Happy employees, happy customers

To borrow a phrase, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was July 27, 2003, just after 5 a.m., when my wife delivered our identical twin boys. Unfortunately, they arrived far too soon, at just over 24 weeks into her pregnancy, almost four months premature. At less than a pound and a half each, their extreme prematurity prevented their bodies from working properly. Organs hadn’t fully developed (their lungs were paper-thin) and Mother Nature, working on her own schedule, wasn’t due to jump-start the rest of their delicate systems for months.

Enter modern medicine, characterized by a lot of good technology and many talented people.

The sphere of technology encompassing the babies’ everyday existence was intense. Their isolettes (modern-day incubators) were a haphazard arrangement of life-sustaining cords — tubes for feeding, breathing and drawing blood, and wires for heart, lung and blood pressure monitors. Random computerized beeps and heart-stopping alarms shook my wife and I. It was both impressive and overwhelming.

As you might expect, the hospital staff told us that the technology behind all of the medical equipment had made exponential improvements during the past decade. One of the respiratory therapists half-joked that 10 or 15 years ago, if they had called him at home to come in when our boys were delivered, he would have rolled over and gone back to sleep. Given their low weights, there was no technology that could have kept them alive. We had always envisioned what their first Christmas would be like — their due date was Nov. 12 — but now it was hard to fathom, watching them writhe under UV lights and a plastic wrap that kept the moisture on their brittle, red skin.

What impressed me more than the high-tech medical devices (and there were many) was how dedicated people made the most of old technology. Our situation depended so much more on the people behind the technology. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a hospital, at a tire dealership, in a department store or on a factory floor: If you have IT systems (whether in a legacy environment or a leading-edge shop), then you need to make sure that the people using those systems are happy. Happy? Yes, that’s right, happy.

Comfortable with the old as well as the new

Granted, the word happy isn’t the most informative word in the English language, especially as it relates to technology and IT workers. But stick with me.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where the boys were delivered, is a busy, urban medical facility. Our experience at the Brigham and its Newborn Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, was a study in the best of the old technology combined with the best of the new breed. You got the sense that whatever worked the best (whether it was a weathered X-ray machine, brand-new IV regulator or 1970s-looking Jet ventilator) stayed in service. It was that simple. New did not necessarily mean better, and old wasn’t bad if it still worked. And you could tell by talking with the medical staff using and servicing the equipment that they felt comfortable. I would even say happy.

For example, the respiratory therapists who monitored the boys’ breathing, among other duties, used a high-tech machine that could take a small amount of the boys’ blood and within seconds give a readout on the relative levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in their bloodstreams. (It gives new meaning to bleeding-edge technology.) It was amazing, and the new device clearly made the therapists’ lives (and ours) easier. But the therapists also used older versions of ventilators — I kept wondering where replacement parts would come from if one of them broke.

But the ventilators didn’t break; indeed, all the various machines worked flawlessly. And the respiratory therapists were completely at ease using the older technology. I asked several of them on different occasions if they were concerned about these tired-looking ventilators. In one way or another, they all responded that newer technology wouldn’t necessarily improve the care they were providing to patients.

Other experiences further illustrated this. While preparing to donate blood for the boys’ transfusions, I was struck by the “green-screen” terminal that the technician was using to input my data. It was slow and looked like it might be on loan from an IT museum, but it did the job well, and he was comfortable using it. We even joked about its age.

While those elderly terminals jumped out at me, it was easy to miss the wireless laptops that were sliding around the NICU, making it less cumbersome for staff to input and monitor important patient information. To be sure, the NICU was not devoid of computerized medical equipment, which greatly enhanced the boys’ care. The laptops, for one, could be whisked around to any place in the crowded NICU — to update patient data and check on the status of medications. There seemed to be at least one PC for every worker, and monitors to track vital signs decorated each preemie’s bedside.

A customer by any other name

The boys’ hospital stay served only to reinforce the concept that everyone in business strives for: enhancing the customer experience. (Strange as it sounds, we were customers in the hospital.) And the success or failure of that experience always comes down to the people working with the systems — and most definitely not the systems themselves.

The technology in IT becomes secondary to the people who give you the information when your child is clinging to life. The intense emotions, the uncertainties, the need for answers — it’s so much more important than the IT systems those employees are using. In the competitive race of 21st century business, it’s easy to forget that IT systems are simply tools to help facilitate and personalize service. That’s it.

They can, however, depersonalize service if they are used incorrectly, which makes it all the more critical to train both in terms of systems as well as effectively dealing with customers — and empathizing with them.

How many times have you been frustrated with a bank teller or car-rental agent or sales clerk who kept disparaging the “new computer system,” as you stood there wondering whether it really was the technology or inadequate training or the fact that she really didn’t care? Whatever the underlying cause, my point is that happy employees are those who understand the systems they are using, feel safe with you standing next to them as they use those systems and most certainly make you feel good about your customer experience.

While I’m by no means advocating for a return to the age of green screens and vacuum tubes — I’m aware that preemies wouldn’t stand a chance without technology advances — I’m simply pleading for a return to common sense when it comes to technology decision-making.

If you truly value your customers, then don’t forget to tend to the care and feeding of your employees servicing them. Because simply installing a new customer-facing system won’t improve the customer experience if employees aren’t adequately trained to use the new system — remember, make them happy. And if you don’t show your employees you care, then they probably won’t care about the customer experience either.

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