Consolidating government IT systems offers an opportunity to provide the same or better IT services with a smaller footprint, increased security and greater efficiency through standardization. Yet, focusing solely on the technical aspects of consolidation at the expense of the human considerations can be a recipe for failure. Your customers — the users of the new systems and tools — must remain a priority in both the planning and execution of the consolidation.

Sure, you must keep implementation teams on schedule and make sure they've ordered the right hardware, but you also must consider the changes your users are going to experience and the fact that we humans aren't always good at accepting change. Addressing this fact up front will save time and money in the long run and make your consolidation much more likely to succeed.

Here are seven recommendations to help maintain excellent customer service throughout your consolidation:

1) Make sure leadership understands the perception of consolidation. Leadership must be sensitive to the perceptions of users and customers. While an organization's leadership may be focused on a timely and efficient technology implementation, users may focus on how consolidation will affect them personally — becoming anxious about the new tools and processes they have to learn. Leadership must be willing to take a step back to look at the situation from their customers' perspective.

2) Know where your customers go for help and communicate where they'll need to go during and after consolidation. Regardless of how well you plan for consolidation, some users and customers are going to run into issues — one of their applications won't work, they'll need a password reset or they may just have questions about the impact of the consolidation. Some users may have memorized the service desk phone number or have a direct line for their favorite technician — but after consolidation, there may be a new number or that favorite tech may have been reassigned. The only way to anticipate and help eliminate those calls is understanding how your users get help prior to consolidation and communicate how they can get the help they need afterward. Acknowledge that consolidation may break established, trusted relationships, but also look for ways to sustain that trust and transfer it to the new support model.

3) Dedicate, train and reevaluate post-consolidation resources. Consolidation will likely cause an uptick in service desk calls and tickets at first, so consider adding resources. Staff up your service desk team, train them on expected issues and make them available to your customers for deskside support. Having a technician available to troubleshoot issues in person does a lot more than just resolve the issue; it's a signal to that user (and others nearby) that he or she is important. Word travels fast, and if you do a good job of not only resolving issues, but taking care of your customers, you might find less resistance to the consolidation throughout the rest of the organization.

4) Be patient and be willing to make exceptions within reason. Although the end goal of consolidation is to get everyone on the same system or using the same applications, don't expect it to happen overnight. Circumstances may require you to make exceptions and allow some users to continue using their original applications until a workaround is identified. Define mission-critical systems up front, develop and agree to a plan and timeline to migrate, and be prepared to adjust course when necessary. Weigh the costs and benefits of each adjustment to ensure your decision to deviate from the original plan will support your users and your mission. Helping your customer understand the plan, showing them the mission impact and allowing them to use the tools they need to accomplish their mission is more important than consolidating all your users at the same time.

5) Plan early and communicate often. Competing priorities may push consolidation to the bottom of your list, but it's critical to plan for it and give yourself enough time to meet your consolidation requirements and deadlines. Part of that planning should focus on communication — how you reach your customers and users and what you need them to know. Starting with an in-person meeting will allow your customers to pose questions while also giving leadership the opportunity to dispel any rumors and alleviate concerns. Communicating with your customers should not only help them prepare but also emphasize the benefits to them and the organization as a whole. Acknowledge that there might be challenges, but remind them of the greater long-term goals. And in your communications, try to target each message only to the users it impacts, and make each message informative and succinct. The more you provide relevant, timely messages to the right audiences, the more trust you will develop with those audiences. Finally, make sure you are the source of all migration-related communications so users hear new developments from you directly and promptly.

6) Plan for the long term. Equipment acquisition usually requires the most time in a consolidation. When multiple contracts are involved in supporting an IT organization, part of the consolidation may involve realigning those contracts under a single umbrella. Leadership should assess the remaining duration of each contract and consider extending all the contracts to the latest end date, then combine the services under a single contract. Continuing with multiple contracts in the short term may likely mean a more streamlined organization in the long term, with less service disruptions and greater customer satisfaction.

7) Set the expectation that unexpected issues will occur, and create an effective mitigation process. Even the best-planned consolidations are not immune to unforeseen issues. Ensuring that your customers and consolidation teams have a clear and effective escalation path is key. Establish a mechanism to capture users' concerns and determine escalation paths. Demonstrate how issues are evaluated and escalated. Communicate which "issues" are legitimate problems and which are simply changes that the user will need to learn and accommodate.

Most of all, remember that you're enabling customers and end users to accomplish their mission. The tools and technology of the consolidation might be outstanding, but your customers must be able to use them. Considering those customers and their potential fears, resistance and needs up front will make the consolidation process a lot smoother — and ultimately more successful.

Cyndi Barreda, president of NetCentrics, has more than 20 years' experience in federal IT consolidation, information technology strategy, program management, strategic planning and process improvement. She began her career as an information management specialist for the U.S. government, and in her more than 13 years with NetCentrics she has helped oversee the company's growth into a leading provider of federal cybersecurity and IT services.

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