by Charles Araujo
Date Published May 22, 2012 - Last Updated May 11, 2016


I walked into the store and there she was. Katie was talking with someone, so I waited patiently for a few moments. When she finished, she turned and said, “Hey, Charlie. Good to see you! How’s everything going? Still loving your Mac?”

Of course, the answer was yes. And Katie was no small part of that.

I had actually met Katie at a tennis lesson and we happened to get chatting. She mentioned that she worked at the Apple Store and I told her that I had been considering the purchase of a Mac—and that it would be my first. She was very, shall we say, enthusiastic. She told me that if I decided to “join the club” to come see her.

That began what can only be described as my “relationship” with Apple. I visited Katie in the Apple Store a few times before I decided to take the plunge. She never really tried to sell me anything. She was just there to answer any questions I had. Once I purchased my Mac, she was there to offer advice about what had worked for her and what she had heard from others, both good and bad. Through my conversations with Katie I discovered countless little accessories, applications, tools, and tricks that made my experience better each day. I came to look forward to my trips to the Apple Store–it was like I was visiting an old friend.

When Apple announced the launch of the Apple Stores in 2001, it was met with widespread skepticism. There was concern over the impact the stores would have on Apple’s existing retail channels, the fact that Apple had no experience in retail, and that the mere existence of retail stores would do nothing to improve Apple’s lagging market share. BusinessWeek even ran an article entitled “Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work” (May 2001).

These were all real concerns, based on solid business principles. But they missed the main point of the Apple Stores. It was not so much about creating a “retail channel” as it was about creating a deep, tangible relationship with Apple’s customers. Steve Jobs knew that if that relationship could be created, he would be able to grow the Apple brand and elevate it from its cult status, as a novelty adored by a faithful few, to a true powerhouse in consumer electronics. The rest, as they say, is history.

The enterprise IT service desk is now in a similar situation. There is an enormous amount of change underway in the industry and IT organizations need to establish deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with their customers to survive and thrive. This has created a gap that must be filled and an opportunity for service desks to move beyond being mere support organizations to become the Apple Stores of enterprise IT organizations.

Ground Zero for the New IT

Apple realized that it needed to change the paradigm of computer retail sales if it was going to be able take the business to the next level. Similarly, IT organizations must form a new type of relationship with their customers if they expect to not only survive, but thrive in the new IT. Ground zero for this new relationship will be the service desk.

While the service desk has long been charged with being the single point of contact within IT organizations, this has been difficult to realize for most organizations. The service desk has continued to serve primarily in a support role, leaving most strategic interactions to other departments and divisions within the organization. This must change if IT is to create the deep, tangible relationships that will be required in the new IT. Only the service desk can establish the kind of ongoing, high-touch relationships that customers have come to expect. Much like Apple Stores became the physical manifestation of the relationship between Apple and its customers, the service desk must create that same sense of openness, accessibility, and advocacy. Doing so will reshape the relationship between IT and its customers.

From Support to Enablement

Becoming a strategic service desk that owns the relationship with IT’s customers will require some fundamental shifts in how the service desk operates. Primarily, it requires the service desk to evolve from being a support provider to a service enabler. While this will require a change to both process and approach, the greatest transformation will be in the way that service desk professionals view themselves.

As a service desk professional, you are trained to solve problems. You are trained to be there for your customers and to help them when their technology is not working as it should. In many cases, you may also take orders for new services in the form of service requests. These are important functions, and while they are the foundation of an effective service organization, they will not be enough in the new IT.

Compare this paradigm with the interactions that take place in an Apple Store. If Apple’s only concern was for providing support and taking orders, stores would have little more than a Genius Bar and a few staff to ring up customers. In fact, those two activities represent a very small fraction of what actually goes on in an Apple Store. Spend some time in a store and you will observe two things: exploration and relationship building.

Apple associates spend a significant amount of time just being with customers. They encourage them to explore the technology and they share ideas and examples of ways to utilize that technology. They answer questions as they arise, but they also give people time to explore at their leisure. As you walk through a store, you will overhear a lot of conversations about the products, features, and pricing. You will also hear associates talking with customers about how they intend to use the technology. In other cases, the conversations are purely personal, as Apple associates seek to learn more about their customers and how they can better serve them.

This is a model for how the strategic service desk of the future will operate. Reactive support and order taking will be only a small part of the job. The service desk professional’s primary mission will be enablement. It will be to create a place where customers can explore their technology options with professionals who can help them discover new technologies and show them how to use their existing technologies in new ways.

A Window to Innovation

As the relationship between the service desk and its customers evolves, the role of the service desk will evolve as well. As long as the service desk is primarily focused on support, your ability to advocate for your customer is limited to identifying recurring problems and, at best, eliminating them. With better documentation and knowledge management approaches, the time to restore a failed service can be reduced dramatically. But these improvements will only serve to help IT meet its existing commitments.

As the service desk begins to move from support to enablement, new opportunities for advocacy will present themselves. As service desk professionals explore technologies with their customers and learn more about their operations and day-to-day challenges, they will inevitably identify opportunities for improvement that go beyond problem identification. The service desk will, in fact, become a window into innovation opportunities.

When I was a young network engineer, I was fortunate to work with one of the largest aerospace companies in the world. Being young and naïve, I had no idea what I was doing or what I had gotten myself into. But it also meant that I did not know any better—and that gave me the freedom to work with my client in a way that was uncommon. I spent hour upon hour working with a few key members of my client team, designing networks and architecting environments that were needed to develop a new line of fighter jets. We were learning together, and I was learning as much about their business as they were about how we could apply technology to solve some of their problems.

Out of that experience, a couple of things developed. First, to meet my client’s unique needs, we ended up taking some unique approaches to network design. Second, we identified some fundamentally different ways in which we could operate to better meet the needs of our large aerospace customers. Everything from how we organized our account teams and interacted with purchasing to our policies surrounding test equipment was fundamentally changed by my relationship with the client and my understanding of their operations.

Bear in mind that I was not actually designing or building anything—not the network components, not the underlying technology. We were a retailer. My job was to help my client apply technology to solve their problems. The innovations we made to our technological applications and operating procedures led to a long and mutually beneficial relationship. The client had a vested interest in our success because we had taken the time to understand what they needed, how they worked, and how we could best serve them. Through my relationship-building efforts, I had created a space for us to identify and respond to innovation opportunities.

When you shift your focus from one that is support-driven to one that focuses on service enablement, the relationship you build with your customer—the shared explorations and constant interactions—will enable you to identify opportunities to delight your customer and take your service to the next level.

From Customer Service to Customer Intimacy

On the one hand, this transition sounds simple. It is common sense. You already have a pleasant, courteous relationship with your customers, right? But making the transition to true customer intimacy means going beyond pleasantries and normal customer service.

When Katie told me to let her know when I was ready to “join the club,” I thought it was a bit tongue-in-cheek. But after I bought my Mac, it was as if I had joined some secret club. Other Mac users would give me a knowing nod. Several friends who already owned Macs literally said “Welcome to the club!” or some variation of that, after they learned about my purchase. This level of devotion has been a hallmark of Apple since the beginning, but it speaks to a level of intimacy that extends far beyond normal customer interaction.

While most IT organizations and service desks may never achieve that level of devotion from their customers, it does not mean that a similar level of customer intimacy is impossible and wouldn’t be mutually beneficial. Intimacy just means that the relationship has expanded beyond the simple relationship between a service provider and a service consumer. It implies a deeper bond, based on mutual understanding and respect. It is that feeling of intimacy that makes people want to hang out in an Apple Store. It is that sense of intimacy that will make your customers willing to invest the time to teach you about their business and their challenges, because they trust that you actually care about them and will do something with what you learn.

Intimacy requires mutual vulnerability. A true relationship takes work on both sides and both must be willing to be open and honest throughout the process. This is what makes real intimacy so difficult. But it is also what it makes it so powerful.

New Approaches and New Skills for a New Service Desk

If the service desk is going to become ground zero, the primary owner of this new relationship between IT and its customers, what does that mean for the service desk’s structure and the services it provides? What does it mean for service desk professionals? What skills will be required?

Before you go too far down this path, there are a few prerequisites for the journey:

  • First, to free up enough resources to enable the transition, routine support must be automated and recurring incidents must, for the most part, be removed from the environment; and
  • Second, engaging the service desk must become an extremely simple process, one that integrates with the way your customers work. But this does not necessarily mean that it will be the typical, on-demand structure used today. In fact, for nonurgent issues, it will likely move to an appointment-based model. Fulfilling these prerequisites will set the stage and reset the relationship. Until you are ready to commit to them, it will be difficult to move toward becoming a strategic service desk.

From One Dimension to Two

Once your organization has handled the prerequisites, you will need to transition the service desk from a one-dimensional structure to a two-dimensional structure. This means taking the traditional reactive support model and combining it with a proactive model that is structured to provide nonemergent guidance and advice. This is akin to the difference between the Apple Genius Bar (traditional reactive support) and the sales fl oor, where Apple associates interact with customers in a relaxed atmosphere and nothing is broken.

This is a critical step because, while reactive support done well builds trust, it is proactive support that builds relationships. A proactive support model can take many forms. It is up to you to identify the approach that best meets your customers’ needs, one that also reflects your organization’s culture. The key is to create a set of forums through which you are able to interact with your customers before something has “broken.” Through education or predictive activities, these interactions may prevent something from breaking in the future; conversely, they may simply enable you to explore your customers’ unmet needs and determine how your services can be applied to meet them.

Creating Your Army of Fans

At this point, I am sure that you have identified the primary challenge associated with this approach: How will you get them to show up? Will they take your call if nothing is wrong? And why would they even want to hear from you?

Proactive support is a lot like dancing; remember, as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. The idea that your customers might want to spend time with you—especially when nothing is broken—may seem foreign to you, but only because you are probably accustomed to the relationship typically that exists between the service desk and its customers. But as you meet the prerequisites described above, you will begin to change the foundation of that relationship. You will begin to create your own legion of devoted fans. They will come to consider time spent with you to be time well spent. In fact, the biggest barrier you will have to overcome is your own perception of the value you bring to the relationship.

The Three Secret Weapons of the Strategic Service Desk

Most service desk professionals begin developing a particular self-perception on their first day on the job. You are taught that your job is to solve the customer’s problem, which is a purely reactive posture and one that leaves little room for creativity and innovation. Metrics reinforce this posture: how quickly we solve the problem and get the customer off the phone. These are well intentioned, of course, but they are one-dimensional.

To change this model—to create a two-dimensional, proactive support model—new skills are required. These skills are not about providing support more efficiently; they are about building a relationship that transcends the current reactive model. And they are the three secret weapons of the strategic service desk.

Wonder and Whimsy

Are wonder and whimsy skills? I think they are. Holding onto and expressing wonder and not taking technology too seriously are skills that are desperately needed. Technology is a wondrous and powerful thing, and, used correctly, it can fundamentally change things for the better. But when we spend our days focusing only on the parts that do not work, it is all too easy to become jaded and lose that sense of wonder.

It is often said that one of the reasons Steve Jobs was able to generate so much enthusiasm for his products was that no one was more taken with “the wonder of them” than he was. He was famous for marveling at his own creations on stage. As a service desk professional, you need to find that wonder yourself. When you are being reactive, you should be genuinely shocked and dismayed that the technology has not delivered on its promise to the customer. When you are being proactive, that same sense of wonder will help you explore, with your customers, new ways to solve their problems. By sharing your sense of wonder with the customer, you will cause a fundamental shift in the relationship.

You must also remember that supporting your customers is a unique opportunity to turn a bad customer experience into a positive one. The key here is making the situation fun—for both you and your customer. The safety of airplane passengers is serious business, but that does not stop Southwest Airlines staff from making it fun and enjoyable. Nordstrom has made returning a purchase something that can almost be considered fun. When you need to return something, you know that it will be hassle-free, so, regardless of what the problem was, it simply becomes an opportunity to buy something new.

We must always take our customer’s problems seriously, but we should never take ourselves or the technology too seriously. Inject a sense of fun and focus on making the experience hassle-free (and even enjoyable), and you will see attitudes change. This is not easy, but you must embody a sense of mutual exploration, shared excitement over the promise of technology, and a light-hearted attitude that at once invokes empathy, flexibility, and solidarity (that is, the sense that you are in it with them). Above all, your customers must feel that you care about them and their successes.

Speaking Conversational Business

To create this second dimension and build a proactive support model, you are going to need to learn to speak your customers’ language. It is not enough to merely understand the technology: you must understand the technology in the context of the business processes they support. Otherwise, you will not be able to build the kind of relationships described in this article. But that, of course, is a lot easier said than done. For many large organizations, the reality is that there is no single customer or set of business processes. Large enterprise IT organizations and their service desks often support a global network of interrelated business units. Fully understanding each of those business units and their core business processes can be a daunting challenge, so many IT organizations simply do not try. But that is not the answer.

When I went to Italy with my family a couple of years ago, I spent several weeks learning some key phrases in Italian. I was by no means fluent, but I knew enough words and phrases to ask questions (mostly about directions, food, and bathrooms) and understand the answers. Two things happened. First, I felt more comfortable around the Italian people. I was a little less of an outsider. Second, the mere fact that I had made an obvious effort to learn the language changed their attitude toward me. They could tell that I was a tourist and not a native speaker, but the fact that I had made an effort and was willing to put myself out there in all my butchered-Italian glory was a sign of respect. It showed that I cared enough about them and their culture to invest some of my time to learn a few basic words and phrases. And so they offered respect in return and bent over backwards to help me. It made for a fabulous trip.

To create the type of intimate relationships we seek, we need to create this same kind of mutual respect by making an effort to speak “conversational business.” You will never be able to fully understand everything about your customers’ businesses, processes, or problems, but they do not expect you to. If you make the effort, if you show them that you respect who they are and what they do, and if you show genuine interest in how they operate, it will completely change your relationship with them.

Connecting the Dots

The final skill (and a secret weapon) is the ability to move beyond the linear, one-problem-equals-one-answer approach we typically take and develop associative logic skills that will enable us to help our customers connect the dots. As we move from a one-dimensional, purely reactive support model to one that is also proactive, your customers will require more complex and more subjective solutions. Your conversations will shift from “This doesn’t work” to “How can I…”

Answering these questions will require you to create “possibility paths” for your customer, essentially building “virtual roads” that allow them to explore the problem-solving possibilities of a given solution, service, or technology. You will walk down that road together until you either determine that it is a good fit or find that you need to back up and try another path.

This kind of high-value interaction will be the mutual exploration that was described before. As you will be your customer’s tour guide, you must develop the ability to step back from a situation and see not problems and answers, but opportunities and options. You must rely on your conversational business skills and never-ending sense of wonder. But it will require one more thing: you must become comfortable with not always having the answer.

This mutual exploration, this process of helping your customers find solutions to their problems, is not about having all the answers. It is about using your skills to help them connect the dots between their problems and the services, solutions, and technologies your organization provides. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but it is this process that will cement your relationship with your customer and your position as a strategic partner.

Pipe Dream or Future Truth?

Is this vision of a strategic service desk a pipe dream? Is the idea that a service desk can become more proactive than reactive just a flight of fancy? For some, it will be. There will be those who refuse to see themselves as anything more than the folks who fix broken stuff, and they will find themselves under constant pressure to reduce costs and “improve service,” which is unfortunate. The cycle of dissatisfied customers and frustrated staff could continue forever, until, that is, the customer finally decides to simply outsource their support.

But, for others, this is the future. Your customers want this kind of experience. You and your teams want to work in an environment like this. We all want the same thing: we want our technology to work. But, more than that, we want it to live up to its promise. We want to be delighted and enjoy the wonder that technology at its best can bring us. This is the future that awaits those brave souls who are willing to imagine it, believe in it, and do what it takes to make it happen. Personally, I can’t wait to see it.


Charles Araujo is the founder and CEO of The IT Transformation Institute, which is dedicated to helping IT leaders transform their teams into customer-focused, value-driven learning organizations. He is also the creator of “The Quantum Age of IT,” a vision for the immediate future of IT organizations, and a recognized leader and expert in the areas of IT transformation and IT organizational change. Charles serves on the boards of itSMF USA and The Executive Next Practices Institute and his articles have been published and referenced by ZDNet, IT Business Edge, ITSM Portal, TechRepublic, and itSMF USA’s Forum. He is presently at work on two new books and speaks on a wide range of subjects related to his vision of the future of IT.

Tag(s): process, business of support, people, customer service


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