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Who’s the real customer?

Like many others in IT, sometimes I have worked on a project that successfully delivered what was specified, but which wasn’t what the customer actually wanted.

It’s hard enough to deliver anything at all sometimes, so when this happens it is just so frustrating. Usually it turns out that by the time the requirements reached the development team, they had become somewhat lost in translation. I am a firm believer that it is the job of all developers, however junior or technically-minded, to try to get as close as possible to the real business users, and really understand the subject matter.

But there’s more to it than that. Those of us who work for IT consultancies recognise the duopoly inside most of our immediate clients’ organisations, where we are engaged directly by their internal IT function, but in practice the end customer is in a business department, and sometimes kept at arm’s length. But often they are not the real customer served by our software, which should be helping them to serve their own customers better.

But who are the customers of that business department? How far removed are they from my project team? And what is it they want?

Over the years I have worked on several projects for the UK’s railway infrastructure owner, Network Rail, so I shall use them as an example. For one recent project, which was a billing system, at first sight the customer was obvious – the Train Operating Companies, who are charged for running trains on the network. They receive invoices backed by detailed reports showing how the charges are calculated, and their finance departments care very much about their accuracy.

(Note: In the UK since rail privatisation in the 1990s, there is a split responsibility between infrastructure ownership and train operation. Network Rail owns the tracks, main stations, power supply etc – while other companies run trains over them. A bureaucracy supports this structure to ensure everyone gets equal access, share out the costs, and attribute blame. For a fuller explanation, see the Wikipedia entry for Network Rail. Other European countries all seem to be adopting a similar model)

But what if I broaden my view, to the customers of Network Rail as a whole? How many organisations are involved before the link becomes too tenuous?

Ultimately, it is all about the customers of the trains – or passengers, as we used to be called! All we want is for trains to arrive on time and to take us quickly to our destinations. Everything Network Rail does (and therefore everything I have done for them) is aimed at running more trains, more efficiently.

But as well as passengers; we must not forget freight customers. Behind the freight Train Operator is a much longer chain of customers. Firstly there is a customer whose load is being carried, e.g. the manufacturer of construction materials being delivered to a building site. Then there is the builder receiving the delivery, who may be relying on a Just-in-Time distribution system to deliver materials as they are needed. And at a stretch we can extend it further to the sponsor of a major construction project on a tight deadline, whose deadline simply must be met (London 2012).

For intermodal freight we can add an extra link in the chain, as it may be the container operator who hired the train to carry the container on behalf of their own customer.

So how many parties is that?

IT supplier –> Network Rail IT –> Network Rail business department –> Freight Operator (e.g. GB Railfreight) –> Container Operator (e.g. P&O) –> Manufacturer in China –> Builder –> End customer. A total of eight!

And that is assumes that each organisation engages directly with the next, without adding in agencies, freight forwarders or sub-contractors. For example, my employer might not be the Prime IT supplier on a large project.

Returning to my example, the builder might require delivery by 07:30 on a Monday morning because that’s when a squadron of fitters will arrive ready to start work. It’s no good if the bathroom units needed are still sitting on containers in a siding at Felixstowe, because the train couldn’t run. This might be a very big consideration for (say) an engineering system, to minimise line closures.

I’ve used the rail industry as an example, but I’m sure similar examples could be made from most market sectors. Ultimately we must bear in mind that the person who cares most about the benefit delivered by our application may be at six or seven removes from us.

I wonder how much gets lost in each link of the chain, and how many of the end customer’s needs are lost by the time requirements reach us?

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