Let’s Stop Playing “Service Provider” and “Customer”

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The concept – at a high level –  wasn’t all bad.

The concept was that IT organizations should adopt a service-oriented mindset when it comes to working within the business.  The attitude of the IT organization must shift from “technology is cool” to “what’s best for our business”.

So best practice advised IT to become a “service provider” to the “customers” found within the business.

But in practice, IT taking on the role of “service provider” and treating business colleagues as “customers” sends the wrong message to the business – and within IT.

It’s the wrong message

When IT treats colleagues as “customers”, and colleagues view IT as a “service provider”, it puts up barriers with an organization.  Not only does it artificially separate the IT organization from the rest of the business, it makes working with the IT organization needlessly more difficult.  Under the mantra of “the customer is always right”, IT often jumps through unnecessary hoops to make the “customer” happy.  Being referred to as a “customer” gives some colleagues a sense of entitlement in their interactions with IT.  Some within the business make and have unrealistic expectations of the IT organization.

Perhaps even worse, the service provider / customer definition divides the IT organization.  The development team makes demands of the operation team.  The security team makes demands of the development and operations teams.  Demands all issued under the guise of “I am your customer – serve me”.

We’re really not service providers.  They really aren’t customers.

If IT was really a service provider, it would find itself competing in an open market place within a business.  IT would have the ability to (really) sell its services at market rates, scale as needed, and invest in new and emerging technology as it deemed fit. But that is not the reality of enterprise IT.  IT has a budget that has been allocated and agreed within the business to which IT must adhere.  This means is that IT really cannot scale resources or significantly alter or add services without agreement and funding from the business it serves.

If “the business” was truly the customer, they could shop for IT services, both from within and external to the business.  “The business” could contract with whatever service provider it chose and not be concerned with interoperability, security, maintainability, and every other -ability with which enterprise IT must be concerned.  But in reality, “the business” is (mostly) a captive user of its organization’s IT services.

IT is not a “service provider”.

The “customer” is not an internal group or person.

So, what are we?

What we are is a business.

A business is an organization aligned by purpose, vision, and goals, with each member working for the benefit of the organization and for the success of all other members of the same organization.   It takes all parts of the business – HR, Marketing, Sales, Manufacturing, IT – for a business to have success.  No single part of a business can stand on its own and be successful without interactions with and cooperation from the other parts.

By working as an integrated entity, a business has unlimited potential.  But what a business does not have is unlimited resources.  And when a business loses sight of the fact that it does not have unlimited resources, it often looks like this:

  • Multiple “number 1” priorities

o   But no additional staff is allocated to help

o   And no postponement or cancellation of other initiatives

  • Lack of investment in “keeping the lights on” – not doing the “care-and-feeding” needed to maintain current operations
  • Quality is often sacrificed to meet target dates

And then, IT often becomes an obstacle for getting something done.

Then in an effort to keep up (or dig its way out), IT overcommits and takes on additional work without fully understanding the demand or impact on its (limited) resources.  And when IT can’t deliver, then IT is looked at as being too slow to respond or react to business needs or changes in the business environment.   IT becomes the “black hole” where business innovations go to disappear.

But here’s the conundrum.

Business – by definition – is an opportunistic endeavor.  Success in business means being in the right place at the right time with the right solution.

But to be in the right place and the right time with the right solution means that a business – including its IT capability- must be prepared.

Become opportunistic – holistically

To be opportunistic means that a business must be prepared.  Because when an opportunity does come along, the business has to be able to make a decision based on the best information available.  But too often, business decisions are made based on “gut feel” or seeing only part of the big picture.

And especially in the digital age, technology – managed by the IT organization – is critical for business success.  Here are four things to do to get prepared.

  • Drop the “service provider / customer” speak. All members of the business are on the same team – there can be no “us” and “them” within an organization.  And to be clear, the customer is not part of the organization.  The customer is who a business is trying to entice to do business with the business. The business is the service provider to the customer.  Stop referring to internal resources as “service provider” and “customer”.
  • Define the service portfolio. A service portfolio articulates and establishes a shared understanding about how the business is using and is planning to use technology-based solutions from IT.  But more than that, the service portfolio provides a holistic view of resource commitments, current and future value, and the total cost of ownership for providing those technology-based solutions-all in terms of business outcomes.
  • Map the value streams of the business. Mapping value streams facilitates visualization of how information and material flow throw an organization to create or deliver value to a customer.  A value stream map helps help “connect the dots” regarding how the various parts of an organization (including IT) work together to deliver that value.
  • Share knowledge – all knowledge. Being prepared to seize opportunities depends on having available, timely, accurate, and relevant knowledge from all parts of the organization, throughout the organization. Knowledge is the basis for good decision-making.

How does doing these four things help?  It’s about being prepared to make a timely and informed decision when opportunity knocks.  A business that does these four things not only understands what it is doing today, but also has the needed insight into how its capabilities could be leveraged when presented with an opportunity.

It’s time for another mindset shift

The service provider / customer concept may have been a good way to start the mindset shift that many IT organizations needed.  It’s now time for IT organizations and businesses to stop playing service provider and customer.  The business landscape is rapidly changing, and technology is becoming the cornerstone of a business in the digital economy.  Being prepared is the best way to take advantage of the opportunities presented in the digital economy.

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Photo credit: Pexels

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3 thoughts on “Let’s Stop Playing “Service Provider” and “Customer””

  1. Hi Doug! Very well written article. But the indisputable truths in it should not lead to the destruction of the two-pronged dialectics – IT works as an enterprise in the enterprise, and IT works as a team together with other subdivisions. If we completely abandon the first approach, we will also have to give up on such useful outcomes as lifting users to the status of a customer whose needs are the first; development strategy for IT; financial analysis and budgeting of IT, etc. I think the old dialectical approach is very useful for ITSM, which currently has many practices and seeks to integrate with many new methodologies – Agile, Lean, and so on. Everything is in the measure and the balance.

  2. Totally agree. My org is barely starting to embrace a service oriented culture and we are beginning to adopt the service provider and internal customer menality. How and when do you make the shift to the we are the business mindset. We are barely getting out of the silo and we make widgets stage. Thanks

    1. Thanks Mitch – Making the shift begins when the organization recognizes that its efforts must be focused on the true customer….what I sometimes find is that organizations spend so much effort and time focused internally that they lose sight of the true customer. How to start? I think it begins with having the conversation – perhaps casting the internal SP/customer model as a stepping stone to “organization as service provider”.

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