Who Is Your Customer?



Surgery team in operating roomI have had many conversations that are focused on voice of the customer with business professionals in numerous different industries.  It is truly surprising to me how often I find that process owners at both high and low levels within their organizations have misidentified the customers of their processes. While the answer to the question posed by the title of this article may appear to be fairly academic and straightforward, in most cases, it certainly is neither of those. Quite to the contrary, however, the answer is often profound and only revealed through at least some limited analysis.  When posed with this question, nonetheless, many still will respond by stating that the customers of their process are the external consumers or end users that purchase the company’s products or services—and in nearly every case, they are incorrect.

In most cases, the external consumer is the wrong answer to the question since most companies consist of several linked end-to-end processes or value streams and generally only the last process (the one that delivers the product or service directly to the external consumer) is the one that has the external consumer or end user as a customer.  All of the other internal processes have internal stakeholders or departments as customers.

To bypass any misleading semantics and thoroughly understand why this is significant, let’s apply a simple, but rigorous operational definition to the term “process customer” in the sense that I mean it:  a process customer, simply put, is the immediate recipient of a process output.  Consistent with this operational definition of a process customer, if we view a company as a high-level process (See my April 16, 2012 blog post, entitled “The Process of Business”), then the external consumer or end user of the business’s products or services is, in fact, the customer of the business.

This high-level perspective, however, has no functional relevance to internal process improvement and does very little to help us diagnose problems that occur where internal sub-processes and departments interface.  In order to understand what is taking place at the sub-corporate inter-departmental level, we must perform the appropriate drill-down that consists of mapping the organizational sub-processes and identifying their connection points.  Once we have accomplished this, we now have a basis from which to identify sub-process customers, outputs, inputs, and suppliers, keeping in mind that the customer of each sub-process should be consistent with the operational definition that we established above—the immediate recipient of the output.  The reason why the identification of the process customer is so crucial is because the process customer is the only entity who can substantiate any process and should be the only entity that dictates the characteristics of the process output that comprise quality.

I will use an example to demonstrate why the misclassification of the process customer can be so harmful:  Let’s say that a patient checks into a hospital to have a medical procedure performed.  While the patient is clearly the customer of the hospital’s high-level process of providing surgery, if we drill down, we can identify several processes internal to the hospital that must take place in order for the patient to receive the desired surgery.  Just to name a few, there would be some sort of intake process, vital signs assessment, and surgery preparation.

What may not be so obvious regarding the internal processes above is the fact that the patient is NOT the primary process customer of any of these processes.  Since these processes exists to provide medical history, vitals, and a patient that is physically prepared for surgery, respectively—all outputs that are inputs into the surgeon’s “operation” process to make sure that it is successful, the surgeon is the process customer in this example and he or she is the only person who should dictate the quality characteristics of the process outputs (i.e. what aspects of the patient’s medical history should be obtained, which vital signs must be taken and how, what level of anesthesia the patient should be given during prep, etc.).  The misclassification of the patient as the customer for any of these internal processes could have fatal implications since most patients are simply not qualified to determine what the outputs of these processes should look like.

Do not commit the same error that many process owners commit by misidentifying their process customers as the end users or consumers that purchase the company’s products or services.  In most cases, this is erroneous.  Identifying the process customers as the immediate recipients of the process outputs and performing a process mapping drill-down will help to identify internal sub-process and departmental customers.  The identification of these internal customers is crucial since these entities are the only ones that can provide substantiation for any given process and should be the only ones that dictate the aspects of the process output that comprise quality.


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4 responses to “Who Is Your Customer?”

  1. Alastair Archibald

    Good points, Rich. I have often been amused when going through SIPOC/COPIS exercises with process owners, and their sudden confusion when they realise they don’t know who their customers are:

    “So, you manufacture products and hand them over to the end user in exchange for payment, do you? No, I didn’t think so.!

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