Managing End-User Perceptions of IT Service Interruptions and Outages

Downtime happens -- hardware fails, software has bugs, and human beings, even IT professionals, make mistakes. The real test IT service quality is not whether problems occur, but how often, and to what response.  Problem response activities must be properly managed, using appropriate communication and customer service techniques, to ensure that negative perceptions don't get a chance to "set in".  Read on to learn more about it.

If your end-users were asked how often certain systems are "down", what would they say?  Whatever the answer might be, at the very least, you would hope it would be based in fact and not "perception".  Problem event frequency and conditions are facts, borne out by actual performance statistics (i.e. the server is up 99% of the time, and outages last no longer than one hour). And logically, IT performance should be judged on that objective criteria. But, facts do not always tell the whole story, and end-user perceptions, no matter how erroneous, can play a large role in how problems and related IT performance are judged.

It may be unfair, but IT managers must be prepared to manage to both sides - the facts of the matter as well as the perceptions of the end-user community.

IT Problem Response: Fact vs. Fiction

This discrepancy between fact and perception can arise from basic differences in point of view. End-users view technology problems and service interruptions based on impact -- i.e. "I can't work, I can't print, I can't send e-mail.....".  On the other hand, IT staffers tend to view technical problems from a more clinical perspective, according to source, cause, degree of difficulty and the nature of the related resolution.

Perceptions are further complicated when IT problem events occur with more regularity (or severity) than one would like, or in relatively close proximity to one another.  While the IT department may view each incident as a separate and distinct event, to the end-user community, any given problem event may be viewed as one long string of the same circumstance .... i.e. "this network is always down".  The sad fact is that very few people acknowledge the norm - "as in server uptime", but they never fail to notice the exceptions - "as in server downtime".  And, distinct problems can blend together so that they are perceived as one massive, ongoing systems failure.  (Relating Reading:  Closing IT Service Expectations Gaps)

You don't have to be a victim of a "perceptions problem".  As a responsible and pragmatic IT manager, you must recognize that "perception problems" can and do exist, and take steps to minimize negative consequences and repair damaged relationships.  It goes with the territory of wearing multiple hats.

Taking Charge of End-User Perceptions Problem

"Actions speak louder than words".  That's a sentiment that is certainly relevant to the perception problem scenario.  At some point, the best way to resolve these issues is to face up to them and take consistent, specific actions to prove them wrong.  It all starts by laying a solid foundation of IT capability, understanding the nature of the perception problem and then working consistently to share information, communicate and address expressed concerns.  This is all summarized in the eight (8) key steps laid out below:

Step One: Get Ready to Act.
  • Before you begin, be sure of your facts and ensure that your systems (and related services) are sufficiently stable, and of sufficient quality.  If you are going to challenge perceptions, you need to know that your view is the correct one.  If you are wrong, all credibility will be lost.
Step Two: Analyze Current Circumstances.
  • Analyze all problem events from both points of view - technical and end-user impact.  This is critical to address reported end-user concerns.  Empathy is an essential part of IT service management.  You have to look at things from the "other side".
Step Three: Identify and Define Realistic Expectations.
  • Clearly define IT service goals, objectives and limitations for your end-user community. It is important to minimize unrealistic expectations.
Step Four: Negotiate to Set Realistic Expectations.
  • Negotiate and implement realistic "Service Level Agreements". This is necessary to ensure that all parties have the same expectations regarding service obligations and requirements, and that those expectations and requirements are clearly stated in writing.
Step Five: Communicate and Share Information.
  • Maintain effective communications during all problem events. Give frequent, factual updates at regular intervals, even if the news is bad.  It's always better to be the bearer of bad news than to have "bad news" dumped on your head.
Step Six: Be Sure to Follow Through
  • Maintain timely, accurate communications even after a problem is resolved, using e-mail, memos or formal incident reports.  Informed end-users will be less likely to fill information gaps with their own "perceptions".
Step Seven: Document, Document, Document.
  • Keep accurate records of all critical problem and outage statistics.  These records can be particularly helpful when you need to answer for and address end-user complaints.
Step Eight: Maintain Positive Relationships.
  • Maintain positive end-user relationships, watching out for any signs of negative perceptions, warranted and unwarranted. Take immediate steps to correct problems and control perceptions.

Continue with more on this subject in our next article Closing Gaps in IT Service Expectations and download our whitepaper Quick Guide to Disaster Recovery Planning.

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