Wednesday, December 1, 2010

You are not my customer

(And I am definitely not your supplier)

Recently our VP sent out one of his regular update emails and included in it a little piece about the virtues of internal customer service. He included the following in his email which appears to have come from

Internal Customer Service: Getting Your Organization to Work Together
Great customer service isn't just about serving the people outside your company.
By Scott Miller 

Providing exceptional customer service lies at the heart of the mission of many organizations. It is the central theme of books, articles, motivational seminars and business courses. Its value is undisputed in business circles. What many companies fail to focus on, however, is the primary path to exceptional customer service: internal customer service.

Internal customer service is the service we provide fellow employees and other departments within our own organizations, as well as our suppliers and anyone else with whom we work to get our jobs done. It is what we do when a colleague asks for information she needs to complete her main task for the day; it is what we say when someone from marketing asks for the addresses of good contacts; it is how we greet the vice president of sales when he walks into our office with an "I need something from you" expression on his face.

All these things can be seen as interruptions that take us away from our "real" jobs, yet they are vital to our company's success. If you see a gap between your "real" job and the needs of others in your organization, you need to rethink what your real job is. In helping others in your company, you help your company succeed. Here are some tips for creating an atmosphere of internal customer service:

1. Begin with your own perspective: Regard fellow employees and other departments as your customers. Understand that helping your colleagues do their jobs more successfully helps your organization and you. Therefore they are your customers. Treat them like VIPs.

2. View interruptions not as nuisances, but as opportunities to serve your internal customers. If you tend to view every interruption as a pothole in your road to success, reexamine those interruptions. If someone interrupts you to share gossip, that's a pothole. If someone interrupts you to ask for sales figures she needs to analyze sales team performance, that's a necessary lane change that will get your company closer to its destination. Learn to identify every real need from a colleague as a "necessary lane change," and think of every "necessary lane change" as an opportunity to move your organization closer to its goals. Take pride in helping your colleagues; enjoy your role in sharing information and providing services that help others get their jobs done. In most cases, your willingness to help others get their jobs done will lead them to readily assist you when you need it.

3. Exceed your internal customers' expectations. When someone exceeds your expectations, how do you feel? Most people feel delighted, excited, upbeat and very, very positive about that person and his or her organization. Think what you can accomplish in your organization by exceeding the expectations of fellow employees. If payroll asks for time sheets by 3 p.m., provide them by 1 p.m. so payroll can relax, knowing they have the time sheets in hand. If human resources asks for a list of important points to cover in an employee orientation, take time to think about it and provide a thorough list of what you would want to know if you were being introduced to a new job and company.

4. Say thank you. A simple, genuine "thank you" goes much farther to create an atmosphere of sharing and helping than two such small words would suggest. Even when it is a person's job to provide information or a product to you, tell them "thank you" when they have done it. Express your appreciation of their timeliness in providing it. Explain how it has made your job much easier. Show them your delight when they exceed your expectations.

I was immediately reminded of what was a very memorable counter to this way of thinking from an old colleague. This far away from the original conversation I forget the exact details, but over the years I've developed my own variant (it may be identical, I cannot say, but hopefully I've added my own nuances).

The trouble with the internal customer model is threefold. Consider:

  1. It’s not equitable. Not everybody is a customer, some people are just suppliers (accounts, engineering, HR)
  2. Those in the customer role are not paying, so they can often make unreasonable requests without consequences. As a supplier you can’t refuse their business, even if they’re a terrible customer. Real companies of course can pick and choose who they do business with. Further, you can’t charge them more when they demand unreasonable changes and extras.
  3. For the most part, people treat suppliers badly (quote from former colleague: “I love when we outsource this crap to somebody else. I can just dump all this shit on them and not have to deal with it.”) *
Is this really what you want? I say no. I say you don’t want internal customers as your model. I say you want team as your model. Put yourself in the mindset of all being on the same team. That for me is a far more pleasant, appealing and realistic model.

* OK I made that up. But it's entirely plausible is it not?

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