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SATISFYING THE INTERNAL CUSTOMER

by Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

Internal customer service is a critical element in delivering superior external customer service. In many situations, it could be the bottleneck. Internal customer service is a new paradigm of organization and teamwork. Most companies are not ready for this. After years of treating other departments in the company as rivals, friends, colleagues, or a nuisance, a department head is not about to give up his turf and self respect by kowtowing to his department's internal customers. Other departments are treated with either too much respect or too much disrespect. In either extreme case, good, honest, and consistent service is not bound to happen. Fear of and lack of feedback from internal customers prevent the internal suppliers from improving their services. Total Quality Management obliges us to serve our internal customers, as we would serve our external or paying customers.

Internal service improvement starts by recognizing how well or badly we, as internal suppliers, serve our various internal customers from their point of view. This process is very similar to doing market surveys and customer complaints questionnaires to gauge external customer satisfaction.

From his customers' point of view, the supplier should take full responsibility for his own actions and performance. Total quality responsibility begins and ends with the supplier. If marketing complains against operations about delayed delivery of reports or records, operations cannot cite the IT department, maintenance or purchasing as reasons for the downtime and delays. While these support departments may be really at fault, operations cannot use them as excuses to explain away its failure to service its customer - marketing. It just has to accept full responsibility for the acts of its internal suppliers. Never let your customers follow up on your suppliers; this “passing the buck” will promote chaos. Everybody will be running after everybody else. The principle of total responsibility applies very clearly in our dealings with our end-users or external customers. If a food company sells its product with a package that leaks, it does not say to its complaining customers that it was its packaging supplier's fault and not the company's. From the customer's viewpoint, the package and its contents are both made by the same company.

What if your internal customer is also one of your internal suppliers? Who is right in case of disagreement? To avoid a gridlock in which no improvement takes place, follow this rule: Find the party which is dominantly a customer. Usually, it is the department that is closer to the external or paying customer. For instance, marketing is a customer of operations from which it gets the goods to sell. Operations is also a customer of marketing from which it gets the forecast, the basis of operations plans. Marketing may complain against operations about delays, poor quality, stock-outs, and high cost. On the other hand, operations may charge that marketing fouls up their plans by giving the wrong forecast, changing the forecast, or giving unreasonable lead-time to produce or deliver. Who is right? Who should yield and give way? According to our rule, marketing, being closer to the end-users, is more right than operations. Operations should make its process robust and flexible so that it could cope with short lead times and frequent changes in plans. Marketing seems unreasonable, because it is just passing on or echoing the unreasonableness of the paying external customers --- who are always right. In short, operations should accept the fact that marketing, as the representative of the unreasonable customers, is always right. Similarly, in a fight between operations and maintenance, operations is more right. Between maintenance and purchasing, maintenance wins as the dominant customer.

The supplier should align and validate his output and the customer's quality expectations with the customer. Do supplier's declared outputs correspond to the inputs expected by the internal customer from him? The supplier may think that the internal customers want a report that is accurate and timely. The customer may say that a quality report should be complete, relevant, easy to read, less than 3 pages, in addition to being accurate (factual) and on time. The supplier may think that a monthly report will do, but the customer may actually want it weekly. This alignment of expectations will prevent the supplier from doing the wrong thing right. The worst and also very common scenario is the supplier honestly and sincerely working very hard to come out the wrong output with the wrong specifications, and rating himself highly for this effort.

The departments which consistently receive the lowest ratings from their internal customers are purchasing, credit, personnel, and legal . All these support departments are known to be control-oriented power centers reporting directly to top management. Rarely capable of looking at themselves as service centers, service providers, or internal suppliers, these departments would like to believe that they are the anointed custodians, controllers, and disciplinarians of other departments, specifically, the frontliners in marketing or sales. In general, these support departments react rather than proact to requests and job orders. Their typical responses to internal customer requests are: a) "It can't be done." b) "That's against company policy." c) "You are not giving us the required lead time to handle your request." d) "We don't have the funds to do that." e) "Wait for your turn, we have a backlog." Support departments should shift roles from control centers to service centers.

Finally, we have to align performance appraisal systems to support internal customer satisfaction. The conventional performance evaluation is deficient in that it is done by one's superior or department head, who is often not one's internal customer. The most accurate and objective performance evaluation can only be made by the people who receive and use one's services - the internal customers.


 

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