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Chief Guinea Pig October 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As technology penetrates every aspect of the business world, those of us in IT find ourselves deploying tools more and more frequently.  These tools are more tightly integrated to everything our users do.  In days gone by, we provided green screens for data entry and green bar for rudimentary reporting.  Now we control every aspect of communication, including voice, email, and text messaging, and provide interfaces to every system in the business.

Most shops do a lot of testing before rolling out new stuff.  Typically, testing begins on the IT side of the house and ends up on the user side, with qualified end users signing off before something goes into production.  Is there a place in that process for the CIO?

I think there is.  I think I have a responsibility to know how our systems function and what the overall user experience is going to be. I’m the first to admit that I am not qualified to test the business processes behind these systems, but I do think I have a voice in the general experience.

Generally, I consider myself the primary guinea pig for almost everything we deploy in my company.  I usually try out each new laptop, many new phones, and almost all user interfaces that we develop.  I try to see how these tools would impact a typical end user.  Are they easy to use and understand?  Do they have confusing options or weird configuration choices?  Would users be confronted by tedious, pointless interaction sequences?

In short, if I were an end user, would I be happy with the device or system? I feel strongly that I should never ask a user to use a device or participate in a process that I have not personally experienced.

In conversing with other CIOs, I find that some do not wish to engage at this level.  They don’t have time to go through this process and don’t feel that they are qualified to make a reasonable judgment. However, most of them do have trusted coworkers that fulfill the role of guinea pig for them.  They value the testing experience; they’ve just outsourced the task to someone else.

There have been times I find myself doing the same thing.  Some new phones are only available on other carriers; I’ll find someone I trust to see if the phone is acceptable.  Some business processes are beyond my reach (or security level), but I’ll find someone else to give me the unvarnished truth about a new system.

CIOs should be operating at a strategic level above the details.  That altitude, however, does not absolve of us from having the ultimate responsibility for the quality of everything we deliver to the business. Ironically, our distance from a tool or system gives us a different perspective from the developers who toil so closely with it.  By being closer to the forest than the trees, we can often see problems that are overlooked by the tactical developers and testers.

Although it may drive your developers to distraction, simply asking “why?” as you walk through an interface or use a device may ultimately create a better experience for your end users. And that, regardless of your preferred level of engagement, is what our job is all about.

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Ubi Nihil Est Facil October 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Back in the day, I was a software developer in a research group, fiddling with Unix and workstations and this new thing called ArpaNet.  Being young and too clever by half, I decided to create a logo for our department.  No logo is complete without a motto, and I settled on “Where Nothing Is Simple,” a testimony to the bureaucracy of my company.  Good mottos are in Latin, of course, and I needed to get this translated.

Back then, there were no online translation services.  To be honest, there was no “online” at this point in time, translation services or otherwise.  I did use a “phone book” (it’s like Google, but all printed out) to look up the number of the local high school.  I called the school (it’s like texting, but converted to voice) and spoke to the Latin teacher, and she gave me the translation: “Ubi Nihil Est Facil.”

But she offered more.  Why did I need this translated?  Would I like her to find a more colloquial translation, or a reference from Latin literature?  No need, I assured her, and went on to create my logo.

That teacher provided what is sorely lacking in so many of our automated, online services: a human touch.  We revel in our online world, where everything is a click away, but we have lost something in this shiny new place.  The results of our clicking are fairly sterile, and only the most mundane queries are truly resolved by some online search engine or database.

The “why” part of the answer, that only humans can contribute, is where the real value resides.  That Latin teacher knew she could provide a better answer if she knew why I was asking. She was so pleased that someone wanted to use Latin, she was excited to reach out and help.

We seek to automate more and more these days, migrating previously human interactions to web- and phone-based activities.  The brevity of text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook strip away the soft edges of our conversations and leave little room for the discerning moments that allow us to serve each other more effectively.  Our customers may be taken care of, but have they been cared for?

Don’t forget that all of this starts with people trying to do things with other people.  Although we in IT often drive the technology that creates these faceless systems, we should try to retain the human touch as much as possible.  Our customers will be happier, I think, and our systems will be better received.

And what of my logo?  Well, back then, bosses had a more classical education, and some even knew Latin.  My snarky motto raised a few eyebrows and generated some… conversations between myself and the management team.  A different kind of human touch, perhaps, but one that I have not forgotten.  Ubi nihil est facil, indeed.

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Hairdresser CRM September 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I get my hair cut about every six weeks or so.  I’ve been going to the same woman for about two years now.  Every time I show up, she picks up the conversation right where we left off, six weeks prior.  How does she do this?

She sees a hundred or more people in those intervening weeks.  She has similar, if not far more engaging, conversations with all those people than she has with me.  Yet she remembers everything we were talking about and is able to resume a pleasant conversation for thirty minutes or so.  She also remembers how I like my hair cut, and notices subtle changes in how it has grown (or not).

I am pretty sure that my local hair salon is not running Seibel unbeknownst to me.  I do not see the various stylists pulling up salesforce.com on their phones moments before engaging a client.  They don’t even write anything down, for heaven’s sake!  Yet they have an almost elephantine memory for details about their clients’ lives.  And this is not unique to my current stylist; this seems to be typical behavior among the vast majority of hairdressers in the world.

They realize, of course, that this intimacy and sustained attention is what provides them the repeat business they need to survive.  Whether they are born with the skill or develop it over time, successful stylists know how to draw out their clients and remember what they hear.  Darwinian selection weeds out the stylists with poor memories, I suppose.

We could all learn a thing or two from them.  The foundation of good IT service is that old maxim:

People don’t care what you know, they want to know that you care.

Showing that you care means listening and remembering things that are important to your customers.  Dale Carnegie knew it; much of his advice involves understanding what is really important to people and then providing it.

My best vendors have hairdresser-class people skills.  They have taken the time to get to know me and my company, and they prove it every time we get together.  I don’t know how they remember it; I do know that it makes sustaining our relationship across intermittent points of contact much easier.

Bad salespeople could never cut hair.  They don’t take the time to learn things, and don’t try to remember what they do learn.  I’ve had salespeople schedule time for an intro call and admit that they do not even know what my company does.  Really?  You couldn’t spend five minutes with Google before heading to my office?

Social media tools make this even easier for savvy salespeople.  Like many other people, I am throwing out bits of trivia about myself all the time, through this blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Facebook.  I have a Google-friendly name that makes web-based stalking easy.  It is not hard to put together a few facts to create the illusion of caring when you first meet me.

Cynical machinations aside, we would all do well to acquire the skills that are crucial to hairdressers.  Listening, remembering, and showing interest are the foundation of all our relationships, not just at the office.  Maybe your next leadership coaching session involves scissors and a smock.

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Partnering For Success September 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I do more than my fair share of beating up vendors for poor sales practices (to whit: regarding honesty, inappropriate emails, and unsolicited appointments).  It is only fair, then, to highlight a really good thing that happened recently with a few of my key vendors.

I like to meet with vendors on a quarterly basis.  We split the meeting in half, discussing everything new in their world, and then everything new in mine.  The idea is to keep everyone up-to-date and see what, if any, opportunities have arisen since our last meeting.  Sometimes actions arise out of the meeting, and sometimes we jsut agree to see each other in three months.  Either way, this method seems to work well in maintaining an appropriate relationship.

Recently, my VAR (Value Added Reseller) threw me a curve ball.  What if, they suggested, we brought three vendors in at once, and had a joint meeting? Each vendor would talk about their areas, of course, but we could also explore overlaps and potential synergies between the vendors as well.

Well.  I had never tried this before, and for the most part, neither had they.  So we decided to give it a try.  The vendors arrived, prepared to present using a pre-determined agenda.  My team attended, anxious to see what they had to say.

It was great! As each vendor got up to speak, we started deep conversations about their technology as it related to the other vendors.  In some cases, we jointly explored how this stuff might all work together.  In others, vendors had to address conflicts and points of competition with respect to their peers.

My team learned a lot more in this one session than we would have from three individual meetings.  I think the vendors got a better feel for how my group assesses technology as a whole, pulling from various vendors to create our solutions.  Best of all, we had substantive conversations that went well beyond traditional vendor presentations.

I applaud the salespeople that agreed to present within this structure.  They went out on a limb to take care of their customer, and we really appreciated it.  It would have been easy to pass on the opportunity, but they stepped up and did something a little out of the ordinary.  I also appreciate the efforts of my VAR who worked to arrange and coordinate the meeting.  That “V” stands for “value,” and they clearly brought it to us that day.

I could write dozens of “bad salesman” posts for this blog. That’s not fair to the many good salespeople out there who never get a mention. This time, I offer a heart-felt “thank you” to all those salespeople who work so hard to creatively serve their customers.  What’s the most creative thing you’ve had a salesperson do for you?  Share it so we can all appreciate what good salespeople do.

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All For One, And One For All August 26, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I’ve been having a semi-regular delivery issue with a certain national daily publication.  Every now and then, it does not arrive in my driveway.  I dutifully go to their web site and note this oversight.  The next day, I get two copies: the current issue and the previous day.  Needless to say, getting a daily publication a day late is of limited value.

When this happened last week, I tweeted about it, and included the publication’s Twitter account in the tweet, along with two columnists who also happen to be on Twitter.  It was a bit of an experiment, I’ll admit, but it was also a request for help.  Would the power of Twitter help solve my problem?

Well, no.  What I did get was a direct message from a columnist with the number of the customer service department, along with an explanation that the columnists have nothing to do with delivery.

I know that.  I knew that when I included the columnists on the tweet.  But they work for the publication, just like the delivery people.  And in the end, they should be just as concerned that I get my paper as they are about writing their columns.  When the delivery person makes a mistake, the columnist looks bad.  When the columnists wrote a lousy column, the delivery people lose a bit of stature.  They are all in this together.

This is just as true in our own companies.  How often have you seen a group breathe a sigh of relief when they discover that “some other department” made a customer-visible error?  I hate to burst their bubble, but they get painted by the broad brush of customer dissatisfaction right along with the group that made the mistake.  The outside world does not know, or care, that some mistake occurred in a specific department.  They only know that the whole group has caused them a problem.

When you make a mistake, you hurt the reputation of every single person who works with you, whether they are involved or not.  That’s why mistakes are so expensive: not only did you inconvenience a customer, you damaged the standing of all of your co-workers.  Did they deserve that?  Did you think about that before doing your best to do a good job?

Fortunately, this works the other way as well.  When you make someone happy, everyone in your team benefits whether they were involved or not.  By making a customer feel good about your company (or department, or whatever), you improve the reputation of every person in that group.  What a great way to help every person you work with, every day!  Help a customer and make everyone look good!

The columnist dissociated themselves from the group that made a mistake, thinking that I would do the same.  But like most customers, I view the Journal as a single entity.  When my paper is late, they all decline a bit in my mind.  But if the columnist had gone out of their way to help fix my problem, they all would have gone up in my book, from the deliver person to the editorial board.

We’re all in this together, all for one and one for all.  Remember that when someone makes a mistake, and leverage it when you decide to do something good.

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