The importance of internal customer success in driving external customer success

Author: Ann Baret Customer Success. The words might sound self-explanatory, alluding to some broad and desirable outcome that could mean anything ranging from an increase in your bottom line to a five-star rating in your feedback section. But don’t be fooled. This vital measurement of business performance has more to it than meets the eye.

For most businesspeople, Customer Success equates business success and for the most part, I believe this to be true. My focus here will, however, be on a vital, yet often overlooked, an aspect of Customer Success. I would like to bring our attention to the word Customer and introduce a dichotomy that I have found to be very useful. I would like to draw a distinction between what I refer to as the internal customer and the external customer.

Typically the aim of most businesses or service providers is to appease the external customer, the end-user, the source of income. And often, this can come at the expense of the internal customer: our workforce, our teams, and departments, our employees. How do we go about servicing our internal customer in order to better serve our external customer? Why is it important and how do we measure our service to our internal customer? A safe bet would be to look at employee engagement within your team or company.

Employee engagement has become a buzzword in the corporate and business space for a good reason. Mainly because it impacts the bottom line directly. A 2017 study by Gallup indicated that in the United States, 73% of employees experience active disengagement in the workplace. Further studies by The Engagement Institute revealed that this trend costs the US economy $450 and $550 billion annually. On the flip side, research shows that organisations with high employee engagement outperform those with low employee engagement by 202%! (

Let us delve deeper and unpack employee engagement to see how it can be understood in the workplace. I like to structure the concept along three tiers. Cognitive engagement, emotional engagement, and behavioral engagement. Cognitive engagement to me refers to the thinking component within your team and relates directly to innovation and creativity. When there is cognitive engagement within a team or organisation, people readily and confidently share their thoughts and ideas. This can also impact how employees understand and the extent to which they are able to assess and interact with their immediate work environment.

Next, we have emotional engagement and this is all about feelings. How employees feel about themselves – truly you are your own customer first, how you feel about your world, your contribution to your world, how you feel about your company, your company’s contribution to the world, etc. Positive emotional engagement can often be measured and is indicated by high levels of empathy and resilience in employees. Emotional engagement ties in directly with your company culture and when employees are engaged on this level, they ‘feel’ their contribution has purpose and meaning, which leads to greater overall contribution.  

 Finally, we have behavioral engagement. Employees that are engaged on this level will go the extra mile, act as ambassadors on behalf of the organisation, and have higher productivity in general. Here we are talking about observable actions and its associated outcomes. While these three tiers each have a distinct focus, they are not exclusive and represent a complex dynamic which is characteristic of human behavior in general. 

Having worked with companies in this regard, I will paint you a picture of a typical scenario. To begin with, it is important to gain the correct and necessary information about your employees. Appropriate tools such as surveys that measure the three kinds of engagements is very useful. I also like to combine this step with my (where possible) “I-scan”-model of the actual individual team and work environment. By now you should have a good understanding of the functions within the team. This will give you a basis from which to launch your service strategy that caters to your internal customer, your team.

From here you can start looking at, for instance, employee commitment, empowerment of employees within the organisation, goal alignment, leadership style, innovative capacity, learning capacity, resilience, agility etc. This goes beyond function and speaks to company culture quite explicitly. Other aspects like strategy and accountability will be investigated, refined and aligned. Ultimately the goal is to create a well-oiled machine geared for maximised performance and results, and a team that is empowered and engaged.

To use this knowledge and create a high performing internal team will impact directly on your Customer Success. So while some might focus primarily on the external customer, consider the impact of servicing your internal customer first and let the numbers speak for themselves.