twenty-four hours? You might get nothing at all.

Does anyone, except for the service provider, think this is a good deal?

The cost of an outage is not the actual cost of the underlying service.  The cost of an outage is the value of the business impact you suffer.  If your e-commerce platform goes down for an hour, costing you $100,000 in sales, you should get $100,000 from your service provider.  Needless to say, when you mention this to potential providers, they tend to get a bit defensive.  “You can’t expect us to fully reimburse your lost business, can you?”  Well, yes.  Yes, you can.

If your service is good enough for a client to bet their business on, they’d expect you to have some skin in the game.  If you aren’t willing to put money on the table that says you are as good as you claim to be, why should they be doing business with you? Does anyone want to be the CIO that, while explaining a multi-million dollar outage to his board, concludes with “but we got a check for $1,200!”

What is baffling is that this would be an easy guarantee for a qualified vendor to make.  Hedging risk against failure is an actuarial problem.  Why wouldn’t a vendor purchase an insurance policy against just such an occurrence, in an amount that would cover the exposed risk up to a certain point?  Roll the insurance costs into the service fee and proudly market your “Million Dollar Guarantee” far and wide.  I suspect you’d get some business.  I also suspect that you’d get really good at providing exceptional service.

A lot of CIOs are naturally reluctant to deal with service providers who refuse to share the risk equally.  Vendors who find a way to put their money where their mouth is will gain the respect, and business, of discriminating CIOs.

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What Are You Measuring? October 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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When you boil it all down, computing is about numbers.  Two of them, actually, 0 and 1.  Over the years, we’ve worked up from that, of course, so that you have to dig to find the 0s and 1s, but our obsession with numbers is deeply ingrained.  This has bad implications for those of who try to lead IT organizations.

Given our predilection for numbers, most people in IT like to collect them.  Storage usage, bandwidth, code size, database tables, and the like are obvious targets for the numerically fascinated.  But we also collect more abstracted numbers, like project success rates, hours spent doing things, call volumes, and satisfaction indices.  Sometimes, we place a lot of importance on these numbers and work hard to optimize them in some fashion.

Some numbers are necessary.  On the operations side of the house, disk utilization and processor loading are important metrics that drive good capacity planning models.  These numbers are easy to collect and understand because they relate back to physical resources that can be measured accurately.

Other numbers are a bit softer.  Many organizations try to quantify qualitative data, like customer satisfaction.  Gauging satisfaction is tough; there is no number that equates to “great” or “awful.”  That doesn’t stop us, however: our inherent love of numbers leads us to assign numbers to feelings and opinions. That’s not inherently bad when we make simple comparisons.  When one customer rates us a 9 and another decides we are a 1, there is a clear difference of opinion.

The problem with numbers is that they are so prone to manipulation.  Once you make the leap from adjective to value, it is way too easy to start doing arithmetic.  Suddenly, we are averaging those ratings, or worse, computing standard deviations and higher order statistical metrics.  These computed values are worthless, no matter how attractive they may seem.

Consider: if you are in a room with two people, one of which says “I love you” and another that says “I hate you,” the average in the room is not “We like you.” Depending on which way you turn, you are going to either get kicked or kissed.  Math and emotion simply do not mix.

In spite of this, many organizations use these numerical metrics to make business decisions and control compensation.  I’ve seen teams rejoice when customer satisfaction climbs from 3.3 to 3.5, as if the 0.2 difference has any significance.  They are beholden to the numbers and have lost track of the feelings and emotion behind them.

Part of being an expert with a tool is knowing when you shouldn’t use it.  We fancy ourselves to be experts with numbers; we should do a better job of applying them appropriately. In many parts of our businesses, we need to stop focusing on numbers and start listening to people. That’s where you’ll find the real answers and understand your real problems.

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