How may I be of service?

Recently I went to a conference of the SCAA, which is an organization that promotes good coffee, and the premier coffee industry. While at the conference for a day, I attended a talk called “Customer Service from the Barista" by Nathaniel May a “Coffee Educator” out of Portland (OR) Roasting.


What does coffee have to do with computer science (other than being the lifeblood of many programmers and systems administrators)? Coffee, like computer science, can be done poorly or it can be done well. Good coffee, like computer science, is a mixture of real science and real technique, and the excellence in applying the science and technique together.


Finally, with Free Software, the emphasis is currently being taken off the “fixed product” and placed back onto “service”, which is what good coffee shops are all about.


I have been talking about the concept of closed source products versus open source service for years, but perhaps I have not been very clear.


I hate the “products” of food. I do not like shopping for food in a store. I do not like cooking. I really hate washing dishes.


I like the “service” of food. I walk into a restaurant: order what I want, they fix it, I pay for it, and I walk out. No dishes to wash.


Most of us like going out for a great meal or even a great coffee, and the focus of this speaker's talk was on coffee, coffee shops and service.


The speaker talked about greeting a customer when they first came in the store, then establishing eye contact with the customer to let them know you are waiting to help them. He talked about learning the names of repeat customers, and knowing a bit about them. He emphasized that if a mistake was made, the most important thing was making things right with the customer, and not trying to find out whose “fault” it was.


In other words, giving the customer what they want and not what you think is necessarily the “best thing” for them.


Finally, say “thank you” and “I hope we see you again soon” as the customer leaves the store.


The speaker told about a time he went to a hotel room and found that the remote for the TV did not work. The hotel immediately upgraded him to a better room, and gave him free room service. He pointed out that now he never even thinks twice about what hotel to stay in; even when there are cheaper places to stay in town.


Great service.


Now compare this to what some in our computing industry call the “BOFH*”....or the antithesis of this service.


A few years ago there were “BOFH” * jokes going around about how operators of computing systems and systems administrators would treat users of their systems: playing practical jokes on them, turning off their machines remotely and doing other things. These stories, along with stories about “dumb users”, would create an environment of “them versus us” in both directions where systems administrators would now have respect for users and users would fear to ask questions of the people best trained to help them.

Senior Systems Administrators would tell Junior Systems Administrators that customers should RTFM (“Read the F__king Manual”) and then snicker while management substituted the word “Freaking” for what it really was.


In a few years time the animosity built, and I firmly believe that one of the pushes towards “cloud computing” has occurred because the real value and worth of computer support people has never been truly managed or truly tapped. IT managers see computer support people as “that necessity in the basement to keep computer systems alive” and not as being “part of the team”.


Today one of the main jobs for Free and Open Source Software people is in the area of the “integrator” or “consultant”: a service area where people use the building blocks of Free Software and tailor them to the needs of customers. Just as in running a coffee shop, this service depends a lot on both technical training and meeting the psychological needs of the customers. In a world of telephone support lines, web chats and other “non-personal” support, the living person who shakes the hand of the customer and looks them in the eye is a wonderful change and will go a long way to generating repeat business.


Many years ago I had a customer who was unhappy with a decision Digital Equipment Corporation had made as a company and which DEC had not really communicated well to its customer base. The customer was attacking us in Internet groups unmercifully. I called the customer up, explained the decision very carefully, and then asked how I could make the situation better. The customer explained that they had purchased two DECstations from us that were now useless to him and he was a small shop and could not afford the mistake. The customer told me that he would never buy anything from DEC again. I asked a friend of mine who was a sales representative from AVNET to trade those two DECstations for two Sun workstations of equal value--which AVNET did. Two days later my AVNET friend called me back and told me that “the small shop” was really the research arm of Boeing, and what that research arm ordered, Boeing bought. Since I had “made it right”, the “small shop” was now interested in buying DEC's Alpha workstations.


My favorite restaurant is a breakfast place: the Union Street Grill in Milford, New Hampshire. I go there three or four times a week. Kevin, the owner, greets me by name as I walk in the door and asks me how I have been. Kevin has a menu item called “the crock” that has a list of regular ingredients, but he also has a “special crock” that he makes up usually every week. In addition to that, he welcomes me to choose from some of the other items on the “special menu” (special omelets, etc.) and make up a “maddog crock” from that. Kevin (and his family, who help out at the Grill) always say “So long, maddog” at the end. I have often thought about going to other restaurants, but never have....the service is too good.


LPI can certify you in the technical parts of being a Linux professional, but in many ways the difference between the word “hacker” and “professional” is the concept of “being professional” and acting “in a professional way”, whether it be serving coffee, or serving your customers profesional computer services.



* BOFH – This is a family blog, so I can not tell you what this means, but you can probably find the meaning on the Internet.