This article first appeared in Business Journal Africa – Empowering Africa’s Entrepreneurs – Issue No 161 of Sept 2013
I recently attended the launch of the UNDP report ‘Realizing Africa’s Wealth – Building Inclusive Businesses for Shared Prosperity’. An in-depth and well researched report, providing the status quo on inclusive business and its promise in Africa, with insights from in-depth enterprise and partnership case studies, expert interviews and survey responses from across the continent. What struck a chord for me was a research finding that I have related to the largely unexplored area, of the role that the internal customer plays with regards to service delivery and business return on investment.
An excerpt from the report records ‘Our research shows that companies and entrepreneurs need support with information, incentives, investment and implementation in order to successively implement and scale inclusive business. Data from individuals enables the development of marketing strategies as well as information on new products and processes that companies can use to build inclusive businesses’.
This concept revolves around the importance of internal data and dynamics to make relevant and informed business decisions. What is often top of mind when organizations think about data and information gathering, is to outsource a third party research firm to conduct market surveys and product viability studies. The key resource that would provide pertinent up to date information is often overlooked and largely ignored. In a business environment, the persons with the most relevant information on what works or doesn’t work are the key players in the field. These are people that come to work every day, that follow the laid down procedures and that manufacture the products or provide the service.
The staff at every level interact on a daily basis with the processes, products and in the service industry, the actual customers. They are the first hand players who know which areas on the field are bumpy, where the grass is worn out, where the markings have faded, when the goal posts are misaligned and require realignment, when the gradient is skewed and when it is time to take a step back and overhaul the entire field. What better source would there be to get information on what is workable or not, and which processes are time and resource efficient or otherwise? What better source of information could there be to advise on what makes a more user friendly interface and what would significantly ease the process and cost of production?
It is these same players who face feedback from customers on a real time platform and can at the drop of a hat articulate the pain points that customers face. It is the staff of an organization that are accosted by their relatives, friends and other members of their networks when the brand they work for has goofed or has excelled, with raw unedited feedback that would make excellent fodder for improvement strategies.
It is my postulation therefore, that more attention should be given to the internal customers in an organization. A specific strategy should be drawn up to seek feedback from staff on what they think would improve the products and services that the company offers. It would be useful as well to have information from them on what would improve interdepartmental efficiencies, and how processes could work better. Every organization should have an ideas management system, complete with a methodology to manage the ideas depository, discussion structure and development mechanism if viable. The richest resource of innovative ideas lies with staff that already have vested interest in making things better. If ideas are warmly welcomed and due acknowledgement is given when they morph into real tangible outcomes, the motivation for staff to think outside the box and explore new options will be limitless.
The internal customer strategy should take on a formal and systematic approach as would be assigned to any external parties. The mapping of interdepartmental customer service relationships, and the initiation of service level agreements between internal departments, should be given the same attention and seriousness that would be accorded to an external party that the company would be entering into a contract with.
Internal customers are also a brilliant source of competitor information. They are privy to what the competition is undertaking and receive information from parties in their networks who know they’d appreciate the leads and tips. Staff are also a good source of mystery shopping data, as they are able to scout about and compare similar products and services to the organization’s offerings, given their already intimate knowledge of what the company does. This information should be valued on receipt and a concerted effort made to encourage staff to seek out useful competitor information.
The beautiful spin off of having internal customers who feel like ‘resource consultants’ is that the employees feel valued as a key contributor to the company’s success. Word of mouth is the biggest seller and if an organization has a work force that are raving brand ambassadors, that serves to improve brand positioning and direct marketing at no added cost. Providing great and focused internal customer service is imperative to a company’s success. Investing in staff with the same level of attention and focus as would be attributed to external resources will increase employee job satisfaction. And having happy employees has a direct and quantifiable echo effect on external customer satisfaction. In relation therefore, the effect of exemplary customer satisfaction on the company’s balance sheet is unquestionable. Organizations are literally sitting on a gold mine in-house unaware of the rich resources within their walls.
According to the Service Profit Chain Report (Harvard Business Review 2010 ER/12-14) “businesses that look at their organization as a microcosm of many customers and suppliers within the overall company and within departments themselves are highly successful. Customer service must become a requirement for the entire organization with a key focus on internal service. There is a direct correlation between internal reflection and focus and the business balance sheet”.
The challenge therefore to all businesses is to place internal customer dynamics on a strategic platform and to include it as one of the key elements in the organization’s corporate strategy, and then sit back and watch the revenue performance.