Magazine article Management Review

Should Internal Customers Exist?

Magazine article Management Review

Should Internal Customers Exist?

Article excerpt

Should Internal Customers Exist?

Get a group of managers together for an in-depth discussion about customers, and it's safe to bet that someone will say: "Let's not forget the internal customer." Everyone will nod.

Then somebody will chime in: "Many of us don't deal with external customers, but we all have internal customers." More nods.

Maybe it's time to stop nodding. I say that organizations nowadays can't afford to have people on the payroll thinking about "serving internal customers."

Consider the chief financial officer of a $250 million high-technology products firm: "This internal customer business troubles me. Let's say my controller prepares a report requested by someone in manufacturing. Using the internal customer logic, she's done her job. She can wash her hands of everything from then on, because she's served her customer. But was that report useful? Should it have been written in the first place? Will it help the operator or our end user? Will it help us in terms of efficiency? Or getting out product faster?

"That's irrelevant to the controller, because she's supposedly responded to her customer. But those issues should be her - and everybody's - responsibility. This is not a theoretical problem. My people and everyone else in the company are very, very busy. But how valuable is what they're doing? What I see is that sales and margins are down, and cost and customer complaints are up."

Consider the tale of the chief engineer responsible for plant services including heating, ventilation and maintenance at a Western hospital: "I was recently a surgery patient in the hospital I work in. My visitors were upset because the sign on my bathroom prohibited anyone but me from using the facilities, and the public rest room was a fair distance away. The sign was posted because the nurses had to monitor my urine, and they didn't want any confusion. But there's a very simple device that can be placed adjacent to the toilet that only the patient will use. Perhaps that would solve the problem.

"For the past six months we have embarked on a program to be a patient-driven hospital. Well, I can tell you that as a patient, my visitors and I were frequently irritated by that sign. Also, in my job, I respond to the requests of other departments in the hospital. The faster and more courteously I do it, the better. The nursing department recently asked me to put up those signs in a number of patient rooms. In the old days, I would have done so immediately, because I've considered the nurses to be my customers. But having been a patient myself, I'm concerned about that request. I don't think it's consistent with our hospital goal, but the nurses aren't real happy with my concerns."

The bottom line is that your organization's health is dependent on how well the paying external customer is serviced. If so, what's all this stuff about the internal customer? For one thing, it's a sham. We all know that so-called internal customers often feel more controlled and confused than "served" by their internal supplier. A division general manager recently mentioned that his own people got together and created a particularly germane software package. "We have a corporate information systems group that should have done it, but what they put out drives us crazy because they don't have the slightest idea of what we're really doing."

But even if the system works - even if people are legitimately serving their internal customers - problems arise, as the two anecdotes above suggest. Here are three reasons why a pervasive concern with internal customers will most likely hurt the health and vitality of your organization:

* The focus on internal customers diverts attention away from those folks who pay the bills. If your internal customers are happy but your external customers aren't, you're in trouble. When a significant chunk of your management and staff focuses internally rather than externally, problems along the arranging-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic vintage are more likely to arise. …

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