Getting Back to Basics

Real-World Service Management by Ivor Macfarlane

Don’t let IT complexity obscure service management essentials

Service Management in Action

We most certainly live in complicated times and in a complex world... but in IT service management (as in many aspects of life), the best results often come from simplifying. Or more specifically, identifying the most important, relatively simple priorities and focusing on them, before concerning ourselves with specifics. Or to put it another way, making sure where you need to go before starting your detailed travel plans.

That seems obvious—it’s similar to the concept of triage as used in the healthcare industry. First you prioritize what you need to accomplish on an abstract level, then you worry about how you’re going to accomplish it on a concrete level. But in IT, due to the rapid emergence of new technologies and the myriad ways they’re used, things have gotten rather complex, and all that complexity tends to obscure what ought to be obvious.

In a sense, this is only natural. IT is meant to solve complex business problems; those problems require complex solutions, combined in complex ways to deliver the best possible results. But, while this is true, it also remains true that we must understand and address the basic priorities underpinning all that complexity if we are to be successful.

Focus on the basics—the right basics

Sometimes complexity can seduce us away from seeing the basics. It’s something you will hear often if you watch sport on TV.

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The modern game (be that game cricket, football, tennis or a dozen other professional sports) is getting ever more complex to plan and play, but time and again you will hear commentators saying “they need to get the basics right.”

But what are those basics? Identifying them is not always so easy. In games like soccer or rugby, “the basics” is sometimes used to mean “maximise time in possession,” on the theory that the team that controls the ball is more likely to win.

In fact, taking soccer as our example, scoring goals is actually the point of the game—the end in question. As a priority, then, scoring must outrank time in possession. For an example of how this situation can play out in real-world soccer, look at these stats from BBC Sport on a recent Norwich-Arsenal match. Arsenal was expected to win, and the game stats suggest that in terms of time of possession, Arsenal were in fact the better team, since they controlled the ball for two-thirds of the match. But as a Norwich fan I’m delighted to tell you that Norwich won... because Norwich actually scored and Arsenal didn’t. Remembering what the game was fundamentally about, and delivering on that priority, was clearly the key to success.

How does this idea—of refocusing on basic, underlying principles—apply to Service Management? A number of applications come to mind, in areas such as incident and problem, in fact across a wide range of the SM processes and functions.

But what I want to focus on here is something more basic yet: an understanding of the key roles of customer vs. user, the essential differences between these concepts, and how those differences can influence the way services are rendered.

Customers, users, victims or just people doing their best?

People don’t like to think of themselves as users—and with good reason. One online dictionary defines users in these ways:

  1. a person or thing that uses
  2. one who uses drugs, especially as an abuser or addict
  3. a person who uses a computer

The association of drugs and computers is an old joke, but the definitions above brought to my mind another word: victim. So, I looked that one up too and got:

  1. a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency
  2. a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency
  3. a person or animal sacrificed or regarded as sacrificed
  4. a living creature sacrificed in religious rites.

If you focus on “a person deceived … by some impersonal agency,” you get a view many have of the way IT services treat them.

So, I think we can begin to see the problem with the idea of IT serving users. Paying customers inherit more respect; their needs and wants are more likely to drive business change. And this is a good thing, because for businesses to succeed, customer satisfaction is obviously essential.

Accurately assess customer and user needs, then let those needs guide your service management implementation

Even so, it’s worth looking at things from the perspectives of both customers and users, because user satisfaction can often lead to customer satisfaction.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider an experience I once had in prison.

It is probably relevant—in order to preserve what little respectability I may have left—to clarify that I was working for the UK Prison Service in Work Study. Our group was chartered with measuring work and improving processes. Our customers, then, were prison management. But our users were the inmates themselves. One process we improved was the routine for inmates’ clothing. Inmates were issued clothes to wear; after two weeks, those clothes were laundered. Inmates were then given new clothes on a random basis, meaning they could have been worn by anyone previously.

The new idea (conceived in the purchasing department) was that if each inmate had the same set of clothing returned after laundry, inmates would take better care of the clothes, clothes would last longer, and overall costs for clothing would drop.

It so happened that before we actually implemented this idea, I found myself with my colleague¹ sitting around drinking tea and chatting with a group of prison inmates. We thought this was a useful opportunity to get their view of our proposed new idea, and they seemed keen to discuss it. And looking back over 40 years of process improvement work, I think those 15 minutes drinking tea in prison might still be amongst the most constructive of my career.

Now, before this little chat, it had seemed obvious to my colleague and myself that inmates would almost certainly prefer, above all other clothing priorities, to get back the same underwear each time, rather than those worn previously by some random fellow inmate. But the inmates told us we were wrong. What mattered to them was “best T-shirt and denim jeans.”

We must have looked surprised and incredulous, because they immediately explained:

“When you are in prison, you generally aren’t concerned with impressing people, except that once a fortnight you get to talk for about 40 minutes in person with your wife/girlfriend. You have only that short period to keep them persuaded you are worth waiting for. You need to look presentable. The number one way they decide if you are presentable is by your outer clothing. So smart, clean T-shirt and denims are the top priority. Forget the underwear for now. Go with T-shirt and denims.”

Well, they knew best, and we reported back, and took the effort to persuade the prison management (because they doubted), and eventually we did as the inmates asked. Immediate results: damage to clothes dropped and stayed low, money was saved, and customers (prison management) were happy. And the users (inmates) were happy too, for completely different reasons.

They certainly saw themselves as victims, and had no interest in helping our customers (prison management), but by talking to the inmates and understanding what did matter to them, we were able to create a system that satisfied both customers and users.

Customer/user perspectives apply in many contexts

It isn’t always that easy, but there are generally both customers and users, and they typically have different priorities. Let’s illustrate the idea with a couple of everyday examples:

Veterinarian surgery: For family pets, clearly the services are offered to the owners of those pets—the customers—and the payments come from them, not from the animals—the users. (And if you consider matters from a farming perspective, it is even clearer that in this case, the animals are victims as well as users.)

The school system: Here, the children are clearly—for the most part—users and not customers. Many children would also consider themselves inmates, or even victims. The customers are probably the parents. For state-funded schools, you can argue if it is the government who are customers or still the parents, since they presumably finance the whole thing with their taxes.

Hang on a minute. See how, in this second example, a simple concept is getting complicated? See how easy it is to lose sight of the basics as a result? Yes, there are multiple stakeholders and they all overlap a bit, but it remains important to focus on the underpinning concepts and only then deal with the complications after the principle is established.

In so many ITSM implementations, there is no clear understanding of who the customer really is. And worse, there are many customers who don’t realise they are customers. There are also sometimes countless users who think they are customers, and insist on the right to determine what should and should not be, but don’t seem so keen on another essential element of the customer’s role: paying for the service being provided. Separating these seemingly simple roles is vital to balanced service provision. Even in cases where the customer is also a user, it is necessary to separate the roles, inside your own head at least.

Sounds esoteric? Maybe, but again, this is something we all manage to accomplish in everyday life. Have you ever grumbled when you see a movie advertised on your TV that is being transmitted on a channel you don't subscribe to? That is just the user in you (who wants everything) grumbling at the customer inside you (who decided months back that the extra channels weren’t worth the added expense). The customer’s decision outranked the user’s interests, and you didn’t buy access to those channels.

Of course, none of this is new, and none of it is unique to IT. Users and customers of services have been around, for instance, at least as long as there have been prisons. But despite this long experience with the root concepts, we do still seem to get it hopelessly confused—and you often see that confusion reflected in IT, too. Ask an IT group if they do customer satisfaction surveys and they will proudly talk to you about how they follow up on calls to the service desk (from users).

If they understood a little better the difference between customers and users, they’d have a better answer... and in the long term, they’d render better service.

¹ A very nice man called Mike Franklin, and while I doubt he is reading this, he deserves acknowledgement here.

About Ivor


After 23 years working for the UK government, moving from forestry to IT Service Management via prisons, stores and training, Ivor now works for IBM’s Tivoli organization helping customers understand and improve their Service Management. Ivor was an ITIL author (versions 1, 2 and 3), part of the panel that wrote BS15000 (fast-tracked to ISO/IEC 20000), an ITIL trainer and examiner since 1991 and active in itSMF since 1995, having spoken for them in 34 countries.

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