Manage Service Expectations to Close End User Satisfaction Gaps

What do your end users expect when it comes to IT services - considering both quality and quantity?  In the most practical sense, IT service "expectations" are defined by two perspectives - the IT department delivering the services and the end-users receiving them.  To maintain customer service satisfaction, these perspective must share a common set of realistic expectations.  Without that, there is no basis for a shared purpose and strategic vision.  Read on for more.

Service expectations are influenced by four (4) key factors including the composition of the IT service portfolio, service terms (availability, response times and performance), respective roles and responsibilities (IT and end-user) and existing constraints (time, funding, technical capabilities, resource availability).   The key to IT service value and acceptance is alignment - to ensure that service expectations match needs, commitments and capabilities.  What happens when expectations fall out of alignment?  You have an expectations gap.  (Also Read:  Keys to Customer Service in IT Management)

What is an IT Service Expectations Gap?

Expectations gaps occur when there is a mismatch between the services end-users "expect" to receive and the services made possible through negotiated commitments and actual capabilities.  It's easy to look at expectation gaps as just a matter of perception, but that is potentially dangerous view.  As the saying goes, left unchallenged "perception becomes reality".  In the absence of a direct, concerted effort to set realistic service expectations, your end-users are likely to develop and sustain their own expectations, which may or may not be "aligned" with actual service obligations.  The resulting consequences can be very real - leading to diminished service value, increased dissatisfaction (on both sides) and reduced ROI.

Expectation gaps can develop in any number of areas including the IT "mission", the products and services provided as part of the IT service portfolio, the use and functionality of installed technology, the enforcement of IT policies and standards, and related service level obligations, including response times, and systems performance, reliability, usability and availability.

In all likelihood, expectations gaps will develop from these common IT management missteps:

  • Lack of communication between the IT service provider and the end-user community.
  • Inconsistent enforcement of IT policies and technology standards.
  • Failure to keep current with business needs, organizational changes and technology requirements.

Try to Avoid.  Prepare to Mitigate.

Human nature being what it is, it is very difficult to avoid every expectation "gap", so you need to be prepared to minimize and mitigate.   The key to minimizing expectation gaps is to "define - align - approve".

Make sure the IT "mission" and service portfolio is properly defined in actionable terms.
Make sure the IT "mission" and service portfolio is fully aligned with all identified needs.
Make sure the IT "mission" and service portfolio has the approval of all key stakeholders.

In order to take further action to mitigate existing expectation gaps, you must first take stock of what you are up against and how firmly these service "viewpoints" are held.   Can you read the warning signs of an expectations gap?

Warning Signs of an Expectations Gap:

  • Do your end-users request services that are not part of the existing IT charter?
  • Do your end-users report systems limitations as error conditions?
  • Do your end-users feel that IT is more interested in control than in end-user needs?
  • Do your end-users view necessary systems maintenance as an "outage"?
  • Do your end-users feel that IT is too slow to respond to non-emergency support problems?
  • Do your end-users frequently claim that project results fail to meet specified requirements?

This expectations analysis begins with one question - "Are the identified expectations currently being met?". If the answer is "no", the analysis must continue to determine whether the "expectation" in question is arguably "realistic" considering service capabilities and commitments.

To determine whether an expectation is "realistic" or "unrealistic", it can be measured against the following five (5) criteria.
  1. Does the expectation exceed specific end-user needs and requirements?
  2. Is the expectation in line with global business goals and objectives?
  3. Does the expectation fall within operational boundaries (costs, staffing, regulatory, contractual)?
  4. Does the expectation fall within technology boundaries? (feasibility, compatibility and serviceability)?
  5. Can this expectation be met considering constraints and capabilities?

Expectations Management To-Do List:

Depending upon the nature and source of "expectations gap" condition, specific response strategies will vary, but will always be built on the following five (5) elements:

1. You have to review.  Continuous improvement is a key to avoiding and mitigating expectation gaps.  To ensure continuous improvement, IT services should be "reviewed" on a regular basis, as a scheduled component of the IT management program.  You have to be able to pinpoint problems and resolve issues to minimize "gap" occurrence.
2. You have to communicate.  Communication is essential to managing expectations gaps in order to quantify tangible "expectations" and share relevant information to mitigate negative impact.
3. You have to negotiate.  Once expectation gaps have been identified, resulting solutions must be negotiated in order to re-align service expectations with actual obligations and capabilities.
4. You have to document.  "Put it down on paper".  That's the way to avoid future misunderstandings and to provide a tangible basis for negotiating service delivery needs and requirements.
5. You have to escalate.  When expectation "gaps" cannot be resolved through direct negotiation with end-users, take it up the chain of command.  Example: If departmental expectations are not aligned with global business goals and objectives, IT staff may not be able to bridge that "gap".  In all likelihood, these issues will require appropriate escalation.

Continue for more on this subject in our featured articles How to Offer Apologies for Customer Service Failures and Marketing Strategies for the IT Help Desk.

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