Internal Customers: A Flawed Concept That Drives Mediocrity

The very concept of internal customers waters down urgency for actual customers. It drives organizational mediocrity because internal customers never hold the same consequences as external customers.
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Does your organization talk about internal customers? The idea is that employees who don't interact with external customers have internal customers, key stakeholders for whom they provide services. The IT department may consider the field their internal customers; finance may serve ops, etc. It sounds good in theory; the only problem is that it doesn't work.

In fact, the very concept of internal customers waters down urgency for actual customers. It drives organizational mediocrity because internal customers never hold the same consequences as external customers. When everyone is a "customer," the passion, commitment and urgency for real customers, the people who pay for and use your services, diminishes.

Here are three ways to avoid this malaise:

1. Stop talking about internal customers, start talking about winning
Think about sports teams, or the military. You never hear a soccer fullback saying, "I'm passing the ball to the forward because she's my internal customer, and I want her to be delighted by my service." Can you imagine a Navy airplane mechanic saying, "The pilots are my internal customers, I strive to give them excellent service."

Hell no.

Instead they say, "I've got my buddy's back because I want to win." The real game is out there, not in here. Winning organizations don't tolerate mediocrity because the stakes are too high. Non-performers are coached or dismissed because everyone knows: the end game is about winning. In business that means winning and keeping customers.

2. Connect the dots to actual human customers
One of our clients, Dave Myers, is the CEO of Seneca Medical, a medical supply company. A few years ago, Dave's mother went into the hospital. Sitting in her hospital room, when it was touch and go, Dave realized, at that moment, he wasn't a supply guy; he was a son who loved his mother. Yet as he looked at the equipment, tubes and medicines saving her life, he realized, "Many of these products has passed through the hands of my team."

Now when Dave speaks to his team, he says, "Every time you touch one of the boxes, you are holding someone's mother's life in your hands." While other companies are saying we need more accuracy to satisfy our stakeholders, Dave Myers says, "Packing and shipping these boxes can be the difference between someone's mother living or dying."

Which warehouse workers will care more about their jobs? The team trying to hit a number to satisfy their internal customers? Or the team who knows that being 100 percent accurate can save a life?

3. Correlate non-performance to customer impact
Early in my career, I worked in a sales office where one of the admins was consistently rude to everyone except our boss. If anyone had spoken to a customer that way, they would have been fired on the spot. But because she was an internal person, it was tolerated.

Yet even though she never spoke to customers, she had a chilling effect on those who did. We didn't ask for reports or help on presentations, or any of the things that might have helped us win more deals.

As her "internal customers," we merely grumbled. If we had been savvier, we would have documented exactly how her performance was negatively impacting our paying customers.

The internal customer is a well-intended concept that drives mediocrity. Real customers are the people who pay you, and use your services; they're the people that everyone in your organization should focus on.

Lisa McLeod is the creator of the popular business concept Noble Purpose and author of the bestseller, Selling with Noble Purpose. She is a sales leadership consultant and keynote speaker. Organizations like Genentech, Google, and Kaiser hire her to help them grow revenue.

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