Forgetting The Customer Means A Forgettable E-mail System Deployment

Steve "Doc Net" Nitenson tells the tale of the CTO whose e-mail upgrade process turned into a big snafu, all because of one simple mistake: Ignoring the influential internal customer.

March 5, 2004

3 Min Read
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Recently, I had the opportunity to share a cup of upscale coffee with one of my chief technology officer acquaintances. My friend (who we'll call "Mr CTO") seemed a bit down, so I asked him what was on his mind. He uttered a single compound word: "GroupStupid." Confused, I asked him if he was making fun of a leading software package, or a group of people that acted stupid.

His reply? "Both."

Mr. CTO, who commands a crack team of IT folks at one of the local universities, said his group recently completed a software upgrade of Novell GroupWise. Afterwards, he was quite upset to find out that part of his customer base (out of a total group of more than 150 Ph.D.s) was looking to do him physical harm. I was now even more puzzled, but no longer confused. I began to see what my colleague was so upset about: He thought he'd done well, but all he received for thanks was the customers' wrath.

With some gentle questioning, Mr. CTO revealed that the unannounced upgrade was performed over a weekend, "to get the job done in peace and quiet, so we could finish on time for the customer." Unfortunately, that timing also assured that the intended customers were not around to assist the IT team or inform them of any problems during the install. Not long after Monday started, however, the problems were communicated, loud and clear.

Like in most university settings, some of Mr. CTO's customers still use Apple Macintoshes as their "PC of Choice." Mr. CTO and his staff, of course, use the latest and greatest WinTel systems, which apparently had no problem whatsoever with the GroupWise upgrade. Those "other" systems, however, had major problems, and Mr. CTO's team spent the better part of a week solving the woes caused by the "upgrade" process.As I sat back in my seat and nursed my cup of java, I recalled a time when I did the same thing, and almost lost my job for it. What Mr. CTO did not understand is that the people who use that "other" brand of computer are typically deans and senior professors, or their hierarchical counterparts at other organizations. You know the ones I'm talking about: They've been around the longest, are the most politically powerful, can spend more for elegant desktop systems -- yes, those people.

So, this powerful customer group at the university fell through the cracks, and collectively had dubbed Mr. CTO and his team of IT professionals as "Group Stupid." At this point in his story, Mr. CTO was beside himself, almost frothing his cappucino foam at the mouth, uttering the words: "We did nothing wrong, and I'm being crucified for it."

After he calmed down a bit, I offered a bit of advice. In my best Yoda fashion, I said: "Seek to understand, before you want to be understood." Now he looked puzzled and confused.

To explain, I walked him through the well-known but often circumvented drill of seeking out the "outliers" in a customer base and making sure to understand what makes them happy about their computing machines. For good measure, I added that it always makes sense to let the "customer" know when an upgrade was coming their way.

I asked him one more question as I finished my cup of joe: "When you planned the deployment of the upgrade, who did you have in mind as your customer?" His face got red. I smiled and said, "no need to answer the question -- you already did.".The moral of this encounter? First, that not all "incremental" IT innovations are incremental to every customer; and second, remember that planning remains one the most important processes that IT brings to the table. Forget those two things, and you too can qualify for "Group Stupid" membership.

(Steve "Doc Net" Nitenson has been helping run large-scale IT operations since before Martha Stewart owned stock, including stints at Kaiser Permanente, National Semiconductor, Quantum, Visa International and NANOmetrics. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral degree in Technology Management.)

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