What not to say: Internal customer

Oftentimes business speak has the primary harm of being obfuscatory or simply silly – “I reached out across the cross functional matrix to create alignment of goals and synergies” rather than “I cooperated” – but sometimes there are bizspeak terms that are downright detrimental to organizational performance because they mislead or force the wrong behaviors.  One of those terms is internal customer.

In case you’re lucky enough not to be familiar with this maddening phrase, internal customer means the employee or group of employees who will directly benefit from the work you do at the firm.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having a term to describe this relationship, but in practice it’s a highly loaded term that I’ve only seen misused.  The problem is customer.  Customers are, of course, god to any company.  Sam Walton famously said,

There is only one boss.  The customer.  And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.

I like that sentiment a lot, as do many people in successful companies.  And as a result this word customer becomes incredibly powerful.  The customer is always right.  It’s what the customer wants.  Customers first.

But the phrase internal customer is a perversion of this powerful positive sentiment.  Customers by definition are not internal.  Internal people are part of our team and must all band together to delight the customers.  Customers are not part of our team and expect to be delighted, and if they’re not, they’ll leave us for someone else who does delight them.  The customer does not expect to sublimate her desires to anyone else’s.  Internal people, on the other hand, don’t have the privilege of expecting to be delighted and must constantly sublimate their desires to those of the customer.

At its best this phrase is misused by good-hearted people who accidentally credit too much importance to the wrong things.  At its worst, it is a deliberate manipulation pulled out by scheming people who seek to advance their own agendas at the expense of the company’s greater good.  These people know how powerful the word customer is and know that they can create an environment where it is politically impossible to say no to them, and they do it by confusing themselves with actual customers.

In organizations I run, I ban the phrase internal customer.  There is no such thing.  If you say that phrase, I won’t hear it.  My simple rule of thumb goes as follows.

If the party in question receives compensation from the company in return for goods or services rendered, it is not a customer.

Employees get paychecks and bonuses and stock options and health care and whatnot.  They’re not customers.  Agencies and printers and vendors are not customers.  The people you rent your office space from are not customers.  Contractors are not customers.  Advertising sales reps are not customers.  That guy who comes and fills the vending machines in the break room is not a customer.

Resellers are not simple customers, since they make money selling our products, but they’re not the same as pure insiders either, since they may be able to drop us and resell our competitors instead.  In other words, some days they’re customers and some days they’re not.

Now there are plenty of outsiders that are in no way customers or even prospective customers.  That’s okay.  We don’t tend to confuse them for customers, and they don’t tend to pull power plays in meetings where multiple VPs are present.  So we can be less concerned about them.

Also be aware that the same company can be a customer and not a customer at the same time, depending on where in the organization you’re interacting and what you’re doing.  If the guy who fills the vending machines works for Frito-Lay, and if Frito-Lay is a major purchaser of your IT solutions, he still is not a customer, even though someone else at Frito-Lay is.  There are very occasional instances where the same individual sits in both roles, usually near the top of the organization, and we have to be cognizant of them, but that’s pretty rare and usually obvious when it happens.

So does that mean this phrase is always unambiguously evil under all circumstances?  I suppose if you’re in a purely internal function like IT or HR or facilities and you never, ever do anything that could directly affect an actual customer, then I suppose it’s an okay phrase so long as it’s confined to discussions that exist entirely inside that sandbox.  But if you’re in sales, marketing, customer service, engineering, legal, finance, or senior management, forget about it.  You need to keep clarity on who is the customer and who is not.  For anyone in any of those roles, forget the term internal customer.  It’ll only do you harm.

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