I ran across an interesting article in CIO magazine the other day that caught my eye, because it seemed to conflict both with what I have learned and what we teach our clients and blog subscribers. The article was titled 12 Best Practices IT Should Avoid at All Costs, by Bob Lewis. What caught my eye was a statement about internal customers:
“Looking to fail? Make sure everyone in IT tells everyone outside of IT, “You’re my customer. My job is to exceed your expectations” (or, worse, “make you happy”).
Employees outside of IT are not IT’s customers. They’re IT’s colleagues, with whom IT collaborates as equals if anything good is going to happen for the company as a whole.
Legitimizing the idea of internal customers puts IT in a subservient position, where everyone in IT has to make their colleagues happy, whether doing so makes sense for the business or not, let alone whether it encourages the company’s actual customers to buy more products and services.”
As I dug deeper, I found these two statements from other articles: “The internal customer is a well-intended concept that drives mediocrity. Real customers are the people who pay you, and use your services; they’re the people that everyone in your organization should focus on.”1 and simply “Paying attention to internal customers can actually create obstacles to caring for real ones”.2
Have we been wrong on the various blogs and articles in which we discuss the value of the internal customer and satisfying their needs as you do your work? I kept digging and reading, and came to the conclusion that, no, we are not wrong. There is still value in knowing your internal customer and satisfying their needs. But, as the articles above alluded to, there are parameters to adhere to when serving the internal customer.
Who exactly is your internal customer? The internal customer is “the person or department within the organization who receives the product of your work that is essential to creating a good external customer experience”. That second half is the key. If the internal customer is not asking for something essential to a good customer experience for the external customer, it does not qualify as a true internal customer request.
Internal customers are not to be viewed in a vacuum. The lens through which you must view each internal customer need is the lens of serving your external customer. The demands of your internal customer must line up with the organization’s ability to satisfy the external customer, i.e., does the internal customer’s request add value (increase the worth of the product/service in the minds of the external customer).
Here is a simple illustration to show the difference between a valid internal customer request vs one that is not. Years ago at PGS, we had a checklist of the supplies needed to deliver an on-site client session. The list was created by our consultants and logistics team and given to the office manager to fill. In this example, the consultant and logistics team were the office manager’s internal customers, and the product they needed from the office manager was a supply box packed and ready to go.
The list included a wide variety of supplies from post it notes to flip chart markers. The vast majority were legitimate requests of an internal customer because they were necessary tools for creating the product for our external customer, the client. However, there were a couple items on the list were not valid internal customer requests according to our definition above. The list included “medium point, black ink pens”. Why? The logistics staff liked a certain type of pen. Would the customer session be just as good if the pens were blue and fine point? Absolutely. Did we try to pack medium point black pens? Yes, because relationships with coworkers are important, and your external customer feels an antagonistic culture when they do business with you. But did the pens receive the same urgency as the flip chart markers and post-it notes? Not at all.
Examine the requests of your internal customers to determine if fulfilling them creates a better experience for your actual customers. When they do not, or worse when they create obstacles to caring for your external customers, as the articles above feared, it is ok, sometimes even imperative, to politely decline.
Legitimate internal customer requests are those that build the whole organization because they ultimately feed into satisfying the needs of your external customers. Learn to distinguish between the legitimate requests and those that are simply the “likes” of your internal customers. Do everything in your power to satisfy the legitimate requests but work to deliver on the “likes” only as it is appropriate.