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Challenging the ‘internal customer’

The ‘internal customer’, according to the Business Dictionary, is “an employee who receives goods or services produced elsewhere in an organisation as inputs to his or her work” – in other words, the next person or department along the chain of activities which receives the work that you do.

The theory (which stems from quality management principles) states that if we serve the needs of our ‘internal customer’ then it helps them to do their job more efficiently.

If they in turn serve the needs of their internal customer then eventually the external customer gets a better service and the whole organisation runs happily and efficiently.

But from the marketing perspective, the term ‘internal customer’ is a dangerous misnomer, which few people ever seem to question but of which I believe marketers should beware. Colleagues are not ‘customers’ and we skate on very thin ice when we start to think of them that way.

Firstly, unlike real customers, colleagues and other departments do not usually have a choice about whether to utilise your services. 

They have nowhere else to go, unlike the organisation’s real customers (in all but monopoly situations). Colleagues are not ‘buying’ or ‘influencing the purchasing decision’ or anything else customers do.

The organisation’s management has determined who will work in which departments and usually where the points of interface will be. There is no ‘free market’ for departments to make those choices. Colleagues don’t behave like customers – so don’t call them customers.

Secondly, calling colleagues ‘customers’ inflates their importance and raises their expectations of how others should respond to them.

Of course you should help your colleagues, listen to them, make them feel valued and work efficiently together. But does that really make them a ‘customer’ in the truest sense?

Does that make them worthy of being nurtured, satisfied and put on a pedestal? Enough in marketing terms to base your entire strategy around? Is this mindset and its potential implications healthy for the organisation as a whole?

Thirdly, most insidiously the notion of the internal customer diverts attention from what really matters: the real, external, purchasing customer. 

The real customer is the one who parts with money for what the organisation does or in the case of the construction industry, where specifiers are often a key audience, has a strong influence on the buying decision.

The real customer does usually have a choice of whether or not they buy or specify. The real customer has genuine needs and desires that must be understood and taken seriously by the whole organisation.

The real customer is the one the organisation should be spending its time satisfying. Anything else is missing the point.

So what’s my answer? Make the external customer as tangible as possible to everyone in the organisation – that’s where some good internal marketing can come in.

The sooner everyone in the organisation recognises that those real customers are ‘their’ customers, the better.

Customers purchase from the organisation as a whole, which makes them just as much the production operative’s customers as they are the sales director’s.

So, within your business, talk about customers - the real ones, daily and passionately. Invite them to the office or factory; let them meet and talk to everyone; make sure everyone in the organisation knows who the customer is, what their needs are and why.

Then allow departments to interact on the basis of true customer needs rather than their own, and allow them to think bigger than the immediate transactional stuff which the stifling ‘internal customer’ concept allows.

You may find the result is that staff will have a proper, common goal, with less focus on ‘me and my needs’.

Annette Harpham is a chartered marketer and principal of SharpEdge Marketing – a marketing consultancy and outsourced marketing management service which specialises in B2B, manufacturing and construction marketing. She is also a member of the CIMCIG committee.

 

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