It probably goes without saying that people who work in information technology management aren't the most popular in the corporate office.
Employees carp about IT's lethargic response times, their know-it-all attitudes and their seeming inability to make a computer run either faster or more reliably.
On the flip side, though, IT workers no doubt have gigabytes worth of stories of their techno-illiterate "customers," who download viruses or can't find the computer's power button, or who demand the impossible.
Experts in human resources and customer service say the two worlds need to learn to get along. And, they add, it's IT departments who need to shine up their reputation for poor customer service.
"The most problematic part of IT is the 'No' – giving the 10 reasons why something can't be done," says Julie Giraldi, chief human resources and information technology officer for the Ontario Hospital Association.
"But IT has the responsibility of ensuring we can deliver what we promise, communicate any limitations and help the end user understand what they are and why. It's not good enough to just say, 'No, that can't be done.'"
Topping the list of IT complaints? Slow response times and issues that can't be fixed or take a long time to be resolved.
Andrew Dillane, chief information officer of the employment agency Randstad Canada Group and president of the CIO Association of Canada, adds that "no excuse is big enough for service-related issues." Following that mantra "helps to create a better and more effective ownership of issues. That's absolutely critical."
To both Ms. Giraldi and Mr. Dillane, an IT department is only as good as its leader. "If the executive and IT management team doesn't emphasize the importance of customer service, it's not going to be effective," says Mr. Dillane, who is based in Toronto.
Managers should set customer service goals, putting measures in place to quantify responses to questions and complaints. They must identify trends and "holistically " address issues, he adds.
"A lot of organizations only solve one problem but don't attack the underlying reasons for that problem. You have to set service levels and manage them, and adjust to them and continue to improve."
Far too often, tech staff start fixing something without telling the person who is having the problem, says Mr. Dillane. "Then it becomes a service issue. Part of customer service is how long it takes for IT to acknowledge the issue and also to solve issues. The acknowledgment [to the customer]is very, very important."
IT departments must get basics right, Ms. Giraldi says. That means a strong infrastructure, minimal downtime and appropriate backups and contingency plans. "If IT can't do that, there is no point trying to be a strategic partner and helping the business move forward, because it will have no credibility," she says.
Another way to improve customer service is to put the needs of the business ahead of any technology strategies, experts say. IT personnel should be involved in business planning from the outset.
"Trying to make the technologies fit the business isn't the way IT should function. Technology can't be the driver; the business has to be the driver," says Ms. Giraldi. "We need to understand where the business has to go in three to 10 years."
Another question that arises on customer service is whether IT services should be outsourced.
The Ontario Hospital Association has made remarkable strides in customer service since switching to an in-house IT unit three years ago, Ms. Giraldi says. "It brings a different level of accountability, care and ownership, and it [the in-house department]is usually better able to make decisions in the context of what's in the best interest of the organization."
Both Ms. Giraldi and Mr. Dillane say many companies use a blended or "hybrid" IT model. They keep most services in house, and outsource when needed, perhaps to gain expertise or meet deadlines.
"Regardless, the reason for the outsourcing needs to be to improve service, not just to save cost," says Mr. Dillane.