Internal customer service: How to improve the employee experience

Published May 14, 2019
Last updated September 21, 2021

Here’s a not-at-all revolutionary idea: Customers should be treated with dignity, patience, and respect. Everyone knows that (or at least they should), but what everyone may not know is just who qualifies as a customer.

There are of course the people who plunk down their cash on the counter top, known as external customers. But every company that’s more than a one man band has internal customers too. They’re colleagues in different departments, executives in the window offices, and best friends on the other side of the cube. Treating them with the same attention and appreciation as traditional customers is a vital part of any company's success, and a concept called internal customer service.

Companies that excel at internal customer service strive to instill a culture of collaboration and cooperation, where everyone is on the same team working toward the same goals. That could mean a marketing manager promptly fulfilling a sales request, or an IT tech patiently resolving system issues for a member of the customer support staff. And it always means a thoughtful “Thank you!” when the job is done.

Well-honed internal customer service isn’t just about how employees interact with one another though—it’s also about how the company interacts with employees. Navigating an internal human resources site should be just as easy for a team member as making a return is for a customer. In their off hours, your employees are someone else’s consumers and no one who orders an app wants to spend 15 minutes requesting a vacation day.

When a company prioritizes internal customer service, its employees are happier and better equipped to provide the type of external customer service consumers expect. Happier employees are also more loyal and help boost the company's bottom line.

Emphasize communication

Successful internal customer service requires employees who can effectively communicate. When a manager in operations asks for information from finance, they should know who to approach and be comfortable doing it. Employees on the receiving end of the requests shouldn’t just be willing to work together—they should be eager to provide answers. One way to improve in office communications is to encourage alternatives to email. Replacing the passive, time-zapping form of communication with something more active, such as Slack, will encourage conversations, camaraderie, and the use of GIFs.

Recognize greatness

Happy employees lead to happy customers, and one way to keep members of any team in good spirits is to celebrate them when they do well. That could mean a year end bonus to the top salesperson or a end-of-the-week shoutout to the highest rated customer service rep. Letting employees know they’re doing well is a key part of letting know they’re appreciated.

One key to effective recognition is matching the praise to the employee. Find out early what works for each employee by asking them as a part of the onboarding process. Are they more of a pat on the back kind of person or are air horns and balloon drops more their style?

Put the power in your employees hands

Increasing opportunities for self-service can make life easier for both the employee who needs information and the employee who has it. Providing a self-service portal to look up company holidays or to troubleshoot common email issues allows the HR and IT departments to use their time handling more significant challenges.

But it’s not just about convenience. When people are allowed to solve their own problems, they grow more comfortable with autonomy and more likely to come up with new, game changing ideas. Along with fostering creativity, the Harvard Business Review found that empowerment creates happy, high performing employees. Those are the type of internal customers you want serving the external ones.