The concept of the ‘internal customer’ has been in business parlance since the late 1980’s, and seems to have become particularly rife in recent years (or perhaps I’ve just got a bit sensitive to it). The ‘internal customer’, according to the Business Dictionary, is “an employee who receives goods or services produced elsewhere in an organisation as inputs to his or her work” – in other words, the next person or department along the chain of activities which receives the work that you do.
Propagated through the rise of quality management, and one of the fundamentals of TQM, the theory goes that if we serve the needs of our internal customer then it helps them to do their job more efficiently. If they in turn serve the needs of their internal customer, and so on, then eventually the external customer gets better service, and the whole organisation runs happily and efficiently.
Now it’s very nice in theory, and let me say I’m a big fan of quality management. But I do have a problem with this term “internal customer”. It’s a dangerous misnomer, which few people ever seem to question. Colleagues are not “customers”, and we skate on very thin ice when we start to think of them that way.
Firstly, unlike real customers, colleagues and other departments do not usually have a choice about whether to utilise your services. They have nowhere else to go – unlike the organisation’s real customers (in all but monopoly situations). Colleagues are not “buying”, or “influencing the purchasing decision” or anything else customers do. The organisation’s management has determined who will work in which departments and usually where the points of interface will be. There is no “free market” for departments to make those choices. Colleagues don’t behave like customers – so don’t call them customers.
Secondly, calling colleagues ‘customers’ inflates their importance, and raises their expectations of how others should respond to them. Of course it’s important to help your colleagues, listen to them, make them feel valued and work efficiently together. But does that really make them a “customer” in the truest sense? – to be nurtured, satisfied, put on a pedestal… and in marketing terms, to base your entire strategy around? With the concept of the internal customer comes the suggestion that keeping, eg, Jean in accounts happy is the most important thing. Jean might be very happy with this notion, and demand all manner of things, reasonable or otherwise, from her ‘internal suppliers’ to make her life easier. Is this mindset and its potential implications healthy for the organisation as a whole?
Thirdly – most insidiously – the notion of the internal customer diverts attention from what really matters: the real, external, purchasing customer. The one who parts with money for what the organisation does. The one who actually pays employee wages (unlike Jean in accounts, in anything but the literal sense). The real customer does, usually, have a choice in whether or not they buy. The real customer has genuine needs and desires that must be understood and taken seriously by the whole organisation. The real customer is the one the organisation should be spending its time satisfying. Anything else is missing the point.
So what’s my answer? Make the external customer as tangible as possible to everyone in the organisation (and that’s where some good internal marketing can come in). The sooner everyone in the organisation recognises that those real customers are ‘their’ customers, the better. Sales people have a tendency to talk about customers as ‘their’ customers – usually in the sense that they look after the account (or perhaps, being a little more generous to the sales folk, that they see themselves as the champions for those customers in the organisation). But customers purchase from the organisation as a whole – and that makes them just as much the Production Operative’s customers as they are the Sales Director’s.
So, within your business, talk about customers – the real ones – daily, passionately. If you’re a business-to-business organisation, invite them to the office or factory. Let them meet and talk to people – everyone. Make sure everyone in the organisation knows who the customers are, what their needs are, and why. Then allow departments to interact on the basis of customer needs, rather than their own – and allow them to think bigger than the immediate transactional stuff which the stifling ‘internal customer’ concept allows. And you may find staff will have a proper, common goal, with less focus on “me and my needs”.
And most of all – please – save the word ‘customer’ for the people who really are.