What’s Wrong with Your IT? Try Asking Your Customers

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, March 2, 2010

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch was a very popular political figure (and remains so) for many reasons, but not the least of these were his warmth and openness. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in what became his defining catchphrase: “How am I doing?”

Koch didn’t just ask this of a few people on a few occasions. It seemed that he would use any excuse to publicly ask about his status, then listen to people praise or revile his performance as New York’s CEO. As a result, he built a lot of good will and—at least in the opinion of some (including me)—was a most effective leader.

Speaking of asking for input on performance, Mitchell International Inc. has announced the formation of its new SmartAdvisor Customer Advisory Council (CAC), “a collaborative forum where ‘Voice of the Customer’ insights into business requirements and technology needs” will be applied to the creation of the company’s products.

CAC Chair and SVP and GM of the Mitchell International SmartAdvisor Solutions division, Nina Smith, said, “The Customer Advisory Council will enable us to understand what is required to continue to bring value and innovation to our customers' operations. Through close interaction and partnership, the CAC will facilitate discussions about industry trends, business challenges, and business requirements, turning the most influential ideas into recommendations for strategies and actions by Mitchell.”

This got me to thinking about the whole idea of asking for customer feedback—and wondering why the insurance/financial services IT community doesn’t do it more often. Of course, I’m talking here about our internal customers—the folks who try to use the applications and technology we give them within the parameters we set forth. Like it or not, these everyday Joes and Janes are the people we need to serve and cater to if we have any notion of calling our IT operation successful.

Having an internal customer advisory council for IT seems like common sense, yet I rarely see this happening. There are several reasons, but perhaps the most potent one is that many IT shops just don’t respect their end users. Having spoken with a lot of IT people over too many years, I can assure you that very few of them speak in respectful tones about users. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for IT practitioners to view business users as the “enemy.”

Another factor may be that IT folks, for the most part, tend to live in their own world. Being an IT professional is a lot like belonging to a cult that possesses arcane knowledge and does not relish the idea of sharing the goods. It’s a kind of “one-up” game that could easily give one a sense of superiority. Those “Luddite” users may be viewed as a lower form of life that only continues to flourish through the benevolence of their IT benefactors. Sometimes we make ourselves feel good by making someone else out to look bad—sad to say.

This kind of pathology remains rampant in our companies and our enterprises despite the efforts of many to bring the groups together, and pleas to “just get along.” It grows virally, in part because both of the parties have fear and disdain for each other—based on nothing, really. But if those of us on the IT side can at least admit that our in-house customers may have some valuable feedback for us, there is hope for us yet.

It seems to me that an IT advisory council that meets regularly, includes decision-makers from both sides of the technology divide, and seriously considers implementing the suggestions of its members will go a long way toward solving this problem. The impetus, however, must come from the top. If we require this kind of constructive interaction as part of our corporate cultures, something helpful is bound to emerge. At the very least, group members on both sides may realize that the “enemy” really isn’t so awful after all.

None of us is perfect. It really is okay to ask, “How am I doing?” So, uh, how am I doing?

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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Comments (4)

I developed and managed an insurance profit center that wrote group p & c business and decided after a year or so to send out a questionnaire asking our insured's how we were doing. We not only received criticism and praise but ideas on how to better serve our clients. It was a bonus that the entire staff felt good about the results and the job they were doing. The experience left all of us with a renewed commitment to better customer service.

Posted by: Robert R | March 6, 2010 12:45 PM

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I couldn't agree more, Ara. When we first rolled out our ideas crowd-sourcing tool at, initial reactions were to lock up in fear: "why would I open myself up to complaints??". But we've learned through our own processes the immense value of opening up the dialog and creating channels for collaborative discussion and feedback. By showing you're listening, you will gain the trust of your customers.

I also came across an interesting figure recently. You know those "How's my driving?" stickers on the back of trucks, with a number to call? I think everyone assumes that all the calls are complaints about rude or bad drivers - who would bother to call that number, right? A full 18% of their calls are actually compliments! That's an amazing figure, I think. By opening up the dialogue, you also open yourself up to praise and to learn what you're doing right!

Posted by: Kardyhm K | March 5, 2010 5:30 PM

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These groups are more pervasive than you think. Audatex (a Mitchell competitor) has had one for years. They play an important function - probably more important than is generally known.
Internally to companies there are groups of business analysts who's job it is to translate need. The issue is changing these into deliverables. This gets us to the sticky question you raise - IT groups within companies don't ask anyone how they are doing. My experience is that the like to insulate themselves from it. Issues raised are almost exclusively greeted with explanations based on complexity of development. In other words, the feedback is there on a less formal level, but is not acted on to Don's point above. The best organization's I've worked with (IT and non-IT) not only want the feedback, they seek it out. Organizations that improve over time have customer satisfaction as a key measure. Time for IT to start using that measure.

Posted by: Jim K | March 5, 2010 1:18 PM

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You're doing well, Ara. You're right on the money here: asking how you're doing is the first step to connecting with the real world - the one outside yourself. It applies to individuals and organizations. You might not like what you hear, but you'll be hearing it from those who matter.

Acting on what you hear... well, that's a different story, isn't it?

Posted by: don.goodenow | March 5, 2010 9:32 AM

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