CIOs, take my advice and stop trying to make the business happy. Or if you must do it, be careful how you do it, because you just might find raising satisfaction with the job your department is doing will actually get you fired for spending too much money.
This advice actually comes from research around customer satisfaction in retail, but I think a lot of advice applies to the CIO. E2's writers and plenty of other analysts have spent the last few years advising CIOs that their most important priority is to serve the business -- but serving it doesn't necessarily mean making it happy, and that's a hard thing to understand.
In this research in MIT Sloan Management Review, they show that there is very little correlation between customer satisfaction and company profits. There were many companies with high customer satisfaction that were losing money. In fact, the research showed that there is often an inverse correlation between the cost of something and how satisfied people are with the product. The less someone pays for something the happier they usually are. In business, that means your most loyal and happiest customers may actually be the least profitable. For IT, it means you're probably doing it wrong if you're doing your best.
Think about that for a second before you propose a new project to add capability to your IT department. If that new project means your department costs more, is the CEO going to be as satisfied with your product if he's paying more?
The answer is that it depends, of course, on the offering. Here's the most important quote to remember from the article:
There is a downside to continually devoting resources to raise customer satisfaction levels. Why? Because managers are rarely able to accurately quantify the cost associated with increasing customer satisfaction scores from, for example, 8.7 to 9.1 on a 10-point scale, nor are they able to determine precisely what such an increase is actually worth.
If your customer, the business, is merely satisfied with your IT efforts, and you are a relatively lean organization, it may be more expensive for you -- both in terms of your career and your budget -- to try to make them happy than it is to leave them unimpressed. With that in mind, reconsider your IT efforts around these thoughts.
OK might be better than good. I'm not suggesting you want your CEO calling you up every day and asking why the company email isn't working. But chances are, there's no level of service that is going to have the CEO calling you and saying, "This is the best IT ever." So stop trying.
You see projects, they see IT. The CEO and CFO see the bottom line of the cost of your department more clearly than they see the success of individual projects. They're not idiots. They can get granular if they have to, but what they really want to know is if the total cost of IT is worth the output. Each time you add something, remember that while you are adding a capability you are also adding to your total cost -- and bumping up the total cost means that the value proposition is changing for your "customer."
Smaller is happier. When it comes to customer satisfaction, companies with broad-based markets like a Wal-Mart or a McDonald's always have more customer satisfaction problems than companies that serve a niche. In IT terms, that means the bigger your company, the less likely you are to please everyone. If your company is growing, don't expect to keep the same levels of satisfaction you had when it was small.
Eliminate free riders. The research divided customer relationships into four categories: those where the customer was happy and the company made a profit (obviously the best), those where neither got what they were looking for (obviously really bad), and then relationships that were unbalanced one way or the other. In the case where the customer was happy but the profit was low, they called those free riders. In IT, you've got relationships with certain departments that suck a huge amount of resources and provide less gain for the company as a whole. While it is tempting to keep those relationships so you have a "champion," you are hurting your overall satisfaction because you are taking on unnecessary costs.
So the next time you think about your IT department's upcoming goals, think of them in terms of a customer buying a product. You want them to be happy enough with the product that they buy it again, but there's a minimal advantage in making them any more satisfied than that. Your department has a price point. It might be a Lexus or a used Kia with a dented door, but the price tag matters as much, if not more, to the driver's happiness.