Cult of personality

I hear comments all the time from customers about their tech: "He knows our system so well", "He's so familiar with our system", "He's really smart" and "He's so knowledgeable".  The list of admirations - mostly tied to the tech's personal familiarity with the I.T. system and their personal familiarity with the tech - goes on.  To me, that's one of the first signs of danger for a business customer.

Most business customers believe their technician is operating in a way that's in their best interest.  They see their tech persevere and work hard to overcome their problems.  He or she may even communicate extremely very well. And the tech may indeed have a personal familiarity with the system no one else could possibly have after all of the time they've spent troubleshooting the system, learning the ins and outs of what works and what doesn't work. But what business customers don't know and often can't see is likely costing them thousands of dollars per year, and is a ticking time bomb of business vulnerability.

Don't get me wrong: A technician's professionalism, acumen and personality do matter.  Even the best I.T. operations supporting a small business are ineffective if the technician servicing the account can't communicate or has a poor attitude and demeanor.  But in the absence of a plan and a strategy to prevent issues, handle service efficiently, and the discipline to execute on the plan and ongoing personaly development including recertification, several things can happen:

The business becomes critically dependent on the tech:

This is the obvious one; In the absence of a well-documented specification of the I.T. system, it doesn't take long before the business is completely dependent on the technician with the most familiarity with the system. When was the last time your technician invested the time to document your I.T. system and make it servicable by someone other than him?

The most routine tasks take exponentially more time and resources:

In the absence of a well-documented specification, little tasks, like setting up a new employee on the I.T. system, take dramatically longer than it should.  Imagine taking on any project- like setting up a new user -if someone handed you a checklist of things that need to happen, a list and inventory of the resources you'll need, and you've got the skill to do the work.  It would happen pretty fast, right?  Now instead, imagine "winging it": Sure, you may it it 80-90% right, but how many little things get missed?  Did that user not get connected to the printer they need?  What about the version of MS Office?  Did it get serialized?  Did we already have a license, or did we buy another one out of a rush to get things moving and maybe wasted time and another $400 in software we might already own?  Sound familiar?

Technicians become convinced their experience is more important than certification:

I can't even begin to stress how much of a problem this is. Very few consultants in the I.T. industry invest in current certifications. There's a belief that experience is more important.  This is a circular argument, because certification is the validation of knowledge, and experience comes from the application and practice with that knowledge. Certification in the tech industry is like any other continuing education: it ensures as new technologies come out that technicians can pass and prove that they have met the knowledge- and sometimes competence- level that the particular manfacturer of the technology expects.  So why does the personal familiarity cause a problem here?  For many techs looking for an excuse to avoid the effort and time spent getting certified, pointing to "how well I know the technology I work with daily" seems like a pretty good excuse. 

This is both a shame for the business, because the business is not getting the value of a certified tech - all other things being equal - is always more skilled, knowledgeable and competent.  It's also a shame for the tech whose skills quickly become stale. They begin to get entrenched deeper into the customer's business, depending largely on their personality and familiarity of the system as reasons for the customer to not let them go or seek out a better service with more value.

Why is this a danger for a business customer?

You invest in technology- like any other function or structure of your business, to support the business in being successful. When you have dependency on one tech's familiarity with the system, you could run into some serious problems if the tech isn't available one day, or if the tech misses something critical because of their own myopia. Or you may fall into the trap of actually hiring that tech out of fear of losing them.

What are some things a business customer can do to be in greater control?

  • Expect and demand a well-documented I.T. function.  It could be as simple as checklists, and it may be more sophisticated, including a preventive maintenance plan.  Everything should be documented, including passwords, serial numbers, purchase history, and registrations.  I'll post an article soon on some of the more commonly missed documentation that can cost a business dearly when mistakes and oversights occur.  All of this should be accessible to the business owner at all times.
  • Try different technicians.  Sure, personality is important. But can someone else serve you competently using the documentation, or do they have the deer-in-headlights look when you ask them what all the open items are that need to be accomplished, and where the documenation is to complete it?  It's better to test out your I.T. operations now, before you're forced to due to someone's life change.
  • Have the technician demonstrate and prove their value. The question "what have you done for me lately?" is a great one.  If the answer is a series of problems that have been fixed, review the list. How many of those problems could have been prevented with a well-documented I.T. system? Busy-ness is not necessarily a good thing if the problems shouldn't have occurred in the first place.

The cult of I.T. personality affects almost all business customers - but most of them don't know it.  Having a tech on board means someone else is handling the problems so you don't have to.  Why try fixing something that isn't broken?  But there are lots of things to consider when evaluating whether your technical function is "broken" - even if it doesn't look that way - and how much of your own money and time you're wasting before it does someday break.  It may be time now to look for another service provider.