Customer Relationship Management for IT Professionals

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Customer Relationship Management for IT Professionals
J. Dowling - January 17, 2001


A satisfying relationship between IT and line of business is maintained through ongoing dialogue that is meaningful to both parties. The discipline of "Conversations for Alignment," a title for a simple technique for making and managing commitments, enables such a dialogue. My consulting group and I have done a good deal of research into what makes a strong supplier/customer relationship. The bottom line is trust. However, trust needs to be earned through a series of conversations and commitments that have been met. Buyers tell us they want to be informed, understood, supported, and respected. Suppliers tell us they want the opportunity to assess the value of their offerings to prospective applications, to be treated fairly, and to have the opportunity to make good on commitments.

Note: This note first appeared in a column by James F. Dowling in Mid-Range Computing. Look for other previously published Mid-Range Computing columns by Mr. Dowling at this site or visit Midrange Showcase at

Communication Breakdown

If both parties know what they want and if the needs are well aligned, what causes supplier/customer relationship breakdowns? It is that perennial scapegoat named communications. One case study reveals many of the root cause factors. Following is the "Reader's Digest" version.

A financial analyst wanted a file server but knew that the IT architecture disallowed personal servers in favor of workgroup servers (he had been refused before when he requested one in response to frequent disk space outages). He therefore designed a creative way of reducing the corporation's tax liability using a large database, a collection of spreadsheet programs, a data extraction tool, and a file server. The internal rate of return was computed to be more than 500 percent. Hours after submitting his request, the financial analyst was visited by a consultant who had been charged with performing due diligence on the request and guiding the client and IT to a knowledge-based solution selection.

As the consultant asked more questions about the tax issue and the algorithms, the mantra of "500 percent ROI" came frequently. The consultant left the meeting with a clear set of requirements (for the wrong solution). The financial analyst took immediate steps to emphasize the fact that the company was losing money while IT action was slow.

The consultant made a connection between this analyst's solution and a similar situation in two other divisions, and recommended an add-on package to the company's financial administrative system to solve both problems-albeit at a somewhat higher cost and with significantly less complexity. He also recommended that additional data be propagated to the financial analyst's datamart and that his workgroup server be upgraded to provide enough disk space to support the tax computations in the interim. Both parties got more work than they bargained for and the company got a superior solution.

What Just Happened

Let's examine the conversations. Why didn't IT hear and respond to the financial analyst's request for better performance from the workgroup server? How did IT get into the position of having to refuse the earlier server request? What suggested that the tax reduction "Trojan Horse" would work? Why did the tax issue lie as a dormant issue in three divisions without IT attention? The root cause lay in failure to address the four customer and three supplier relationship issues listed above.

The customer (financial analyst) did not trust the supplier (IT) to provide sufficient disk space reliably because two attempts to resolve the issue failed due to supplier fault. The first attempt to get a personal file server was a clear sign that IT did not appreciate the problem, and the second attempt offered IT the chance to correct prior faults. The consultant came to a clear understanding of the real problem (the tax issue), although it had only been a front. When the consultant collected and examined facts, and applied business decision-making practices, all parties benefited from the solutions.

Conversations For Alignment Process

Conversations for Alignment involves seven steps:

  1. The customer commits to provide a statement of needs and how they relate to business results.

  2. The customer and supplier come to a shared understanding of the customer's needs.

  3. The supplier commits to providing a solution or a set of solutions on or before an agreed upon date and time.

  4. The customer and supplier negotiate a solution, and the supplier commits to provide a delivery schedule and success criteria on or before an agreed upon date and time.

  5. The supplier delivers the solution and obtains confirmation from the customer that it is acceptable.

  6. The customer and supplier negotiate the solution schedule and success criteria and the supplier commits to satisfactory delivery.

  7. The customer and supplier review the process from inception to completion and identify areas where either party was unsure of the outcome or otherwise became dissatisfied with the relationship.

This simple process works because it employs a series of commitments made and commitments met from the get-go. Each party knows what they are committing to and has the opportunity to make a thoughtful commitment.

What happens when either party finds that he cannot meet a commitment? The breakdown must be communicated explicitly and a new solution or delivery date must be negotiated promptly.

This simple discipline is both a core competency and a core value of highly reputable suppliers, as well as consistently satisfied customers. It may not be apparent, but either party can initiate the practice without explicitly discussing it with the other. It is contagious and welcome like any other form of respectful recognition. The long-term return from the practice is lower risk and shorter cycle-time, which adds up to lower cost and higher delivery performance.

This column will continue to explore the change/size paradox—big companies desiring speed and growing companies desiring stability. The author would appreciate feedback on material presented as well as suggestions for future study and reporting. The general theme is IT management and the goal is to make it easier to get clients what they want and what they need to succeed.

About The Author

Jim Dowling is VP of the Alignment Consulting Practice at TechnologyEvaluation.Com, Inc. located in Woburn, Massachusetts. TEC researches IT products and suppliers as well as the ways companies obtain business value from IT. TEC's consulting services remove time, risk and ultimately cost from IT related decisions.

Jim can be reached at jdowling@TechnologyEvaluation.COM.

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