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​Is Everyone Taking Care of the Customers?

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In my last blog post, I talked about the importance of knowing (and keeping up-to-date with) the management gurus who have laid the foundations for the way our organizations (and our own profession) can succeed.

Recently, I was again reminded that they are as relevant today as ever, speaking to issues and concerns that we face every day.

Tom Peters (of whom I spoke last week — again, if you haven’t heard of him, look him up and start reading some of the things he has to say) sends out an email “Quote of the Week.” When you’ve said as much important stuff as Tom Peters, it is probably easy to not only have a quote of the week, but a quote of the week that is worth reading, paying attention to, and taking to heart. And so, with that assumption, I have subscribed to these quotes for a number of years. I have not been disappointed.

Following is the one that came up shortly after I put together that last blog post:

“In the private or public sector, in big business or small, we observe that there are only two ways to create and sustain superior performance over the long haul. First, take exceptional care of your customers ... via superior service and superior quality. Second, constantly innovate. That’s it.”

I’ve gone on, seemingly unendingly, about the need for organizations in general, and internal audit in particular, to innovate. It’s a passion of mine that I think is pretty evident in the things I write and in the words I speak.

So, instead, this time, I want to focus on Peters’ first point — that whole superior service and quality thing.

Two paths on this road.

First path: If internal audit is going to provide value — if it is going to take seriously the call to help the organization achieve its objectives — then it needs to do much more than just ensure controls are in place; it must make sure that the business is doing all it can to help achieve that success. And that means we should be evaluating how well the organization is adapting to the needs of its customers and clients; how it is ensuring that it is delivering superior customer service and quality.

And with that being said, I can already hear the howling and wailing and lamentations and gnashing of teeth and renting of garments. “It is not our job to make sure the organization is appropriately focusing on its customers. That is not our responsibility. It is outside the scope of our objectives, our purpose, and our charter. It oversteps the bounds of independence and objectivity by taking on a management role. That is a job for executives, the board, anyone else but internal audit. We can only verify they are ensuring they reach the objectives they have established.”

To which I quite eloquently and succinctly reply, “Balderdash!” (Actually, I originally typed another word, but let’s move on.)

First, if your organization does not have customer service in its vision, mission, objectives, et al, then it may well be the first organization in a very long time to not include such a focus. It may only be lip service — and here’s hoping that isn’t true — but the customer is always there … somewhere. No organization — for-profit, not-for-profit, volunteer-based, governmental, etc. — can survive unless it understands who its customers are and the importance of satisfying their needs. I know of no organization so self-contained that there is no customer base. As Peter Drucker said (and there it is again, another one of those old guys who still has relevance), “There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.” If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me.

Second, given that organizations almost always recognize some type of customer focus — that there is some verbiage related to customer service — then it is most definitely our job to include customer focus, service, and quality in all our reviews. In fact, I might argue that it might be the most important point of focus in every single one of our reviews. Customer service is an objective; our job is to help ensure objectives are met; our job includes reviews of customer service.

Can’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. For a while, every meeting room at Farmers Insurance contained a poster with a diverse group of individuals and the words “Have you remembered us — the customer — during your meeting?” (Unfortunately, I can’t remember the exact words, but what I have just quoted is accurate enough to be considered true.) And that is a question internal auditors should keep in the back of their minds during every review: How has the department/unit/management considered the customer throughout the process? Who is being served by a process, and are they being served efficiently and effectively?

Or, to paraphrase Tom Peters, we need to ensure that the organization is taking exceptional care of its customers … via superior service and quality.

And one other thing before we move on. If all that verbiage from your organization about customer service is, indeed, merely lip service, then I would suggest — quite strongly — that you find someplace better to pursue your career, because your organization (and your related career) will not be long for this world

However, the above is only one path this discussion can take. And I promised two. So, in my next post I’ll talk about that second path. And this will echo another of my favorite refrains: Auditor, audit thyself.

 Come back and see how well you fare.

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