Or, How to Fail at IT Service Delivery
I recently read a book aimed at improving relationships and began to wonder how the same theory could be applied to business. I’ll briefly summarise the book, and then examine how the theory (I will call it a theory even though it’s reasonably well proven and makes a lot of sense) could benefit a typical relationship between an IT services company and one of its customers.
After getting over some skepticism, I read “The Five Love Languages“. It’s aimed at improving long term relationships and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In essence, the author boils down his years of marriage counseling into the theory that there are five primary “languages” that humans use to demonstrate love for another human:
- Words of Affirmation
- Quality Time
- Acts of Service
- Giving Gifts
- Physical Contact
The premise of the book is that most people prefer to “speak” one, perhaps two of these languages, and that in a relationship, if you are speaking a language the other party doesn’t understand, you’re wasting your time. It’s wonderfully practical, easy to implement, and gives rapid, measurable results, which is exactly the kind of technique that appeals to a busy person looking for an easy way to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Business relationships are often jokingly likened to marriage, but behind the jokes are more than a grain of truth – “people buy from people”. Any business relationship involves a human customer making a decision to purchase something from a person or company they can identify with in some way. Several studies have shown that adding a “human touch” or otherwise personalising a product or service can boost sales. For an ongoing relationship, after the initial “spark” has passed, there needs to be a mutual need and appreciation in order for the relationship to continue; in business, the initial spark is the first purchase a customer makes, and then later in the relationship, we see customer services issues, complaints, new products, upgrades, contract renewals and all the other day-to-day running of a business relationship.
The type of business relationship I can relate to best is that of IT services, where a customer purchases an ongoing service that probably includes a one-off payment, an ongoing monthly support element, and regular fixed-price quoted work. This is the story of my relationship with a company we’ll call Initech, who had a website, a budget that depended on the website’s traffic levels, and various projects and upgrades in the pipeline.
I was introduced to Initech when I met their chief executive in a Leeds coffee shop. He was a larger than life character, someone you couldn’t help but immediately like. We spoke for two solid hours, me liking the sound of a challenging technical project, him liking my outline of how we should work together, and he described the way the relationship with his existing provider had fallen apart. It was no surprise to me; a vicious circle of increasing demand from the customer, payments being withheld, deadlines missed, decreasing quality of work – a very typical end to an IT supplier’s relationship with a customer. We discussed how this often happens and how it can be recognised and dealt with by someone with my experience (and yes, if you can’t wait for the ending, those words haunt me to this day).
Quotes and deposits out of the way, setting off on the new, shiny, profitable relationship was a pleasure. I made friends with their previous supplier, made the transfer of the website as smooth as possible, did the basic setup and even fixed a few minor issues in the process. Romance was still in the air, and I barely noticed that the project was taking up a huge amount of time, because it was still new and exciting, and required almost no effort to do the work.
As time went on, as in any human relationship, the romance faded and the cracks began to show. From my perspective, Initech were throwing more and more requests at me and wanting instant responses, changing their priorities depending on the latest whim of their directors, and wanting long phone calls almost every day talking about the same things over and over again. From their perspective, they had lots of ideas that needed discussion and scheduling, pressure from various board members who all had different priorities, pressure to deliver value for the money they were paying, and my contact probably just needed someone to “bounce” off.
The hour-long phone calls began to feel more and more tedious, and I often found myself working on other things, not really listening and hoping I wouldn’t get caught out. In hindsight, my contact was probably finding it harder and harder to get a worthwhile response, and so of course he wanted to speak for longer. The vicious circle had started and we haven’t even got to the hard bit yet! There were some happy times; when we did what we thought was a minor fix, it could be a major thing for Initech and earned us high praise. When they told us how they appreciated what we were doing and how good things were compared to before, we felt motivated and happy.
Relating it to the love languages theory, I can now see that they felt the most benefit when we dedicated time to talking about and working on their needs (Quality Time), but we were more focussed on delivering what was needed (Acts of Service) in as short a time as possible, to make the cash flow (Physical Contact). Both valid approaches, but mismatched and leading easily to misunderstanding and frustration on both sides.
As time went on, after a few minor updates, the website became unexpectedly successful almost overnight – revenue was up ten-fold within a month, and neither of us knew exactly why, or how long it would last. Naturally they were very happy, and we were highly praised, but this became fairly meaningless to us because there were no financial benefits to us, only more work to do. Again, this led to a mismatch in communication – they wanted us to share in their happiness, and we wanted them to stop giving us more work and get back to normal. Both parties still love the other, but both feel that the other isn’t sharing their desires, leading to frustration on both sides (you can see the theme developing here).
Overnight the success went away due to circumstances beyond any of our control, and things went back to normal. This of course generated even more work for us – “why did it go away? why did it happen in the first place? why?”, every day “why?”. Looking back, I can fully understand it – in their eyes, we were the technical wizards who should understand all of this inside out, so why couldn’t we answer their questions? Had I appreciated that, and had they appreciated our situation, we both might have behaved differently.
As in many human relationships, things moved on to the next phase. A shiny new project was born, which would rescue Initech and dwarf any previous success. “MyInitech” was going to be the biggest thing on the web since Facebook; it had everything going for it, and even (drumroll please…) a marketing budget! The romance was back; quotes were sent, generous discounts were applied, purchase orders arrived and everyone was happy once more. My two highly skilled staff relished the challenge and potential Internet-kudos, and for the next two months the office atmosphere was reflected in the happy Electric Six lyrics that peppered the source code. I was very comfortable with my occasional checks on the progress, and eventually allowed demands from other customers to take over all of my own time. Then, with six weeks to go before delivery, everything changed, and looking back, I could easily have stopped stopped it. Within the space of one phone call, the entire mood of the project changed. It was decided that university students would be the primary adopters of the system, and so what was our “delivery date” now became the “go live” date. This is a frequent and fundamental misunderstanding between customers and IT service providers: the supplier thinks ‘delivery’ means that development and basic functional testing has finished, and the customer thinks it means the system will be fully tested and deployed to their customers. Both are valid; the supplier’s aim is to deliver a working system, but the customer’s aim is to have their customers using the system. Each party assumes the other shares their goal and both agree a date for that goal.
By changing the meaning of that date, the six weeks remaining for development work suddenly had to include customer-testing, marketing, testing with focus groups that we were supposed to recruit, and the most ridiculous part of it was that I had sat there and happily agreed to all of this. Initech went away from that call happy that they were suddenly going to get a lot more work than was quoted for, and I was happy that they were happy for a few days before realising the size of my mistake. It was too late to change my mind, we had to make it work.
Relating it back to the love languages, I can see that they now needed “Acts of Service” – pure hard work, and we needed “Words of Affirmation” – encouragement and praise. Naturally, as in human relationships, as it became harder for us to work, it became harder for them to encourage and praise us, and the natural outcome of this in a business relationship is that work doesn’t get delivered and invoices don’t get paid.
Inevitably, the deadline came and went and the product was still not ready. The bulk of the problems were due to the need to support Internet Explorer 6 – shoe-horning a complex, modern web application into 11-year-old buggy software is almost impossible, and probably accounted for 30% of the project development time. Again, the customer had quite reasonably assumed that they were ordering a system that would work on all browsers in common use at the time, and we had quite reasonably assumed that we could, as Facebook recently had, block access from IE6.
The vicious circle was spiraling towards the inevitable conclusion, and over the next few months, with staffing levels reduced, I hacked and bodged the project into an apparently working state and marked it as delivered. During that period, they received some bad news: the recent financial crash (2007) had caused their investors to pull out, leaving them without the marketing budget that was supposed to pay for the project and its marketing. They wanted us to help out with marketing, hoping that the system would “go viral”, and so I put together a proposed “apology” for our late delivery, which promised that we would mailshot as many of our friends as possible, which we did. Over the next few months, it became clear that the general public weren’t interested in using the system, and that Initech had no intention of paying for the outstanding 60% of the project’s value, and yet wanted to continue the ongoing monthly support contract.
Let’s say that again, from each side of the fence. We had a customer who we thought had understood our difficulties, had negotiated a 14% discount off the initially quoted price, had shifted the goal posts dramatically near the end of the project, and then awarded themselves a further 60% discount when we inevitably failed to deliver, and then had the gall to expect us to want to carry on the relationship! However, from Initech’s side, they had huge pressure on their budget, and a supplier failing to meet expectations that had been agreed, and yet they had a desire to rescue and rebuild the relationship with that supplier over time because they recognised our potential. Rephrased in terms of love, we felt bullied and hurt by them choosing to withhold payment while asking for more work, and for them to want to continue the relationship as if nothing had happened simply amplified those feelings to the point where we hated every second spent dealing with them. For their part, I realise now that they saw us (quite correctly) as a young, inexperienced supplier who needed some “tough love” to blossom into a fantastic supplier, and they tried very hard to make that work – a good example is a long call I had with my contact, in which he took me through a large chunk of his considerable marketing knowledge, hoping that I would use it to benefit both Initech and my company. It was interesting, but really just a waste of his time; I just wanted to get off the phone and back to some paying work so that I could pay next month’s bills.
Every time I think back to that experience, I struggle to understand how love given can just amplify feelings of hate. Putting into the love language theory, Initech were demonstrating love by trying to educate us (Quality Time), and wanting us to love them back through Acts of Service. However, we had an immediate need to earn money (Physical Contact), so any Quality Time with them was almost the opposite of what we wanted, and any Acts of Service we could perform for them would again take up time that could’ve been used to earn money to pay the bills. So love given and expected back was actually received as something hurtful.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back with my new-found knowledge, it’s clear that a few simple decisions and actions could have turned the relationship, and probably the project, into a resounding success. My only defence for being unable to make that happen is the lack of experience I had at the time, because I firmly believe that it is a supplier’s responsibility to speak and understand the customer’s language, and the customer should be made to feel comfortable and loved. I’m told a man’s greatest need is to be respected, and a woman’s greatest need is to be loved, so it feels natural to say that suppliers should make customers feel loved, and customers should respect suppliers, but I think it’s a little more complex than that.
Let’s review the five love languages and how they can be applied to business relationships:
- Words of Affirmation: typically more important to a supplier, because their business is built around making customers happy, and so feedback from happy customers is vital.
- Quality Time: typically important to customers, because it makes them feel that the supplier understands them and really wants to get involved in their requirements.
- Giving Gifts: given by a supplier, this could be discounts or freebies. Given by a customer, this could be recommendations or introductions to new customers.
- Acts of Service: given by a supplier, delivery of a product or service, or more importantly, going the extra mile to deal with customer service issues. Given by a customer, this could be doing something to make life easier for the supplier, whether it’s chasing an invoice, pushing back a deadline, or assisting with the delivery.
- Physical Contact (or, CASH!): given by a customer, this is cold hard cash – eg. paying invoices on time. Given by a supplier, this could literally be physical – a handshake, a pat on the back, or just a face to face meeting.
My relationship with Initech ended when I told them in blunt, emotionless terms that I’d had enough and their rates were going up 300%. I thought they would surely understand my frustration, and was surprised to find out that it had gone down like a lead balloon. I felt that I was finally free of a stressful and unproductive relationship, and they felt betrayed and let down. It’s clear now why that was the case; they thought they had done the right thing and that the relationship could continue, and so of course it was a shock. I’m glad to say that, being somewhat older and wiser than I was, my contact recognised that the end was at hand and became very pragmatic; we agreed and carried out a smooth and organised hand-over to a new supplier.
Advice for IT Service Suppliers
I can’t help you avoid all the pitfalls, but do spend quality time with your customer, give them gifts and perform acts of service, but make sure every hour you spend and gifts you give are covered by the amount you charge them, with enough to leave you some profit. This creates positive feedback; they will feel loved and will be only too happy to pay your bills, and you will have a chance to spot any early warning signs of problems before the cash dries up.
If you are working with a smaller customer, for example a new startup, bear in mind that they will find it difficult to give you cash, so consider a profit share if you can afford it, or recommend that they find a student or friend’s son or daughter who can afford to spend time on the project for pocket money. The customer is probably an entrepreneur who has huge ideas and no budget, so gently guide them back down to earth, and start with a few simple goals. If they keep changing their minds, don’t get frustrated; it probably means they need some quality time with you to help them understand their real goals.
If you are working with a larger, established business, remember that they will have high expectations and be used to paying a high price to have those met. Keep things simple and do a good job – don’t charge a low price and promise to meet high expectations, because you will fail. Remember that your main contact probably doesn’t understand the full spectrum of your relationship – for example, if you make friends with someone in the accounts dept, it’s one less issue for your contact to worry about and produces better results for you.
Advice for IT Service Customers
It’s difficult choosing a supplier; generally a cheaper supplier will be less experienced in business, but will give you one highly skilled person, but a more expensive and experienced supplier will give you a larger team of less experienced staff, but be far more capable of managing the relationship and meeting your expectations.
If you choose a cheaper supplier or a “one man band”, find out about their background as if you were recruiting them as staff, and try to understand their needs; is cashflow a major problem? are you giving them enough of a technical challenge? Be prepared to work with them and educate them to understand your needs. If their main need is cash, perhaps a profit share would help align their goals with your own. Make sure any deadlines agreed are for the same goal.
If you choose a more experienced supplier, find out about their previous projects and how they were managed. Find out what they can do if there are technical issues, staffing issues, payment problems. Make sure they understand your business model and ultimate goals, and find out what their goals are as a business.