Today's IT is all about enabling the customer experience

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were two basic models for selling IT: Equipment vendors sold hardware or software. Services vendors sold maintenance contracts, professional services, or connectivity. And IT practitioners didn’t sell at all —they delivered infrastructure, applications, and support that their organizations (hopefully) found useful.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were two basic models for selling IT: Equipment vendors sold hardware or software. Services vendors sold maintenance contracts, professional services or connectivity. And IT practitioners didn't sell at all — they delivered infrastructure, applications and support that their organizations (hopefully) found useful.

That's all so pre-millennial. These days, it's not about selling hardware, software, or services. And an IT department that still thinks of itself as providing support — rather than business enablement — is destined for outsourcing.

The new model for selling IT is what I like to call "enabling the customer experience." In other words, it's more than just providing hardware, software or services. It's about wrapping them in an end-to-end customer experience that takes into account the broader context in which the hardware, software and services are being used.

A (non-IT) example: JetBlue. The core service the company sells is, of course, transportation -- moving humans and their luggage from point A to point B. But the broader customer experience it provides is "comfort."

Most kinds of travel are inherently uncomfortable: The traveler is subjected to noises, smells, vibrations, hunger, thirst and sleep-deprivation. JetBlue can't eliminate any of that — but it does mitigate the discomfort by providing familiar entertainment, including individually-controlled cable TV and satellite radio, snacks, and (for a smallish extra fee) amenities like full-sized pillows, extra legroom and cocktails.

In other words, JetBlue seeks to make air travel pretty much like settling into your easy chair and watching some TV.

Another example: Users' communities. Some smart vendors have been able to recognize that their products can generate passion among their customers — and they foster that passion. In the old days, this was through structured training and certification programs (Cisco and Novell leap to mind).

These days, it's via social networking and community-building: empowering users to support each other, collaborate on applications for products and services, and troubleshoot problems. Companies like National Instruments (a test and measurement company) host "developer zones" where customers can engage with one another and share best practices.

So what does this all mean to you, if you're an IT practitioner worried about hanging on to your job during a tough economy? Several things. First, start thinking of IT as a service you provide your internal customers — not just hardware, software or support. Then try to define that service in terms of an experience — what do users really want from the service experience?

Finally, engage your customers. Do you have customers who've effectively deployed, say, server virtualization, and want to share their experiences with other lines of business? Or what about someone who’s using that brand-spanking-new MPLS network for video distribution or interactive sales training? Help them share their stories.

And consider using social-networking tools as a way to find out about business challenges that IT can address, and provide users with a forum to share tips, tweaks and best practices. Passionate customers are your best allies in selling IT.

The bottom line: It's all about customer experience.

Johnson is president and senior founding partner at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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