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Your systems should focus on your clients

Do your systems serve your internal customers or all of them?

By internal customers, I mean your accounting department, the staff on the shipping dock, customer service representatives, sales people and so on.

Systems that serve your internal customers do things such as accept, validate and record orders, track commissions, automate shipment notifications, manage inventory and a multitude of other things necessary to make sure that orders for products and services are properly fulfilled.

These systems (investments, really) serve your “real” clients as well, but in many cases their service to the client is indirect. I say indirect because your client rarely sees this service, even though they benefit from it. These systems enable your staff to serve your clients, keep track of where their package is and keep track of the fact that they’ve paid their bill. That’s service they benefit from – even if it is indirect.

Clearly, these investments are valuable. My assertion is that these systems don’t often focus on the client’s needs, even though they ultimately serve that client.

For example?

You knew I’d have an example or two.

You’ve probably seen a cryptic medical bill at some point. These bills have improved vs. the bills of five or ten years ago, but they could still be easier to read. Focusing on client needs might mean making the effort to create a customer-focused bill where info other than the total amount due is intelligible to the patient and their family.

A recent cold snap snuffed the battery in my wife’s car. When I went to replace it, I had to take it to a different store in the national (but locally owned) chain where I buy auto parts. Because the store’s systems are focused on internal customer needs, they were able to see inventory in stock and tell me which stores in the area had the battery I needed. While that’s useful information to help me get a new battery, it fell short of the staff’s needs and my own.

Unfortunately, they had no way to access my purchase information from a few years ago so that they could provide the appropriate discount on the new battery, since the old one expired during the warranty period.

The last time I bought a battery from these guys, they calculated the discount from the date on the battery (ie: the month and year that are picked off at the counter when the sell it to you). This time, that date was considered irrelevant. Further, I was scolded for not having a three year old receipt (which I probably have, but haven’t found).

I asked for advice to avoid this in the future, since I was used to the prior system where the pick-off date on the battery was what the trusted. The guys at the counter suggested that I tape the new receipt to the battery so that I’d have it next time. It seems like a good idea, but tape plus battery plus Montana weather times three or more years tells me that reading that receipt might not be so easy in the future.

Where’s my warranty discount?

The discount was trivial and really isn’t the point, but the situation provides a good example of a business system that primarily serves internal customers. The store that sold me the new battery has the ability to check inventory of the store where I bought the old battery and get a part from that store – both of these features primarily serve internal customer needs. A missing internal customer need that would also serve the external customer would allow store personnel to confirm a purchase at another store in the chair, as well as track the purchase for warranty purposes.

You’ve seen this before. Pharmacies are able to track prescriptions at any of their stores and refill them in any other store even if the original was called into a pharmacy thousands of miles away. To be sure, there are laws covering the record keeping of these purchases, but they could make it much more difficult to buy in the second location than they do.

Why do they buy from you?

The point is that your clients have a choice. If your internal systems make it easier for your clients to buy, redeem, refill, obtain service, and buy again…. they’ll likely buy from you.

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Becoming the Easy Button

Easy – like going downhill.  Creative Commons License photo credit: Mikelo

Ever made life difficult for internal customers?

Oh, I don’t mean intentionally. Really I don’t.

Last week, I was talking to a friend who works for a large multi-national corporation.

The conversation reminded me about corporate culture, something I’ve mostly missed out on since my Electronic Data Systems (EDS) days. That was the pre-GM, pre-HP, Ross Perot era, if you’re keeping score.

He reminded me of situations including those where you can often get an outside vendor to provide a service faster, better and cheaper than an internal corporate division that was built and funded to provide those very same services to co-workers.

It also reminded me how easy it is to understand (logically, at least) how companies can lay off thousands at a time.

Thousands. Sometimes tens of thousands.

Think about the financial, cultural and emotional impact on a community (or communities) when that occurs, not to mention the impact of those workers on their employer’s financials from a return on investment perspective. Did they make themselves irrelevant?


What’s your corporate pleasure?

Your small business might specialize in the type of work that a corporate person needs from their internal division – but can’t get. That work might be hydrology, remote sensing or language translation, and I expect that your business is likely do a better job than a corporate division or department that is supposed to take care of those services for their company.

Sometimes “better job” means “we actually deliver the service”. Sometimes it means more than that.

The internal customer goes out on the open market and finds cooperative, hungry vendor, beats them up on price (perhaps), sets a deadline and then has the audacity to expect on-time delivery.

All of that happens faster and with far less hassle than dealing with the internal department designed to do this work for the company.

It’s not hard to see how profits could be hard to come by when there are whole buildings full of people making life difficult for their colleagues.

Instead of pushing the issue and making a stink within their management food chain, those colleagues get the job done because they need the job done sooner rather than later.

They don’t have time for “Dancing with the Stars” style management politics.

They don’t need a five week wait, a nine meeting approval process, an internal purchase order and the signatures of 12 people to get an engineering report delivered.

They just need the work done – effectively, the What-You-Do version of the Staples “Easy Button”.

Divide and Conquer

One thing I always found interesting (if not amusing) was the widespread acceptance of  “small” $2999 (or some similarly “almost the next big amount” number) corporate credit card payments.

At some levels of management, corporate card holders can spend up to some amount of that nature every month without purchase orders, without RFPs, without any other massive paperwork and they can buy TODAY.

IF, that is, you are willing to accept split payments over a few months so that this person can get the work done rather than spend all their time writing proposals, reviewing bids and greasing the finance committee.

To be sure, some spending abuse occurs when this happens, but most of the time, it happens because the grind to get things done through channels is more work than the work you actually want to get done.

The point of mentioning this is to make sure that your corporate clients are well aware that you offer this sort of thing as a payment option.

The corporate buyer’s responsibility is to get things done. Internal purchasing policy hassles make for a poor excuse to upper management. Fixing those hassles is management’s job, so it is ironic that they will find them poor excuses.

Regardless, your direct contacts have things they need to get done. Help them do so.

The Employee Shoe

If you’re the corporate type, one thing to be very careful of here is that the treatment you get as an internal customer doesn’t negatively affect your work with your external customers.

Sometimes it’s hard, but I can tell you this – if you think and work like a business owner rather than as an employee, you’ll be the one who benefits in the long run.