Grandpa’s Guide to IT (Offense Five)

The customer is not always right.

The world is divided into people who know what they want, and people who think they know what they want. In no industry does this become more apparent than IT.

Sadly, no one seems to know what they need. The customer needs more capability, more flexibility, more efficiency and less cost on an almost daily basis in this competitive world. The IT professional who is tasked to help finds himself unable to appreciate the nuances of running a pet shop, for example and just waiting for key words that will help him locate a solution that will sort of work.

Our entire world is so intertwined with computing that our collective ignorance about computing, software and networking should have completely paralyzed our economy by now.

But it hasn’t happened. The sheer ingenuity that the average, hard working person will put into compensating for the fundamental mistakes of an organization is nothing short of amazing. Entire systems and modes of thought for productivity have arisen from this ongoing, unintentional disaster. And as a result, we are pounding square pegs into round holes cheaper and faster than ever.

It could be better. One way is to expand the professional qualifications of IT professionals to include business, manufacturing, healthcare, etc. Make an IT professional a specialist in his computing field and a generalist in the industry he serves. But that is too much work. I, for one, do not want to spend years learning about the challenges of running a successful pet shop just to sell a router. I do not want to live in a world where one of my professional peers cares very deeply about goldfish.

The other way is obnoxious, obstructionist and considerably more fun for the IT professional. And that is dropping the age old fallacy that the customer is always right.

Forget the horror stories about horrible users. We tell those stories because they are funny or entertainingly awful, and as a result it seems that our daily grind is a struggle with dangerously ignorant people, but they are not actually the norm. The business world is not made up of idiots. Instead, it is mostly made up of reasonably capable people who have been promoted to just a hair’s breadth above their competence and comfort level. These people are stressed, diligent, worried, and perpetually aware that the entirety of their careers will be spent never quite feeling in complete control of their situation. They have integrity, a good work ethic, and they do their research. And these people can wreck your business faster than a text message to the wrong jihadist.

Say, for example, you have decided to take the supreme risk of quitting your day job to open your own business. You are now the proud owner of a small metal fabrication shop and on that first exhilarating and terrifying day of being open for business, in walks your first customer.

You are a little surprised at his appearance. He is well dressed, slightly out of shape and has the confident bearing of someone who knows he is just a little bit smarter than most of the people he knows. He is definitely not the kind of customer you were expecting. You were most likely expecting some kid dragging two halves of an axle behind him with only ten bucks in his pocket and the desperate hope that you could somehow fix this for him and charge him only five dollars.

He confidently hands you a drawing and asks if you could make this for him. You notice that not only is it a proper engineering drawing, but he has specified the alloys for specific parts and which parts can be bought off the shelf or will need machining.

You are a bit surprised that the drawing is clearly of a rather vicious looking little crossbow, but your first customer definitely knows what he wants, has clearly done his research, and has prepared his order with forethought and consideration for you. You agree on a price and a time, and he comes to pick up his crossbow on the agreed date.

A week later he comes back to your shop covered in blood, and burnt clothing and he tosses the mangled and scorched remains of his crossbow on to your shop floor. He announces that it didn’t work, that you cheated him and that he has denounced your business on every website that tracks small outfits like yours.

Aghast, you ask him what happened. And he, so wrapped up in the wondrous magnitude of his personal tragedy, decided to tell you.

He had been running the kind of business out of his house that the federal government tends to disapprove of. You did not understand the specifics but you did understand that he was running a couple of servers in his basement and expected the government to shut him down rather thoroughly any day. He decided that he would need something to defend his home from misguided officers of the law but lived next door to a little old lady he was rather fond of. He decided that a gun was far too noisy and would upset this dear little old lady if it was discharged during one of her frequent naps. He decided on a crossbow for its silence and general deadliness but didn’t want to purchase one in case the feds could track it.

The drone pilot who targeted his house had no appreciation for this convoluted and ridiculous chain of logic and simply compared the satellite photo to the one on his screen and pressed the launch button. The little old lady was awakened anyway, with burst ear drums and the crossbow bolt stopped rising about a thousand feet below the drone, arced back to earth and narrowly missed a squirrel when it thudded into a tree.

Are you responsible for this mess? I would argue that you are to a degree. You assumed the customer was right and you gave him what he wanted. An easy mistake to make, the guy clearly had done his research and seemed so sure of himself. If you had asked a few questions, unthinkable questions like “What on earth do you need a crossbow for?” Which, I accept, is crossing the line when it comes to good customer service, but you might have discovered that he needed a lawyer much more urgently than he needed a crossbow. As a result, this customer damaged your business’ reputation before you have even gotten it off the ground.

The other extreme is my extreme and is not acceptable for other reasons (I enjoy being unpleasant and uncooperative far more than is professionally advisable.). A similar situation would play out like this in my shop:

A customer nervously approaches my office, wringing his hands, sweating, and obviously filled with trepidation. (There is no other correct way to approach me.)

“My Lord, I have brought you one of my virgin daughters. She is comely and obedient and still has all of her own teeth.”

“She is pleasing to my sight. Speak, mortal.”

“Thank you Sire, I have a friend who has offered to help me with my database. He says he can rewrite the front end to simplify a number of processes so I can free up man hours to be used elsewhere.”

“I do not approve. Cast this friend from thy circle of acquaintances and trouble me no more with this.”

“But my Lord, why?”

“Wouldst thou learn the black speech of SQL and stain your soul beyond redemption? Wouldst thou try to fix a problem that does not exist by giving thyself a thousand new problems? This friend serves his own interests. If you follow the path he has laid out for you, thou shalt be forever beholden to his good will and his beneficence will increase in price every year.”

“I….see. Thank you, Sire”

“You may go, mortal. Oh, and leave the virgin over there. With the others.”

Yes, I have far too much fun at my work. Arguably, stasis is not better, I just happen to think so because I don’t like learning new things, nor do I like admitting I do not know something. I actually gave good advice, but my customer walked away feeling that I was just being obstructionist and lazy. (which I was)

You have to find the answer for yourself.

Take this as a moral experiment with which to test yourself. You are running a small PC sales and repair shop and you find yourself spending your morning with a surprisingly nice older gentleman. He has a list of parts and you realize that he has the makings of a very high performance, very expensive gaming machine.

He says to you, “I was not expecting this to be so expensive. I just want a computer so I can email my extended family in Norway. My grandson says I need three GPUs for the horsepower I need to send email that far.”

Then you feel that twinge of sympathy (Don’t worry, you will grow out of it eventually.) You know what has been done to this nice old guy by a self serving, greedy little turd who is just a bit more computer savvy than his grandfather is.

Do you save this man by asking a few questions and maybe making some unwanted, but cheaper suggestions?

Do you feel that your skills and knowledge should be used to ease this nice old guy into the wondrously horrible, chaotic and liberating international brain trust that is the internet with as little financial pain as possible?

Or is the customer always right?

Decide, mortal.