Who is your customer?
This is a popular question in consulting circles — the starting point for most exercises in process redesign.
But process redesigners don’t need to identify customers. They need to identify consumers. Consumers, not customers, understand what they need from a product or service. They’re the experts when it comes to defining specifications.
For process redesign, the distinction between customers and consumers — that customers make buying decisions, whereas consumers use products and services — doesn’t matter, because processes don’t have customers in any important sense. Unfortunately, the “internal customer” concept escaped the narrow confines of process redesign long ago and has been rampaging through many companies ever since, leaving hopeless confusion in its wake.
If you’ve been an IS manager for any length of time, chances are some consultant or other has asked you who your customer is. They should have asked you who your customers and consumers are, because they’re different, and when customers and consumers are different people, it greatly complicates everything. Why?
Customers, by definition, define value. Consumers, on the other hand, define good specifications. When the people who define value and the people who can help you with specifications don’t agree about priorities — and when they’re different people with different goals, how can they? — then how are you supposed to make good decisions about your product or service?
That’s why industries in which the two roles are split are weird. Take the airlines. I’m pretty sure their consumers would prefer inter-seat spacing that exceeds the length of the average human femur, just as they deplore the ever-shrinking in-flight meal. Business travelers though, aren’t the airlines’ customers, only their consumers, (purchasing managers are their customers) and the airlines know it.
In IS, your customers aren’t your consumers either, which is why I generally recommend jettisoning the whole “internal customer” metaphor at the first opportunity. It isn’t that you don’t have internal customers. You do. The CEO and executive committee — the people who approve your budget — are your internal customers. The internal version of a buying decision is budget approval, after all, so by all means keep your customers happy.
Now about those consumers. Do you need to keep them happy too?
Good question. As the airlines have shown, there’s no connection between happy consumers and “success,” let alone a connection between unhappy consumers and failure, so in many companies — certainly, any company in which the executives don’t give a rat’s nostril about the well-being of their employees — you can lead a thriving IS organization and enjoy a successful career by pleasing only your customers.
Well, kind of. Maybe. Except that …
There comes a time in most IS careers when you roll out a new system or a major upgrade. Employees have three choices at a time like this: Embrace the new system; use it as little as possible; or find manual workarounds that let them ignore it completely while still getting their jobs done.
Think your career will thrive when employees fail to use a system the company spent bazillions to implement?
So … what makes the difference between enthusiastic acceptance and rabid resistance to a new system?
It’s obvious, isn’t it? Employees embrace technology that helps them. If you want a system to succeed, design it so it gives something back to the people who will be using it every day. Every single consumer must perceive a net personal benefit from the system.
If you want it to fail, design it so one group experiences more work and inconvenience while “the company” or some other group of employees receives the benefit. What, do you seriously expect employees to sacrifice for the good of the company?
Everything you implement must give something back to the employees who operate it. This doesn’t mean you have to optimize it for them. Go ahead and optimize it for your customers, whatever that means.
In a healthy company, it may even mean the same thing.