external customer service

How External Customer Service Begins with Internal Customer Service

There are no lack of books and blogs written by customer service thought leaders on the importance of great customer service for a business’s long-term success. Topics include everything from the customer journey and experience to how to delight customers and create customer fandom. While it’s important to have a constantly evolving customer-focused organization, an important point that tends to be overlooked is how employee interactions are part of customer service as well. When we think of a customer, we usually think of the “external customer” – a consumer who purchases a product or service. An “internal customer” can be defined as anyone within an organization, who at any time is dependent on anyone else within the organization. If we think of employees as internal customers, it completely transforms the way we interact with them: To quote Eva Nye, Manager, Client Experience at Vital:

“Every request between internal team members is one driven by a customer need and, thus, rather than being treated as a nuisance, the request should always be treated from a customer service perspective…it’s a shift in mindset to ‘I am responding to you as I would to an external customer’.”

What is Internal Customer Service?

Internal customer service can be defined as the services your business provides to its employees as well as services that employees provide to each other. While these interactions aren’t directly customer-facing, they do affect the customer. 

In many businesses there is something similar to a production line when it comes to project or service fulfillment. If one team member in the line makes a mistake or causes a delay, it affects everyone in the line. It is important to find out how and why the mistake or delay occurred. Was it due to unclear communication? Lack of clarity about priorities? Or does the team member need help with time or task management? Whatever the cause, it is important to address any internal roadblocks as these will eventually affect the external customer in the form of delay, poor efficiency or compromised quality.

Another important aspect of internal customer service is how employees treat each other, regardless of their position in the company. When approaching co-workers with a need, it’s important to be clear, respectful and give them reasonable time to complete a task. Similarly, when receiving an internal request, it’s important to respond to it the same way you would respond to an actual customer. We wouldn’t tell a customer that they are interrupting our work or that we don’t have time to help them, so the same level of respect should be given to co-workers.

To quote from Scott Miller’s interview with Entreprenuer.com “If you see a gap between your “real” job and the needs of others in your organization, you need to rethink what your real job is. In helping others in your company, you help your company succeed. Superior internal customer service improves morale, productivity, employee retention, external customer service and, ultimately, profitability.”

In other words, internal customer service happens when employees across all divisions help each other succeed. Since external customer service begins with internal customer service, the two should be given equal importance.

Examples of Internal Customer Service

The systems and processes that are put in place will vary according to the business or sector but below are some basic rules of thumb when it comes to creating an excellent internal service culture:

  1. Develop Employee Training Programs – As part of their onboarding and training,  employees should be made aware of a company’s culture and the importance of meeting the needs of all customers – internal and external. This includes a heightened awareness of how serving other employees has a direct impact on the external customer service experience.
  1. Expect High Service Standards – Larger companies usually provide a handbook with customer service protocols which include internal customer service protocols as well. These guidelines could apply to punctuality, appearance, communication response times, task management and project updates. While some business cultures may be less formal than others, clarifications on basic email, phone and in-person etiquette is always a good idea.
  1. Enhance Employee Morale – As we shared in another blog on employee engagement, employees who are valued and recognized are employees who are happier, more fulfilled in their lives, and more engaged at work. When they feel that their work has value and purpose, they are inspired to give more than expected to the company, to develop professionally, and make efforts to help their team members.
  1. Conduct Regular Performance Reviews and Coaching – While a customer service handbook is a great start for guiding employees, one-on-one time with a manager or supervisor is important so successes or challenges can be pointed out and discussed. It’s important to go over any personal issues or internal politics that may prevent optimal performance and the ability to serve others.
  1. Analyze and Improve Processes – Assigning an operations person or team the responsibility of analyzing internal processes will help keep them running smoothly and efficiently. When a kink in the system is discovered – whether it is a technical or human error – it can be promptly resolved so the workflow is up and running again.

In conclusion, our end-goal would be for employees to demonstrate as much of a willingness and effort to satisfy the needs of their internal customers, as the business does to meet the needs of – and hopefully even delight – those who purchase their products or services. In this way, internal and external customer service integrates to create a holistic service experience that benefits all.

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Customer Service Institute of America