Five years ago, this blog would have been appropriately titled "Should IT move to a service culture?"

Today, there is no room for debate. IT must move to a service culture to stay relevant.

Cloud-based commercial vendors provide users with great service options, and these same users are also accustomed to effective self-service options on their personal cell phones. It is unsurprising, then, that users expect the same level of service from IT. The problem is, they don't always get it.

Here are five things IT leaders can do to build a strong service culture.

1: Focus on service

The elements needed for a winning IT service culture include technical excellence--but also people skills, strong verbal and written communications, business savvy and user empathy, skills in contract negotiation and vendor management, and strong project management abilities. The bottom line for the CIO boils down to whether IT is meeting the expectations of the business. These expectations are measured through SLAs (service level agreements) and KPIs (key performance indicators) for the business and for IT. Common SLAs and/or KPIs are time to market for new applications, time to repair for system, network, and/or other IT problems, time to response for user questions, and time to recovery for system outages and disaster recovery. These metrics should be tracked on a daily basis. I have found it useful in my own experience to have a dashboard or even a whiteboard visible in the department so IT staffers and managers can see service results.

2: Treat your users like customers

One service technique is to do what IT vendors do: assign an "account rep" to each business area (finance, purchasing, sales, etc.). The account manager meets with key users on a monthly or a quarterly basis to see how things are going and to discuss project work that might be underway. By keeping communications open, users and IT can collaborate more readily when problems do arise because a strong communications platform already exists.

3: Deliver IT that meets the needs of the business

Beginning with the CIO, IT professionals must understand the business. They must also understand that technology is there to provide business value and that it is not an end in itself. "We began with the concepts of requiring ourselves to sell IT solutions to the business over 20 years ago," said John Heller, a former CIO of Caterpillar, which manufactures heavy equipment. "To sell to the business, you have to be cost-conscious about technology investments and to be able to show how the investments are going to pay off for the business operationally and strategically. We have been operating like this for so long, that "IT for the business" is firmly embedded in our culture."

4: Take over management of vendor relationships

Users will sign agreements with outside cloud service providers on their own, and this can make IT feel a loss of control over the process. Get over it. Once the ink on these contracts has dried, vendor management tends to fall apart because most end users have little experience or desire to manage these relationships. The best thing IT can do for the company, for users, and for itself is to take over vendor management, since this is an IT core strength.

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5: Reward for service

Historically, IT rewards for technology excellence. It also needs to reward for service. Departments like the help desk and quality assurance should be brought up to the same level of importance as application development or database administration--in organization charts and in salary scales and promotional opportunities. IT should also establish service metrics for individual contributors, even if it is as simplistic as asking end-user departments for evaluations of IT performance. Progressive IT departments are also working to eliminate disparities in salaries and promotions between development/technical disciplines and other more service-oriented disciplines, like the help desk. This encourages IT employees who have natural service skills to stay in the service disciplines, because they know that they have a future and that they don't have to transfer to applications, database, or systems programming to earn promotions and salary increases.

Above all else, IT has to satisfy the business functions and users it serves.

"Users want systems that are designed for users," said a West Coast supply chain technology CEO I've known for several years. "Having been a business user of systems before moving to the technology side, I have felt the pain when systems and service didn't work well."