Internal Customer Service: Guidelines for Suppliers and Contractors

Change management and organization development experts talk about ‘creating alignment’ – aligning organizational strategy with daily business needs. And a big part of this is creating alignment between customer needs and employee actions as customer service providers. But we also have to take note of internal customers – those people within the organization that service us – as internal customers and who we service as internal customers. “There is a remarkably close and consistent link between how internal customers are treated and how external customers perceive the quality of your organization’s services. It is almost impossible to provide good external service if your organization is not providing good internal service.” R. Zemke and K. Anderson, Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service, 1981.

And it’s not just about internal customers within the walls of your organization, it’s also about those arms-length internal customers and customer service providers – suppliers and contractors – those people who either supply your organization directly or come into contact with your external customers, directly, as your representative. These suppliers and contractors should be considered an integral part of your organization and the service they provide should be measured as accurately and frequently as you measure the service level you provide.

To my mind, servicing others, whether internal or external (customer, supplier, colleague, peer, supervisor, contractor), should reflect the values of your organization and the process to retain the best customers – again, whether internal or external – can be applied across any of these groups. Suppliers and contractors should be selected and retained based on their commitment to servicing your customers – and your employees – as you require them to be serviced. Although you do not ‘own’ these suppliers and contractors, you have the right to demand the equivalent level of service you provide to your customers. When selecting your suppliers and contractors, or measuring the ones you currently are associated with, the following guidelines may help ensure that internal service meets the standard.

Recruit suppliers and contractors as you would your employees.

You should be seeking out the best person for the job, the high performer who will be able to deliver on your business expectations and drive up results for your company. Why not utilize some of the recruiting tools you use when conducting a search for an employee? Think about it. You will be paying this supplier or contractor to perform services for you or your customers so you should expect them to be of the calibre you expect from a new employee. Consider requesting a resume of their qualifications and experience, customers they have serviced, certifications that may be required, and if available, customer testimonials. Interview them in a similar fashion to the way in which you interview for employees. Check their references and make sure you put in place a contractual arrangement that clearly documents what you expect from them and what they can expect from you (this is just another version of position profiles and expectations for the role).

In these cases, you are seeking high performers capable of servicing both your customers and your employees. And you have a responsibility to provide them with the information, resources and possibly, tools, they will need to service both these groups accurately and professionally.

Provide clear expectations of performance.

Even if your suppliers and contractors have worked with your organization for a long period of time, it is critical to periodically review your expectations of their role and how you expect them to service your customers. Customers are retained because they have developed a good relationship with their supplier and any contractor or supplier who is dealing with your customer directly, is seen by the customer to be an employee of your company, and hence; representing your company.

When I was a general manager for an energy distribution company, one of our contractor service technicians accidentally cut the customer’s phone line. The first issue for the customer was, of course, the cut phone line and the inconvenience associated. The second issue was that the contractor apologized but told the customer he would have to call our company to secure satisfaction regarding the cost and inconvenience of having the line repaired. The third issue was the response the customer received from the Branch Manager when he called our company office to complain. He was told we were not responsible since it was a contractor that had cut the line! Yes, I too, was shocked when the customer got through to me to complain and told me what the Branch Manager had said. Even more distressing was the fact that the Branch Manager defended his position when I called him about the complaint!

No doubt we did not clearly identify to our contractor our customer service expectations. To me, they were simple. Apologize to the customer, call our office immediately to request a solution and then work with the customer to get the solution implemented. Simple to me but certainly not to our contractor or, I quickly discovered, to my Branch Manager.

So my next step was to build a contractor customer service agreement and develop a customer service training program to implement with both our employees and our contractors. We then implemented it across my region. We still had customer service issues with both our contractors and our employees, periodically,but this was a great first step.

Conduct frequent performance reviews.

Providing your suppliers and contractors with regular, specific feedback will not only give you confidence that they are meeting your needs but will also provide opportunities for them to discuss any customer service challenges, issues, or problems with you before they result in lost customers. These regular reviews should be part of the contract between you and the contractor and they should be implemented on schedule. During these reviews you should include their primary employee contacts to ensure all partners are clear about the issues and able to participate in developing the solutions. This secures commitment to the solutions.

Reward and recognize customer service excellence.

At a minimum, providing them with a reference signifies that you are pleased with their customer service performance. But, without a doubt, the best reward for suppliers and contractors is securing more work from you.

Following these guidelines will go a long way to ensuring alignment between your company, your employees and your suppliers and contractors – to the business goals and strategy. All sectors can then be focused on delivering the expected level of customer service to the customer base you want to retain.