Managing IT is just like running a barbershop

2017 11 28 Managing IT is just like running a barbershop IMAGE

I went to get a haircut this morning, and as I sat in the barbershop staring at myself in the mirror – I was suddenly struck by the realisation of what my barber was doing. He was providing value to customers by delivering a service, just as those of us who work in IT service management do.  Of course, in this case, the core services are shaves and haircuts, but just like IT service providers, barbers create value for their customers by helping them to do something they couldn’t easily do without help.

And as I was thinking about this, I also found myself thinking about barbershops I have patronised over the years.  I thought about the changes I have seen, and how they are relevant to those of us who work in IT service management.

The old-fashioned barbershop

Many years ago, I used to go to a very old-fashioned barbershop. I would get a haircut and a shave, with hot towels, from a very experienced and polite barber. I didn’t make an appointment but just waited until my barber was free. We never discussed what sort of haircut I wanted, he just cut my hair the way he always did. The barber was very good, and I enjoyed the shave and hot towels. This was a very personal service, with no list of options at different prices to choose from, just good old-fashioned service based on building up a great relationship with a customer.

Some IT organizations still operate like this. They don’t offer a catalogue, or different service levels. They are very close to their customers and act more as part of the business than as a service provider. They provide services that their customers love, but often at far higher costs than most organizations would be prepared to pay.

A business with a catalogue

Many of these old barbershops have been replaced by very efficient, but much less personal, offerings. When I enter these shops, I see lots of information on the walls. The price list is clearly laid out, with separate prices for haircutting, shaving, hot towels and every other component of the service. Certificates are proudly displayed, assuring me that the barbers all have suitable qualifications. There is an efficient queueing system, to make sure that customers are seen in the order they arrived. When I sit in the chair the barber directs me to the menu and asks exactly what services I want. While cutting my hair the barber might tell me all about the scissors they use – how these are the latest and greatest technology, and they deliver a great haircut. When my hair is done the barber holds up a mirror up so that I can check their work. The price is exactly as agreed, and I leave the shop knowing that I have received the haircut I paid for.  But I don’t feel particularly valued.  I don’t go as often as I used to, since an electric shaver does a perfectly good job and I can always put off having my hair cut for another few weeks. And I have no particular attachment to the establishment I use, beyond the fact that it’s easy for me to get to.

These barbershops are very like IT departments that focus on meeting service level agreements, without recognising that achieving the SLA is not enough. Their customers are often satisfied, but they are rarely delighted. The IT department does what it has agreed, but it isn’t a valued partner, helping the organization to create value for themselves and their customers.

A focus on value

So, what might make a barbershop both cost effective and inviting?

The output of the service that I get in a barbershop is a haircut, but the value doesn’t come from having short, neat, hair; it comes from the outcome, what that haircut helps me to achieve.

Imagine a modern barbershop where the price lists and certificates on the wall have been replaced by pictures of famous people with fabulous looking haircuts. When the barber asks me what I want they don’t talk about clippers, scissors and shaving, they ask why I am getting a haircut. I might answer that I am going clubbing, or I that have a job interview in a bank. The barber shows me pictures of different styles and we pick something that I like the look of. This barbershop still has an efficient queuing system, and the barbers are still certified, but that is not what they talk about. That is just internal barber stuff.

When I leave this shop, I am not just satisfied. I swagger down the street feeling ready for what comes next. I am smart and ready for my job interview, or cool and interesting and ready to go clubbing, or whatever.

This type of barber is like a modern IT department that knows they are there to create value for their customers and partners by helping them to achieve the outcomes they desire. This IT department still has an SLA, to help ensure that their customers understand what to expect, they still have processes to help them deliver reliable and predictable services, and they still have technical skills; BUT they focus their time and effort on helping customers to achieve valuable outcomes, they design everything they do to maximise the customer experience, and they measure and report their achievements in terms that customers understand and value.


Delivering services isn’t something that is unique to IT. We know good service when we receive it, and so do our customers. If you focus on service levels and processes your customers will never see you as more than an internal cost centre; if you focus on outcomes and customer experience instead then you can become a valued partner.

It’s never too late to change, and the change doesn’t mean throwing away everything you already do. All it needs is a change in how you think about creating value, and you too can have customers that swagger down the street, feeling proud of what they can achieve with your IT services.


 Image Credit: Donald

This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

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