Why It’s Important for Internal Service Providers to Understand Client Needs


One of my clients runs an in-house operation that provides goods and services to other areas of the company. If she can’t satisfy her internal customers’ needs, they can decide take their business elsewhere, which may not be good for her group’s results or the larger company’s bottom line. It can also create negative feelings between colleagues, which is bad for interdepartmental relations and general morale.

But there are often situations when internal clients need more than an internal provider can easily deliver, or when clients need new or conflicting things at the same time. How can you make the best of this situation without satisfying the squeaky-wheel clients to the detriment of other internal customers? And how can you be sure you’re making the best decisions for the company as a whole, even if you know you’ll occasionally have to disappoint clients?

My client and I broke this problem into five aspects: four positive actions, and one natural response that’s crucial to avoid.

Focus on Needs from Every Angle

Acknowledge the need and learn more about it. One crucial first step is to have open conversations about the situation that are truthful and also non-defensive. You need these relationships, so even if you believe you won’t be able to satisfy your clients, you don’t want to shut them down abruptly. There’s long-term value in strengthening clients’ confidence that you’re working hard on their behalf. So be explicit about the fact that their need is important to you because you know it’s important to them.

Identify what’s behind the expressed need. Encourage dialog around your customers’ concrete requirements — like desired pricing, delivery dates, and other important details — while probing to learn more about their thinking, their planning processes, and the history of the situation. The more you understand your clients’ priorities and the lived concerns behind their current requests, the better the chance you have to come up with workable solutions that you can implement to solve their real problems.

Commit to finding a best-case scenario. Offer to take another look at the situation: “Let’s see if I can come up with a better timeline” or “Maybe we can get you at least partial fulfillment by your initial date.” This can often buy you a little extra time to reassess how much or how soon you could actually satisfy the request — or, at a minimum, what else you might have to move to be able to do it, and whether that would be worth it.

Get additional perspective. This may come from the executive team, a resource steering committee, or your boss. You know your department’s priorities, and you know the stated priorities of your clients. But there may be other considerations elsewhere in the company, and hearing other perspectives can shift your decision-making process. It’s also useful to be able to tell your client that you make your decisions in light of corporate priorities.

Remember It’s Not About You and Your Department

Don’t burden clients with your internal problems. It’s natural to want to explain to customers all the things you have to cope with and how they prevent you from fulfilling each client’s needs. In general, though, your customers don’t really want to know why you can’t implement or satisfy their requirements. Even if they like you, they won’t be particularly interested in your timing and resource constraints — nor will they care about the volume of competing requests you may be getting from their peers. Asking for sympathy can actually backfire and cause them to become more stringent about their demands: If they perceive you to be either overwhelmed or a complainer, they’ll actually lose confidence in your department’s general ability, and may even increase the number and detail of the requirements they give you as a way to safeguard their own ability to get satisfactory results.

Part of running an in-house supplier unit is knowing when and how you’ll have to disappoint your colleagues. But there’s no reason to do it more often than absolutely necessary. Managing your communications well can get you the wiggle room you need to come up with satisfactory — or at least partially satisfactory — solutions.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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