Thinking About Customers

I’ve been thinking about my definition of customers and want to share it with you. I have worked in many different fields including small businesses, major corporations, nonprofits, the government and now a college. Each of these businesses have a different definition of customer. I have to say that each of these have employees focusing on internal customers that improve the efficiency and support the customer facing employees of the business or organization.

For Profit
In for profit businesses, it’s pretty clear that the customer is the person who buys the good or service you are selling. Profit motivates. This clear definition allows internal systems to work. But, who is the customer for the network administrator or the janitor? These positions focus on making the job easier of the customer facing team. I have been a network administrator and my customer was the sales team or the CEO of the business. I was responsible for improving an internal function that helped the company better serve customer needs.

Government Work
In the government, the end customer is the citizen who receives the service. Employees of the government focus on providing a valuable service to the constituents. Government service does not have a profit incentive. The money flows, by law, from citizens to the government. From my experience, this causes a certain type of person to become an employee. Generally speaking, many employees working for ther government are conservative compared to the for profit world citing “security” and “stability” as a reason for serving. If an employee performs her duties adequately, she is nearly guaranteed a raise and bonus each year.

Internally, the customer is another member of the government. It seems that only a small percentage of the government actually provides services to citizens. There are many jobs behind the scenes that ensure the citizen facing employees are supported in their primary job duty.

Nonprofit Work
Nonprofit work is the most peculiar of the three because there is no profit incentive. The customer is the person being served by the nonprofit. However, money flows from donors to the nonprofit so they can achieve their mission. This system can provide a perverse incentive to focus on performing for the donor instead of the customer. You know, meeting the goals of the project however necessary. Some donors have an extremely stringent set of requirements causing major investment to meed their needs. We restructured an organization for a donor in one of my jobs many years ago because they required a formal business structure to allow funds to flow. Fortunately, customer service didn’t fade during this transition.

I see donors as part of the internal customer base. Management needs to focus on ensuring the customers served by the nonprofit are provided excellent service while also maintaining the standards required by donors. As a clinic administrator, my customer was serving doctors and nurses who served customers everyday while maintaining adequate records for the donors to secure future funding.

College Education
Students are the customers of a college education. As a student it’s difficult to realize because you are always performing for the professor. However, students pay the tuition that allows the college to exist. As a professor, this requires a balancing act where you have to be demanding enough to allow your students to thrive and learn toward success. Major universities also have research departments that focus on meeting the needs of different customers, but the student remains the primary customer regardless of external research interests.

Many employees support the work of a college or university including executive assistants and maintenance managers. The customers of these employees are the customer facing employees like professors, administrators and financial aid officers.

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