When it comes to candy bars, paper towels, event tickets and goldfish, customer service doesn’t matter very much. Product function is the key here – if it tastes good, is absorbent, gets you through the gate, or keeps on swimming, life is good. The value of customer service is absolutely variable, and entirely dependent on what product or service we are trying to acquire.
When you get into the realm of services, things change. The customer service expectation is clearly enhanced as a result of the interactive nature of the engagement, but even in this realm customer service has varied degrees of importance. I don’t really care much about the level of customer service I get from the guy who washes my car or even my accountant. Don’t get me wrong, I want both of them to do a good job and deliver valuable and professional service, but I don’t particularly care if they do it in a charming and service oriented fashion – the value they deliver is key, not the pleasant way in which they deliver it.
IT is different. Way different. In my opinion, the level of customer service provided is just as important as the quality of the services delivered. Let’s face it, there are many ways to provide technical support in the technology field, a variety of choices from both a hardware and software perspective, and every SMB business has different needs. Add to that the difference in individual personalities of those being served – not to mention the nuances of their business and the nuances of each function — and it becomes evident that pleasant, responsive, and thoughtful customer service is a key component to successful engagement with your technology provider. So why does that matter?
Most SMB businesses don’t spend very much time vetting their technology providers, and what time they spend is generally focused on the technical abilities of the provider, not cultural fit and customer service attitude. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions on how to go about picking a provider:
- Start out with a speed dating round – find at least 5 potential candidates for the opportunity to manage your technology and schedule a 30 minute meeting with each. Face to face is generally better, but an online meeting session works well too. Let them do the talking with one really important exception. If they ask you about your business and technology challenges, give them clear and direct answers to everything they ask. (Hint – if they are asking lots of questions about your business and citing examples of how they have engaged with others who faced similar technical issues and solved them, you might want to bring them back for phase two).
- Select your top two or three candidates – preferably two, but if there are more than two solid candidates, bring them back. Invite them and everyone at the organization that is going to be involved in your service provision into your business and ask them to provide a one page plan about the process they intend to use to manage your technology platform, and pay close attention to details around engagement. If they are focused entirely on taking care of the network, and not as focused on taking care of the people who use the network, consider that a red flag. During the onsite visit, schedule time to have them engage with key technology stakeholders within your organization – people who depend on technology daily to get their job done (that is a long list these days, but bookkeepers, office managers, and engineer / designers are definitely on the list). Get feedback from those folks about how they feel about working with the company. Did you like them and the approach? How would you feel about working with them? Those kinds of things.
- Get references and leverage them – focus entirely on the interpersonal engagement between the references and the prospective IT Provider. Let’s be clear here, no one give you a bad reference on purpose (although some of the funniest conversations I have ever had were with disgruntled customers who were about the fire the prospect and the prospect was not close enough to the relationship to realize it – a huge red flag), but you can still get great information from these references. Focus the conversation on the customer service aspects of the relationship by asking some of these questions:
- a. How does the provider get along with your staff?
- b. When you have a disagreement about a bill, how does that get resolved?
- c. Do they show up on time (physically or virtually) for appointments?
- d. Is someone from the company available when you have issues?
- e. Would you trust the employees of the business with confidential information?
- Pick a winner – At the end of this process, evaluate the remaining candidates for fit as your IT Provider – here is a short list of key criteria to focus on:
- Do they understand the nuances of your business? Will they be able to hit the ground running?
- Did you feel comfortable with them? Deep down, we all know when we have reservations about people. If you have those reservations, you are likely in for a struggle. If you cannot honestly imagine enjoying spending a couple hours quarterly with your primary contact, choose a different provider.
- Does your staff feel comfortable?
- Are you comfortable with their focus on the people and goals of your business, not just the focus on the hardware and software in your business?
So, the next time you decide that you need to make an IT Services Provider change, make every effort to ensure the company is a cultural fit with an attitude towards customer satisfaction that is aligned with your business expectations. Choose a company that is a good fit across the organization, and make sure you are willing to work with them, have lunch with them, etc. This company is not just fixing your network, they are generally driving technology choices within your business. That is important. Take the time to make a good decision, and you will reap the benefits again and again.