Customer as Boss

Periodically I have observed people complain about their employees or co-workers, and occasionally I have complained myself. Sometimes people at work act as if they are either ignorant of who their customer is, or as if they don’t care about their customer, it sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

Currently, I don’t have a boss. That isn’t totally true, I have one, but he isn’t responsible for my output as one might expect a boss to be. I have a list of customers that I do project work for, and I suppose, if they felt that I had done a poor job, they might contact my direct manager and complain, but I try to make sure that that doesn’t happen. Ultimately, my customer is “The Boss”, and I treat them that way – all of them. On one project, I have 3 customers, all of whom are “the boss”. On another project I have 4 customers. In my current role, both IT managers and functionaries and business executives and functionaries are my customer.

Most of my assignments come from customers – they may request me organizationally, or they may just e-mail me. Most frequently, though I get assignments from a senior executive in my own reporting hierarchy – and he is also my customer on most of the projects I work on.

But how my job works is not really the point of this. My point is, that I know what to do, and can figure out how to do it because I first try to understand who needs to be pleased – The Customer. And in treating my customer “Like a Boss” – I usually can figure out what he or she needs to be successful. I figure out what is important to them, and I help them make it happen.

As an IT person, I have usually had a boss and a customer. Most of the time, it has been arranged that my customer and my boss’s customer is the same customer, so if I make my customer happy, my boss gets “credit”. But recently, I have understood, that with larger organizations sponsoring pmo’s and layers of organization and specialization and regulatory oversight, it is harder to figure out who my customer is. I also notice that my manager and my customer are organizationally incented to different objectives. These things make it more difficult than ever for the individual contributor to understand “What is important”. It is no longer as easy as “please the customer, boss is happy”. The organization creates policies, procedures and practices that make it harder and more expensive to please our customer. Those policies and procedures sometimes cause conflicts in our work process and prioritization.

Sooooooo – what’s a poor IT wonk to do? In reality, it means that everyone in IT has to be more conscious of who your customers are, and your boss (and his incentives) is simply one more customer. It means that we all have to put on an organizational mindset and understand how our work adds value to the organization in the large. It means that we need to balance and negotiate between all of our customers, and manage each of their expectations.

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