Are Internal Customers Frustrating You? Change Hats

Everyone at work wants something from us. Meeting their expectations takes our time and talent so they get what they want. 

That’s what we’re paid for, right? Maybe yes, and maybe no. 

It’s all in the name of service. 

Lots of us are in service jobs like human resources, IT, finance, legal, marketing, communications, and admin. 

We’re expected to use our specialized expertise to remove clutter and obstacles for department managers and coworkers—our internal customers.

Managers, especially, want us to pull a rabbit out of a hat even though we aren’t magicians. They aren’t happy when the trick fails. 

We can sense when we’re out on a limb with our internal customers every time we find ourselves: 

  • Apologizing for something
  • Being second-guessed
  • Putting up with diva behavior
  • Being unacknowledged or overlooked 

It’s baffling to know that we’re providing requested information and deliverables but things aren’t progressing.  

Time to hit the reset button 

I led a management training group once where each employee was responsible for working with designated department managers on their annual training plans. 

It didn’t take long to figure out that certain internal clients were “playing” them by resisting the planning process or trying to off-load it. The remedy was for each of us to take off our “I’m here to serve” mantle and put on an internal consultant hat. 

The fix was in the pages of Peter Block’s classic book, Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used.  

Block woke us up with his line, “You are consulting any time you are trying to improve or change a situation but have no direct control over the implementation.”  Wow, that was us! 

All service providers (consultants, advisors, guides, subject matter experts) need to build a collaborative relationship with internal customers, so each is equally invested in what needs to get done. 

Block explains that there are two role traps we fall into that must be avoided: 

1. The Expert Role 

Our egos love it when a manager says, “I need to find better software for this process. You’re a software expert, so I’d like you to find me a better product.” 

This request gets us all pumped up until we find the software, show it to him/her, and then hear, “No, that’s not what I told you I needed.” 

2. The Pair of Hands Role 

We love to feel we’re the best one to complete a task when an internal customer says, “I don’t have time to analyze the data for the annual report, so please complete it for me by Friday.” 

We sideline our other work, dig into this assignment, and submit the analysis on time only to hear, “This isn’t the way I wanted the data presented.” 

In both cases, we’ve been had. The internal customer set us up for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” vote on our work. In the old days, we would’ve ended up as lunch for lions. 

Get on equal footing

Everything turned around as soon as my group adopted Block’s winning approach

The Collaborative Role 

No matter what his/her rank, everyone we support with a service needs to commit to shared involvement. It’s about partnering. 

Whether it’s finding new software or analyzing data, there are mutual obligations that need to be established up front between us and the internal customer. 

We need to start the conversation this way: 

“Let’s clarify how we’ll work together on the software exploration. Who will do what? What’s our process? How will we arrive at a collaborative decision and measure our success?” 

Block writes that when we adopt a collaborative role, we “don’t solve problems for the manager.” We apply our “special skills to help managers solve problems.” It’s key that “the manager must be actively involved…and, finally, sharing responsibility for success or failure.” (After all, the internal customer owns the situation, right?)

Hold your ground 

Service jobs position us to partner with internal customers throughout our companies. The more collaborations we form, the richer our relationships and the more likely they will lead to other opportunities. Learning to be an effective internal consultant has an enormous upside. How about giving it a try?

9 thoughts on “Are Internal Customers Frustrating You? Change Hats

  1. Collaboration and clearly communicating roles and expectations up front are paramount to success. What would you suggest when a manager, or someone above my level, tells me to go buy software because I’m the expert and won’t give me details even when I ask? I’ve seen cases when a person doesn’t know what s/he wants until they’re presented with the end result.

    • That’s a great question, Cherry, and one that we typically get, made more onerous by the weight of managers who outrank us. We need to be bold enough to say, “Before I can make a suggestion about software, I need to know from you what the parameters are, specifically capabilities, budget limitations, and method for assessing cost-effectiveness. These are inputs that only you can provide. It wouldn’t be responsible of me to make assumptions and end up suggesting software options that were a poor fit. Perhaps the best way to proceed is for us to spend some time discussing the needs the software should address. I’d suggest scheduling a couple 1 hour meetings to sort through ideas before we decide the best way to proceed.”

      You’re so right about the “I’ll know it when I see it” managers. We just can’t let them play that game on our backs. We are a company resource that needs to be used effectively. If our internal customer isn’t tuned into that, then we need to make that clear. Once again, a little courage goes a long way and can have a big payoff! ~Dawn

  2. This is really good stuff: “Let’s clarify how we’ll work together on the software exploration. Who will do what? What’s our process? How will we arrive at a collaborative decision and measure our success?”
    Perhaps coupled with: “What is it that we each do well? How can we make sure that we use the best we have and do not step on each others toes? What do you expect from me, and how do you know that you got it?
    This might be more difficult to say: “What I expect from you is……(that you tell me what you precisely want!)The benefit of having this conversation is that you know exactly what you want, and also that you can rely on getting what you ask for.
    I work for myself and don’t have these issues on a daily basis, but these things are still very important to address! Thanks Dawn for an informative post. I am looking forward to reading more!
    Sincerely Irene

    • Thanks, Irene, for adding so many more great questions. The struggle most people have with this is when the internal customer outranks them. When there’s a feeling of intimidation or a insecurity about really being a partner, many avoid the “nail down” questions. That makes understanding “how” to ask these questions as important as knowing “what” to ask.

      Taking a consultative role is important anytime we’re working with someone else and the success of the effort is a function of what each contributes. I spent many years in a corporate setting and now as a coach/consultant on my own, like you. These questions are important now too since a good coaching relationship is also a partnership. You know that only too well!

      Thanks for taking the time to add so much. ~Dawn

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  4. Thanks for the reminder about the importance of collaboration. This is such a vital component of any successful organization. It takes an evolved person to sit back and listen, and forgo the urge to chime in.
    Easier said than done, for sure.

    Not to sound manipulative, but when you sit back and assess, you see that others have skill sets you may not. Find out where you fit and use others’ expertise to enhance your performance.

    Btw, I’d never heard the term “internal customers” before.
    Thanks for enlightening me Dawn :)

    • Great to hear from you, Linda. In so many of these situations it’s about speaking up rather than just saying “yes” because someone asked you to get work done on their behalf. It’s about asserting ourselves to make sure that we truly partner so that each person is equally committed and invested on the outcome, leaving no room for finger pointing!

      Glad to introduce you to a new term: internal customer. In corporate settings there had, for years, been a culture of satisfying the customer, meaning those who bought the product or service. Once they realized that employees provided services and products to each other, the term “internal customer” was coined with the realization that they need to be satisfied too since they represented essential relationships. ~Dawn

  5. Dawn, I love how you get right to the point, with great questions that clarify and focus the direction of thoughts, and the importance of collaboration in work environments, bringing out the best in one another, and the expertise of managers. Thanks for another great post1

    • You have a way of making my day! Thanks for zeroing in on the heart of the matter. Somehow when we know the right questions, we find the right answers. That’s something to always strive for! ~Dawn

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