Do You Know Who Your Customers Are?



We’ve all seen the memorable customer service sayings: “The customer is always right,” and “A satisfied customer is the best strategy of all!” framed on conference room walls and posted in cubicles. These phrases are not mere decorations; they’re words to live by and should be applied both internally and externally throughout your entire organization. Here’s why…

I have the pleasure of working with small to medium-sized manufacturers in the automotive, medical and aerospace industries. Whenever I tour a manufacturing facility, I often ask the people I meet (from supervisors to operators on the factory floor), “Who is your customer?” Most likely, the response I get involves their external customer. I rarely get an answer that involves their internal customer. Sometimes, I just get blank stares and puzzled looks, which is especially troubling to me.

Everyone should know who their internal customers are and why they’re important. If you satisfy your internal customers, the company will satisfy external customers. This philosophy is one of the core building blocks for establishing a lean and engaged culture. Teaching this simple mind-set can lead to greater efficiencies and reduce bottlenecks—without adding a lot of new steps, procedures, etc.

Recently, I was at a factory and noticed that the shipping person kept walking back and forth between his work location and one of the work cells. After inquiring about this, I learned that the work cell in question repeatedly did not provide all of the required paperwork upon completion of a run. Time and again, the shipping person had to hunt down the paperwork so he could complete his job and ship the product. Seeing this as an opportunity, I asked the work cell, “Who is your customer?” As I expected, I got the typical replies about their external customer. So, I rephrased the question and asked the group, “Who is your internal customer?” That questioned garnered some blank stares and a muddled reply by the plant manager.

I went on to explain that while they have many internal customers, the most important one is the shipping person. When they don’t provide the necessary documents on time, they aren’t properly completing their job. I also told them that if their company treated their external customers this way, they wouldn’t stay in business very long.

Afterwards, I helped facilitate a conversation between the work cell team and the shipping department about needs and expectations. When I revisited the facility a few months later, I discovered that the person in the shipping department didn’t have to work overtime anymore. The work cell team also had taken the initiative to have the “internal customer” conversation with their material handler. The end result? The teams are working smarter and efficiency has vastly improved.

In conclusion, I would like to modify the phrase I mentioned in the first line of this blog. It should say, “The best strategy of all is to focus on having both internal and external satisfied customers!”

The Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (The Center) can help your manufacturing facility work more efficiently and propel growth. To gain a better understanding about our full range of consulting services, visit or email directly at


Dave Nelson, Senior Business Solutions Manager
Dave is a member of the Business Solutions Team and works closely with manufacturers in Wayne and Monroe counties. He is a seasoned professional with expertise in identifying new opportunities for clients and increasing market penetration. Dave also has extensive experience in generating/growing new business and recommending intangible services. To read Dave’s full bio, click here.


Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

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