Who Are Internal Customers (And Why They Matter)

April 29th, 2017 | Lin Parkin | Customer Service
Who Are Internal Customers (And Why They Matter)

Providing outstanding customer service is, or at least should be, at the heart of any business mission statement. However, many organizations fail to recognize that the path leading them there is by focusing on the happiness of internal customers first.

You might be asking yourself, what exactly is an “internal customer?”

People tend to think of customers as only being external to their business, the individuals who purchase a company’s products or services. While internal customers may not necessarily buy anything, each customer group has a substantial impact on the success of your business.

To understand their particular significance, it’s important to define what each customer type is and how they contribute.

Who Is an External Customer?

External customers are essential to any business. They provide the revenue stream that the company needs to survive. Satisfied external customers are often loyal and make repeat purchases. They are also likely to refer your business to other people they know.

On the other hand, an external customer who has had a negative experience with your business, such as being treated poorly by an employee, can also hinder your success by deterring the people in their inner circles from doing business with you.

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Who Is an Internal Customer?

An internal customer is any member of an organization who relies on the assistance of another colleague to fulfill their job duties. That includes every employee and department of any business, from human resources to finance, from sales to customer service, from custodians to the CEO, from vendors to distributors and all the way up to the President of the company. Everyone in the organization has and is a customer to someone else. Internal customer service is an act that ultimately results in the ability (or inability) to provide excellent service experiences to external customers.

Here is an example of the relationship between internal customers:

  • A flower shopkeeper takes inventory and goes to a floral auction to stock the shop.
  • Later, a clerk in the flower shop takes a delivery order.
  • The floral designer creates a beautiful arrangement and calls for pickup.
  • The delivery person picks up the order and delivers the flowers to the customer on time.

In this scenario, each individual is critical to the other, and the importance of their job duties flows from one role to the other. Even just one blip in the system and the whole thing breaks down.

  • The delivery person can’t deliver the order on time if the floral designer slacks on making the arrangement.
  • If the shopkeeper doesn’t adequately stock the shop with floral supplies, the designer can’t create arrangements.
  • If the clerk doesn’t answer the phone, there are no orders to fulfill, and nobody can do their part of the process.

But if each person communicates with each other in a timely and open manner, the overall job of the flower shop is accomplished, and the external customer is kept happy.

Superior Customer Service Is a Whole Company Effort

As the saying goes, there’s a little sales in customer service and a little customer service in sales. When people in complimentary departments support each other, something magical happens. A company culture is born, and success follows.

Make no mistake. Customer service is not just the responsibility of the customer service department. It involves those in your organization who primarily serve each other (internal customers) as well as the frontline staff, like live chat agents and telephone representatives, who primarily serve your external customers.

Viewed from a whole company perspective, think of a traditional corporate pyramid structure. There’s the President or CEO at the top, layers of management and supervisors in the middle, and at the bottom are front-line employees serving external customers.

But imagine if that pyramid was inverted.

The customers are at the top, and everybody in the organization serves each other in the process, including the President of the company. This vision creates the impression of one common goal and encourages a “we’re all in this together” mentality. If the pyramid can’t work upside-down, it should, at the very least, flow side-to-side from one end to the other, displaying that everyone’s role supports another.

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How to Improve Internal Customer Service

The foundation for outstanding internal customer relations is built on solid interdepartmental cooperation. A healthy company culture is achieved through an atmosphere of sharing and helping.

Unfortunately, that can become tainted when there’s a siloed work mentality present. If you frequently hear statements such as, “I thought that was your (or their) responsibility, not mine!” than you likely work in a siloed environment.

Breaking down silos can be complex, especially if this mentality has been festering in the company for a long time. But it can be done. That might involve:

  • Team restructuring
  • Changing where key teams are physically located in the office
  • Technological changes that make it easier to communicate and perform duties
  • Process changes that foster discussions and teamwork
  • Encouraging interdepartmental collaboration

Good internal relations shouldn’t be complicated. It’s a matter of respecting one another, maintaining open communication, and making it easier for teams to collaborate. There are some very simple ways that you can start incorporating an internal customer service mentality at work that can have a big impact on overall company morale.

  1. Show up on time.
  2. Meet your deadlines.
  3. Answer calls quickly.
  4. Define roles and responsibilities and share them company wide.
  5. Provide clear expectations to each employee.
  6. Be professional, approachable and polite.
  7. Hold “round table” discussions to address the needs of each department.
  8. Have “customer focus” meetings so each department can chime in on customer needs.
  9. Strive to not only meet but exceed internal customer expectations.

Essentially, anything that you have read or heard regarding exceptional external customer service can apply to your internal customers as well. A huge factor in this is, without question, working in a company that strives for excellence in service.

But it is next to impossible for any employee to provide exceptional customer service to outside customers if they feel undervalued, disconnected or unimportant in the company they work for. Therefore, internal customer service is equally crucial to the success of an organization as having happy external customers.

Understanding the importance of each customer group and acting on those concepts will help you build an exceptional service culture, leading to long-term employee engagement and loyal customers. In many ways, the secret to any successful relationship can be boiled down into one simple quote.

[eBook] Agents Handbook: Understanding Your Live Chat Customer
This blog post is Chapter 3 in

[eBook] Agents Handbook: Understanding Your Live Chat Customer

You can follow the links below to read other chapters or download the full ebook.
Download the Full eBook


Lin Parkin has specialized in digital customer service management, public relations, and content writing for over a decade. She is passionate about changing the way people view online customer service and helping digital customer service teams deliver a stellar experience with each interaction. As a freelance writer, Lin contributes to business and lifestyle magazines as both a writer and editor and writes for business blogs across Canada and the U.S. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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