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Why the “internal customer” really shouldn’t be

Something that has always bothered me about working a “corporate job” is the idea of treating your co-workers like customers. The idea of an “internal customer” is everywhere, and is commonly taught at colleges and business schools.

Just as satisfied external customers lead to financial success, satisfied employees can also lead to long-term success of an organization. The concept of taking care of your internal customers may seem common sense, but to get employees to apply the concept, there is a lot more involved than meets the eye. Improving internal customer service is made possible by having sound systematic processes with training provided to employees, along with the performance measurement on processes and accompanying improvement strategies.

On paper it sounds like a great idea, but the reality is quite simply that visualizing and treating your fellow co-workers as customers does absolutely nothing to improve morale or a sense of teamwork… and those seemingly stale business concepts are actually important to the bottom line when things aren’t going so well.

The concept does seem to work well when everyone is functioning perfectly and nobody is making any mistakes, but most of the time it falls down trying to traverse the pits and valleys of failure. If you’re all on the same team and in the same boat, when a team mate is having a hard time people often band together to help that person or department get back on track… and after things get back to normal, everyone tends to be happier and ultimately more productive for having the experience.

Not my problem

The problem with teaching people to treat their co-workers as customers is all the mental trappings of segregation and delusion come with it. You know on some level that you’re all actually in the same boat, but the sense of safety one gets from being able to point at departmental performance metrics and customer feedback data and say “we’re not the problem, we’re not sinking” precludes people from banding together like a real team when one of their team mates falters.

Bail out?

To continue with the ocean faring metaphor, picture you’re with your department in your own little dingy, and your customers are in their own little dingy, and the water starts getting choppy. Your customers are having problems and start sinking. What do you do? You are operating under the idea that you’re not sinking… only they are. Most of the time, in business, a failing customer is looked upon with a certain level of concern, with only the hope they will be able to at least tread water. No business I’ve ever seen in my life ever dives in to really help a floundering customer. Would your department be that much different looking upon floundering “internal customers”?

Zero visibility

Working under this concept also reduces the visibility one has of the company’s actual operation. If my only concern is one level deep (are my “customers” happy), then I have no reason to know of or understand how what I’m doing ripples out through the company to affect our real customers. It also precludes me from spotting ways to provide better deliverables/services, possibly in ways my “customers” don’t even know about. By sequestering our concerns to the walls of our department and placing all this value on “customer feedback”, we no longer need to or care to improve processes outside our own.

Walled gardens

These kinds of problems don’t start and end with the “internal customer” concept, but strict adherence to such an idea is often a clear indication of the kind of culture being cultivated within the company by upper management. Left unchecked, this kind of cultural derailment leads to departments becoming walled gardens where people keep their heads down to produce deliverables, tossing them over the wall and waiting only to hear back “work acceptable” or “work unacceptable”. If another department starts having trouble, every other department looks over their wall to watch them drown… or sit there annoyed while waiting for management to step in/punish/let go/shake up/solve the problem. That’s not the way things should work!

Open up & share responsibility

Abandon the internal customer concept! Tear down the walls between departments and people! Embrace the idea of open gardens! Empower everyone with responsibility that extends beyond their own desks and departments. That means making sure processes in other departments are open and clear to everyone who cares enough to want to know about them. Ensure people understand how what they do matters to other people in the company and to actual, real customers. Allow people to inquire and engage in open discussion about processes in other departments, and how to improve them. Remind everyone that a criticism rarely produces results, while an earnest conversation usually does. Nobody on the team should feel picked on or insecure because someone else is working with them to try and work out a better way to do or produce something. Sometimes an independent eye is the only one that can see the problem.

If your corporate culture is built on a mutual understanding that everyone wants basically the same thing; a stable, growing company that offers fulfilling employment and is enjoyable to work for… that attitude will resonate with your real, actual customers in ways that really will impact the bottom line.

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