Servicing the internal customer to better service the external customer

Author: Ann Baret The popular philosophical and mystical saying goes: as within, so without. In the business world, this principle is demonstrated time and time again. And when it comes to customer success, it is no exception. 

Whether you look at the many case studies on internal company culture or the very reasons behind the existence of organizational development or HR specialists, it becomes clear that the team that drives results matters. This might sound quite obvious and it is. Yet the emphasis on the end-user or bottom line sometimes outweighs the attention that is given to the team that makes the magic happen in the first place.

In my previous article, I spoke about a distinction I like to make when I look at companies and that is to distinguish between the internal customer and the external customer. While the external customer is what most of us think of when we refer to the end-user, there is another customer involved in the value chain that is more introspective in nature. This is your internal customer, your team, your employees and all the many links in the chain that are involved in the process that excludes that final moment of consumption by the client.

I also pointed out that by driving internal customer success through increased employee engagement, you directly influence external customer success – that for many also means the bottom line. While we discussed the importance of having an engaged team, in this article I will be focusing on how to go about servicing your internal customer in more depth.

When referring to the internal customer I would like to move our attention away from a siloed construct and toward a more dynamic one. To be more specific about the kind of service we require for the internal customer, we need to understand the broader chain of interactions within the company. This includes your internal team and departments involved in production and delivery, but I would also like to include other functions that interact on this level. Here I’m referring to supply chain, logistics, HR departments, etc. These functions are in constant interaction with or part of the company’s internal team and therefore vital in understanding how to go about servicing the internal customer.

So how do we go about servicing this complex and dynamic entity? Let us use the example of a company that has within its structure accounts, sales and marketing, IT, logistics, shareholders and an executive board. For any given department, interacting with the other organs that comprise the organization is a regular task that requires certain general criteria to be able to perform its function correctly. These criteria can be applied across the board and are what I like to refer to as the components of internal customer service.

The first component of internal customer service is the understanding of expectations. When the accounts team deals with logistics, employees, IT or sales there will be different expectations based on the different functions these departments perform. Therefore the expectations in terms of what kind of data, input or interaction is required by the accounts department will differ. This criterion can be applied to any of the other functions as well when they need to perform their duty. When there is not enough clarity on what the expectations are, the result can be costly in terms of time and therefore money.  

The next component of internal customer service is understanding responsibilities. Similar to the understanding of expectations, understanding responsibilities will be function-specific. In the case of the accounts team again, it will have certain responsibilities in terms of acting on the expectations and needs of the various departments. If the logistics team needs the freight or transport account to be paid by a certain time in order for it to perform its function, it will require the accounts team to be aware of its responsibility in this regard. If on the other hand, the logistics department decides on using a new transport service it will need to follow the correct channels to set up the new debtor with the accounts department. This concept can once again be applied to any of the functions in the team as each will have its own responsibilities to own up to.  

Company cohesiveness is the third component of internal customer service we will be looking at. Here we are talking about understanding and alignment to a common goal. Working together as a well-oiled machine aware of its responsibilities and expectations, aligned to the company strategy. This ultimately impacts the quality of the product or service being delivered to the end-user. To bring about increased company cohesiveness, however, requires the introductions of the fourth and final component of internal customer service: Communication.

Communication is the vital ingredient that cements all other building blocks into something concrete – a high performing team. To eventually service our internal customer we will therefore need to correctly communicate the various components we have discussed thus far: understanding of expectations, understanding of responsibilities and the importance of company cohesiveness. Increased and thorough communication in a team environment can only happen if we move away from working in silos.

Getting your internal team to a level where cross-departmental and cross-functional communication happens in a way that is aligned to the company’s strategy and where everybody is clear on their responsibilities and expectations is the goal. Ultimately one might say that it comes down to good company culture. If you are looking at increasing your customer success, it might be time to ask yourself whether you are servicing your internal customer in a way that gears it for maximised results.