Who really is your customer?

Two hands holding credit card and smartphone over laptop keyboard

Why is the question “who really is your customer” important to ask in IT and IT services?

It’s extremely important because it shapes what IT/ITSM people do and why. It helps us define and focus on the right things, which includes going beyond the superficial view of who a customer is.

The basic rule is: if what you are doing has an impact on someone, they are probably a customer. Certainly, not all customers are created equally and there will be conflicts between different customer types and needs; but understanding who your customers are enables informed decisions.

Understanding and uncovering customer needs

IT has evolved from business systems and waterfall projects through to a more iterative approach.

Today, the transformational ideas are around customer systems, wants and needs. Using experience mapping helps us see the experiences customers have while moving through the interaction flow with a product or service; so we gain an understanding of their pain points and areas of pleasure or delight.

Businesses might make a choice to remove or reduce a particular service, but for this, they need to understand the impact of their actions on people. And this leads to IT making conscious decisions that reflect both customer pain and delight. For example, in the world of payment systems, it might be legally required to accept cheque payments (though more costly to process). So, to encourage current cheque payers to switch to electronic payments, it’s necessary to make the latter method more pleasurable.

Customer personas

Another way to understand your customers is through personas. These are hypothetical examples of your real-world customer types. Some customer personas are more “light touch” while others need more depth, the level of depth really depends on the purpose you're creating the personas for.

Either way, if you don’t understand your personas, how can you satisfy the needs of your various types of customers?

If you think you know your customers inherently, there’s a risk of skipping over some obvious truths – and that can bite you later.

The 3 Gs  

The last technique for gaining understanding is known as the 3 Gs. This is a Japanese lean manufacturing technique based on observations of how people interact with a product, service or system and helps to ensure you get the full story. Noting that what people 'do' and what they 'say' is often different.

The 3 Gs stand for:

  • Gemba – The place
  • Gebutsu – The things
  • Genjitsu – The facts.

In practice, this means going to the place (physically) where a process is happening or a product is being used; looking at the things involved (e.g. watch people using products) and examining the facts to gain insight into what is happening in a real world context.

This approach can create “lightbulb moments” such as process improvements that can change everything for the customer and meet their need in a completely different way.

Building in service and value

Using the information you’ve gathered, you can then make changes that build in value.

When it comes to using best practice tools to achieve value, it’s about understanding as many of them as you can – as there is not one perfect solution for every situation – to provide real customer value.

And how does a customer value work in practice? Take Netflix, for example: The way they offer on-demand services rather than scheduling is a great example of understanding what customers want and satisfying that want.

When customers had fewer choices, companies could get away with providing less customer satisfaction; but once they get a taste for satisfaction (delight, even) they demand more and more. If companies don’t have the discipline to both understand and satisfy customer needs, demand for their offerings will likely decline as people find other options that better satisfy their needs.

Organizations’ awareness of the need to satisfy customers has increased exponentially, especially as digital disruption has put extra power into the hands of customers. But, if your organization is going to succeed, it’s one thing to be aware of this and another entirely to be consciously thinking about it.


AXELOS editor’s note: understanding customer needs better, the concept of value – and its co-creation with customers – is central to ITIL 4 and is central to Mark Smalley's AXELOS Blog Post ITIL 4 and the co-creation of fast value. And value creation through customer understanding is the main focus of Katrina Macdermid’s blog post, ITIL human centred service design – understanding customer needs.

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