There’s no such thing as an Internal Customer

watch-icon September 6, 2021

There’s no such thing as an Internal Customer

Why are we persisting with the terms ‘external’ and ‘internal’ customers? 

customer 

/ˈkʌstəmə/ 

noun 

  1. a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business

When we call our colleagues internal customers, I believe we undermine the relationship that we have with our colleagues. So let’s explore that a little bit further.  

Internal customer service started as a concept in the early 80s. It started as a management concept to increase the collaboration and collegiality of teams within a business. Managers thought that if their people treat each other as customers, they will treat each other better and prioritise each other needs more efficiently.  

I understand the reasoning behind this. Unfortunately, human beings tend to undermine management concepts with their basic humaneness. As a customer, we’re in a servant based relationship. There’s an appearance of what I’m doing is not as important as what you’re purchasing.  

Anyone heard the old adage “the customer is always right”.  

In contemporary customer service or customer experience training, we’ve moved away from the customer is always right philosophy to be more empathetic towards the customer. Treating the experience that the customer has as most important. No longer are we teaching that you as the server are less valuable than the customer? We now teach customer service as an equal relationship. We work in partnership with our customers.  

’Internal customer’ is an outdated concept from the 80s and 90s, and we are still applying that outdated thinking today.  

When you think about your colleagues as customers, you start to notice more silos in place. You start to notice a division between people. You start to notice resentment from people who aren’t placed at the top of the queue. Resentment builds, frustration builds, trust and culture deteriorate. Of course, culture and silos haven’t gotten bad just because of the term internal customer, but it definitely hasn’t helped. I’m highlighting this as a symptom of us trying to apply outdated concepts to the workplace and our culture.  

Instead, let’s think about our colleagues not as customers but as partners. They are co-conspirators in providing a great service or product to our customers. If we think about it this way, we’re more likely to look at the people around us as people who help us delight our customers rather than people who delay us in servicing our customers.   

For example, a customer walks into the dentist’s office, stands at the front counter and speaks to the receptionist. The receptionist books the appointment and makes sure that the person that’s just walked in off the street feels comfortable, settled, and ready to receive the service.  

If that receptionist believes that their customer is the dentist, then they will have a very different view about what their role is in providing the customer with the service that they need. All of a sudden, they’re not part of this customers experience. They’re a servant to the dentist who’s responsible for the customer experience.  

Whereas, if they have a culture whereby the receptionist and dentist are partners in the customer experience, they will work together more collaboratively.  If the receptionist believes that their role is as important as the Dentist in making sure that the customer has a great experience, the customer is guaranteed a better experience.  

The more we can get into the mindset around shared responsibility for customer service, teamwork, collaboration, and partnership to deliver a great customer experience. The more we will have cultures that are set up to provide the customer with the experience that they need and that they deserve. When we keep calling our colleagues customers, it allows us to separate them from us and stops us from the responsibility to partner with them to deliver a good quality service to the customer.  

I would like to change the way we’re talking about internal and external customers. I want to get rid of those terms out of the workplace. The people that you work with are your colleagues. They’re your partners. They are people who you can rely on to help you deliver a great customer experience, service, and product.  

We need to remove the servant master relationship in our organisations and implement partnership relationships in organisations… at all levels – think about leadership also from this concept…yikes, Michelle, you’ve gone too far now! I’ll come back to that one later.  

If you want to have a collaborative culture and a great customer experience, then start by recognising the language that you’re using to describe the relationships between your employees is outdated and ineffective. There is no such thing as an internal customer when you are focused on a great employee experience and together being committed to the customer journey and the customer experience.  

I challenge you to think about it differently. Every person in your organisation is responsible for serving the customer. If you’re curious about how you can shift your culture and your language to deliver a better customer experience, please get in touch with Synergy IQ, as we can help you start a new conversation in your workplace. 

writer-img
Michelle Holland