On the surface, it seems like a question with an obvious answer: what is a customer? When we reflect on it, however, we realise the answer isn't always clear cut – and the answer depends on which customers you include in the definition.
Giving this matter some thought can lead to a greater understanding of your customers and a better customer-focused approach.
Internal and External Customers
When we're asked "what is a customer", our minds immediately jump to external customers using for-profit business services: the people from outside the organisation who pay money to purchase our products or services. These can be members of the public (as in Business-to-Consumer companies) or other companies (as in Business-to-Business focused companies).
We split these kinds of customers into further sub-groups so we can better market to them and meet their needs: new and returning customers, customers in different regions, regular customers and occasional buyers, and customers who buy from exclusively from one product range and clients who buy from them all. Each of these groups will have slightly different needs when it comes to customer service.
We acknowledge there are grey areas, such as service-users for non-profits. Though many would not classify them as "customers" in the standard definition of the word, non-profits put a lot of thought into their experience with their services, sharing many of the customer service skills businesses use.
One group that is often overlooked is internal customers. They are people from different areas of a business or organisation who you interact with. They can include shareholders and freelancers, for example, but the term most commonly refers to employees from different departments, retail branches or business areas. For example, if you request a report from a different department to allow you to do your own work, you are their internal customer for that project.
The concept of internal customers aims to make people treat their internal interactions just as seriously as their external ones, and focus just as much on making their colleagues' lives easier as they would their customers'.
Meeting Customers' Needs
Great customer service is priceless. Companies that prioritise customer-focus and invest in customer service training for their employees are rewarded with happier customers, more repeat business and consistently good reviews.
Customer service skills are like any other skillset: they can be improved with good quality training and putting them into practice regularly. Skills like active listening, empathy and problem-solving can all be improved upon and will improve your organisation's customer service immeasurably.
A genuine effort to improve customer service always pays of – whether they are internal or external customers.