MSPs and customer experience

One area where we have consistently missed the target over the years in IT is the whole concept of customer experience.

Whilst we have wrung our hands in trying to define processes, implement best practices and organisational change, build services and demonstrate our value, we seem to have blithely ignored the needs and wants of our users or customers – or at least that’s how it seems to them.


In simple terms we have failed in 2 ways in this area – by not listening and not empathising.

Firstly – we don’t actually listen and engage enough with our customers, in order to identify and agree what is important – to them. The net result of this is that we don’t focus and prioritise on the important things in terms of delivery, and also we annoy our customers by telling them that we are doing a great job (i.e. our view in reports) when they clearly think we’re not.

As an example I recently worked with a company where the IT department had implemented a new network and system which was bleeding edge, and which cost a lot of money. When we spoke to the real value-creating people in the organisation, they didn’t care about this and were only interested in having email, SharePoint and Office available – that was where they did their daily job (in recruitment – for CVs, letters, job descriptions). The IT guys were actually annoyed that no one had noticed their super shiny new network, and they still seemed to ignore the point that was being made about the key business systems – which they saw as boring and low-level. This simply highlighted the gap in understanding between these groups.

We might also have a whole plethora of statistics and reports on system availability and operational metrics to hand, which represent our view of the world, but this is meaningless and frankly quite irritating to our customers.

Secondly – and to follow the above points – we have missed the point about what it is like to work with us and vice versa. We have missed the whole concept of empathy and customer experience (CX)*. This is a mature discipline in many industries and is concerned with viewing all services and interactions from the customer’s perspective and not simply as operational and internal functions.

So e.g. within the retail or leisure industries the whole approach to ‘services’ and processes starts with the customer and their interactions or ‘touch points’ with the hotel or shop, rather than the other way around.

For too long in IT we have thought it was good enough to wave an ‘SLA’ (or more likely an ‘SLD’ – Service Level Disagreement) in front of a customer and think that was sufficient ‘customer engagement’. Often the ’SLA’ was simply a number of negative sounding elements of IT support – most of which are in fact of no interest or value to the end use – so no wonder that they aren’t interested or ‘engaged’ in this process (they often aren’t…)

This can be a problem both for internal retained IT organisations and Managed Service Providers –(MSPs). For MSPs there is the additional issue and challenge that everything has to be accounted for financially and often the contracts and ‘SLAs’ agreed are simply insufficient to provide the full range of services needed. This can be a real challenge for MSPs and they have to find ways to engage and build some flexibility into their contracts in order to meet customer needs.

Retained IT departments do have the advantage (although they often don’t see or realise the opportunity) that they can flex their resources and services to do whatever is needed to meet their customer goals.

In general I would still say that the IT industry’s response to Customer experience has been slow and poor, based on the lazy assumption that ‘no one understands what we do, so we pretty much do as we please’. Of course in the last few years there has been considerable disruption both in technology and also in commercial models and channels – not just what is available but who is selling and buying technology. This has had a sobering effect on many in IT but I still see IT people reacting in a 20th century way to the challenges of CX – defining projects, plans and PID’s (Project Initiation Documents) and teams to investigate and define requirements from an IT-project perspective…

So, how can service providers – and MSPs in particular – develop their relevance and approach to customer experience? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Certainly there is a need to engage and listen to what customers are saying – and this means just that – Listen, don’t talk, don’t go into solution mode, just listen and let your customers have their say.
  • Customers need to feel that their voice is being heard and there is nothing more demotivating in terms of relationship building than a supplier or company that simply pretends to engage and then does what it wants to do anyway. The road to empathy and close working relationship requires 2-way communications and engagement – this will in time require processes and documentation, but starting out with that often alienates.
  • We have to develop tools and processes that reflect CX. We need to be able to build on our understanding of the customer experience and tune this into models and processes that help us. The tools we use are often still based around IT-based processes rather than customer-centric ones. So if we have SLAs or a Service Catalogue, to define our priorities and key performance indicators, these can’t be based on our processes e.g. Incident Management and, Problem Management. Service Catalogue and SLA requirements must reflect a business outcome that is understood at a non-IT level, like making a sale, or hiring a person, or even ordering a tablet.
  • BPI not KPI – we also need to set out our targets and ‘KPIs’ in business terms – then work back to our processes and tools, not the other way around. I prefer the term BPI to KPI – i.e. a Business Performance Indicator – i.e. that everyone understands. KPIs are still relevant but only as a subset of the BPI goal, whichfor example, would e.g. be to facilitate the sale of xx cars, or process xx job applications or deliver technology to xx new employees etc.
  • Ultimately we need to transform the way we work to support Customer experience – this means some new skills, new roles and even different types of people working in IT. There will always be a need for skilled technical; people, particularly with specific niche skills. However IT is also a business – arguably a retail / sales business more than a specialist discipline – IT is everywhere and in everything. IT needs people that can deliver business and communications and relationship skills just as much as we need technicians now.

Success with IT – from a business perspective, regardless of the sourcing and delivery model – relies more and more on the ability of the service provider to empathise and relate to their customers, rather than simply being technical experts. We need to recognise that and act accordingly…

*Customer Experience (CX) is simply the sum of actual personal interactions that anyone has with a particular organisation or ‘service’. This is completely independent and regardless of what goes in to creating and delivering that service. So whilst e.g. an IT Service Desk may have processes and tools defined for incidents and problems and requests, tickets, SLAs and escalation, the Customer Experience is how they were dealt with, communicated to and what the outcome was – usually either positive or negative, from a human point of view. Not just what happened, but what it was like… 


About the Author

Barclay Rae has extensive experience in ITSM, Service Desks, Service Catalogues, and CRM. He is a high profile industry consultant and business manager, with significant business, sales, project and operational delivery experience including:

  • Consulting and project management on over 500+ Service Management
  • Creation of ITSMGoodness – a practical approach for ITSM
  • Media input via ITSM TV and podcasts – also white papers and blogs
  • Commitment to service excellence and business success.

BRC clients include; Aggregate Industries, Lloyds Pharmacy, Nationwide, Thomson Reuters, Thomsons Solicitors, BP, RBS, Sony, Oxford University, United Nations.

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Barclay Rae