Internal IT “Customers” don’t Have to be Happy. They Have to be Productive.

I don’t know exactly when companies’ IT departments were asked to start thinking of internal users as “customers.” I mean, I get it – businesses exist to make money, and you primarily do that by making customers happy, so happy customers = better business. Sure. Except that our internal users aren’t customers, and we in IT are frequently put in the position of not giving them what they want. Users aren’t paying us, and they often ask for things that are opposed to what’s wanted by the folks are are paying us.
Let’s say you walk into Macy’s and buy some shoes. So long as you pay for them, nobody in that store is going to tell you that you can’t have the shoes, right? On the contrary, they’re going to help you try those things on, and possibly suggest some lovely socks to go with them.
IT just doesn’t work that way. Users don’t pay for things, so we don’t always let them have what they want, and we certainly don’t suggest some add-on items or offer a discount if they use their store charge card. Now, maybe we should. Companies that adopt “private cloud”-ish management practices may indeed give authorized “customers” whatever they (or their department) can pay for. But there aren’t a ton of IT departments being managed that way. Not yet. Maybe someday.
No, our users aren’t customers, and they don’t need to be happy. They need to be productive, they need to be safe, and they need to be compliant, and in many cases making sure those three things are true will make the users happy in some form. I mean, it’s not ice cream, but it’s getting the job done. I had one customer whose IT department mission statement started with “…to delight our internal and external customers.” That’s silly. That’s like being delighted with the water cooler. When IT is doing its job right, we’re invisible, like electricity. We’re not delightful. We just work.
That’s why I don’t like the whole “customer” word being used for internal users. It’s a completely false analogy. It’s one of those Dilbert phrases that we all know is ridiculous, yet we persist in using anyway. Like saying something is an “issue.” No, it’s a problem. Magazines have issues. Stamps have issues. Computers have problems. Calling users “customers” starts to set up this whole mental chain of associations – like the need to “delight” them – that just isn’t accurate. Keep saying “customers” enough, and HR will start surveying users’ level of delight, which is a completely useless metric. Everyone will take the “customer” thing and run with it. I’m sure some of you have seen that happen in your own organization.
IT should probably never be asking itself, “what can we do to make our customers happier?” We should probably be asking, “what shall we give our users to help them be safer, more productive, and more compliant with company rules?” That’s what the company certainly should want us to do, right? Our users are our constituents. Through their representatives (e.g., management), they determine if we in IT have a job or not. Our users are obviously incredibly important – they’re the reason we go to work every morning – but they’re not our customers. They’re partners, for certain; to some degree, we’re all “in it together” to make whatever the organization does happen every day. But not customers.
Words are important. Analogies are especially important. Like the late George Carlin, I think we spend too much time sapping the power from important words, and then misusing other words and creating false impressions. A problem is a problem; a user isn’t a customer. I understand that we need to be respectful to our partners and constituents, and that “users” might not be seen as respectful, but I don’t think we do anyone a service when we start lying to ourselves and to each other about the kind of relationship we’re all in.
And by the way, IT doesn’t get patted on the back all that often. Usually, we’re heads-down working on the next problem. But it’s worth taking a few minutes, perhaps in your weekly or monthly team meetings, to remind yourselves what you’ve done to make your constituents more productive, safer, and more compliant. Remind yourselves what you’ve done (or not done) to not achieve those goals. Retailers ask themselves what they could do to make customers happier – there’s no reason IT can’t have a similar attitude and ask what we can do to make our partners lives’ easier, safer, and more compliant. Heck, most IT teams do just that, all the time. Sure, we’ll joke about not liking our users – but we know they’re an important part of the picture. Taking a little time to borrow one customer-centric behavior from retail – just modifying it to focus less on “happy” and more on company goals – is certainly a good idea.
That just doesn’t make our users customers. 

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I refer to my "users" as customers since, well.... they are customers. They need my services. But I've never confused making them "happy" with getting them what they NEED. If it's within my power to take some action that will help make them more productive (automate or a preference) I'll do it. Even if they want to just try something out I'll do it. I guess I don't understand where something might make a customer "happy" vs. something productive. Yeah, if they asked for a purple screen and there's no business driver behind it - deal with it.


I view them more as "partners." They need something from me, but they need it on behalf of our mutual employer. That employer pays us both to collectively get a job done. The user isn't paying me directly, and to a large degree they don't get to direct my actions. I'm less worried about pleasing them, per se, than I am about pleasing our mutual boss. In a perfect world, our boss and the user and I all want the same thing, so sure - we're "happy." But that isn't always the case. Take a user who wants to share some data with someone by using Dropbox, when company policy doesn't permit them to do so. I can't give them what they want but I might have an alternative that will fulfill their need. That isn't the same relationship you have with an actual customer. I go to a restaurant and order a burger, and you'd better not bring me tofu, regardless of how better for me that might be.


Saying 'customers' instead of 'users' is also just confusing. When someone says 'customers' you don't know who they mean - the people that use the systems within the company, or the people that buy the products that keep the company in business.
So typically you have to ask...and then you get into a discussion about it....and it all wastes time.