Getting to know your real customers

Frankly Speaking

It’s that time of year again. Time to join the busy shoppers elbowing their way through the crowds at a local mall. Time to watch hundreds or thousands of people moving in all directions, each one taking a different path through the chaos. It’s noisy, messy and about as far as you can get from the logical, orderly way we like to think about IT.

Pay attention to these people. They’re real customers. What they’re buying are real products. What they’re doing is real business.

If that sounds obvious, good – it should be. Now back up and think about what most corporate IT shops mean by the words customers and products and business.

We call our users customers. We call the systems we put in their hands products. We call our arguments for building those products a business case.

And we’re kidding ourselves.

Real customers have choices. Our users generally don’t. Real products have to compete for customers in the marketplace. Our systems don’t.

And the closest we come to doing real business – that messy, chaotic process of real customers buying real products – is juggling numbers to demonstrate that we’ll cut costs.

That means our “customers” are pretty much stuck with the “products” we give them once our “business case” is approved. In other words, our “customers” aren’t customers, our “products” aren’t products and our “business” isn’t about business.

OK, so we know we’re not out there in the marketplace. We know these are really just buzzwords – some IT guru’s idea of how to make us think about improving our relationship with our users. By calling them customers, we’re supposed to recognize that we should deliver products that meet their needs.

And by calling what we do business, we’re supposed to remember that what should matter most for corporate IT isn’t building pretty technology, but helping to put money in the bank.

And maybe that’s what this terminology did – once. But the risk is that, over time, we’ve turned these ideas inside out.

Our users aren’t customers who can go somewhere else if they’re not satisfied with the products they get, so we don’t actually have to hustle to keep their business. But because we call them customers, it’s easy to slip into thinking that our real customers – the people who buy our companies’ products, the people who actually pay the bills – are in the same position.

They’re not.

Real customers don’t have to put up with half-hearted effort and just-good-enough quality, like our users do. If IT’s products are late or lame, our users make do. If our companies’ products aren’t so good, real customers go somewhere else.

And everything those real customers buy depends on the IT shop and the systems we create and maintain – from supply chain and logistics systems for building and delivering the goods, to sales and marketing support and customer relationship management systems for persuading customers to buy, to point-of-sale systems for collecting the money that ultimately shows up in our paycheques.

Like it or not, everything we do has an impact on those swarming shoppers. The more effective the systems we create, the more likely we’ll get a piece of that shopping mall action.

These are our real customers. Yes, users are important – but they’re not the point, not at the end of the day. Our real reason for being here had better be real business, real products and real customers.

So take a good long look at that shopping mall crowd, and remember who the real, ultimate focus of corporate IT is.

And then wade on into the crowd. If you thought finding a Tickle Me Elmo a few years ago was tough, wait till you try to lay hands on a Chicken Dance Elmo this time around.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him