In 1986, President Ronald Reagan famously declared, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” When I first wandered into the area of public sector procurement more than two decades ago, I came at things from the same perspective that armies of traditionally trained management consultants have done and continue to do, with a twist on that outlook thinking to myself: “I’m from the private sector and I’m here to help.

And when it comes to the transfer of best practices, many a consultant working with government agencies at any level thinks this is a pipeline that flows but one way. Since we come in as experts in benchmarking best service practices and applying what works in corporate America to the business of government, we too often overlook the fact that yes, best practices do exist in government that can make businesses both large and small work better. This is not promoting the progressive agenda on expanding what government should do.

Rather, it is promoting a better management agenda for us all, in whatever organization where we happen to work and/or manage at the moment. One of these small points of differentiation that I would point to comes from the acquisition area specifically. When you work with contracting officers at the federal level, procurement specialists at the state level or local buyers in municipal governments, these professionals constantly make reference to their “customers.” Now when we think of marketing and advertising in the private sector context, the term “customers” always has an external focus.

However, when it comes to the world of public procurement, acquisition executives and staffers do not see themselves as the customer, keeping their focus instead on the ultimate needs, desires, and constraints of the ultimate user of these things—their internal customer. Their focus on their internal customer is most times unrelenting and—to my experience—unique. As a management professor and consultant, I would simply ask you this: How often do you feel treated like a customer by support functions within your own organization? When you communicate with your human resources department about a benefits issue, do you feel like the individual you are dealing with regards you as a customer? How about when you have questions about getting proper reimbursement on your last company trip and call the finance department? How about when your laptop won’t fire up and you call the IT department? And this holds true whether you are in the private or the public sector.

I can safely say that while we on the teaching side of the higher education industrial complex are constantly being challenged to change our mindset to the student being a customer of the college or university, once we ourselves wander off the academic side of the ranch to support areas, we might as well take a number! And so the management thought I would leave you with is this. We live in such a highly competitive and connected era that we can’t take any connection, internal or external, for granted. While we speak of the importance of being a “customer-focused” organization we simply can’t be focused on one customer, the final, external one.

You simply can’t have a culture focused on the external customer if everyone in the organization do not regard each and every arm of the structure as just as important a client for their services. Expert after expert in corporate strategy would tell you that it is essential that you have this alignment of the interests of all withn the organization to work toward what W. Edwards Deming labelled the “constancy of purpose” to break down the barriers between individuals, units, locations and entire areas of the organization to achieve collective goals.

So if you are an executive in any organization today, ask yourself a simple question: The last time you called HR, were you treated like a vital customer? Were you “wowed” the last time you checked in with your financial, legal or accounting staff? More importantly, can you assure that the person at the bottom of your company or your agency’s structural pyramid will receive five-star service from any function within your organization?

If, as with many situations today, the “customer-focus” is not internal as well as external, then there is much work to be done in reframing and focusing the efforts of all toward generating not just greater levels of organizational performance, but to borrow the words of another President, a “kinder, gentler”—and more productive—work environment for all.


Featured image courtesy of Thomas Leuthard.

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