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29 April 2010 | Ian Clayton Blog
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'Undercover Boss' - The Key to Becoming an Outside-Inner
This week Ian looks at how to apply outside-In thinking to Service Management initiatives...

  Ian Clayton

As some of you may already know, much of my time is taken up helping rescue and transform failed, or failing IT Service Management (ITSM) projects.  As I often find myself explaining, ITSM is not about implementing improved processes or best practices in the hope they will benefit someone – that’s inside-out thinking, failing IT management and the customer.

No, the key to a successful service management initiative is a satisfied customer.  Satisfaction resulting from a customer getting their job done as they need, in a timely manner, and likely without ever knowing the extent to which they were helped by technology, or their service provider.   To do this, ITSMers must embrace outside-in thinking, respecting and managing the customer interaction and overall experience.

Recently I was asked, “If thinking inside-out means I risk failing the customer, how do I become an outside-in, customer centric thinker – an ‘outside-inner’?”  My instinctive response to that question is simple.  Start an ‘undercover provider’ program.

First, full disclosure.  The ‘undercover provider’ advice I typically offer, is inspired by the television reality show ‘Undercover Boss’, introduced to the USA in December 2009 by CBS, and based upon a UK version of the same name. 

As the name suggests, the TV program helps top executives pose as rank and file employees to examine the inner workings of their company.  To learn the effects their decisions have on others.  Find where the problems are in their organization, and meet some unsung heroes at the lower-level positions.

The premiere episode aired right after the NFL Super Bowl and focused on Lawrence O’Donnell III, the president and chief operating officer of Waste Management, a major trash collection company.  The program’s pre-marketing included great one-liners such as, “He’s good at pushing paper, but can he pick it up?”

The crossing over from the dark side of inside-out to the customer illuminating outside-in thinking, starts with creating an ‘undercover boss’ styled program of your own.  But instead of sending out the boss, you send out a person from the IT organization, a ‘scout’, to observe the customers in their own natural habitat.  Its an ‘undercover provider’ program.

Best served unannounced, the IT ‘scout’ is positioned with the help of senior customer management, as perhaps a temporary helper or observer, or something similar, working on behalf of the business, not IT.  Bold, sure, just think of it as placing an IT person in a witness protection program and locating them in a safe house next door to Al Capone’s apartment. 

Your choice of scout is important as you can imagine.  Its best they have customer leaning tendencies and displayed empathy to the customer situation.  This is in part to ensure they actually survive the expedition, and to help guarantee customer barriers are well and truly down during their stay. 

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, its important the scout is allowed to see and feel the real customer experience of interacting with the IT products, services and organization. Their mission should be to inspect a single, specific customer activity.  Understand what the customer is trying to do, why, and for whom, and to be aware and record any peripheral context.  They must also be willing to laugh, cheer and complain in concert with the customer clan. 

If you are ambitious and want maximum effect, consider arming the scout with an iPhone or video ready equivalent.  Encourage them to video it.  Perhaps even YouTube or Vimeo it.  And when you or you scout return, force your staff to watch it.  Listen carefully to the scout’s perception of the quality of your service and organization.  It’s more valuable than your own.

As a recent convert said, “I had no idea of the difficulty and pure frustration of using our systems to do some of the simplest tasks.  In some cases it was so physically demanding and mentally exhausting I had to stop for a drink before arriving home.  I was embarrassed to know I work in IT and have let this go on so long, in some cases unrecorded and unnoticed.”

The journey of watching an IT person walk a mile in their customers’ shoes is revealing, often humorous, and in some cases depressing.  But, with the right management support and direction it should inspire efforts to improve upon the status quo, and tangible, positive changes in how IT is perceived. 

There should be no need to trumpet you are busy on ITSM, or any other acronym and the signs of improvement might be slight and fleeting.  Perhaps as simple as a comment during a support call, “Something’s different.  I’m not sure what it is, but whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!” 

And yes, some cynical folks may question whether this simple tactic will really have an impact, or simply be paying lip service to the concept of outside-in and customer centricity.  Believe me when I suggest to you, any method that shines a light on the true customer experience, and in tandem impacts IT people personally, sure beats a lot of the ‘Field of Dreams’ (build it and benefit will come) alternative approaches out there for ITSM.

One final thought. Given the right customer and customer relationship, you can also reverse the program and expose your customers to the inner workings of your IT organization.  Let them attend key meetings, or work amongst the support effort as an ‘undercover customer’.  Again, the insights you will gain from their living the provider experience will likely prove similarly revealing, surprising, and invaluable in co-designing a suitable ITSM initiative.

Ian is the pioneer of Outside-In Service Management™, an approach that applies outside-in thinking to service management initiatives to ensure their customer relevancy in addressing successful customer outcomes, and the highest levels of customer satisfaction.

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Any feedback and comments are always welcome!!   

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