CX 101: Who Is Your Customer?

It’s a seemingly simple question, but one that requires some careful thought in order to deliver a great customer experience.


When you hear the word “customer” who comes to mind?

If you’re like many people, you associate the word “customer” with external consumers of your company’s products and services – the people who actually purchase and use your firm’s offerings.

To create a great customer experience, however, it’s important to define the term “customer” more broadly than that.

While the individual (or institution) that actually buys your goods is the ultimate customer, there are often other constituencies involved in the transaction who your company is also “serving.”  These stakeholders represent a type of customer, as well, and so there is an opportunity to engineer a customer experience that engages them, too.

Let’s consider some examples:

If your business sells goods directly to individual consumers, say through your website, then that’s pretty straightforward.  The online buyer is your customer.

But what if your product is purchased by consumers from an intermediary, such as a third-party distributor or a retail store?  In that scenario, the intermediary is another type of customer – and an important one to serve well, particularly if you’re competing against other businesses for the distributor’s attention (or shelf space).

If you’re in the B2B arena, and your products or services are purchased by other entities, those businesses certainly qualify as your customers.  However, within each of those businesses are many different constituencies that play a role in your success.  There’s a decisionmaker, of course, but there are also many purchase influencers (such as product users, procurement staff, CFOs, etc.).

Take medical equipment, for example.  A hospital administrator may make the ultimate decision about what brand of equipment to purchase, but the doctors and nurses who actually use the equipment will no doubt have some input.  And that input will be based on their personal experience using the equipment, which will, in part, be shaped by how patients feel when the equipment is used on them.

So there can be many “levels” of customers involved in the experience (in the example above, hospital administrators followed by medical staff followed by patients themselves).

That’s an important thing to recognize, because in certain types of businesses, success comes not just from making your customer happy, but also making their customer happy.


Does everyone have a customer?

There are typically many people in an organization who don’t have direct day-to-day contact with the customers who buy and use their company’s products.  Does that mean those employees don’t really have a customer?

Absolutely not!

Everyone in an organization has a customer (and, often, more than one).  Sometimes, however, that customer might be internal to your organization – a colleague in another department, or a teammate just a few steps away (here, again, you can see the importance of defining the term “customer” broadly).

Internal Customer ExperienceAn internal customer is any colleague who relies on you to fulfill their job duties.  That’s an important idea to take to heart, because behind every great external customer experience lies a great internal customer experience.

For example, IT staff provide the technology that Call Center reps rely on to serve customers.  When IT delivers a great experience to the Call Center (in the form of helpful, user-friendly systems), then the Call Center is better equipped to deliver a great experience to their (external) customer.

Marketing staff develop the materials that Sales staff rely on to inform and influence their prospects.  When Marketing delivers a great experience to Sales (in the form of engaging and compelling communication pieces), then Sales is better equipped to deliver a great experience to those prospects.

Manufacturing staff build equipment that field representatives install at customer sites.  When Manufacturing delivers a great experience to those field reps (in the form of high-quality equipment that works perfectly out of the box), then the field reps are better equipped to deliver a great experience to their customers.

Human Resource staff hire people into the company that then help manage and run the business.  When Human Resources delivers a great experience to the organization (in the form of finding and attracting top talent), then organizational units get the staff they need to achieve success.

The examples go on and on.  The key point is this:  In any organization, employees must provide exceptional support to one another, so collectively, the business can make a great impression on the external customers that it ultimately serves.


How do you know who your customers are?

Anyone that you serve or support in some fashion, internal or external to your company, can be considered a customer.  To help pinpoint your customers, consider these questions:

  • Who uses or benefits from the work you do – whether it’s the equipment you manufacture, the reports you prepare, the inquiries you answer, the research studies you conduct, the systems you support, etc. The people who benefit from your work are your customers.
  • For whom does the output of your work serve as an input? The work you do might not translate into a “final product.”  You might build a component that someone else uses to build a product.  You might compile data that someone else uses to complete a report.  When you produce something upstream that someone else depends on downstream, then that person is probably your customer.
  • Who relies on you (or your work product) in order to achieve something? This simple question might be the easiest and most straightforward way to identify the people to whom you should be delivering a great customer experience.


Are my employees my customers?

Let’s answer this question by using the litmus test described earlier.  If you’re in a team leadership role, does your staff rely on your assistance in order to fulfill their job duties?

Absolutely.  One of the most critical responsibilities organizational leaders have is to set their teams up for success, to remove obstacles they can’t remove themselves, to provide those teams with the resources and guidance they need to reach their potential.

Employees As Customers

Leaders have a lot to gain by viewing their staff as a type of customer.  By doing so, they can personally model the customer-oriented behavior that they seek to encourage among their staff.

What better way to demonstrate what a great customer experience looks like than to deliver it to your own team?  After all, how a leader serves their staff influences how the staff serves their customers.

Want your team to be super responsive to customers?  Show them what that looks like, by being super responsive to your team.  Want them to communicate clearly with customers?  Show them what that looks like, by being crystal clear in your own written and verbal communications.

There are innumerable ways for organizational leaders to model the customer experience behaviors they seek to promote among their staff.  It has to start, however, by viewing those in your charge as a type of customer that you’re trying to serve.

Of course, viewing staff as customers doesn’t mean that leaders should cater to every employee whim, or that they should consent to do whatever employees want.  Leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions for the greater good.  In those situations, effectively “serving” employees means showing respect for their concerns and interests, and thoughtfully explaining the rationale behind what might be an unpopular decision.

The key point is simply this:  With every interaction in the workplace, leaders have an opportunity to show their staff what a great customer experience looks like.  If you lead a team at your company, don’t squander that opportunity!


So I’ve identified my customers… now what?

Knowing who your customers are is a critical first step towards delivering an experience that will impress them.  When you have a clear idea of who you’re really assisting through your job and who benefits from your work, then you’re in a much better position to deliver a great customer experience to those individuals.

Obviously, there are some fundamentals that you want to nail when dealing with your internal and external customers:  be professional and courteous, set clear expectations and honor all commitments, communicate clearly and transparently, be responsive and take ownership for helping them.

In addition to the fundamentals, however, it’s worth stepping back and asking, “what can I do differently that would make things easier for my customer, that would help them achieve whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish?”  (Oftentimes, this is a good question to actually ask your customer, because their response can help reveal new and better ways to assist them.)

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Actively managing and differentiating your company’s customer experience requires thinking broadly about the many types of customers you serve.  Strive to create a great customer experience for all of those constituencies, because each of them plays an instrumental role in shaping perceptions about you, your company and your brand.


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