Why Should You Care About Internal Customer Service?

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Imagine a customer service manager needs to hire a new representative.

There are probably a lot of other employees they depend on to get that done. A recruiter posts the job and screens candidates. Human resources provides an orientation. Payroll enters the new hire into the system so they can get paid. Facilities gets the new hire's workstation setup and issues any necessary access badges. IT creates all the necessary software accounts.

All of those people are responsible for internal customer service. 

Internal service doesn't always get the same level of scrutiny as external service, yet it's vital to a company's success. If any of the employees in the scenario above fail to do their job, the new hire won't enjoy a smooth onboarding experience and they may not live up to their potential.

Approximately 50 percent of the training requests I receive are for internal customer service. This post takes a closer look at who is an internal customer and why internal service is so important.

Group of happy coworkers high-giving over a conference table.

Who is an internal customer?

An internal customer is any internal stakeholder you serve. This typically means other employees, but it might also include contractors, temporary workers, or owners. The goal of internal service is usually to help someone else so an external customer receives better service.

There are a few common characteristics of internal customers that help separate them from external customers:

  • Frequency of interactions: we tend to serve the same internal customers more often.

  • Closer relationships: we form tighter bonds with the people we work with.

  • Two-way service: internal customers often serve each other.

That last point is important, yet often overlooked.

Why is internal customer service so important?

Internal service is an essential part of the employee experience.

I once hired a new customer service representative, only to be told by the IT manager that it would take three weeks to get their new computer. That created a poor experience for my new hire and made onboarding more difficult.

It felt like a service failure from the IT manager, but the reality was we were both at fault.

The IT manager learned about about the new hire once they had accepted the job offer, which was just one week before they started. In my mind, this was plenty of time to get a computer and setup the employee's workstation, but that was a big assumption on my part. I caused unnecessary tension with the IT manager because I didn't proactively let him know about my hiring plans.

He doesn't get off the hook in this scenario, either. The three-week lead time to order a computer was excessive, and entirely due to his desire to stick with a certain model of computer. He would have been able to get the new hire setup much faster if he had been more flexible.

It was a powerful learning experience. The next time I hired someone, I was much more proactive. And to the IT manager’s credit, he was much more flexible. The end result was the next employee had a workstation ready to go on their first day.

Later in my career, I saw the concept of mutual internal service play out with a hospital where I was doing some consulting and customer service training.

The hospital provided scrubs for its medical staff. The team responsible for stocking the scrubs was receiving complaints that there were not enough scrubs available and designated storage areas were frequently empty.

The supply manager took a tour of the hospital with a few internal customers to get a closer look. The tour quickly revealed the two-way street that often happens when serving internal customers.

The supply manager learned medical personnel got nervous when the supply of scrubs ran low. They didn't trust the supply team to refill them in time, so people would take extra sets of scrubs and hide them for later. Then when a unit ran out of scrubs, they'd go raid the supply cabinet in another unit, causing them to run out as well.

The solution was fairly straightforward. The supply team agreed to refill the supply cabinets more often, which helped build trust because there was usually an ample amount on hand. And medical staff leaders agreed to reinforce the one pair of scrubs at a time policy, while proactively alerting the supply team if scrubs were getting low so there could be an extra delivery.

Steps to improve internal customer service

The first step to improving service is defining what great service looks like.

This can be done by creating a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. My research into customer-focused organizations reveals that elite teams share the same vision for internal and external service.

Brand leadership expert Denise Lee Yohn captures this concept well in her book, Fusion. In it, she describes how the most powerful and authentic brands are a reflection of the company’s internal culture.

On a personal level, you can serve your internal customers better by identifying each one (or group of customers) and their core needs.

For example, in the hiring scenario, I needed the IT manager to provide my new hire with a computer and all the necessary software access. In return, the IT manager needed me to provide him with timely notification of new hires.

You can use this downloadable worksheet to complete the exercise.

This short video provides even more insight into who is an internal customer and why serving them is important.