Give your customers what they need. It’s not always what they ask for.
Soft skills a key ingredient to cloud computing success
Last week I had the pleasure of joining the Cloud Exchange discussion in Toronto. Though there was a great and diverse group in attendance with a broad range of interests, there were a few things that were of more universal interest. Amongst these were several issues that might be placed into the “people management” or “soft skills” categories. I was very encouraged to learn that, though not because I enjoy the suffering of others. I believe this signifies an increase in the maturity of cloud computing. At the very least it is a sign that more organizations are more mature when it comes to their thinking about cloud solutions.
At your service
During the session I discussed some of the soft skill challenges we faced when I was a private cloud provider. Ironically, a (partial) cause of one of those challenges was that were very fortunate to have one of the most service-focused, customer-focused teams I have ever had the pleasure to work with. We later learned that while this is a great strength it can, if left unchecked, become a great weakness.
How is that possible?
Solve the solution, please
Quite often our customers (colleagues from across the company) approached our team with a request for a new service. At least that’s what they thought they were doing. In fact, in many cases what they brought to the team was a description of how they had determined the team could accomplish their business objective, as opposed to information about the goal or the business objective itself. (“I need six M1000 servers, a <vendor name omitted> switch, some duct tape, and a Rottweiler.”) Sometimes this was not necessarily a problem. Often it was.
The challenge I referred to previously can occur when the team adopts that service focus posture and simply says “yes” to every request without understanding what the customer hopes to accomplish. (That tended to happen during phases where our service was growing rapidly.) This issue can also surface when a senior stakeholder in the customer’s team applies pressure (in the negative sense of the word), essentially forcing the team to do the wrong things. (Of course, there are other causes.)
Sadly I have witnessed both, and the terrible outcomes that can result. Unmet needs, missed opportunities, wasted resources and funding – and sometimes a lot of it. And in the end the relationship between the consumer and the supplier suffer greatly (to say they despised one-another may have been an understatement in some cases). As a result they sentence themselves, consumer and provider, to even more of the same.
Partnership is paramount
This challenge has many causes, so it was critical for us to train our team to behave in ways that would catch it when it was about to happen and prevent it from occurring. The good news – it was all about becoming a true partner with the business teams we served. We had to train our team to ask questions about what it was our business partners were trying to accomplish. To understand their business objectives.
It’s not as simple as it sounds (which may not be as surprising to those of us who have been living and breathing “business and IT alignment” challenges for years). In many cases the business partners had done a lot of thinking about their solution and any questioning could come across as an insult, as combative, or worse, as “just another example of what you get when you approach the Office of the C-I-No”. The dialog had to be held in such a way that the customers understood we were a partner, we had their best interests at heart, and we were committed to their success.
That’s not always easy. In fact, early on it’s not often easy. It takes discipline and good interpersonal skills. It needs to be as widespread as possible. Some people take a long time to obtain these relationship skills. Some never do. And diligence is required on the part of managers because even once a team has acquired these skills they will not always apply them when necessary. When this discipline is maintained the results can be outstanding. The solutions we delivered in partnership were often (almost always) much better than the solution either side proposed on their own.
When a team “gets this right” the results can be infectious, resulting in more demand for services from new customers.
“I want the thrifty box”
This challenge is not unique to IT. In fact, when thinking about this problem my “eureka moment” came from an experience I had in high school. (Yes, they had computers when I was in high school; this moment simply had nothing to do with them.) The event that came to mind was one that occurred whilst I was picking up lunch at a fast food restaurant.
As you might expect, this outlet offered various packages and combinations of their product: some for the individual, some for a larger party. The package that contained the food changed form depending upon the size of the meal that was purchased. As I entered the restaurant I saw an elderly woman in a very passionate discussion with the store manager. “I want the thrifty box!” she explained, quite a few times as I recall. (It’s strange what one remembers.) The conversation became circular very quickly. She wanted the “thrifty box”. The manager told her that’s what she had. She said that she did not and… yes, she wanted the “thrifty box”. They danced for quite a while…
Think beyond the surface of the request
So, what happened? And what does any of this have to do with cloud computing or enterprise IT? It was actually a very simple misunderstanding. The manager did not take a moment to ask his customer questions and learn her real objectives.
Her objective: Gardening. How’s that for a tangent? Many gardeners in the locale had realized that one of the containers offered by the restaurant was an excellent tool for repotting and relocating plants. She did not receive one of those because she ordered a meal one size below the smallest meal delivered in that package. The store’s menu had a picture of the container she wanted on the plaque that listed the meal she had ordered. She kept pointing to the sign asking for it. The manager assumed she just didn’t realize she had all the food she paid for. He thought she wanted more. He said repeatedly that he had given her what she asked for (let’s just call it… “the thrifty box” – not it’s actual name). That was not what she wanted, nor was it food. She simply wanted the larger package.
Sometimes the answer is simpler
Any one of a number of simple solutions (e.g.: put the container she had inside of one of the larger packages) would have resulted in a very satisfied customer, and in goodwill with all others who were in the store.
So, as the Rolling Stones‘ song suggests, it’s not always by giving a customer exactly what they ask for that we best serve them. We must remember to be diligent to ensure we understand what they need, and work in partnership with them to deliver the business value they seek; and as much of that as is possible.
In addition, we must not believe that our ideas are always better than our customers’. We delivered some great, innovative services based upon ideas brought to us by our customers. Great partnerships include bi-directional communication and open minds all around. After all, as Edward de Bono said “If you never change your mind, why have one?”
Has this ever happened to you? If so, what strategies and tactics did you use in order to ensure your customers received the service they deserved?