Customers In Disguise

Categories: Winnthinks

I’ve worked with some interesting organisations recently, some of which are really not part of the traditional market for ‘customer service training’. And it’s brought about some fascinating conversations.

Take, for example, the secondary school where I was asked to work with the non-teaching (support) staff on their customer service delivery. Here we have a wide range of roles, from those where there are recognisable customer-type interactions (parents who ask questions over the reception desk, members of the public who hire the school hall). But the concept of ‘customer’ can be quite a leap of imagination for the lab technicians, lunchtime supervisors and premises team.

Or think about the mental health helpline I worked with in the spring. Is it really appropriate to think of their callers as ‘customers’? Sometimes they are service users, sometimes concerned family members, sometimes advising experts. How does the label ‘customer’ fit in there?

The problem stems from our inherited understanding of the term ‘customer’. Most dictionary definitions say things like ‘one who exchanges money for goods or services’, and some introduce the idea of choice into the customer’s decision to use a particular provider. So where does that leave our local authorities, charities and government services? We may well be funding them through our donations or taxes, but there isn’t always that much choice. If I don’t like how DVLC handled my last change of address, I can hardly choose to go elsewhere, can I?

And yet, whether you call them service users, members, patients, clients, enquirers, fee-payers, hirers, audience, colleagues, investors, diners, readers, stakeholders, students, subscribers or something else, they are essentially still your customer. And to help clarify ‘the C word’ a little more, here’s my definition for you:

Customer (noun): Any individual or group of individuals that interacts with you in your job role (whether paid or voluntary), in order to benefit from the service you provide.

How does that sound? Anything you’d add to or take away? For me it really is that simple. And what this definition also does – rather beautifully, though I say so myself – is embrace the WHOLE of your organisation, not just the people up the front end who pick up the phone, operate the tills or welcome visitors to the building.

Customer service starts at the top of your organisation and should be the golden thread that winds its way through every department, every team, every job role, every process, every procedure, every interaction. How can you truly give the best service to your external customers if you’re not putting the same focus and energy into your internal relationships?