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?