Sunday, September 17, 2006

What makes customers happy?

I like to help people, I like to fix things, and I like to answer questions. Originally, I put these traits to use as a librarian (yes, really). But when computer terminals and then whole computers began appearing in libraries, I found that I could usually operate them more effectively than many of my fellow librarians. One thing led to another, and one day I found that I had some how or other changed careers, and I was now working in IT. At first I thought that this was only temporary, and that I would go back a library, and resume answering questions like "who wrote these lyrics" and "do you have a book about giardia lamblia". But the years passed, and I got comfortable with my new job, and quite fond of the greatly increased pay packet that came along with it. And if you work in technical support, you do get to spend a lot of time reading manuals to people who failed to RTFM by themselves, and answering questions like "what's does this error message mean?". There are a lot of similarities between technical support and reference work in a library.

In the library I noticed that I would often get profuse thanks for relatively trivial bits of work. I recall once listening to a piece of classical music played over a bad phone line: the caller desperately needed to know the name of the piece, because his daughter was going to dance to it in her ice-skating exam, and she had to be able to put the name of her chosen piece of music on her examination paperwork. I listened. I knew I recognised the piece, but couldn't name it off the top of my head. I said I'd call him back. What I didn't want to say was that it was the piece that the hippos and crocodiles dance to in Walt Disney's 'Fantasia". I went down to the stacks, located a book about the making of the movie, got the name of the piece (Ponchielli's 'Dance of the Hours'), and called him back. Joy unbounded, his kid could complete her exam paperwork.

Two weeks of dredging through remote corners of the library for source material for some half wit who wanted to make a movie about the history of music in Australia? Not a word of thanks.

And the same thing holds true in IT. I was once sent the hard disk from a server belonging to a small country hospital. Due to the incompetance of the IT contractor who worked for them part time, the beginning of the disk had been overwritten, knocking out the superblock and the beginning of the inode table (the machine had been running a version of SCO Unix). They had no usable backups (the same contractor had botched the installation of their tape drive, and all they had was blank tapes), and the disk contained the only copy of the pathology records for the hospital. It would make a lot of difference to the treatment of patients if they could get the data back.

Fortunately it was an early version of SCO Unix, and the file system structure was simple. I got the data back using fsdb (hands up all those old enough to have used the file system debugger). It took me about a week, and it was not easy. I got no thanks for this, only complaints about how long it was taking.

A few years later I went on site for a small legal firm on the edge of Chinatown. The disk in their office server had crashed, and the company that had sold them the machine in the first place had gone out of business. This one machine ran their whole office, including word processing (Word Perfect). There was no networking, everything was serially connected (Wyse terminals!) using some serial expansion board I had never seen before. They had data backups, but no usable operating system backups - their backups had been done using a version of tar that didn't archive device files correctly.

So I reinstalled the OS on a new disk, reloaded Word Perfect, recreated the user accounts, restored their data, found the driver disk for their strange serial board and got it working and reconfigured the print queues. I also fixed their backups, so I could restore easily if the machine failed again. Nothing complex, the serial board was the only slightly tricky bit (no manuals, no web site, no idea where it came from). Once I had everything back, I asked the office manager to get everyone to log on and check that they could open their files. No problems, so I moved on to testing the print queues. The first job came out, followed by a blank page. I said something like "that's wrong, give me a minute to get rid of the trailing page", and the office manager said "Oh, you can't". She had been told by the people who set the machine up that there would always be a blank page between print jobs, and that there was nothing that could be done about it. Part of the office routine was to extract the blank pages to be put back in the printer (it was a very small legal practice, and money was obviously tight).

I made a derisory comment about the intelligence of the original supplier (my tact circuit doesn't always function flawlessly), opened the printer interface script in vi and commented out the echo statement that was causing the queue to throw an extra page. Then I asked them to try printing again. Lo and behold! No blank page.

Joy unbounded didn't even begin to describe their response. This was the best thing that had happened to them in years! The whole ritual of reclaiming blank pages was obviously a pet hate of all the office folks. I was their complete heroine. Never mind that I had recovered their broken machine in the face of bad backups and no documentation. Getting rid of the blank pages made me a star. The whole office took me to lunch at a very nice Chinese restaurant.

Customers will be unmoved by technical brilliance if the results don't appear to help them. But find a real pain point and address it and even if what you have done appears to you simple and basic, yet you will be hailed as a heroine or hero. I've watched sale teams concoct exotic solutions which used cutting edge technology in clever ways. And I've seen the intended customer more or less yawn politely, and decline to buy. Don't focus on what you want to sell: focus on what the customer wants to buy. The problem you should be trying to solve is the customer's problem, whatever that may be; not the problem of how you make quota for the quarter. Solving the customer's problem gets you return business. Solving your quota problem will not.



Lingo Slinger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lingo Slinger said...

This is wise advice. Former librarian, networking guru... and perhaps marketing genius, too! ;-)


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