You might be surprised to learn that my goal as a consultant isn’t to deliver recommendations to my customers. Instead, my goal is to deliver recommendations that help my customer’s teams be better customers to each other after I’m gone.
This is a fancy way of saying my recommendations need to be practical. I don’t recommend changing all the application code to the DBA team if that’s not something within their control– I determine where the critical needs are located, what range of options are available, and what’s viable in the short, medium, and long term given their internal customers and service providers. I provide data and tools to work effectively in the specific environment.
I don’t always speak the language of customers and services, because not everyone understands it. Good news: you do have customers at work, and understanding that will make you more successful.
You’ve Got A Lot of Customers Inside Your Own Company
Making internal customer and service provider relationships successful was one of the best skillsets I learned when I worked at Microsoft Corporation. I kept mission-critical SQL Servers highly available in a very large and complex environment, and I had a lot of customers. Some of my customers were people who paid Microsoft for services, but my other customers were application development teams, program managers, product managers (there’s a difference!), user support teams, and system engineers.
Some of these relationships were reciprocal, like with my application development teams. We made requests of each other, we delivered things to each other. We provided services for each other.
Thinking about customers is more than terminology. It’s a mindset, and it’s beneficial. These aren’t “just” coworkers. They aren’t simply people with problems. You’re part of a team who provides a service: the service has limits and its exceptions, and the service needs to be defined. Your customers use the service, and by doing so they can make or break your job.
Here’s one secret I learned: even in a highly competitive environment, 99% of the time your customers want to help you succeed. No, really. They may be grouchy at times, and they may come off as unapproachable. But it’s almost always the case that if you succeed in providing a great service for them, their job will be better and their life will be easier.
Your Boss Is Not Your Customer
Not everyone is your customer. This is important to understand. Your mission is to provide services to your customers, but your boss is not your customer.
This can be hard for many of us to fully realize. We think that success at work is measured by making our boss happy. But the real truth is, like in any human relationship, the more you focus on just making someone happy the more likely they are to become dissatisfied with you. Instead, focus on the being great at what you do: both the technical aspects and your customer service. Your manager is there to help you be successful.
This probably isn’t how your job works now. You don’t need to walk into your managers office and declare “I want to make a change in our relationship!” Instead, as you change your focus and behavior over time, talk to your management with that focus. Your team relationships will naturally shift as your focus changes.
Your Job Is To Be Great at Providing A Service. Even if the Service Ain’t Great.
Your boss has a lot to say about who your customers are and how you provide services. You have a lot to say about this too– you should make sure these are both defined well enough for you to be successful.
The road to success comes in having productive conversations with key customers.
Know this: saying yes all the time won’t make your customers happy. In fact, it’s likely to do the opposite because you won’t be able to deliver on what you agree to. Inside of a company, sometimes you just have a job where things will be consistently imperfect. Listening to your customers and responding intelligently usually will make them happy, even if the overall service they’re getting has problems.
Step 1: Be Known
You don’t have to be great at small talk, just be curious about how other teams work, and ask them about how they interact with your team. Be a good listener.
Reach out periodically to customers you work with, both the ones who complain or make requests, and the ones who are less interactive. Ask them what their experience is like.
Step 2: Be Responsive
Let me say first: this doesn’t mean answering all your customers’ emails right away. You don’t want to become everyone’s helpdesk (unless you actually work in the helpdesk). People understand you have a variety of tasks to do in your job, unless you give them the impression otherwise.
Make sure you answer people within a window that’s acceptable in your company– at most places it’s usually a business day or two for normal priority requests. Answer questions within this window all the time when you’re in the office. Be consistent about this, but make sure you establish the urgency early on. If something is critical you don’t want two weeks of email spread out on the issue because you always take a day to reply. If an email thread starts feeling like it’s taking forever, set up a meeting to polish things off in person.
Step 3: Practice Saying ‘No’ In Six Sneaky Ways
Don’t write a lot of long emails about why you can’t or won’t do things. If it’s a big deal, arrange to have a conversation in person, and then follow up with a brief email. If it’s something normal, don’t say no– try these:
- Suggest Alternatives. Most times a workaround is all someone needs. “Have you tried using Blarghomatic for that? It’s not designed specifically for it, but it’ll get the job done.”
- Ask questions. Find out what’s been done in the past, or if they know someone else who’s confronted that problem. Enlist the help of others who are in the situation. There’s nothing new under the sun, and frequently there’s not much new in the cubicle, either.
- Find out the frequency of the problem. What’s a big pain for you to change may be a one-time issue on your customer’s end. Even if it’s critical, if it’s a one time thing you may act differently than if it’s going to come back to your inbox weekly.
- Explain the cost. If the issue is just too expensive to the company to fix, explain the factors. This is one thing you want to do by phone or in person rather than in email– just send a summary follow up. (Avoid the forwarded message titled “Why it’s too expensive to ever make you happy”)
- Share the load. If the issue is just time and resources to get something done, see if you can get help. If there are things the customer can do to make the job 10% easier, let them know. If you can borrow someone from another team to help move things to get the customer through a critical period, research that. Whenever you can, let the customer know what you’re looking into.
- Brainstorm. Your customers have ideas, too! Oftentimes, they can solve their own problems, and just need you to help them see it.
You can make your customers into fans by doing these things other than saying no. This can make enough of a difference that they send the occasional email to your boss about that great thing you did yesterday in helping them find a way to make their problem less of a pain. Those emails do something important: they help your boss demonstrate that you and your team provide value. And they make your boss feel good.
Step 4: Be a Good Customer Within Your Company
This coin has two sides. I also learned to be a good customer at Microsoft. This means being clear about your needs to your service provider.
80% of this is simple thoughtfulness about reducing back-and-forth.
Here’s a simple example: does it help your SAN team if you create a single request and include the amount of space you need immediately, the number of LUNs and RAID level for each one, the estimated size in a year, and the information about the host servers and whether the HBAs are configured? Probably.
If you’re writing a new application, does it make it easier to deploy if you document what the components are and their purpose, what the estimated activity levels are for the first quarter, half, and year, what capacity is estimated, and what the margin of error is? Build time for figuring that out into your project plan, and make sure it gets delivered.
Find out how to make it easier for people to provide you services, and then do it. Do it a few times and people will respect you for it. Suddenly, you’re known as someone who really has their act together.
Martha Stewart Is Right: Thank Other People
The other 20% of being a good customer is giving people credit for doing good things. When someone has made a difference, write a quick email to them and copy their manager. Mention what they did and how it helped you and your team. Be specific, and make it a simple thank you. Don’t always pick the obvious person, and don’t try to be strategic about who you thank– you don’t want to be a suck-up, you just want to be honest.
You can also say this in person, of course, but if your organization is larger than 150 people, writing it in an email will make a real difference.
Making this a habit does a couple of things for you: it gives people positive feedback for helping you. In a medium large organization, it also makes you noticeable. It shows that you are an important customer and that you share your opinions. Just thanking people for helping makes you a more significant player.
What’s In It For You
The truth is, doing all of these things isn’t really extra work. If you practice these things for three months, it will save you loads of time thereafter. This will be because people know you and will see you as an ally. They’ll understand more about the work you have to do, and they’ll appreciate when you can do something for them.
Improving your expertise at service delivery will make you a person and not a commodity. This is a huge benefit for DBAs, developers, network admins, and anyone in technology.
“Not having time” to handle the social parts of a technical job will only give you overblown projects with confused requirements, and emergency work because of customer needs that were discovered too late.
Best of all, if you become skilled at working with customers, you’ll have raving fans. You’ll develop a network of people who want to help you succeed.
At the end of the day, that not only makes your boss happy, that makes each day at work more pleasant. And eventually, it gets you everywhere you want to go.