You know who your company’s customers are. They are the individuals or organizations that buy your company’s products and services. They are your external customers. Are you meeting their needs? They will tell you “Yes” by continuing to buy from you. They will tell you “Absolutely!” by recommending you to others. And they are usually not shy about letting you know if their needs are not being met. Some will bring their issue to you in search of a satisfactory resolution. More will express their displeasure online, often anonymously. Most will simply leave you and become someone else’s customer. It is easier to keep an existing customer than to replace an unhappy one. Organizations have strategies and processes and departments dedicated to identifying, attaining, satisfying, and retaining good customers.
WHAT ABOUT INTERNAL CUSTOMERS?
While every employee should be aware of their company’s external customers, if you don’t work in sales or marketing, your job responsibilities are more likely focused on your own internal customers. Your internal customers are employees of your company. They may be your teammates or individuals or groups in other departments. However, I believe this category also includes ancillary organizations such as your advertising agency, your auditor, banks, shareholders, lawyers, the IRS, etc. An organization cannot thrive without good internal customer service. There is a plethora of articles out there that address building a culture of good internal customer service through teamwork, being nice, and delivering what you promise on time. While these are all important concepts, I am going to focus on the quality of what you provide to your internal customers.
You may think that you don’t have to worry about attaining or retaining internal customers. You all work for the same organization, so internal customers can’t “leave” you, right? I think that’s a dangerous position to take. If your internal customers are not satisfied, you may be the one to [be asked to] leave. How do you identify and satisfy your internal customers so that you retain them (and maybe even attain new ones)?
Your internal customers may be found throughout your organization. If you are a member of a support department like accounting & finance, HR, or IT, every other department in the company may be your customer. If you are not sure if you have internal customers, here is a category for your consideration: the people you manage are your customers, as are those who manage you. Some customers will need more focus than others, but it is important to account for everyone that depends on you for the product you provide.
Try this exercise – you may find it enlightening. Set up a 3-column table. In the first column, list every task (or product or service) you perform. In the second column, add the names of the internal customers that receive your “product” or benefit from your work (remember, it may be an individual, a department, your boss, your subordinate, or an organization like the IRS). In the third column, specify the timing of each task. Is it daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or on an as-needed basis? You now have a comprehensive task list – everything you do, why you do it, and when.
The first thing you should look at is whether you have tasks listed that have no customer attached to them. If you do, why are you spending time on that work? Who is benefitting? How is that work adding value to the company? Chances are, if it doesn’t help your company
- make money,
- save money, or
- stay out of trouble,
it’s probably not worth doing. Redirect that energy to satisfying your internal customers.
Once you identify your internal customers, review the list again for tasks or customers that should no longer be there.
- Do you perform tasks or provide information simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”? Does that work continue to add value to the company?
- Are you providing information to people who should no longer be your customers?
- Maybe they’ve changed jobs and no longer need the information you provide.
- Have new technologies or new job descriptions resulted in someone else now being better-positioned to serve one of your internal customers?
WARNING: Please consult with all impacted customers before you decide to delete or re-assign a task. I was once the recipient of a report that my team used quite often to provide information to our banks. One month, the report was excluded from the package I received. When I asked about it, I was told that the most senior user of the report no longer needed it, so if I still wanted the information, I would just have to find a way to capture it myself. I’m pretty sure that interaction broke every rule of good internal customer service. Don’t be that guy.
You’ve made your list and scrubbed it twice. You are now working on the right things and providing that work product to the right people. It is time to explore the quality of your work. If you really want to satisfy your internal customers, consistently deliver a high-quality product that truly addresses their needs – which at times, may be more (or different) than they knew to ask for.
I recently attended a seminar on Presenting Data and Information given by Edward Tufte, a statistician, artist, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. The New York Times has described him as the “Leonardo da Vinci of data”. According to Tufte, the #1 Rule when presenting information is to “Know Your Content”. (He ranked the highly touted “know your audience” at #4.) It makes perfect sense! If you really know your content, you can then present your information in the way it will be best understood by your audience. And remember, you don’t just “present” information in front of a large group of people using a PowerPoint deck. You can also “present” in an email, a memo, a report, a small meeting, or in a one-on-one conversation.
In most companies, the requirements of “know your content” go beyond being skilled in your trade. My trade is accounting and finance. When I worked for a home builder, it was not enough to know debits and credits and financial ratios. I needed to understand the home building industry, the local real estate market, and the detail of my company’s operations. Anyone can run a report that someone else wrote, that contains data that someone else collected, and attach it to an email for someone else to try to interpret. This is not how you deliver a high-quality product.
Know your trade. Know your business. Ask questions. Gain insight. Provide answers. Present information.
Since the consequence of not satisfying, and therefore not retaining, your internal customers can be termination, it feels worthy of discussion. Basically, if you properly identify your internal customers, and then work to consistently deliver a high-quality product that truly addresses their needs, customer retention should not be an issue for you. For managers and their employees, let’s touch on a couple of additional points.
Managers, your employees are your customers. Help your team become more knowledgeable about your company and your industry. Lead a facility tour. Invite guest speakers from other departments. Update them with company or industry news in staff meetings. Help them help you.
Employees, your manager is your customer. Ask for clarification on an assignment if you need it. If your work gets reviewed by your manager, alert him/her to areas of concern. Provide any supporting material and put it in the order it will be used. Ask questions. Take notes. Be interested. Care. Help them help you.
If retaining your internal customers is about keeping your current job, attaining new internal customers is about being promoted to a better one. When you provide great internal customer service, you develop a stellar reputation – and stellar reputations open doors!
Whether your customers are internal or external, figure out who they are, give them what they need, and don’t forget to be nice.