I’m on vacation this week, so we’ll take a break from our growing bestiary.

Instead, you get another re-run. No, nothing from I Love Lucy. This one is from the near-exact precursor to the Digital Strategy beloved of the business-pundit faithful – the advent of the World Wide Web and how it plunged IT knee-deep into dealing with Real Paying Customers.

– Bob

My alternative pointing device worked when I plugged a keyboard into the back of my laptop computer. Otherwise the laptop reported a keyboard error.

When I reached tech support, their representative diagnosed it as a BIOS problem. “But it works with a Microsoft mouse,” I pointed out. “It’s a problem with your laptop’s BIOS,” he repeated.

“Your literature says you’re 100% Microsoft mouse compatible,” I added. “We are,” he replied. “Then why does a Microsoft mouse work but yours doesn’t?” I asked. “They use a four-pin interface. We use six pins,” he explained. “I guess that makes you 150% compatible,” I guessed, sarcasm getting the better of me. “Well, I’m not going to argue with you,” he answered.

Wise move.

Here’s the odd part: he knew how to fix my problem.

We’ve been talking about the differences between internal and external customers. Not everything is different, of course. If an end-user calls to report a problem, don’t argue – the user does have a problem.

Don’t assume you’re smarter, either. Not all end-users are stumps, you don’t know everything, and you’ll gain the respect of your end-user community if you show them respect yourself. Explain what you’re doing, tell them what to expect, show interest in how they’re using technology, and leave them smarter than when you found them.

That’s how you should treat Real Paying Customers (RPCs, to use the technical term) too, and because of the Internet, you’re going to have a whole lot more to do with them than you used to. That will be the healthiest shock we’ve had since the personal computer forced us out of our glass house.

The Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, is like Columbus. Columbus wasn’t the first explorer to reach the western hemisphere, but he was the first who couldn’t be ignored. In similar fashion, customers have interacted directly with other technologies, but IS largely ignored them. (Did you build your company’s fax-on-demand system? Do you know much about the Automated Call Distributor, and have you added screen-pops, customer-controlled queuing, and data-directed call routing to it? Do you know the definition of Lifetime Customer Value? I rest my case.)

You can’t ignore the Web, and so, probably for the first time, you have to start thinking about serving your company’s RPCs. That will change everything.

For the better.

Remember when you did feasibility studies, requirements analyses, external designs and internal designs before you got around to coding systems a few years later? Forget it. You’re going to start working in marketing time.

What’s marketing time? That’s how long your company takes to get new products, services, and pricing programs into the public awareness to beat your competition. Years? Forget it. You’re going to be working in months. Sometimes weeks. That means a whole different way of designing and building systems. (We’ll talk about how in a future column.)

Remember when you justified everything you did by showing how it would reduce costs or increase productivity? Forget that too.

Now you’re going to justify your existence based on how well you help the company attract new customers, retain the customers it has, and encourage every customer to do more business with you. When you’re done with InfoWorld, take a look at your current IS project list and mark the ones that have a discernible impact on your company’s ability to attract and retain customers.

I’ll bet that for most readers it’s better than the previous year’s list, but still pitiful. Probably, you’re setting priorities based on the needs of your internal customers. Next year, see if you can bring external customers into your Systems Steering Committee (if you have one). For every proposed system, ask, “How will this help us attract and retain customers?” You think you’re having fun now? Wait until you facilitate that session.

From here on in, you’re face to face with real customers. And that really does change everything.