A Taste of My Own Medicine

After complaining about vendors, it’s time for some soul-searching at home. Like most vendors, our consulting firm has had some really good successes and a few not-so-good encounters. At the risk of embarrassing myself more than usual in this column, here are a few learning experiences we’ve had over the last couple years.

One of my low points came in early 1997 when I agreed to install a PC upgrade for a small customer. It was supposed to be simple -- three new PCs, a new NT Server and a migration for some older 486 systems to desktops that did not yet have PCs.

What a nightmare! It turned out the wiring was no good, but the customer didn’t want to believe it. I tried to make it all work anyway. There were also hardware problems with the server, NT stability issues, application problems and one old 486 that literally smoked after a couple days. I spent three miserable weeks on this project. With every passing day I got more frustrated and the customer got more angry with me. We finally got them up and running, and I billed them for only a fraction of my time.

Another time we set up a customer with an ISDN Internet connection. The ISP supplied the ISDN router and they were supposed to preconfigure it to the appropriate specifications. What a surprise when the next phone bill showed an extra $450 charge for service that was supposed to cost less than $100. It turns out the ISP set the ISDN router to never hang up the line. It was supposed to hang up after a few minutes of inactivity because the customer bought metered service. We ended up paying for that one because we trusted the ISP and did not test the ISDN router ourselves.

We had another customer who installed Microsoft Corp.’s Small Business Server and wanted to connect their LAN to the Internet. They ran into several problems, including one where the bundled Exchange e-mail server erroneously claimed that they had no licenses and refused to allow users access to their e-mail. This problem was particularly nasty. E-mail was supposed to save this customer a lot of money by replacing dozens of international faxes that they sent each day.

After fumbling for several weeks we finally stumbled onto the problem. The bundled Exchange Server did not release previously granted licenses to users when they logged out -- kind of a variation of a memory leak. Even though the customer had a license for 15 users, a couple of users would gobble the available licenses by repeatedly launching and shutting down their Outlook e-mail clients. The workaround was to disable the License Logging Service on the server until Microsoft put out a bug fix.

After losing a lot of sleep, it seems to me that these three situations among others, teach valuable lessons about a characteristic I call ownership. Ownership boils down to two fundamental components: continuity and taking charge. Continuity means knowing the past. Taking charge means shaping the future.

For any service engagement to work, these components must be right. Every customer should have an "owner" who knows the history of the customer and the reason for every visit. The owner should also understand the client’s culture -- what is acceptable behavior and what is not with each customer? Once the job begins, take charge. If you’re responsible for getting a job done, make sure you have the tools and cooperation you need before starting the work. After doing the work, test it. Find and fix any problems yourself and then demonstrate the fix to the customer. If the problem involves a product vendor -- it usually does -- then get that vendor on the phone or onsite: Don’t let them go until they take care of it. Work the project to completion and get the customer’s acknowledgement before declaring the project finished.

It seems so simple on paper, but like most worthwhile endeavors, it is not easy.

With the PC upgrade, I failed to establish continuity. I was sloppy in the presales phase and demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward the customer’s network at first. I paid dearly for this later when technical issues arose. Without continuity and the credibility that comes with it, I dug myself into a hole that I never clawed my way out of.

With the ISDN and e-mail fiascoes, we failed to take charge. In the ISDN case, we should have tested the router and found the problem ourselves before turning it over to the customer. In the e-mail case, we should have had users connect to the Exchange Server and then log out. This would have exposed the "license leak" problem much earlier.

After this exercise in soul-searching, I firmly believe in ownership more than ever. If you consistently apply ownership, you will quickly develop a reputation for success, and your career will be rewarded. Fail to apply ownership, and you will be one of the millions of mediocre technicians stuck in dead-end jobs. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Cross Consulting Group (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.