• Frank Bieser

There are no internal customers

Many large organizations refer to stakeholders and those who hold a budget as internal customers. This term is increasingly used in agile product development, and the concept is meant to help those who are not directly interacting with external customers.

Here is a simple experiment: Look through your window and count the number of people who

  • buy your products because you have released version 19 of your travel policy or

  • love your company because you have and reduced the number internal of e-mails by implementing a workflow management system


Sorry, folks: nobody outside your organization cares. In fact, it is even worse: language affects cognition, and if everyone is named a customer, the sense of urgency for actual customers fades. This is a recipe for mediocrity, and not for winning.

Have you ever heard a soccer player naming his teammate an internal customer when playing a pass towards his buddy?

The reality is: there is no such thing like an internal customer. If you want to see customers, you have to look outside. What customers want (and ultimately pay for) is added value, is one of their problems solved, is feeling great when using your product, is being positively surprised by a feature or service.

In order to delight customers, you need to engage with them. Develop ideas and talk about them. Make prototypes, show them, and incorporate feedback from potential buyers. Create lightweight yet meaningful experiments and validate your assumptions on the market. Repeat these steps until you have a robust fit of your business model for the context you are operating in.

In the global #shiftup community which was initiated by Jurgen Appelo, we promote the Innovation Vortex as one metaphor to illustrate how continuous innovation can be achieved.

The Innovation Vortex combines techniques and methods from Lean Startup, Design Thinking, and other models into one integrated concept, closing the gaps of the various approaches:

  1. Contextualize: focus on domain and scope

  2. Empathize: discover and understand the customers’ needs and feelings

  3. Synthesize: define the job to be done and the problem to be solved

  4. Hypothesize: ideate and brainstorm an approach that will bring value and solve the problem

  5. Externalize: build prototypes and run iterative experiments

  6. Sensitize: test and validate your assumptions

  7. Systematize: learn how your solution can be improved and how your processes can be optimized

Continuous Innovation is not a linear process. It is dynamic and requires a lot of repetition aka iterations. But it always aims to maximize customer benefit alongside a sustainable business model. The customer, however, can be found outside your organization.


Turn assumptions into knowledge

In my opinion you can not deliver customer value without ever interacting with customers in their context. Stop telling them how great your product is. Instead, listen carefully before crafting a (profitable) solution around their problem. Only then promote your product, and start over listening to what new problems your customers want you to solve for them. This is a recipe for a sustainable business model applying continuous innovation.

One beautiful example is still Nordstrom’s Flash Build, where a development team did a coding flashmob in a sunglass store - and delivered an iPad app which helps customers to find and compare suitable sunglasses (there are YouTube videos from the event).

I double-checked: there is no internal in customer centricity.

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