The Elusive Internal Customer


I remember reading Librarianship: An Introduction, by Chowdhury et al. and especially the part (6: 24) dealing with the “importance of marketing to libraries.” One assertion, drawing from several sources, went “we should adopt the language of the private sector and refer to library users as customers” (p.263). I was piqued that the language of the private sector would be so unquestionably adopted.

According to OED, Customer has the following meanings:

  1. a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business
  2. a person or thing of a specified kind that one has to deal with

That reference to the private sector and its language set me thinking. In the corporate setting in which I work, I guess definition # 2 is more appropriate but it is inextricably interwoven with definition # 1 and also connotes the jargon of quality management, which considers employees supporting other employees as service providers and internal customers, respectively. The idea at work here is to operationalize the concept of quality meeting closely requirements by or inferred from external customers.

At the end of the chain, the external customer purchases goods or services the organization retails. It somewhat confuses me to consider my colleagues as customers because the good working relationship that I may have with them, if viewed from the angle of an internal customer/ provider relationship, has an insidious tendency to deteriorate when the service that I offer is not up to what they expect it to be.

In an article by John Guaspari called rather provocatively, “Down with the Internal Customer,” Guaspari explains how the meaning of the phrase has been twisted out of shape, by equating internal customers with the tough nuts we can be ourselves as external customers when we buy goods/ services from outside providers.

The thinking goes that in that role we may behave any way we wish to because we have dearly paid for what we have bought. Unthinkingly and uncritically carrying that notion over to the corporate world cheapens roles occupied by info pros, dragging us to almost subservient positions and it equips unreasonable internal customers caught in difficult situations with the implacable, undeniable authority of the almighty external irascible customer.

I have never been that kind of external customer myself; have a very short fuse for those who don that role; and do not condone it in an enterprise setting.

Back to basics: internal customers represent a piece of the symbolic external customer, to whom we’ll sell a product eventually, that our joint efforts  as co-workers– or service products — make up. That’s good quality management geared to improving everyone’s performance including those in the back of the back office, by setting everyone’s sights on a series of quality standards all feeding into those of that symbolic being.

I believe that the internal customer-provider relationship is never to be equated with an opportunity for the customer to vent their frustration or to look down on fellow co-workers. Bottom line.

For a company to secure quality assurance or foster total quality improvement, co-workers need to refocus on and recognize those basics of quality management.

That reference set me thinking. I reflected about how we used the term in my environment.
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~ by iinformationvoyager on March 25, 2010.

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