Managing relationship managers

Are engineers really 'not good' with dealing with customers?

In the tech movie spoof Office Space, one employee trying to save his job explains to efficiency experts that "engineers are not good at dealing with customers."

An increasing number of CIOs recognize that, like the engineers of the movie's soulless corporation Initech, some of their companies' IT staffers aren't very good at dealing with customers either. To address the problem, they've created positions with titles such as business relationship manager or customer relationship manager to help them relate to internal customers.

The people holding these jobs are charged with changing the perception of IT from that of a passive dispenser of requested services to a proactive provider of business value. But their success has been as mixed as the visions of the CIOs who employ them. Here are three different approaches.

Walk first; run later

After consolidating the IT infrastructure of 25 executive agencies in 2006, the state of North Carolina's Office of Information Technology Services in Raleigh surveyed state workers and discovered that they thought communication between the agencies and IT was poor. State CIO George Bakolia responded by creating a business relationship management (BRM) unit to improve communication and foster trust.

Most new processes in state government have a strong IT component, but IT often isn't consulted early enough for maximum effectiveness, says Wendy Kuhn, director of BRM. "By establishing this relationship of trust, we're hoping to change that," she says.

The business people want to have a single, responsive point of contact in IT, Bakolia says. So he looks for "excellent communicators who can relate to customers and articulate to the techies in IT what the business really needs."

With that emphasis on communication, three of the four people who have been hired as relationship managers do not have IT backgrounds.

Kuhn says that the group will gradually transition from just reacting to service issues to studying the IT needs of internal customers and recommending changes. Bakolia agrees. "Our longer-term goal is to have them work on strategic issues," he says, "but no customer is going to allow this business liaison to intervene on business re-engineering before we've established trust."

Brian Layh, one of the relationship managers, says being an advocate for business customers within IT can be challenging because he needs to work "both sides of the fence," and that includes pointing out areas where IT can improve.

Layh looks forward to providing strategic advice to agency heads. "It's not hard for me to see new ways that technology could help agencies meet their business goals," he says. "We just need the relationship to mature enough where we can pursue that."

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