Unless you've been asleep for the last five years, you've probably noticed that corporate intranets have changed dramatically. No longer ad-hoc collections of Web pages and applications, intranets have become productivity engines that help busy employees deliver the right information to the right people at precisely the right time. Intranets are the place where a company's collective knowledge finds a voice. But who's managing that knowledge? Increasingly, this responsibility is being left to the corporate Web team. But are Web teams ready to meet this challenge? Managing a company's knowledge requires a very different set of skills than are typically found in a Web team. Chief among these is a complete obsession with the customer. As they make the transition from project-oriented production houses to trusted knowledge brokers, Web teams must learn to become obsessed with their own customers, those employees that have the knowledge to help a company prosper in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
The Old School
Historically, Web teams have worked in a bubble, focusing more on working with the latest tools and techniques and spending very little time interacting with customers. Indeed, until recently, there were very few customer complaints. Most companies were happy simply to have an intranet and paid little attention to its overall effectiveness. But times have changed. As busy employees spend increasing amounts of time and energy doing business via the intranet, their tolerance for ill-conceived, inefficient, disconnected content and tools is fading quickly. In the past, it was easy for Web teams to rise above it all and to brush off customer concerns with a collective "they just don't get it." But as Web teams assume the new role of knowledge broker and business partner, they have to understand the fact that their customers are counting on them to make their lives easier and to start acting accordingly.
The New Rules
So what does it take to drive customer obsession into the Web team? It begins with a radical shift from an inward-facing, process-oriented philosophy to an outward-facing, customer-oriented focus. This requires the Web team to internalize one overarching principle: customer obsession begins and ends with relationships. Web teams are no longer managing projects, they are managing relationships. This is a major shift for most Web teams which, due to their IT pedigree, tend to be very inner-directed and view their work as a collection of discrete, unconnected projects. But this is incompatible with knowledge management, which requires speed, flexibility, and a total outward focus on the customer. In this new model, each customer that interacts with the Web team must come away feeling that she has been treated with understanding and that delivering her knowledge efficiently to the right audience at the right time is a top priority.
Bringing it to the People
Once the Web team is on board with its new customer-obsessed philosophy, it's time to break out of the bubble. Whether you're managing or contributing to a Web team, you must think of yourself as an ambassador. It's time to reach out to your customers and tell them that you're there to serve their needs. But how can you know what your customers need if they don't know who you are or what you can offer them? A great technique for starting this process is the old-fashioned cold call. Simply call someone within your company whom you've never worked with before—let's say Mary Smith from accounting—and ask to meet with her to talk about the work she does and how you may help her in that effort. The worst that can happen is that Mary calls security, but chances are that she will appreciate your sincerity and welcome the opportunity to talk. When you meet with her, ask some simple questions. What does she do? How long has she been with the company? Does she manage other employees? What are some of the issues that she faces? What departments does she typically work with? How does she interact with those departments? Are there certain tools that she uses regularly? Are these tools easy to use? Note that none of these questions is about the Web team or the company intranet. You are not meeting with Mary to talk about you. You are there to listen to the story of one of your customers in order to learn how you can make her working life easier.
Having this kind of dialogue with customers will yield surprising and satisfying results. The simple act of listening to the problems that your customers face and knowing that it is within your power to help is very powerful and will leave you with a better understanding of customer obsession. Needless to say, the answers to your questions will vary widely depending on with whom you talk. But it is precisely this variety of response that will help you find the common issues that face your customers at every level. This is the root of customer obsession; finding the common pain points among your customers and providing the best possible solutions.
Context Is King
Once you've spoken with customers as individuals, the next step is to understand those customers in context. The old saying in Webville, before knowledge management came on the scene, was "content is king." However, what we've learned since then is that, without proper context, content is just a collection of chess pieces without a board. Customer-obsessed Web teams, by understanding customers individually and in context, can deliver customer satisfaction on two levels by creating unique platforms for placing knowledge into proper context. For example, let's go back to Mary in accounting for a moment. Let's assume that, from your interview, you learned that Mary is a senior accountant, she has been with the company for two weeks, she manages five employees, and she is responsible for creating quarterly accounting presentations for senior executives. With this information, you're able to add a new dimension to your understanding of Mary, as an individual and as a member of three distinct "context groups," new employees, managers, and presentation builders. If, during your customer interviews, you achieve a critical mass of customers that fall into a certain pattern, such as new employees, then you have a context group for which you can build a distinct knowledge environment. For instance, knowing that there are a large number of new employees within your company, you can create a "New Employees" page that aggregates knowledge from multiple sources that is relevant to new employees and places it in a unique context. This way, new employees aren't forced to fend for themselves by hunting and pecking through the intranet. By serving customers in two dimensions, the Web team can greatly increase customer satisfaction.
Connecting the Dots
Web teams can create customer delight on yet another level by taking a close look at the content and data in their possession and making connections that can lead to more efficient content, tools, and processes. The Web team is in a unique position to make these types of connections since so much of the company's knowledge passes by its collective desktop. We regularly go through this process at my company and are always delighted when we make a connection. For example, we recently discovered that we could tie the functionality of three seemingly unrelated tools together to save time for our customers. First, like most companies, our intranet features an online company directory that provides details about a particular employee, including phone number, department, title, direct reports, etc. We also recently completed a paid-time-off (PTO) tool that allows for electronic submission and approval for vacation time, etc. Finally, we use Microsoft Outlook as our company email program. On the surface, these three tools have nothing in common, but a little detective work helped us make an important connection. First, we thought it would be helpful if, when an employee uses the "Out of Office Assistant" function in Outlook that this information could also be displayed in his/her profile in the company directory. So if I looked up Jane Doe in the directory, her detailed profile would also include a message such as, "I will be out of the office December 3-7. Please contact Paul Smith at x1234 for assistance." Making that connection was exciting, but why not take it one step further? We knew that we had the PTO tool available so we thought we'd put that at the beginning of the chain. Using this approach, employees need only to request time-off through the PTO Tool. The PTO Request form includes a field for entering an out-of-office message. Then, once the request is accepted by the employee's manager, the out-of-office message will automatically be displayed in Outlook and in his/her profile page in the company directory during the PTO dates! By making connections, and by being in the unique position to act on those connections, customer-obsessed Web teams can help employees spend less time with "administrivia" and more time delighting their customers.
So here we are in the age of the new intranet. The rise of 24-hour global business means that employees are working more, sleeping less, and quickly losing patience with intranets that cannot meet their needs. Those needs are simple: provide employees with a seamless, holistic knowledge platform that lets them connect transparently with their customers and with each other. Technical innovations, such as corporate portals, next generation groupware, and peer-to-peer applications have sped the transition from intranets comprised of multiple vertical spaces to an efficient horizontal platform for sharing ideas and increas- ing productivity. However, the corporate Web team, in its new role as the company's knowledge broker, must re-assess how it does business in order to take this technology and make it work beyond expectations. There is tremendous opportunity for Web teams committed to customer obsession to provide their customers with a new level of service. The job of taking content, tools, and data and providing a platform that makes it meaningful is an inevitable next step for Web teams. And if the focus is in the right place, completely and obsessively with the customer, then those customers will look to the Web team as a valued and crucial business partner.