RIP internal customer

Stop using the phrase ‘internal customer’ when referring to your colleagues. Call them what they are: ‘colleagues’. Or ‘stakeholders’ if you must. But never again ‘internal customer’.
Why? There are two key reasons why it is crucial to avoid this phrase.

First: from a psychology perspective it is not very smart. It creates a ‘me-you’ relationship. If you want to work together (which you must as a procurement professional, because you completely depend on others to be successful), you want to create a ‘we’ relationship. As ‘colleagues’ you are all part of the same organization, the same group; you all belong together. You are similar to one another.

When a person is unsure of what behavior to choose, the person looks to others to provide a clue as to what to do. They will look at the people who are ‘most like’ them first. So if they are the ‘internal customer’ then you must be the ‘supplier’, which is not most like them. They will look at other ‘internal customers’ to see if they happen to work together with you. And if they don’t, neither will they.

Some procurement departments even go so far as to actually charge their internal customers a fee for the service they are providing, which is a true customer-supplier relationship. In this way they turn the procurement department into a profit center (as long as they charge more than what they cost). I have actually heard procurement managers boast about this. You can’t get much dumber than that if you want your colleagues to co-operate with you. Because in addition to the drawback mentioned above, you introduce a second barrier: the cost/benefit balance. They may even go outside your company and hire external consultants because they charge less than you do. Which simply means that your company is paying extra for the external support, because they still have to keep on paying you.

The second reason is that using the word ‘customer’ as a nomination for your colleagues may cause you to loose sight of who your true customers are; the ones who provide your company with money. Be it directly through buying your products or services or be it indirectly through providing you with a budget allowing you to provide the (public) service which is expected of you. In the latter form, the actual customer may be the government, while they are not the actual ‘consumers’ of your service.

However, there is a benefit in thinking of your colleagues as customers (but not saying it out loud). It may help you realize that you can only ‘sell’ something to someone if this someone wants to have whatever you are trying to sell. Not because of what you think is great about what you are selling. This is the big difference between ‘addeld value’, which usually is what we feel we are adding, and ‘recognized value’, which is what others feel it is. Obviously, it is the recognized value which drives your colleagues behavior.