Monday, May 16, 2016

Meeting with customers

Relationships are an important part of getting things done in any organization. Whether you work in IT or some other unit, who you know can sometimes be just as important as what you are trying to accomplish. If you have connections with business partners inside the organization, you can leverage these relationships to help you meet goals and drive innovation.

But relationships aren't just for getting things done. You can't just build relationships for the sake of driving work. You also need to have business relationships with your customers.

IDG Enterprise discussed this topic in their editorial article Why it pays to meet your customers. They identify the benefits through numbers:

You could argue that, outside of sales and marketing, IT is the business division for which it is most important to meet with external customers. To further put some numbers around why it is so beneficial for IT to meet with customers, consider this: Of the 2016 State of the CIO survey respondents who said that they regularly meet with customers, 57% report directly to the CEO, versus 46% of all survey respondents. Additionally, 41% of CIOs who have regular contact with customers spend their time on highly strategic activities, such as driving innovation, developing new go-to-market strategies and technologies, and studying market trends for commercial opportunities. In contrast, just 19% of CIOs who seldom or never meet with customers engage in strategic activities such as those.

In IDG's view, meeting with customers is the best way for CIOs to stay focused on strategic needs of the organization.

I agree. The CIO needs to stay connected with the organization and its customers. The IDG article makes the case that the CIO should meet with the external customers—the people paying for services. But what if your organization is like higher ed or government, where you don't have "paying customers" in the traditional sense? In my view, it doesn't matter.

It's still important for the CIO to meet with the units served directly by the IT department. In higher ed, I regularly set aside time to meet with division chairs and unit directors. Twice each year, I also arranged formal IT input cycles, where I led discussions around the future IT needs of the institution.

I've only been in local government for a short time (three and a half months, if you're counting) but even so, I recognize the need to meet with the units I serve so I can stay connected. I've arranged meet-and-greets with several groups within the County, and I look forward to meeting more of my colleagues. By staying connected and building these relationships, IT will be a partner to our customers, rather than a mere service provider.

I believe so strongly in the need to stay connected with customers that I am creating a new, expanded "IS Liaison" position. We are a large county—at over half a million people, we are the second most-populous county in the state. So it's not feasible for me to meet individually with each of my customers. I need some help to get that done. The Liaison position will become the primary contact point for our customers.

The Liaison won't replace my need to meet with customers, but the position will allow me to stay connected while focusing on the strategic needs of the county. The Liaison will meet with our customers in an ongoing basis, likely twice each year, to discuss IT needs and to preview what's coming up with each of our customers. Let's set the clock ahead by six months or twelve months, and ask "What's happening in your unit over that time?"

I hope the Liaison will hear about projects with IT needs: "We're looking to purchase X system, and we'll need IT to help us with that." But the Liaison will also look for projects that have hidden or unrecognized IT roles: "We're going to be moving to a new building in ten months, but we don't think IT will need to do anything with that." (What about network, phones, computer moves? Let's partner with you on your move so the IT stuff gets dealt with.)

Over time, I hope the Liaison will become an integrated partner with our customers, providing a focus point for questions and issues, and serving as a mechanism to get "stuck" items moving again.
image: reynermedia/Flickr (cc-by)

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