Internal Customer Service Key to Effective NFPs
20 May 2014 at 11:34 am
How services are delivered to colleagues often receives little formal attention and is rarely subject to system review but internal service delivery critically affects the quality of services delivered to clients, says Radno Group Not for Profit strategy consultant Lesley Yates.
How services are delivered to colleagues often receives little formal attention and is rarely subject to system review and yet every employee knows that internal service delivery critically affects the quality of services delivered to clients.
High-quality internal service provision is an essential prerequisite for the effective functioning of every organisation.
Many organisations have a code of conduct or a charter for how staff should work with clients. Client service statements provide clarity on the optimum relationship between service provider and service recipient.
These statements and professional guidelines set standards for consumer-driven care, establish mutual obligation and often provide for client grievance procedures. Many accreditation standards and processes also contain requirements that funded agencies have clearly established service delivery charters, genuine consumer participation, client feedback mechanisms and dispute resolution processes.
It is appropriate that attention is given to the external client experience of service provision but there is often no such charter or overt statement about how staff members provide services to other staff members within the organisation.
The concept of internal customer service goes well beyond expected workplace behaviours. Many are familiar with clear and overt values about treating employees with dignity and respect and workplace rules that describe behaviours that are unacceptable (bullying, harassment and discrimination).
Value statements such as these are appropriate and important, but they don't necessarily create the required environment for good internal customer relationships. Effective internal service provision requires a systematic and targeted approach in order to bring about productive and effective workplace behaviours. An internal customer service culture defines internal service provision, the inherent mutual obligation between service deliverer and service recipient, and importantly provides a mandate for the measurement of the quality of the internal service delivery.
Identifying Internal Customers
There is often a low level of awareness of the existence of an internal supply chain. When asked ‘who are your internal customers?’ there is a tendency for teams or business units to define their customer as ‘the whole of the organisation’, or to describe the external clients, communities or the organisation’s funders. The larger the organisation, the more likely that the internal supply chain and internal customer relationships are complex and confusing.
An example may be useful here: the finance team will often articulate that their role is to ensure that the organisation is stable and that finance and risk are managed responsibly and further, that this service is provided to the whole of the organisation. This is an accurate statement, but it’s not the whole story.
Finance also works for project and line managers, ensuring that these staff members have accurate and up-to-date information provided in a form that is timely and easy to read in order to manage project and team budgets. Finance also works for every staff member that orders equipment and engages external service providers.
When invoices are paid on time this is a service that is highly valued by the internal buyer. The benefits to the buyer (the internal customer) include a good working relationship between the buyer and the external provider, particularly when the provider is a regular subcontractor. If finance provides a good service, the buyer doesn't waste time chasing payment on behalf of the vendor.
Finance also provides a petty cash service to all staff and the benefit to the internal customer is the ease with which incidentals can be purchased and the confidence that the cost will be reimbursed. Finance may also be responsible for purchasing guidelines. The internal customer is the staff member wanting to purchase an item and a key component of the service is the purchaser’s prior knowledge that if it is within the guidelines and within the budget, that the purchase will be approved. The customer benefit can be summarised as the provision of on-time accurate information, and transparent and consistent processes for expenditure.
Defining the Service
In most organisations, particularly large entities with regional offices, trying to navigate who does what for whom is difficult and the answer is often based on the personality of the service provider rather than any clear articulation of internal services and the details of what can be expected from a service provider.
Some internal service providers appear to be more helpful than others, and the question ‘who do I ask for…’ is most often met with ‘it depends’. And sometimes, it depends upon the goodwill of individuals, how busy the unit is and how hard someone might be prepared to push before they eventually give up and do it themselves.
Articulating the internal service is an interesting and valuable discussion, because it requires a consideration of what the internal customer actually needs. All products and services, even the internal ones, are a solution to a human need or problem and there is often a mismatch between what a team or unit provides and what the internal customer actually needs.
Discussion about who the internal customers are and what they want is a good investment of time; a necessary prerequisite to designing services that meet the needs of internal customers, and therefore deliver good services to external customers and finally to external clients. Imagining the customer’s experience produces empathy for the customer’s needs and desires, and the subsequent perception shift produces valuable insight about the context and the drivers of internal service requests.
The Conditions Of Supply
The internal supply chain discussion can often result in a level of blame and judgement about the customer. Often the internal supplier blames a poor internal customer relationship on the customer’s lack of knowledge or unrealistic expectations. Internal customers often make inappropriate requests, make requests that are in conflict with organisational policy or ask for things that they could easily do themselves.
And yet it is interesting that the ‘blaming the customer’ paradigm exists internally in a form that would not be acceptable for external recipients. Community organisations rarely blame their clients. An internal ‘blame the customer’ culture flourishes in the internal environment to a level that would be totally unacceptable in the external environment.
The blame culture is understandable when everyone is busy and there are limited resources. But sometimes the blame tendency arises because the conditions of supply are not well-known and because internal delivery units have not invested in educating or informing the customer.
All internal relationships involve mutual obligation: the customer should be well informed about what they need to do for themselves, how they should appropriately access a service, and what the response time will be. If an internal customer is requesting a service that is inappropriate or unreasonable, it may be because the supplier has not invested in customer education.
The conditions of supply should be reasonable, clear and easy to access. For an internal supply chain to function well and productively, every delivery unit must be able to educate and inform the customer about what, when, where and how. There is a great deal of waste and unnecessary aggravation when customers do not receive what they want because they don’t know how the process works.
Many teams waste a great deal of time in reactive memos about the right way to ask for IT support, finance, asset management, purchasing equipment or recruitment advice, support and service provision. Many Not for Profit employees will have received emails that begin with ‘in future…’ or ‘it has come to my attention that…’. Indeed in looking at all of the time that is sunk into conflict and dispute management, one might appreciate that conflict could be reduced and time saved by investing in internal customer education.
In organisations that the Radno Group has worked with, each operational and corporate service team now provide regular sessions on what services are delivered and how to best access and use these services.
These sessions are more than just a pre-emptive strike: they are a signal that these delivery units view staff as internal customers, that they don't blame their customers, and they engage in customer skill development leading to better internal customer service delivery and support. Intranet based tools and procedures, if well designed, can also be of assistance.
Service Feedback and Evaluation
What gets measured gets done: Customers are a great source of data and market intelligence. If it is agreed that delivery units should articulate the actual service, to whom the service is delivered and to inform the recipient of the conditions of supply, the next logical step is to ask the customer for feedback.
Assuming that internal customers are now receiving a service that meets their needs and that customers have realistic expectations of what can be delivered, it is clearly a logical and intelligent investment to ask if the services provided actually met the customer’s expectations.
In addition to the intelligence and data that is collected, internal customer satisfaction surveys assist in embedding a culture of service delivery and mutual obligation. The existence of an annual customer satisfaction survey is in itself a statement that each delivery unit is accountable for the quality of service provision and is prepared to be measured on customer satisfaction.
Service Improvement and Innovation
This process requires a commitment to the evaluation of the results and the likely causes or underlying issues.
For example; where internal services receive a low rating; the first step is to examine the source of the problem:
Is the service design flawed – does the team need to consider redesigning what is provided to their customer?
Is the service delivery mechanism the source of the problem and can teams improve the way that they deliver services to internal customers?
Does the feedback indicate that the customer is unaware of the conditions of supply and does the supplier need to improve its efforts to inform the customer?
If it is an issue that falls outside of these three categories then it is highly likely that the delivery unit has a lack of capability or infrastructure to deliver what was agreed. The solution to a capability gap is to train the delivery staff or to discuss the required infrastructure/or different methods to deliver what was intended.
Locating the source of the problem ensures that the solution is well designed and effective. Even if the results are satisfactory, there is always room to consider service innovation and great ideas come from customers. The people who utilise a service are often the best source of new ideas about how things can be done better or differently.
Internal Service Delivery Charter
A charter is a useful document for all staff within the organisation. There are many templates available on the Internet that are a viable and useful starting point, but to be effective a charter should be generated by staff and be subject to wide consultation.
Establishing a charter can alleviate the tendency to elevate disputes up the management hierarchy or for staff to accept poor internal service delivery and engage in a high level of workaround arrangements where staff bypass teams and units because they are ‘difficult’ to work with.
Recommended components of a charter include:
A statement about mutual obligation: The provider and the consumer each have rights and responsibilities.
A statement about accountability: Including a commitment to measure internal customer satisfaction.
An acknowledgment that how services are provided to each other internally affects the organisation’s external impact on the community and their clients’ quality of life.
Conflict and dispute resolution processes.
Most importantly, once the charter is rolled out it is essential that simple measures are developed to evaluate progress and success. A regular cycle should be introduced to collect relevant data and use these measures annually to identify opportunities for further improvement.
About the Author: Lesley Yates is the Managing Partner of the Radno Group, a Melbourne-based consulting firm that provides strategic advice to the Not for Profit sector. With academic qualifications in education, economics and public relations, Yates has worked extensively across the public and private sectors, as well as having held a number of governance and leadership positions on government and Not for Profit Boards.