Coming soon to IT: customer service


Lately I’ve detected a subtle but distinct change in the way IT suppliers and customers interact with each other. Evidence of this can be seen in the actions of one unnamed Los Angeles woman. Apparently fed up after having her personal data hacked from her PC, she recently filed a lawsuit against Microsoft via her lawyer (who, in true U.S. fashion, is now trying to forge a class-action suit). She’s arguing that Redmond hasn’t done enough to secure Windows, and is therefore liable for her subsequent financial losses.

I have no idea whether or not her claim has legs. After all, software comes with a forest of waivers. But it strikes me that the sentiment behind the suit – that it’s time someone, anyone, be held accountable for IT product defects – is overdue.

Consider your average workday. You check your e-mail first thing in the morning and download dozens of spam messages. Once you sift though them, it’s time to make sure your employer is protected against all the latest worms and viruses. Again. Next you check your to-do list -maybe it’s time to make sure you’re in compliance with several of your sophisticated licensing agreements. Later in the day you have to meet with a rep from a software company that specializes in integration layers, something you’ll have to buy sooner or later since you’re still running two ERP packages that don’t really speak to each other.

The list of chores is long. But the underlying problem is simple. The IT industry for too long has gotten away with (and not without the complicity of eager-to-buy users, I might add) some questionable customer service. The problems I just cited are common, and almost all of them are impossible for you to solve alone, no matter how determined you might be. All you have at your disposal is the power to apply pressure to your supplier, or to move your business elsewhere if your environment can sustain it.

What’s odd is how unwilling customers in the past have been to apply that pressure. Consider the automakers. One of these days you might get a letter in the mail, informing you that your car is being recalled by its manufacturer in order to fix a small defect. The risk of injury from the defect may only be theoretical. Regardless, the auto industry has long since been trained to put customers first, even in the face of enormous expense and some bad PR. Though admittedly, the cause and effect (defect and potential accident) are more easily correlated in automobiles than in computers, and more serious. After all, lives are at stake. They also know how dangerous angry customers can become.

Software isn’t likely to undergo a spectacular crash, at least not without the help of a malicious hacker. Instead, it’s the small but costly inconveniences to millions people and corporations that have added up into something big.

What’s clear, however, is that the overall IT spending slowdown has not only made your spending habits wiser, if only by default, it’s also made the vendors more amenable to change.

Both Sun and Oracle recently announced licensing plans more akin to subscriptions than to the complex maze of agreements of the past. Microsoft, it appears, was genuinely rattled by the latest worm, and is taking immediate, concrete steps to improve security in its products. The ERP vendors are also taking steps to improve the ease of rollout and integration in its products – witness PeopleSoft’s recent decision to dedicate 500 of its developers to making its software simpler to use.

It took awhile, but you’re issuing your own recall of sorts. And its effects are beginning to take shape. Let’s hope that it’s a lesson we need to be taught only once.