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Internal Customers

Ilya Adler

In the past, the term "customer" always meant the external public, those clients that justify the very existence of a corporation. It was a term especially important in service organizations, since the customers were the business' raison d'être, and ultimately the principal revenue source.

In order to satisfy its customers, a business often establishes systems-some simple, some intricate-to monitor the quality of service bestowed upon external customers. Marketing managers had always stressed the importance of satisfying customers. Eventually, it occurred to a few management wizards that a similar concept could apply to the organization's internal workings, where it became the responsibility of some employees to serve other employees (i.e., internal customers) or have to depend on the services of others (i.e., internal providers). Furthermore, within corporations, most employees act as both customers and providers to one another, receiving input and delivering output on a daily basis.

So now when you think about people from other departments who place high demands on their co-workers, you should not think of serving them as a particularly laborious task. They are "internal customers," with needs, wants and demands that have to be fulfilled. And likewise, our internal providers are just as important as our external ones. In essence, we have "internalized" the concept of "customers" and "providers" to also be part of what goes on within any organization.

Apply It Internally

In taking this new approach to the workplace and our fellow "customers," we have to deal with different mentalities, some of which are nationally based. For example, in Mexico, some providers feel superior to their customers, especially those who have to make payments. Who in Mexico hasn't had to deal with an accounting department that acts as if it runs the entire business?

In other instances, clients are seen as superior, if they happened to have a higher rank, or if the department is regarded as more important. This rigid hierarchy within the majority of Mexican businesses often skews the internal customer-provider relationship and prevents the emergence of a value-added, professional relationship. In the United States, the gap is much more reduced. Both providers and customers are fulfilling their part of an exchange that satisfies both parties, so in essence nobody is doing a "favor" to anyone.

Having stated and noted those cultural differences, all-in-all, the old model remains intact. Most folks, regardless of their respective cultures, still see internal customers as people who cause chronic headaches, and the problem with those customers is that they simply do not understand how things work.

They want to bend rules and procedures, they don't understand that we also depend on others, and of course, those "others" fail us miserably. And as internal customers, most people wonder why those internal providers do not deliver services they need, want or demand. Most people see themselves as deserving customers who rightfully have prompt attention coming to them, and when they fail to receive the object of their requests in a timely and professional manner, friction surfaces between employees, and, on a larger scale, between departments or corporate divisions.

The Ever-Malevolent Shadow

And then comes the "they." The "they" is the reason why we cannot give good internal customer service. The "they" can be the finance department, the government, top management or other vague and nebulous entities. In international organizations, subsidiaries usually will make a reference to a distant "they," usually headquarters, and of course "they" don't have names, titles, or email addresses.

So if you cannot entirely relate to the message I convey, it's probably because "they" do not understand that I need more space to explain it, and "they" do not understand the finer points of this intricately woven argument. So I wish all of you, and all of "them" the best wishes for a great 2003. Any complaints you might have about this column, kindly contact "them."

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2002 by Ilya Adler © 2008
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