The Internal Customer

Article by:
Shep Hyken
EO St. Louis

I’ve been lucky enough to speak to hundreds of clients with many different types of audiences. Most of these clients understand that customer service is not a department you call when you have a complaint. It is a philosophy.

Still, many people believe that customer service training is only for front-line personnel. And these people seem to only want to train the sales people, and of course, that “customer service department.” From my experience, the people who should receive the most attention in terms of customer service are your staff. After all, they’re the life-line of your business. Without them, your external customers won’t receive the attention they deserve.

Customer service must be a total commitment— not just for the front line, but for every employee of any business, from the mail room attendant to the CEO. Everyone has a customer. If it’s not the outside customer, then it’s the internal customer.

So who is an internal customer? A simple definition of an internal customer is anyone within an organization that, at any time, is dependent on anyone else within that organization. This internal customer can be someone you work for as well as someone who works for you.

At first, you might think that because she works for me that I would always be her internal customer. After all, I’m the boss, right? Wrong. Think of it this way: I am dependent on her to help me with my responsibilities, but she is just as dependent on me to get her the right information so that she can do the best job possible. It goes both ways.

The concept is sound and strong. Customer service has to be a total- company effort. It can’t just be the front line who deals with the outside customers, the ones who buy our products and services. The frontline needs the support of everyone within the organization.

The traditional structure of a company has the CEO or President at the top with layers of management underneath, ending with the front- line employee who deals directly with the outside customer. Imagine a triangle or pyramid. The CEO is at the point. The front-line employees are at the base of the pyramid. The chain of command flows down. The responsibility to each level of management and every employee flows down. This is very traditional.

In the 1980s, Jan Carlzon, the former President of Scandinavian Airlines, wrote a best-selling business book called “Moments of Truth.” In his book, he turned the pyramid scale upside down. He emphasized the importance of dealing with the outside customer. He said that rather than having the lower-level employees serve the higher levels, it should be a two-way street or vice-versa. He flipped the pyramid and put the customers at the top and the upper management at the bottom.

This is the root of internal service. It is the understanding that everybody supports everybody else in the organization. Someone once said that if you are not working directly with the outside customer, you are probably working with someone who is. Everyone within your organization has an effect on the outside customer.

Starting an internal service program is simple. Virtually every technique you have read or learned about general customer service applies to the internal customer as well. Companies that practice outstanding customer service find it is easier to attract and keep customers. Companies that practice outstanding internal service find it easier to attract and keep good employees. Employees who practice outstanding internal service find it easier to keep and enhance their careers. So, take care of your internal customers, and you’ll create moments of magic.

Shep Hyken is a popular EO speaker who has spoken at numerous EO events, including the 2007 EO LAC Conference. Shep works with organizations who are interested in building loyal relationships with their customers and employees. He is the Founder of Shepard Presentations and author of “Moments of Magic” and “The Loyal Customer.” He can be reached at shep@hyken.com.

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