Editor’s note: In an earlier post, I asserted that an internal customer is not really a customer. One of my readers, Emeka Nwonu, took issue with my statement, so I invited him to add his perspective for the blog. The article he submitted in response appears in its entirety below. On a personal note, I would like to thank Mr. Nwonu for his thoughtful and constructive engagement with my work, and I hope we’ll be hearing much more from him. You can find more of his work on Medium.
INTERNAL CUSTOMERS: A VALID OR A FLAWED CONCEPT
Organisations are a complementary and interrelated functional units along a value chain. Although, the relationships among different units may vary across organisations, these interrelationships create dependencies which are often represented in the forms of structures and processes until an end product that has intrinsic value is created. In today’s business environment, customers don’t just buy products but pay for experiences for the entire customer journey; from searching for products, through to purchase, delivery and returns or recommendations / return purchase – Customers seek value at every step of their journey, thus businesses need employees that understand market trends and customer expectations to enable curating the desired overall customer experience.
With a concept or prototype developed from the ideation process which is one of the early stages of product creation, comes the very hard questions around products and / or concept validation. What value does this product bring? Will anyone pay for this product? Does this really appeal to the target market segments and the general market-fit type questions. From experience, the first validation you get is from employees – Either they are excited and show enthusiasm to create this wonderful product / experience that will take over the world or they treat it as another days job in the office. They are key stakeholders and because their reward depends on the success of the businesses, they will be honest and open with their feedback. Whether the businesses will listen and take employee feedback into consideration is a different story. To build for a particular market segment, you have to include people that belong to that market segment into your product teams. People that have first-hand experience of the problem are in the best position to provide feedback before a product is released for testing or into the market – who can proffer a solution for a problem better than someone who experiences or has experienced the problem?
Employees are not real paying Customers
People often argue that employees are not real paying customers and cannot be trusted to give an unbiased opinion, suggesting that validation should come from the market itself. Some even argue that the only validation that matters is the validation from paying (external) customers – the assumption is that because they pay for the product / service they will be more objective in their assessment. How about those who earn a living from the success of the products, do you not think they will be much more objective as their livelihood depends on the success of the business to a large extent. Although, all of these are true, if your employees that fall within the target market demography are not willing to use and pay for your product, it is a clear sign of problems. In fact, it is the most obvious sign of a lack of belief and trust in the product / services – when people do not belief in their own work, they can hardly recommend it and most likely would struggle to sell it. Who says employees cannot be paying customers, aren’t they human or do they not have the same needs like everybody else in the society? It’s probably because they can access better alternatives or substitutes that provides better value than what you are offering, so take their intuition and feedback seriously.
This is not to suggest that when employees are not happy that they will not do a good job or destroy stuffs, however, they will do only the minimum required to earn their wages. To the excitement of customers, lately many businesses are building communities and organising customer forums to allow customers participate / contribute towards product development. In the same vein, employees are excited when they are a part of the discussion and contribute to the decisions towards building successful businesses. Almost every business is talking about being customer-centric but the struggle lies in defining who the customer is and why the customer should be trusted. Anyway, understanding at what stages certain types of input and from what kind of customers are required is very important.
Treat employees as partners and not as customers
Well if employees could be treated as partners in the real sense, that would be great, but can they? I agree that when people have skin in the game they bring their best to bare but in what ways can employees be treated as partners? Authority, responsibility, autonomy are all things good leaders avail their employees. The concept of treating employees as partners without giving them stakes in the business does not cut it for me. Let us call a spade a spade, treat a partner as a partner and treat employees as employees. A strong leadership with shared vision will create the environment and clear direction for workers to thrive and do the best job they can without necessarily being partners. Engagement and the availability of a feedback loop for employees to contribute to the improvement and validation of their work is not and does not require any sort of partnership, it is a function of leadership and the right management structure. Employees, especially those in the target demographics are the first customers to every business because they get the first feel of the product, and if the product / service is not good for them (either from a quality or price perspective), I do not see how it will be good for the market.
Furthermore, the risk of going to market or relying on external customers for validation is that failing to impress the early adopters could damage your brand, resulting in a huge struggle to penetrate the wider market. The current markets are very volatile and competition is as fierce as it can get with little or no margins for error, especially since the advent of social media.
Excellent Employee Experience Creates Excellent Customer Experience
The goal is to please the customer by creating unique and pleasant experiences, and this starts from the employees. If you treat your employees as customers, you will empower them and take their views and perceptions into consideration, which makes them more invested in the success of the business. Leadership involves sharing strategic visions and getting the entire organisations to buy into it – if they do, they become brand ambassadors by default. I disagree with the notion that employers have the same perspectives, views or beliefs as their employee, it only happens when there is a lack of diversity and poor communication strategy. Employers are human beings just like the regular customer and if they themselves cannot find value in what they produce, it will be difficult for them to sell it to the external customer – happy employees make happy customers. People cannot give what they do not have, and it is only from a positive employee experience that you can create a positive customer experience. Therefore, the employee is the first line of patronage that every business encounters and should be treated as businesses will expect to treat their target customers.
What every business needs is a strong and unbiased leadership that can create environment that promotes diversity which always enhances building / curating products / services that appeals to a wider range of customers. The concept of the internal customer is very potent and valid.