Throughout my IT career, all success has boiled down to one core philosophy: delivering phenomenal customer service.

The user experience of employees has always topped the list of priorities throughout any major project I’ve played a part in – including the one I’m discussing today: the Tech Café I developed and administered at Ball Corporation.

Like many organizations, Ball was intrigued and inspired by Apple’s Genius Bar, the concierge-style walk-up service area you find in the Apple Store where customers can interact face-to-face with friendly trained “geniuses” and receive personalized support for their Apple devices.

From that moment on, “Enterprise Genius Bar” was a phrase that entered our collective IT service vocabulary. And so, after several years of wish-listing, the moment finally came at Ball where we could create our own version: the Tech Café.

We built the Tech Café as a physical walkup location in the headquarters in Westminster, Colorado. Much like Apple’s version, this was a centralized hub where employees could interact with IT professionals, ask questions, resolve issues, receive training, and much more that we’ll discuss in this article.

In the age of remote and hybrid work, where so much of IT support is accomplished virtually, this type of concept might seem antiquated.

But in reality, the philosophy behind the Tech Café—and the results we generated—will show why this form of IT-employee interaction is exactly what modern workplaces need more of. I invite you to read on and learn what we achieved with the Tech Café, and how a similar initiative might just help you revolutionize the IT employee experience of your culture.

The Core Tenets of the Tech Café

Traditional enterprise IT support often gets a bad rap, both among executives and general employee populations. Executives tend to view IT as a cost-center rather than a real business partner, while employees see IT as a necessary evil, one they’d prefer not to deal with unless they absolutely have to (dentist appointment, anyone?)

In designing the Tech Café, I set out to answer the question: “How do you significantly augment the technology support experience of the current workforce while also being seen as a valued partner to the business?”  

Brainstorming on this and common industry gaps led me to focus on just a few key goals:

  • Maintain a warm, friendly, playful & supportive environment.
  • Establish a personalized service that would avoid the “worry & hurry” aspects of the traditional support experience.
  • Stay laser-focused on any technology-related need (or process) that would empower employees to do their jobs better.

Basically, I wanted to create our Tech Café to have a consultative persona that was a repository of the IT “easy button” for colleagues. A place that could help them pave their very own yellow brick road – the path that would take them from their IT woe to IT gold.

To provide a guiding star, next came our tagline: “Enhancing your workday with personalized support, training and more. Ask questions. Explore. Learn a bit while having fun building a better relationship with your technology.”

With the identity out of the way, I then went on to define & refine our core pillars:

1. VIP Support

When Ball committed to the idea, they knew they couldn’t just build a small walk-up bar in some remote corner of headquarters where there just happened to be some free space. The Tech Café needed to serve as a centralized and highly visible support hub for everyone in the office—particularly for our executives and their assistants.

That’s why the Tech Café was strategically placed down the hall from where our executives worked. By co-existing in close proximity to the “VIPs”, the Tech Café quickly established itself as a high-value business asset rather than a nice-to-have. Executives not only received immediate, professional, personal support, but could always see what the Tech Café was accomplishing with other staff as they walked by between meetings.

The value of immediacy when it comes to executive support cannot be understated.

2. Personalized Quick-Fix In-Person Support

This walk-up bar didn’t replace our traditional IT processes, of course. Multiple support teams and systems will always be necessary for solving the variety of technical issues that employees face. But these other systems can often become a black box for them— frustration grows when they submit a ticket and don’t know when their issue will be resolved . . . or if it was even seen.

The Tech Café alleviated a lot of these frustrations, as all employees were now able to walk right up and get immediate support or find out more about their existing requests. We even provided the option to schedule us to better meet employees’ frantic schedules.

Oftentimes, employees suffer from problems that have relatively quick and easy solutions—so rather than submit a ticket or make a phone call and wait, they could deal with the problem face-to-face and leave the Tech Café satisfied. This had the indirect effect of relieving some of the urgent load of other IT teams and allowed them to work on languishing projects or more involved support requests.

Also, with security being top-of-mind now and for the foreseeable IT future, we took advantage while employees were there visiting. It was a great opportunity to get ahead of security issues and preventative maintenance with a simple, “While you’re here, did you want me to check if you received the latest updates?”

Really though, if I were to boil it down, this direct support aspect of the Tech Café just gave our users an amazing interface to connect with the business in a more intimate way.

Because IT is in the customer relationship business as much as the technology business, it was imperative for me to focus on the experience, not just the transaction.

3. Informing and Educating

Companies have begun to realize that the more employees know about their technology, the more likely they will be to care for devices and fully utilize all the tools available to them. Teaching employees how to use their tech efficiently can only increase their productivity. After all, technology is supposed to make work easier.

So, instead of immediately changing an employee’s password or configuring a software option, IT service departments are realizing it can be more beneficial to explain to them why and how these issues arise.

To that effect, the Tech Café focused on educating and informing, not just resolving. This included identifying opportunities for future self-support and where else I might help them use their existing tech to a higher level.

We achieved this through daily personalized interactions, as well as curated mini-workshops, trainings, events and how-to guides. This became such a hit that I would receive requests from department heads to provide these workshops to their entire staff at their team meetings.

4. New Hire Onboarding

New hire onboarding has been a top concern for IT teams, as the modern employee experience has become so digitally driven. The Tech Café quickly established itself as an important asset for new hires, as they now had a place to receive face-to-face instruction, ticket facilitation, and learn how best to use their new technology as quickly as possible.

We made sure to partner early on with HR and participated in their weekly onsite new hire orientations. We were able to provide a warm introduction to IT services and this provided a great forum to give a targeted presentation about IT security, getting IT help, and of course . . . about our amazing Tech Café services!

I started collecting & collating onboarding-related tech issues to throw back into the continuous service improvement loop, and in fact even created an “IT Onboarding Guide” that was placed digitally on every newly imaged laptop – for both onsite and offsite employees. It was fulfilling to be there and connect with new employees for those first several critical weeks during their new hire journey.

5. Equipment Loaning Service

This is more of a value-added service than a pillar, but was a key differentiator for us. Employees often come to the office and realize they’re missing an important piece of equipment—chargers, mice, presentation clickers, etc. This happens even more frequently in a hybrid workplace, as employees are bringing equipment back and forth between home and the office.

Our equipment loaning service became one of the most popular differentiators of the Tech Café, as workers could visit and receive a temporary replacement for whichever item(s) they were missing instead of having to drive back home or work inconveniently while in the office. We even kept a special stash of non-standard useful equipment (batteries, AV adapters, battery banks, ergonomic keyboards, et al.)

This service saved the day quite a few times for not just employees, but for visiting presenters & board members.

6. Identifying Areas of Improvement

With its centralized location, the Tech Café enabled us to keep an ear to the ground while interacting with every level of employee throughout the day and listening for trends, concerns, and things we could do to improve any IT-related service or process.

One downside to the digitization of the workplace is that it reduces the potential for more casual, unplanned interaction. At the Tech Café, we could observe how employees used their tech, which prompted many conversations that illuminated blind spots in our existing service strategy and technology offerings.

Withholding judgement on how employees were using their technology and on any questions they posed made a safe space for creative solution discussions.

7. Partnering with Other Departments

The Tech Café removed a hurdle that many IT departments struggle with—eliminating the typical wall between IT and their customers. It became a place where IT could collaborate with HR, Comms, and representatives from every other department to develop joint strategies, get the word out about their technology stories, and assist during rollouts of new tech specifically geared towards departmental and corporate goals.

8. Showcasing New and Innovative Technology

Everyone who works in IT knows how hard it can be to shake the reputation that they’re only there to deal with break-fix issue resolution. IT workers spend so much time innovating and improving the technology that drives the workplace, but once deployed, it becomes just another thing for them to receive tickets about and fix.

The Tech Café completely changed this perception of IT by becoming a place where we could show off new and innovative technology and new uses for existing tech. General employees and executives could come up to the Café and watch a short video or get a glimpse of a new tool in development or see what updates are coming to their favorite technologies.

As a result, everyone in the organization came to understand that our IT department didn’t just fix issues—we were putting ourselves and the company at the forefront of digital transformation and the future of work.

9: Delighting Visitors

A philosophical pillar that may well be the secret sauce to any Genius Bar’s success is to supply delight. Attempting to always surprise and deliver more than the visitor came in for is great on paper, but how do you practically achieve it?

Some things that worked for us:

  • Maintaining a warm, friendly, & playful persona
  • Complementary snacks/chocolates, pens, occasional swag
  • Offering to UV sanitize or charge their cell phone during their visit
  • Playful signage & written communications
  • Always thanking them for visiting (as they DO have a choice)
  • Remembering their names upon later visits
  • Asking “What else can I help you with today?”

Along these lines, a great area of opportunity where IT service can really delight is coming up with creative solutions to users’ tech usage. Ask them, “In an ideal world, how would your corporate technology work?” and then ideate with them.

Don’t shoot anything down, just listen. In fact, it should probably be an IT Support Commandment – it’s so important to not make others feel silly about their tech questions or issues (whether or not it was their fault!)

A side story: I cut my teeth learning IT support with folks that would pride themselves on saying “no” to any request that wasn’t in “the rules”. Too much of this and the entire IT department can get the reputation of “The Department of No”. I’ll let you decide if this is a good thing in today’s employee-experience-geared environment. [Steps off soap box.]

Face-To-Face Interaction Is More Valuable Than Ever in Modern IT Departments

As the pandemic began to wind down, there was a big push among our business leaders to encourage employees to return to the office. Many employees were eager to come back, while others wondered: “Why? What am I lacking at home that justifies commuting to the office?”

The Tech Café became a major selling point (and ambassador for corporate culture) during this transitional time. People had been working from home for months, dealing with whatever tech issues affected their remote set-up, or submitting tickets and awaiting responses from IT. Now, they had somewhere they could go and discuss technology problems face-to-face, in a way that was more convenient than when working from home.

They could show their problem rather than struggling to describe it. This immediacy of face-to-face support is something that’s impossible to replicate virtually.

Traditional IT support will always be essential, without a doubt. But with all the advanced technology at our disposal, it’s important to remember the value of human interaction as well. When employees know where to find IT—and they know they’ll always be there to support them—it can have a transformational impact not only on IT’s reputation, but on the productivity and growth of the business. But ultimately, for me, it is always about the people.

This support model creates opportunities to drive engagement, collaboration and ultimately, connection. This support model builds relationships.

Not every company needs to build a Genius Bar-style café in their headquarters—but with the changing IT landscape and flourishing emphasis on Digital Employee Experience, I feel that every business environment could find practical value from the success of our Tech Café model.