Customer service is a topic that strikes a chord (often a sour note) with many. Some industries, such as air travel and cable / internet providers, are riddled with complaints about poor customer service. Their reputations for mistreating customers are the stuff of nightmarish legends. Other industries or companies are known for their excellent customer service. Apple. Ritz Carlton. Mercedes Benz. These companies consistently provide customers with five-star service. In fact, Ritz Carlton prides itself on delivering six-star service! Regardless of what a company does, builds, makes or provides, the ability to meet the needs of the client or customer is key.
However, if you ask most business people to identify their ‘customers’ or ‘clients’, 99% will inevitably point to the folks spending money to purchase their products or services. Those are the ‘external customers’. Most will not identify their own colleagues and coworkers as ‘customers.’ But, indeed, many of the people who work for a mid-sized or large company don’t actually deal with the external customers or clients who are buying the products or services. Most of the staff of any company are actually ‘behind-the-scenes’, cogs in the machinery that allow companies to function, such as accounting, marketing, HR, IT, production and operations. These people seldom, if ever, speak to or meet an external client or customer. Instead, they provide services that make it possible for others in the company to meet the needs of the external customer. They service the ‘internal customer.’ Unfortunately, internal customer service is even more replete with bad service. Yet, the internal customer is as important as the external customer. Why is that and how does one go about improving a company’s internal customer service?
The Internal Customer Dilemma
It is important to understand the difference between the external customer and the internal customer. To an employee, an external customer is someone who pays the company for a good or service and ultimately makes employee paychecks possible. External customers have a choice, and if they don’t like a company’s product or service, they can take their business elsewhere. If enough customers take their business elsewhere, the company might not need that employee anymore. It is not difficult for an employee to understand the connection between satisfied customers and their livelihood.
On the other hand, an internal customer is anyone within the organization — a co-worker, another department, or a distributor — who depends upon those in the company to provide a product or service, which in turn is utilized to create a deliverable for the external customer. Internal customers don’t have a choice. If a sales manager doesn’t like marketing’s advertising policies, they cannot just fire the department and hire another. Or if the IT department is slow to solve a connectivity problem for a remote office, the branch manager cannot fire the IT Director. That is the dilemma. For the employee, the connection between satisfied internal customers and their livelihood is less clear. For the internal customer, not having a choice will force them to resort to other tactics to exert influence, change policy or get service. This can create many problems for a company. With bad interdepartmental service comes poor communication and less cooperation. This results in infighting, low morale, higher turnover, lower productivity, safety problems, miscommunications, more mistakes, and lower quality. All of these factors hurt the bottom line.
Benefits of Excellent Internal Customer Service
Good internal customer service is good business. Here are just some of the benefits of good internal customer service.
- Cuts costs
- Increases productivity
- Improves interdepartmental communication and cooperation
- Boosts employee morale
- Helps align goals
- Harmonizes processes and procedures
- Replaces interdepartmental competition with cooperation
The most important benefit of excellent internal customer service is that it helps deliver better service to the external customer. According to Benjamin Schneider of the University of Maryland, “There’s a remarkably close and consistent link between how internal customers are treated and how external customers perceive the quality of your organization’s services. A commitment to serve internal customers invariably shows itself to external customers. It’s almost impossible to provide good external service if your organization is not providing good internal service.”
Treating the Internal Customer
It turns out that servicing the internal customer should really mimic excellent external customer service. In fact, that should be the mindset. Anyone that is being helped should be treated the same way that a salesperson would treat a valuable external customer.
Here are some strategies for managers and employees to improve their internal customer service.
1. Increase Communication
Internal customer service can flourish only in high communication environment. To create positive internal customer service, all departments should agree on processes and procedures, and negotiate expectations. Make the internal customer feel heard. Listen. Pay attention. Make the internal customer feel understood. Repeat critical information.
2. Increase Cooperation
To create positive internal customer service, all departments should strive to work together cooperatively. Like gears meshing in sync, interdependent business units should do the utmost to meet each others’ needs. Departments should work productively together to meet common goals and deliver high quality products and service to the external customer. The internal customer should be made to feel appreciated and respected. Promises made should be kept. And what was promised should be handled dependably and accurately.
3. Provide Assurances
The knowledge and courtesy shown to external customers (even if some of them are rude) should also be given to internal ones (even if some of them are also rude). Both internal and external customers need to trust, perceive competence, and walk away with confidence that the job is being done by someone with product knowledge, organizational knowledge, listening skills and problem-solving skills.
4. Empathize and Be Respectful
It is important to show the internal customer the same degree of caring and individual attention shown to external customers.
5. Demonstrate Professionalism
The physical facilities, products, equipment, and appearance that are demonstrated to the internal customer should be just as good as that shown to external customers. That means the staff in the Accounting Department should dress as professionally as those who meet with clients. Desks and work areas should be maintained, clean and organized in internal departments just as they are in areas where clients visit.
6. Work Quickly
Internal customers should be helped promptly. That haste should be applied to everything from providing an answer to a question to solving a problem.
7. Be Consistent
High-quality service boils down to two equally important things: caring and competence. But those must be delivered on a consistent basis in order to gain the internal customer’s trust.
Quote of the Week
“If you’re not serving the customer, your job is to be serving someone who is.” Jan Carlzon
© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.