The latest release of ITIL®, launched in the UK on 5 June, promises a much richer set of standards than those we've been using in various forms since 1986 and expands the V2 release available from 1999. ITIL® V3 offers a wide reach in terms of service management and is certain to confirm itself as the pre-eminent publication suite for IT delivery disciplines. Peter Wheatcroft takes a critical look at the latest version of the latest version of the popular standard.

Given such a high-profile launch, it is tempting to assume that ITIL® will supply answers to every aspect of service delivery - or in other words, buy the standards and success will be assured. Tempting it may be, but foolish it certainly will be as even V3 does not provide the solutions - or even any key performance indicators (KPIs) - for the complete IT service life cycle. This is not a criticism of ITIL® but a warning that standards on their own do not guarantee good performance - there have been ISO 9001 certified companies go to the wall despite having a clean bill of health.

So what does this mean for ITIL® in general, and especially for service management? Quite simply, that good processes are a prerequisite for building a service proposition but they do not of themselves deliver the goods - this is what we employ people for. Unlike products, which can be built in highly automated factories by robots and sold in bulk, service is less tangible and relies more on the way in which it is delivered - what is widely known as the service experience. A good service experience is what endears customers to suppliers - and is usually not about how good the product was that may have formed part of the deal between them but the way in which it was offered. A great steak is not a great steak if it is delivered before the first course or if the waiter spills the sauce down your best clothes.

An important aspect of service is that of implied quality - we expect certain standards even when the characteristics of that service have never been formally stated. For many types of transaction, for instance with retailers, it is impractical to publish information about the way that customers will be dealt with and any service level agreement (SLA) is limited to a complaints procedure - possibly. However, consumers form long-lasting and often commercially damaging opinions about a company they're doing business with based on their service experience - what is known as a moment of truth (MOT). A MOT occurs every time a customer and a supplier interact, which in a medium-sized corporation handling 15,000 IT service calls a month can add up to tens of thousands of hours service experience. Each MOT may only last a few minutes, but that experience of an organisation's service delivery will affect the customer's perception of the entire business.

The MOT concept originated at Scandinavian Airlines in the 1980s as a means of removing everything that was not adding value to the customer experience - the two key observations being that frontline staff were not empowered to deliver good service and the command and control structure meant that customers were only ever talked about as revenue streams. By restructuring the service philosophy - ensuring good service was delivered at the point of consumption and putting customer experience on the board agenda - the airline was transformed into a thriving concern based on the repeat business generated. Teaching your IT staff about customer values based on the MOT principle is as important to staying in the service business as teaching them about ITIL® or the latest server architecture.

Another set of standards designed to help define good service relationships is the IT Supplier Code of Best Practice, which is more commonly known as the 10 commitments. Drawn up by Intellect, the trade association for IT and related industries in the UK, this code outlines 10 commitments that a supplier should adhere to in order to establish a good relationship with a customer. Whilst this was - just like ITIL® - originally developed for public sector customers, and especially for government procurement, its relevance extends to commercial companies as well since the commitments are based on sound business principles.

The aim of the Code is to facilitate a more mature acquisition and delivery relationship that avoids either the customer or the supplier having to take entrenched and unhelpful positions in the delivery of an IT service. For example, commitment 3 explains the role of constructive challenge in helping to qualify the specification for an IT deliverable - breaking apart the long-held notion that the customer is always right. A worrying trend is for there to be no formal specification raised for a new service and often the only documentation that exists is that produced by the supplier. This trend is concerning for two reasons - first, service is intangible and therefore the customer may not know what will constitute a good result and second, customers are not always skilled in defining deliverables in ways that can be meaningfully communicated to a supplier. IT service providers can therefore use the commitments to guide their dealings with the customer to ensure a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Intelligent use of the Code of Best Practice and the MOT principles together goes a long way towards delivering a satisfactory and mutually beneficial service relationship. Such ethical and emotional techniques as these are good companions to the rigorous practices defined in ITIL® and will help to ensure the delivery of a holistic and consistent service experience.

So use ITIL® as it is intended - as the IT industry equivalent of the Bosch engine management system, fitted as standard to most cars but largely invisible to the driver. Don't ignore it - or adapt it - because it is the most widely used set of standards available. But equally once it's in place then concentrate on the skills, attitudes and orientation of your suppliers and the IT staff you employ to look after your customers. It is this aspect that will deliver service and pay the bills, not just how well the processes have been defined.
Peter Wheatcroft is principal consultant at Partners in IT, the service management specialists. He is also author of the BCS book World Class IT Service Delivery, published in May 2007.