IT Management: IT and the consumer

The needs of the consumer and the capabilities of IT are more closely aligned than you might think.

Romi Mahajan

The world of IT and the world of its “customers” often seem so far apart as to be on opposite sides of an insurmountable chasm. Laboring under the weight of mythology and prejudice, the customers see IT professionals as removed from the business, and therefore removed from their priorities and needs. The natural tendency, therefore, is to think that IT professionals don’t understand consumers.

After all, most consumers aren’t “geeky power users” like IT folks—at least that’s how the argument typically goes. In any case, IT professionals don’t interact with business consumers in the same manner as sales and marketing people. In our seemingly infinite and insatiable human capacity to denigrate other professions or groups, we get wrapped up in the unfortunate world of stereotypes.

As a marketing professional, I consider myself far more capable of writing, speaking and strategizing than I do of exercising any level of technological skill. Moreover, as part of a profession that’s always under the gun—something IT and marketing have in common—it’s natural to want to find others to blame or at least to poke fun at.

However, during my more than 15 years of experience dealing with IT professionals, studying the culture of IT and getting paid to connect companies with their technical audiences, I’ve come to understand just how important IT is to smooth business operations. From this experience, I’ve come to understand how deeply IT professionals understand consumers. I’ve learned more about the consumers of IT from my interactions with IT professionals than from anyone else.

So how did this separation of IT and its customers come to pass? How did this inversion occur? The answers are actually fairly easily derived from basic knowledge of the life of IT professionals. As a group, IT professionals are:

  • Leading-edge: Given that IT professionals are charged with making fundamental technology decisions across a variety of scenarios, they are by necessity current and fully up to speed with changes in the dynamic and fast-moving world of technology, devices and systems. Because IT tests so many different technologies in so many different scenarios, IT professionals have to be conversant with all aspects of current technology.
  • Flexible: Though IT professionals have a reputation for rigidity, they are in fact quite the opposite. In fact, by nature, IT professionals are tinkerers and problem solvers. Given the infinite scenarios that confront them every day, IT professionals have to approach everything with a considerable degree of flexibility. This empowers them to be empathetic and non-dogmatic. This is also a prerequisite for understanding the ever-changing mores and desires of consumers.
  • Collaborative: IT professionals work together to solve problems and share ideas and techniques as a matter of course. One finds very little provincialism in IT.
  • Customer-savvy: If we expand our notion of the customer to include the various internal people who are tied to IT through a complex system of service level agreements (SLAs), we come to realize that IT deals with a large number of customers on a daily basis. Furthermore, each of these customers has a unique demand that needs to be fulfilled. As such, IT professionals develop a very strong customer-connection ethic.
  • Accountability: Few parts of the organization have as strict an accountability framework as IT. Perhaps law, operations and finance are the only other aspects of an enterprise that would even come close. In this way, IT professionals come to understand that their version of the “customer promise” is absolutely critical to smooth business operations.

If we consider that IT professionals embody these characteristics, let’s shift the discussion to the consumer. Regarding consumers (especially consumers of technology), there are some basic discernible tendencies:

  • Consumers always like the absolute latest thing. Given that consumer goods are symbols of status and achievement, as well as sources of entertainment, many tend to want to be on the leading edge of the innovation cycle. A line outside a store when something new is being released is an example of this desire to be “early on” in the cycle. To understand those who want to be leading-edge, organizations have to believe in being leading-edge.
  • Consumer sentiments, attitudes, likes and dislikes are ever-changing. In a world of lightning-fast product cycles, consumers have a plethora of choices at any point in a purchase cycle. As such, their desires can quickly change. This requires a great deal of flexibility in the companies that aim to cater to consumer markets.
  • Consumers like to share. The massive acceleration of social media is proof that the ritual of sharing is a strong driver of consumer behavior. Particularly in the world of electronic devices, consumers often spend considerable amounts of time sharing deep details with others—a truly cooperative set of gestures.
  • Consumers are demanding. They demand quality and accountability from product and services providers. They can quickly “escalate” via feedback and volubility if they’re disappointed.

As you can see, the needs of consumers and the qualities of IT are quite well-aligned. It isn’t simply happenstance that IT professionals understand consumers. It’s built into the very fabric of what they do.

The next time you’re blasted with the notion that you as an IT professional are fundamentally disconnected from your consumers, you need to sit down with your accuser. Explain carefully how, if the entire organization embraced the basic principles by which the IT department runs, everyone would benefit from newfound knowledge. In the end, of course, the consumers would benefit the most.

Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan* is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.*