Guide to Optimizing Internal Customer Service: 7 Key Strategies

Written by: Josh Brown

Published: April 07 2022

Here’s a riddle for you:

What do you get when you mix cross-team collaboration and killer customer service and support?

Internal customer service.

(Hey, we didn’t say it’d be a funny riddle…)

All kidding aside, understanding internal customer service can be the key to unlocking your team’s full potential.

Read on to learn how.

What is Internal Customer Service?

Internal customer service (ICS) refers to the myriad ways in which an organization’s employees and teams help other employees and teams do their jobs and achieve their goals.

The idea is for organizations to apply their strategic approach to external customer service to their internal service-based interactions. In this sense, the “customer” is the team member in need of assistance, and the “customer service provider” is the team member providing said assistance.

To be sure, service-based interactions occur all the time in most organizations.

A few common examples:

  • IT departments provide technical support to all team members as needed.
  • HR helps resolve disputes between employees, or between employee and manager/employer.
  • Customer support and success teams provide relevant data to marketing and sales teams upon request.

Internal customer service (ICS) aims to systematize these processes by implementing the following steps into each service instance:

  • Customer Intake, which involves acknowledging the customer’s request, collecting the necessary info, and creating a plan to help the customer progress.
  • Service Provision as planned and acknowledged by all stakeholders.
  • Service Review, in which the overall process is summarized and the customer is placed on an optimal path to success.

This more formalized approach will be our focus throughout this article.

Why is Internal Customer Service Important?

The internal service-based interactions we mentioned above (and many others) are integral to your business’ operations.

This, in itself, is reason enough to hop aboard the ICS bandwagon.

Still, it’s worth taking a closer look at the more deep-seated benefits of implementing a strategic approach to internal customer service.

Such as…

Create Enabled, Productive Employees and Teams

Moving from an informal to systematized approach to ICS will further enable your employees — on both sides of the equation.

Providers will have:

  • A better understanding of their service-related duties
  • Clearer and more intentional workflows to follow
  • Additional time and resources allotted to provide these services

In turn, the recipient of internal customer services will:

  • Consistently receive helpful and reliable service
  • Solve problems and overcome challenges more effectively
  • Uncover opportunities to improve their performance even further

Identify and Fill Gaps and Knowledge and Skills

Documenting and storing internal service requests is a key part of ICS.

This makes it relatively easy for team leads to identify gaps in knowledge and skills — both individual and team-wide. 

Initial service requests, of course, make clear that an employee doesn’t know something or know how to do something. The ensuing engagements between service provider and recipient will add further insight into the customer’s current knowledge and abilities regarding the task at hand.

This can allow you to make major improvements in a ton of areas, including:

It’ll also help you determine whether outsourcing certain business processes is the best course of action for your current situation.

Strengthen Team Culture and Create a Sense of Belonging

Implementing internal customer service allows your team to focus on the importance of serving one another to achieve a common goal.

As we’ll discuss, it involves providers shifting away from seeing their duties as tasks to be checked off a list — and instead understanding that their actions further enable others to do their job well.

Strategic ICS also creates additional opportunities for providers and team members to interact as a matter of course. Simply having more face-time — even remotely — can go a long way toward building rapport between team members who otherwise may not interact all that much.

And that’s just on a one-to-one level. 

On top of that, adopting ICS can transform your organization overall. Eventually, serving each other will become less “what your company does” — and more about who you are as a team.

Increase Employee Satisfaction and Loyalty

So far, we know that superb internal customer service will lead to:

  • Effective and efficient service-related processes
  • Enabled and empowered employees
  • A team culture that’s stronger than ever

Add all this up, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for increased employee satisfaction, loyalty, and retention.

Yes, there’s much more to retaining your best employees — but top-notch ICS is an essential part of the process.

(Conversely, you probably won’t keep your best employees around for long if they’re always running into blockers caused by their service providers.)

Improved Business Performance

Once again, if your team is experiencing all of the above, you’re almost certainly seeing an increase in your overall business performance.

While also not a silver bullet, optimizing your approach to ICS is a key part of achieving better business results. 

To be blunt:

If you aren’t intent on systematizing your internal customer service processes, you simply won’t be able to optimize your team’s performance to their highest capacity.

7 Key Steps to Optimizing Internal Customer Service

Now, let’s take a look at the key things you’ll need to do as you begin implementing strategic and systematic internal customer service processes.

Before we dive in, though, note that there are many parallels between external customer service best practices and the following. On the one hand, these parallels can help you better understand how to implement ICS within your own organization. On the other, there are many nuances to ICS that make it a completely different being than its external counterpart.

That being said, let’s take a look at how to make ICS work for your team.

Identify Stakeholders and Dependencies

Your first order of business is to identify where internal customer service “happens” within your organization.

Thoroughness is crucial here. Though it’s an intensive process, you need to surface and document every instance of internal customer service that already occurs within your organization.

You’ll then use this information to build a list of dependencies that exist throughout your organization. In documenting these dependencies, you’ll define:

  • Who’s involved in the engagement
  • Who plays what role in the process
  • The overarching service being provided

(Pro Tip: Creating a graphic web of these dependencies allows you to visualize how each engagement interconnects to keep your organization moving in the right direction.)

In some cases — like with IT — you might already have this information documented. But there are also likely many “hidden” instances of internal customer service that will need to be surfaced and documented, as well.

(For example, simple requests for additional product specs from sales reps can be enhanced in numerous ways if given the “ICS touch”.)

It’s also vital to figure out where ICS isn’t happening — but where it should be. To do so, you’ll need to take a comprehensive look at all of your internal processes, specifically with an eye for what’s missing.

Bottlenecks and other points of friction are a good place to start here. After identifying where a certain process goes off track, you can then identify ways in which other team members or departments might lend a helping hand.

The entire point of a more intentional approach to ICS is to bring these moments — and the people involved — into the spotlight. That said, it’s essential that you give each of these moments the attention they deserve — and that you don’t allow any of them to slip through the cracks.

Create a Culture of Service

We said earlier that developing your ICS processes will enhance your company culture in a number of ways.

But, you should already have established a culture of service before you begin implementing strategic ICS. 

(Otherwise, you run the risk of encountering resistance to change at every turn.)

You might not need to start completely from scratch here. Chances are, your employees already have a decent idea of why helping one another succeed is essential to team progress.

Still, it’s important to intentionally come together and discuss all this as an organization to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Some specific things to call out here:

  • How these ICS interactions enable individuals and entire teams to perform to higher standards
  • What individuals and teams are able to accomplish with help from other departments
  • How individual instances of service combine to form a single, powerful entity that’s constantly progressing in the right direction

From there, you can collaboratively define what “service” and “internal customer service” means to your team. You might even go as far as to incorporate ICS into your company’s overall vision and mission statements.

This alignment will help you remove organizational silos, which in itself will enhance your ICS processes moving forward. Not only will team members be more able to engage with each other for service-related purposes — they’ll also be more comfortable doing so, as well.

Develop Standard ICS  Processes (and Create Opportunities to Serve)

Once everyone is onboard with the idea of internal customer service, you can begin developing the actual processes and workflows needed to make it happen.

As discussed earlier, the main phases of both external and internal customer service are Customer Intake, Service Provision, and Service Review. 

Of course, these phases will play out very differently depending on the situation — and you’ll want to create standard operating procedures for as many scenarios as your teams can think of.

(Remember what we said earlier about creating a web of dependencies?)

Some best practices to follow here:

  • Prioritize Major Issues: While you eventually want to standardize all potential ICS engagements to a granular level, you can’t do it all at once. Focus on systematizing the issues that are most impactful to team productivity and your bottom line.
  • Create Individual ICS Workflows Collaboratively: Allow both provider and recipient — and other stakeholders — to have a say in how specific instances proceed. After all, they have enough knowledge and experience to know what will be best for their respective teams.
  • Make Data-Driven Decisions: Couple your team’s experience and expertise with their performance data, and any other data you have regarding customer service best practices.

Train Your Employees (for Both Roles)

Now that you’ve generated buy-in and created effective ICS workflows, you’ll need to train your team members on how to get it right.

It’s important that all employees understand what both roles entail, for two key reasons.

For one, everyone within your organization should see themselves as a service provider — even if only potentially. Eventually, you want to get to a point where even one-off engagements between team members takes on a more formulaic approach that covers all the bases of ICS.

(Quick note: “Formulaic” does not mean “robotic”. The point is, you want your employees to embrace ICS best practices to the point that they use them naturally when completing even the smallest task for one another.)

On the other side, you’ll also prepare your employees to be effective service recipients whenever they fill these shoes. Basically, you want recipients to know how they can make the provider’s job easier at every turn — be it bringing them additional info, using a specific channel to communicate, or documenting their engagements.

While standardized training sessions can be helpful here, you might also consider developing communities of practice around your ICS initiatives. Such communities are effective not just for training purposes, but also for strengthening your team’s newfound culture of service.

Optimize Your Tech Stack for Engagement and Interaction

Technology plays a major role in all aspects of business — and internal customer service is no exception.

The key tools you’ll need to invest in for ICS purposes include:

  • Helpdesk tools to manage internal service requests
  • Communications tools to engage directly or asynchronously with recipients
  • Collaborative tools, as needed to work through issues with recipients
  • Knowledge base software to make organizational knowledge easily accessible

Now, you probably already use such tools for external customer service (and other) purposes. 

While this is a good start, some adjustments may be needed to make these tools suitable specifically for ICS-related use. This might be as simple as tweaking software options — or it may involve upgrading to a different tier of service altogether. In any case, be prepared to make at least some changes to these tools to enhance your ICS efforts.

Similarly, you need to know your employees will be able to use these tools specifically for ICS purposes. Even if they have a ton of experience using these tools otherwise, make this a part of your ICS training to ensure they take full advantage of your software as needed.

Develop Your Knowledge Base and Knowledge Content

Your internal knowledge base — and the information held within — is invaluable to your internal customer service initiatives.

For one, it provides a self-service option for those in need of technical assistance and similar guidance. Much like with external self-service, internal customers can find the info they need on their own — allowing service providers to focus on the more intensive issues in front of them.

Your knowledge base will also be a central hub of info for all things related to internal customer service. This includes:

  • ICS processes and workflows
  • ICS best practices — along with demonstrations of tacit knowledge
  • Team organizational charts and directories for contact purposes

This content can be used for employee onboarding and training purposes — or simply to be referred to as needed over time.

Finally, regularly reviewing your team’s activity within your knowledge base can help you make improvements to operations moving forward. Specific to ICS, you might focus on creating more in-depth content regarding certain topics — or you might invest in additional training in certain areas.

Set Clear Performance Goals (and Make Continuous Improvements)

At this point, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what effective internal customer service should “look like” within your organization.

Now, it’s time to get down to numbers, defining performance metrics and KPIs for your team to strive toward for their employee evaluations.

You can again use your external customer service metrics as a springboard, here. Some data points to focus on include:

  • Average Response Time
  • First-Touch Resolutions
  • Average Time to Resolution

You also want to assess your team’s overall productivity levels — specifically revolving around the myriad dependencies throughout your organization. Here, you’ll be looking to continuously identify bottlenecks and other points of friction to chip away at over time.

Finally, engage with your employees — both service providers and recipients — to see what suggestions they have for improving your approach to ICS. Through employee self-evaluation forms, surveys, and on-the-fly engagements, you’ll learn with near certainty where internal customer service is making your employees’ lives easier — and where additional improvements are needed moving forward.

Use Internal Customer Service to Optimize Team Performance

Your team members rely on one another all the time to both get their work done — and to bring value to the company as a whole.

As crucial as these service-based interactions are to business success, standardizing and optimizing them should be a top priority for your team. In systematizing your internal customer service processes, you’ll immediately improve team productivity — and can make more laser-focused improvements to your workflows in the future.

And remember:

An internal knowledge base can help strengthen your ICS processes and practices across the board. With a comprehensive knowledge base at hand, service providers will always know how to best serve their dependents — if said dependents can’t get what they need on their own, that is.

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