The Frustration Factor

John T. Mason, Founder, OakHorn Solutions (Former CIO, Hill Country Memorial)

As a CIO, one of the most important parts of your job is managing the expectations of your customers. The folks doing the real work of making the systems operate count on you to do your part to make sure you let the customer know what to expect, and head them off when they start expecting perfection.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean you need to be a Negative Nelly and always try to undershoot the capabilities of your team, but neither should you be a Pollyanna who is not being willing to be realistic about what might happen. It’s a fine line, and it takes some practice.

Your job is to know your team, know the capabilities of the technology and processes, and be able to accurately assess and translate that capability into a reasonable expectation of results.

This, of course, comes with experience and practice. In your first few months on the job, it’s hard to know what your team can, and can’t, deliver on. If it’s a new technology, it’s hard to know if the system is proven enough to estimate the results. And with customers, it can be hard to know what they are really expecting, and what they are telling you they expect.

But, there are a few ways to help set good expectations, and reduce the frustration level of your customers. Here are a few steps to consider as you start out on a new project or technology.

  1. Do your research. With any new technology or system, it’s critical to do research ahead of time, and make sure you’ve talked to enough people to understand what is — and is not — realistic. Ask them what they expected, and what their actual frustration factor turned out to be (frustration factor = results minus expectations). Knowing that up front goes a long way to making sure you set expectations clearly. Don’t just take the word of the sales person with the slick brochure — she has a vested interest in helping you see things with rose colored glasses.
  2. Talk to your team. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Setting expectations with the customer without talking to your team is a big mistake. They’ve likely got a lot more experience with whatever you’re about to undertake than you do. And if not, they can still give you some good advice and will know what the customers have typically expected in the past. The team is key to your success — don’t make the mistake of forgetting them.
  3. Set clear expectations — in writing. One of the worst mistakes you can make when trying to set expectations is to assume that conversations alone are enough to help the message sink in and set good predictions with your customers. Research published by Albert Mehrabian (which, in fairness, is often disputed) states that 7 percent of what you say to a customer influences them. The other 93 percent comes from body language, tone, and demeanor, said Mehrabian in his book, Silent Messages. Even if the actual percentages are disputable, my experience tells me that a large portion of what you tell someone will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just missed altogether. As you deal with large, complex projects that require that everyone be on the same page, putting things in writing in very clear language is critical. Without it, you are sure to miss expectations and have high frustration factors.
  4. Seek out supporters and detractors. Most folks hate to be around people that don’t support them. It’s just human nature. We seek out people that are more like us, tend to support our views and ideas, and will help us succeed in our work. People who don’t do that tend to rub us the wrong way, and we end up avoiding them. But your detractors can oftentimes become your biggest advocates once you win them over. If not, you will definitely gain some great insight into potential problems and pitfalls that you’ll encounter.
  5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Once you’ve set expectations with your customers, you can’t assume that they’ll remember what you told them, nor will they pull out the document you wrote on a regular basis just to see what a great job you’ve done hitting their expectations. Expectations are an internal phenomenon, and communication is the best way to stay plugged into the internal feelings and concerns of your customers. An example of how expectations are an internal feeling can be explained by the idea of ‘phantom limbs.’ When someone experiences the loss of a limb, they will often describe the sensation that the limb is still attached to them. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to feel the need to scratch an itch on the missing limb, or have feelings of pain and heaviness where the limb used to be, despite the fact that they can see the limb is no longer there. Much like phantom limbs, expectations drive our feelings, even in the face of reality. If your customer expects a project to go well, and doesn’t feel it is meeting their expectations, no amount of logical, factual data will change their mind. You can only change their mind by subtly and consistently ‘guiding’ those expectations through consistent communication.

No one likes to be frustrated. And as a CIO, the last thing you want is a frustrated customer who views technology as over-promising and under-delivering. It is incumbent on you, the CIO, to help set those expectations early and often if you want the team, and the organization, to be a success.

What about you? What other ways have you learned to clearly set expectations and manage dissatisfaction of your customers? Share your techniques and experiences with the rest of us.

[This piece was originally published on John T. Mason’s blog page. To view the original post, click here. Follow him on Twitter at @jtmasoniv.]

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