Users, Customers – What’s in a Name?

Posted by on October 18, 2016 in Service Desk

Users, Customers – What’s in a Name?

It isn’t often I get to start an IT service management (ITSM) blog with a William Shakespeare quote, but he put it perfectly in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Sadly, as our Shakespearean heroes discover in their tragic demise, human society does indeed get hung up on the names, labels, and words we use. ITIL® has been guilty of hijacking words from the English language and assigning them their own special ITIL meanings (you know like “incident” or “problem”), which has caused many people to get confused and miss the significance of the concept being described. Just like in Shakespeare’s play, all that baggage of the Montague and Capulet families damages the simple meaning of a boy and a girl in love.


So…ITSM Users and Customers

Let’s focus now on one important concept that I find gets very confusing because of the terminology. In ITIL, the terms customer and user are given significant differences in meaning.

The customer has financial involvement – they pay for the service. This could mean actually paying with real money, but not always. Sometimes it might be the budget holder who is charged, or it might just be signing off on a business case without tangible money being transferred. But in each case, the customer is in a position to see the bigger balance between the cost of the service and the benefits it gives.

The user is just that – someone using the service. They deal with inputs and outputs, not what it costs or on the value it offers for the money paid out. Users will have opinions based just on what the service does, nothing much beyond that.

The truth is we’re all already familiar with these concepts, as they are part of our everyday lives. Let me show you what I mean with a few examples.

Choosing a Car

So, imagine your car was stolen and the insurance company sends you a check in the sum of your compensation. Off you go to buy a replacement. You walk around the car dealer and a nice, shiny red car with a pretty prancing horse motif catches your eye. “Yes,” you think, “I’ll have that one.” Then they tell you what the Ferrari costs and you go home in a second-hand Ford still able to pay the mortgage and feed the children.

That’s you being a customer, able to balance the pleasures and benefits of having that car against the cost and what you can afford. Customers can make those compromises because they see both sides. The user (maybe your kid who also drives the car) will just be driving the car, and isn’t ever going to be satisfied with what they drive, always wanting more when it isn’t their money.

At the Toy Store

You’ve probably all seen both sides of this example, as an adult and as a child. Off you go to the toy store with your son, daughter, niece, nephew (you get the picture), and you let them look around at all the toys, intending to buy them one as a treat. The children will not be looking at the price tags, rather they’ll be totally focused on what the toy does and how much fun it is, or will be, if they can have it. The adults will have other considerations. First and foremost, they’ll care what each toy costs, both in terms of whether they can afford it and whether it seems to deliver value for the money. They might also have a broader view, by considering educational value as well as entertainment value.

Here the adult is obviously the customer, and the child is the user.

Different Roles, Not Just Different People

In the IT scenario, and our ordinary lives, it’s important to realize that a customer and a user are roles – not necessarily different people. You may choose the cheaper option when you’re acting as the customer, and still find yourself annoyed later at the lack of facilities, reliability, or support (or lack thereof) when you’re acting in your role as the user.

That comes out in an ITSM situation when the customer agrees, for example, to a service level agreement (SLA) with support from 8am-8pm on weekdays. Despite that making good economic sense during initial negotiations, the user in you will still feel aggrieved when the system goes down while you’re using it on a Saturday and nobody is available to help you until the next working day.

At home, you might be offered a deal by the power company – for an extra $400 a month they can guarantee stability and continuity of the electricity supply. That seems far too much to your customer view and so you turn it down. Still, six months later when the power fails, the user in you is upset – maybe with the power company, maybe with yourself?

Call Them What You Like, But See the Two Roles

Of course, just because ITIL uses those two words – customer and user – doesn’t mean you need to. But it does matter that you can see the two roles and address them. Customers, of course, must make the decisions about what can be afforded, but users need to be involved if services are to match their abilities, styles, preferences, and culture of work. If not, then the service will not be used to its potential and is unlikely to deliver value for money.

And this doesn’t end once a service goes live – ongoing maintenance and improvement depend on dialogue with both groups. ITIL gives us channels for discussions with both customers and users. Negotiating and reviewing SLAs, within service improvement programs, change management, and more is done with customers. And the service desk is the major interaction with users – besides taking calls when things go wrong, the service desk can also gather users’ concerns and desires, and then feed them into improvement programs.

A good organization will take steps to set up and maintain communication with both types of stakeholders. Is that what you’re doing?


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