Opinion by Paul Glen

Who are your customers?

You think you know, but it can be trickier to determine than we tend to think. Here’s some guidance.

customer
Credit: Pixabay

It seems like a straightforward question: When you work in IT, who are your customers?

We use the term all the time. We talk about customer satisfaction, customer relationships, customer service and customer experiences. Our understanding of customer-supplier relationships looms large when we set priorities and decide what to do and how to behave on the job.

The problem is that we’re never completely clear about who is and isn’t a customer. Whenever I ask a group of technical folks who their customers are, they all initially feel confident that they know who their customers are, but as they ask questions and challenge each other’s concepts and examples, that confidence melts away. Once participants realize that customers are not organizations but individuals, all bets are off. Before long, no one is quite sure who is a customer and who is not.

This doesn’t mean that the customer-supplier frame of reference is inappropriate for us to use. Rather, the confusion indicates that we need to think carefully about that frame of reference and when it does and does not serve us well.

I think it is possible to arrive at a pretty workable definition of IT’s customers, but before I offer my take, it might be helpful to consider the things that confuse us in answering the question. For starters, if you work in a large organization, even discriminating between internal and external customers can be tricky. To my mind, external customers are people we serve who are not in the same company and pay cash money or trade for the services we provide. Chargebacks don’t count. Internal customers work in the same organization and either pay nothing or pay for services with internal funny money.

But when I say that external customers are people we serve who are not in the same company, how far do we extend the customer label? Everyone agrees that the people who sign contracts and approve payments are customers. But let’s say I own a company that sells an employee expense reporting application. If the applications director at the Goddard Flight Center buys a copy and approves the payment, she’s definitely my customer. But is her boss, the Flight Center CIO? Is the CIO of NASA itself? The administrator of NASA? The congressional budget committees or the president of the United States? At some point, the chain got extended to a ridiculous length, but what was that point?

When defining internal customers, it’s obvious that business sponsors are included. But what about end users and their non-sponsor managers? And when technical teams are subdivided in IT, it becomes even murkier. If you are a project manager, are the developers your customers, or are you theirs? Are developers customers of infrastructure people who supply their tools and environments? If I rely on you for something or anything, does that make me your customer?

There are no definitive answers to all of these questions, but here’s my take on a useful definition.

You are my customer if:

  1. You request a service from me (paid or not)
  2. I agree to fulfill the request
  3. None of the activity (meetings, conversations, development, testing, etc.) involved in fulfilling your request would be done were it not for your request or similar ones from other customers
  4. You are involved in any of the following:
    1. Deciding whether to acquire my services
    2. Defining the specifics of the service and/or products to be delivered
    3. The process of creating, implementing and/or supporting the technology to be delivered

So, in the NASA example above, the applications director is my customer. The CIO might be my customer, but only if he is involved in approving the purchase, and the same is true of his superiors. The systems architects who decide which package to buy are my customers, as are people on the implementation project team.

But if I am a developer working on core product features for the package and never get directly involved in the sales, customization or implementation process, my customers are from a completely different part of the customer chain. My customers are the project managers, technical leads, architects and product managers who define what features I develop next and/or what tools will be used. NASA doesn’t directly influence my work at all.

So, before you start planning out major efforts to improve your customer relationships, internal or external, it pays to invest in clarifying who those customers are so that you can focus your efforts on the right people and the right experiences.

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