I was party to a discussion once where a supervisor was complaining that she had problems getting face time with her manager. The manager responded, defensively “Well the customer comes first and when I’m busy with a customer everything else just has to wait.” Fair enough, on the face of it, but does everything mean everybody too? And who exactly is the customer?
Most of us understand “customer” to mean the person who pays us to provide a service to them. We all realize that great service is one of the enticements to keeping our customers happy. But whose job is that, yours alone? If you work with a team, the responsibility rests with the entire team to provide great service to your external customers. This becomes patently impossible if the team are not serving one another effectively internally.
There could be many reasons why our supervisor may need face time with her manager. It may be advice, awaiting approval in order to proceed, essential feedback, disciplinary issues or a multitude of other things. What is critical here is that the manager does not view his supervisor as his customer, and certainly not as a priority.
Why is it important to view your colleagues as customers? For starters, you spend more time with them that you do with your external customers. Secondly, you rely on them to perform certain vital functions that will lead to customer satisfaction. This is because you yourself can not do everything – that’s why there’s the team.
In a work sense the internal customer should be regarded as more important than an external customer. Yes, you read that right. Everyone in your organization needs to understand that the external customer is very important, but that the internal customer is even more important. You may not have chosen to work with your colleagues – they were hired for their talents and expertise, not because they’re your friends. In a successful work environment we learn to work with a diverse group of people whom we may not naturally gravitate towards as friends – but we need them anyway. They are critical to our success. And therefore we need to set aside enough time for them so that they have the tools, the authority and the confidence to do what is expected of them. That includes, of course, dazzling the external customer with superb, friendly and efficient service.
There is of course the benefit too that people who feel acknowledged tend to be more helpful, friendly, cooperative and… yes, productive. This is because acknowledgement is addictive.
Without our external customers our organisation has no need to exist. But without a team to ensure that those customers are served properly, you have no mechanism to provide that service. So, your team members are your core customers. Your immediate team is your personal responsibility. If you are part of a team, you need to nurture and protect your relationships within that team.
“A customer is someone with whom one has dealings”.
This definition is very simple, but it’s also also quite profound, and has broad implications. So before making the noble statement “The customer comes first”, first reconsider who your customers are and who may be coming second or last as a result of putting a particular customer first.
There’s only so much that you can do on your own. Your internal customers are the people who will ensure that the job gets done.