Exceptional customer service is a major selling point for companies that can do it well. Companies like Ritz-Carlton, Harley Davidson, and Disney are often held up as models of customer service in their respective industries, which has helped them develop and maintain strong brand positions around the globe.
Specifically, strong customer service can help a business retain customers, generate new business, increase spend per customer, boost the company brand, and even improve the confidence and morale of employees.
Internal Customers Matter, Too
The vast majority of the discussion around customer service focuses on relationships between internal customer-facing staff and external customers, whether at the business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) level. Obviously, this is an extremely important component of customer service; however, it isn’t the only element.
Everyone within an organization works with internal “customers,” who could be superiors in the reporting chain, subordinates, or colleagues from another business unit.
When an operations manager agrees to assist a sales manager with process improvements the sales manager feels will benefit customer acquisition, the sales manager is an internal customer of the operations manager. When the finance department asks for data from the marketing team, the finance department is an internal customer of that team.
While the dynamic between internal customers and their internal contacts is different in many important ways from the dynamic between a customer-facing employee and a true external customer in the traditional sense of the term, the basic concept of good customer service can be put to good use when working with internal customers.
We’ve spoken to a number of industry experts as part of our discussion of customer service concepts for internal customers. Here, we share some of their insights and observations.
Set Expectations for Cooperation and Collaboration
Far too many companies are extremely siloed and fenced off internally. The marketing department, finance department, operations department, etc., all act as their own independent organizations. This is particularly true of lower- and mid-level roles, wherein cross-department interaction and organization-level strategic activities aren’t necessarily part of the job function.
When a mid-level finance manager feels like he or she doesn’t have the time to help out on a project for the operations team, it’s understandable that he or she might not provide top-notch internal customer service—understandable but not acceptable.
It’s the job of company leadership, both at the top of the organization and within individual departments and teams, to set the expectation that cross-team collaboration is part of each employee’s job and that, when working with other teams, each is expected to provide top-quality internal customer service.
Nancy Friedman, founder and president of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training of St. Louis, explains that her organization has created the acronym “WACTEO” (We Are Customers To Each Other) as a way to emphasize the importance of internal customers.
Friedman argues that external customer service will suffer if internal customer service isn’t prioritized first. “We must start customer service within our organization,” she says. “From top to bottom, maintenance to CEO.” Too often, she says, the focus is exclusively on external customers when companies deliver service training.
They overlook the importance of meeting internal customer needs. These are the people, says Friedman, who “we spend more time with than we do our family; we depend on them from department to department to make things happen.”
Define What Quality Internal Customer Service Looks Like
Training staff on internal customer service can be fairly straightforward for customer-facing employees, assuming they have already developed strong external customer service skills. But, as noted above, not all employees are in traditional customer service roles.
For those who don’t have experience putting on a pleasant face with demanding and unpleasant customers, it may take some coaching on how they are expected to interact with their internal colleagues and what good internal customer service truly looks like.
At a minimum, good internal customer service should include responsiveness; respect for time commitments; internal customer follow-up; and empathy, or putting oneself in the internal customer’s shoes. Depending on the specific organization, there may also be other key characteristics that define what good customer service looks like.
Train Early and Train Often
An emphasis on internal customer service has to be just that—an emphasis. It can’t be a poster on the wall in the break room or an occasional comment from management. It needs to be promoted throughout an employee’s time in the organization, and it needs to be trained.
“Training employees in customer service is essential, and should be a specific aspect of employee development, because good customer service cannot be left to common sense,” says Laurie Guest, CSP, a professional trainer and author of The 10ȼ Decision: How Small Change Pays Off Big. “This training should be continuous, an ongoing effort within an organization that doesn’t end after new employee orientation or is only brought up once a year. It should be integrated into the culture, and implemented in every customer interaction.”
Don’t Forget the Benefits to the Employees Providing Internal Customer Service
Providing good customer service doesn’t just benefit an employee’s coworkers. There are numerous benefits to the employee providing that service, as well.
One of the most obvious, although often less directly tangible, is the benefit to the company overall when departments and employees are working well with one another. This will be more tangible and more direct if there is some kind of incentive structure based on company performance. But simply helping to keep the company in business for the sake of job security can be touted, as well.
Additionally, employees who exhibit strong internal customer service often end up getting the same in return, from both those they’ve helped before and others who know the employees’ reputation for being team players.
Customer service can set a company apart from its competitors in its interactions with the market. But customer service principles and concepts don’t need to be limited to external relationships.
Promoting strong internal customer service can help boost the morale of an organization and help facilitate more effective and efficient operations.