Monday, September 27, 2010

Your co-workers aren't customers

"Sales has asked that we stop sending bills to their accounts."

"Wait.  What?  Why?"

"Well, according to the sales guys, when the customer feels like they owe us something, it's harder to make more sales."

"Sales that the customer doesn't want to be billed for?"


"But how are we supposed to get the customers to pay us?"

"Look, the sales department is our customer.  And we have to meet their needs.  So let's make this happen.!"

The idea that departments within the same organization are somehow customers to one another is easily one of the most asinine operational philosophies I've ever encountered.  I'm not sure where it started, but I've seen it applied in more than one company, leading me to believe that somewhere out there is a self-help management guide that makes up for what it lacks in solid concepts with superb promotional marketing.  Regardless, it's an idea that isn't just wrongheaded, it's destructive.

On its surface, the concept seems simple enough:  Most everyone has at least some level of familiarity with good customer service, so if we all treat our co-workers the same way we would treat our customers, everything should be hunky dory.  The problem is that the standard vendor/customer relationship is nothing like interdepartmental relationships within a single organization.

In a competitive marketplace customers enjoy an aspect of their relationship with vendors that few departments ever experience within an organization.  Choice.  Businesses must compete with one another for customer dollars.  They're forced to differentiate, promote and encourage in order to lure in consumers.  Where does this happen when it comes to interdepartmental relationships?  Can Sales pick and choose among a variety of Accounting departments to manage expense accounts?  Does Customer Service get to decide if it will use their Human Resources department or that of another company to fill a vacancy?  For the most part, no.*  As the saying goes, "You go to war with the Army you have...not the Army you might want."

"Department" and "team" are often used interchangeably in the work world.  That's because we generally regard the people we work most closely with as sharing similar goals, just like any team.  In a vendor/customer relationship, the two parties typically have very different goals and desires.  A customer wants some sort of product or service that will make her life easier, solve a problem or meet a need.  The vendor wants money.  The two parties make an exchange of money for a product to arrive at a (hopefully) mutually acceptable arrangement.  Each has something the other wants and willingly participates in a give-and-take relationship.  The problem with one department treating another as a customer is that there's an insinuation that the two don't share the same objective (i.e., the overall success of the business). If the entire organization isn't working as a team, and not just the individual department, you've got a problem.  This isn't to say that some departments don't inherently serve in a support role for other departments, just that at the end of the day they're both trying to get to the same place.

But what about this idea being destructive?  Well, to begin with, even though the traditional vendor/customer relationship is symbiotic, the fact that each has a different goal also makes it somewhat contentious.  No matter how much a vendor may recognize the need to satisfy a customer and get her money, and regardless of how the customer is treated to her face, the truth is that many customers are regarded with contempt.  Check out any blog managed by a waiter or waitress and you'll pick up on that pretty quickly, or this one that pokes fun at customers in general.   Customer demands fueled by a "the customer is always right" attitude are matched only by the resentment generated among those who need to meet them.  And while there's most likely no way around this when it comes to serving customers, it's a completely unnecessary level of friction to have when having two departments dealing with one another in the same organization.

So let's trash this department as a customer philosophy post-haste.  If you're in an organization toying with the idea or, more importantly, a manager pushing the concept, put it to rest.  Resist the urge to apply a wholly inappropriate approach to working with other departments to either meet their needs or place demands upon them.  Sure, it may mean you'll have to work a little harder to encourage cohesive internal relationships, but at least you won't be taking the easy, not to mention wrong, way out.


*I'll qualify this by saying it's not unheard of for one department to bypass working with another when the need arises.  After all, that's one reason outside contractors exist.  But if it becomes a standard operating procedure, there's a bigger issue being ignored.

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