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CAUTION: Why You May be Training Your Customers to Leave You

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In the IT business we don't spend as much time as we should on personal relationships. To most of us, people seem to be incomprehensible in many ways. We might spend half our time wondering why "users" just don't get it.

Amongst ourselves, we throw around fun terms like PEBKAC, FAIL, and RTFM.

So, when it comes to dealing with customers we tend to over compensate. We commonly make a fatal mistake: We may be too polite.

I know. It's a startling epiphany.

Is there such a thing as too polite? Yes, but it has nothing to do with being polite.

"Why is it every time you fix something, something else breaks?"

As the IT guy, you are usually under appreciated by most everyone you do service for. We've all had the experience where a customer contradicts what you advised them, breaks their system, and then blames you for it. It usually manifests itself in the phrase "It seems like every time you fix something, something else breaks."

...and it makes you want to strangle them!

This is usually a case of being too polite. Instead of being a leader and telling the customer what they want will only cause more problems, many IT guys simply roll over and give the customer exactly what they asked for: a half-baked solution that results in more headaches. The problem could be avoided by explaining to the customer that you are not going to do a job half way. Either they need to do it right, or you're not going to do it at all. Over a long enough period of time, if you do what the customer wants instead of what the customer needs, you will ultimately appear incompetent, and the customer will take their business elsewhere.

The Double-Edged Defense Mechanism

After you've been in the game for a little while, you start to realize that your job, in many cases, makes people more irritated before it makes them happy. Things get worse before they get better.

In order to fix the computer, you have to knock them off it for a few minutes.

"Oh no! What if I cannot get my email for the next 147 seconds!?!?!?" they scream.

In the back of your mind you're thinking..."What if your computer completely crashes, catches on fire, burns your cubicle down, and leaves you with nothing but a shattered memory of what your inbox USED to look like?"

Outwardly, however, you tell them something to make it seem better. You might say "This will only take a minute." You might even tell them that "...I'll try to get finished as quickly as I can."

So they stand over you like a vulture on the Discovery channel's special presentation of the BBC's "Animals in Africa Eating Dead Things."

They stand there. Tap their foot, and distract you. So you hurry, to make that promise come true of it only being a few minutes. 45 minutes later, they are angry, you're nervous, and no one is happy.

You and I know it is not your fault. That particular workstation was apparently owned by Pandora, and she left her box of goodies in there. When you made the promise "this will only take a few minutes", you didn't know there were still 97 Windows updates that needed to be run. You didn't know that it was still missing the .NET framework entirely, and you also didn't know that the user had somehow disabled their antivirus, and caused the backups to fail by downloading 6 petabytes of mp3's using the latest spyware-ridden bit-torrent client.

All you wanted to do was install an Outlook plugin to help with spam, and instead, you are having to do major surgery.

So what happens while you are fixing the world? The customer's employee gets mad, and goes and complains.

You've just trained your client's employees to dislike you. You've just trained them to report back to the check-writers, and tell them that you disrupt their work day.

So, how do you solve this problem?

1. Never make a promise you can't keep. In fact, try not to make promises at all in the IT business. Only tell them what the process will be, and be detailed. Make it boring enough to avoid "vulture" syndrome. Make it sound like it is going to take forever so they will leave you alone.

2. Get a commitment from the user. After they have heard how long and boring your job is, have THEM tell you when you can be on their computer. Just make sure that you report back to the boss to let them know you have negotiated a time for service. You have to give the boss a chance to over-ride their employee's time schedule.

Excuse Me, Sorry to Bother You, I know You're Busy, but...

This is perhaps the greatest sin of them all.

If you perceive yourself as an imposition, an interloper, or a nuisance, then so will your customers. If you train them long enough to believe you are a nuisance, then they will ultimately leave you for someone less annoying.

This is the same problem geeks in high school have. Most nerdy people in high school could not understand why the hot chicks always dated jerks. The answer is simple: jerks had confidence (and in some cases, arrogance).

Customers (and their employees) have the same issue.

Do you know of a competing firm who has more customers, more money, more profit, and less skilled staff than you do? Those are the jerks in our industry. They get all the money even when they don't deserve it from a technical skills standpoint.

What can you learn from them?

Most of these firms that are very successful have demonstrated confidence in their services and marketing.

That's what you must do.

So today, right now, take an oath with me:

Repeat after me:
I possess skills that make the world go 'round. Without me, the internet would be a distant dream, the printer would forever be offline, and email would cease to exist.

I am the IT guy. The world runs on the coffee I drink, and the late nights I spend working on the server.

I am vital.

From now on, I will demonstrate my confidence by showing others the respect I have earned.

From this point on, never apologize for doing service. Don't apologize for the interruption. Don't sheepishly take control of a workstation.


Neither Superman, nor Batman, nor Spiderman, opened up a sentence with "Sorry to bother you but..." They had "Up, up and away!", "I'm Batman", and "Spidey-sense".

"Sorry to bother you..." is the opening to a failed request to take the pretty girl to the prom.

You are the IT guy. You're the invisible hand that makes the company work. Don't apologize for it.

Arrogance is Underrated

Confidence in your abilities and setting the bar low so you can leap over it can be your secret weapon. I once had a customer accuse me of being arrogant. I knew that my zealous confidence had apparently crossed some line with this customer, so I quickly apologized and told him I was only trying to setup clear expectations, and did not want to come off as arrogant. He laughed, and we both pressed on.

After the project was completed, I received the following email:

Just an FYI,  with the exception of a couple of minor glitches that were far milder than anything we encountered the last time the system was seriously changed by the last IT guys, everything to date has gone as well or much better than you told us to expect.  At the risk of not having enough wood to knock, I just wanted to point out that arrogance can be appropriate if you're that damned good.

The moral of the story is: set the bar low, leap over it, and ooze with confidence. Being "that damned good" is not a measure of your technical skill. It's actually a measure of how far you can leap over the bar you set for yourself. So set it low, leap over it, and buy yourself a cape.

You are the super-hero of the information age.
LVL 38

Expert Comment

As I was reading through this (then re-reading), I kept thinking there were key words/phrases that I wanted to copy/paste down here to highlight my compliments.

Then I realized how much copying/pasting I would be doing.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Yes, I saw myself several times over - in the past and occasionally in the present.

Geeks need to read this and live it.

Pardon me while I go order my cape.

(Yes vote above.)
LVL 70

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by:Jason C. Levine
Just remember, it ain't bragging (or arrogance) if you can back it up.

Great article.
LVL 50

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loved the article, especially the brilliant image suggestions

>  So they stand over you like a vulture on the Discovery channel's special presentation of the BBC's "Animals in Africa Eating Dead Things."

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by:Glen Knight
DrDamnit, this is an absolutely great article.

I would go as far to suggest that if an IT person isn't arogant and confident then they are unsure of their own abilities so how do they expect to instill confidence in to the customer?!

Vote from me.
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Author Comment

jason1178, brettdj, and demazter:

Thank you for your praise!

Please share my article with others via facebook, twitter, and the like (Use the share button at the top of the article). Let's help as many people as possible!

Expert Comment

Very amusing but also meaningful article. Even better than the previous one!
LVL 58

Expert Comment

The other day, I sent an email saying in substance “the table structure of your database is horrible, it needs to be replaced before the new functionalities can be added”. The reply was “how dare you speak of our database this way? do you want this job at all?”

In such cases, I tend to use an analogy: if your mechanic tells you that your car's transmission is busted, and needs to be replaced, how do you react? “how dare you?” or “ouch! how much will it cost?” And would you hire the mechanic who didn't notice or was afraid to tell you up front?

It usually works.


Expert Comment

by:Bob Stone
It took me many years to realize on my own what you stated in this article.

Even still, people still try to walk all over me and many act like because they didn't see what I did that it must not have happened at all. I really hate having to justify my existence on a regular basis to clueless people.
LVL 28

Expert Comment

Excellent article again.!!

"Why is it every time you fix something, something else breaks?"
>> I actually have a client who says that verbatim. I have somehow managed to handle him with more details and less commitment.

On jerk-firms and confidence
>> I usually end-up saying --> What does it even mean !!! on their face with a few technical details thrown-in.
That takes the wind out of their sail.
End of the day everyone is trying to make a sale.

I once used this on a client
>> Hey ! Even spiderman cant fix things in an hour..I am just the computer guy.
It worked (no more helicopter syndrome)

@harfang - Thanks for that. Will use it next-time :-)

@demazter - over here in East coast, you will meet people with more arrogance and confidence and less on skill.
The good one's are unusually humble and hesitant for some reason.
Of-course there are exceptions to this rule :-)

People do a dual-degree on Bullshit and computer science before they enter the workforce here.

@jason1178 - TRUE THAT.

Big Yes Vote from me.

Expert Comment

Loved it !!! And SO true!
Vote from me!
Michael from Sydney, Oz.

Expert Comment

Superb advise!
Great article DR Damnit!

Expert Comment

The moral of the story is: set the bar low, leap over it, and ooze with confidence. Being "that damned good" is not a measure of your technical skill. It's actually a measure of how far you can leap over the bar you set for yourself. So set it low, leap over it, and buy yourself a cape.

Lesson on the year

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