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Who are your customers?

Paul Glen | Feb. 16, 2017
You think you know, but it can be trickier to determine than we tend to think. Here’s some guidance.

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?


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