Dump the internal customer

When I hear people refer to “internal customers”, my hackles get raised. It dates back to my years in retail, my CEO then had a mantra that there was only one customer – the one that came in to the shop. It’s a logic that really sticks with me and something that I hold dear to this day.

Put simply, I HATE the concept of an internal customer. And I DOUBLE HATE it, when referring to HR and “the business”.

I get the allure of referring to a customer service mentality, and the seeming simplicity of applying this to assuage the views of HR as bureaucratic. But when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. And in this case, the simplicity hides a number of major faults with this approach which makes it more of a distraction than a cure.

Customer implies a value transaction and yet in most organisations, this doesn’t occur. There are some that engage in internal charging models, but this tends to become more a bureaucratic source of dissatisfaction. How much would a pay award cost? Is there a mark up on it? What’s my cut?

Customer implies a choice of whether to transact, but in most cases we’re not suggesting any level of choice. “Do you want to use the disciplinary process or not? It’s a bargain I promise. In fact, I tell you what, if you buy one I’ll throw in a second one for free”.

Customer implies a power imbalance. What happens when HR is serving someone from IT, but that person is serving someone from Finance, who in turn is serving someone from HR? Who is the customer and who is the provider? Or are we back in the world of bartering? “Give me some training and I’ll fix your PC”, “Wait, I can do better than that, fix my PC and I’ll turn a blind eye to your budget overspend…..”

And therein is my biggest issue with internal customers, it makes an industry of the internal machinations of the organisation and takes us away from our true focus on the customer, the consumer, the procurer or purchaser. Whatever industry we are in, we are there to provide something to someone external. That is why we exist. If HR wants to be commercial then it would be better off getting the business to focus outside, rather than in.

I don’t have customers. I don’t have a customer service mentality. I have colleagues, team mates, co-workers, friends and collaborators. Together I want to work hard to deliver the best for the business and the people who interact with us.

Because they’re the real people we serve.

What HR say (and what we really mean)

“Let me throw the question back to you” – I have absolute no idea what you just said, as far as I’m concerned you could be talking Hebrew. So do me a favour and talk some more until I work it out?

“It would set a precedent” – I am lazy. You’re asking for something that I don’t want to think about. It might mean being creative and then other people might ask me to be creative too. And frankly, none of us have got time for that.

“I think we need to take some time to reflect on this” – I’ve got a whole bunch of forms that need filling out before payroll cut off and you’re asking me to get in to a meaningless discussion about something that we will never do anyway.

“You need to speak to payroll” – I missed a deadline because I was cornered in a meaningless discussion. Nobody gets off a call to payroll without thinking it is their fault, so time to blame the cellar dwellers.

“The business wouldn’t like it” – I can’t be bothered to go and find out whether this is a good idea or not, so I’m going to refer to a generic homogenous mass as a means of trying to dissuade you from making me do some work.

“Why don’t we workshop it?” – You’re stupid, I’m busy, let’s get some other people to talk about this and then get caught in circular debates until recommending that someone else should look at it and report back.

“Can you drop me an email?” – Because that’s the stupidest request I’ve ever heard and I a) need to see it in writing and b) want to circulate it to everyone I know to show how desperate my life is.

“We need a talent strategy” – I know that you don’t understand this. You don’t know that I don’t either. But you can say that we’re working on it and therefore sound intelligent, and I can say that we’re working on it and sound strategic. It’s a win win.

You don’t need a degree to work in HR

If you went to University, let me ask you a question:

How much of the taught subject matter are you using in your work?

I asked myself the same question and the answer is “very little”.

I am sure that there are certain professions, certain vocations where the content matter of a university degree is a necessity. And yet, in the majority of roles, I’m not so sure.

The CIPD released a brilliant piece of research last week highlighting the expansion of Higher Education in the UK and the resultant increase in graduates working in historically “non-graduate” roles.

There are several hypotheses to explain this, some with positive outcomes, some without.

Two things immediately strike me as being highly culpable in this trend,

  • the homogenisation of higher education post the 1992 reforms
  • the insistence of businesses to require degrees for non-degree roles

I’ll leave the first for people better placed to comment on the education sector (although you can check out this brilliant assessment from Peter Scott as a start).

I want to talk about the second point.

Why do I think we ask for degrees?

  • We’re lazy. We ask for a degree when no degree is necessary because simply it makes life easier.
  • We lack creativity and fall foul of unconscious bias. We have degrees and therefore it must be a requirement.

Don’t believe me? I ran a search on Changeboard of the HR jobs that specifically called out a degree as a requirement in the ad and there were over 170, (I don’t mean to pick on Changeboard, I did the same search on HR Magazine and got a similar return).

With over 20 years working in the profession, I’m yet to come across a role where a degree is of critical value. And of course, the irony is that in the case of HR, the degree will often be in a subject matter that probably isn’t relevant to the role.

We’re stuck in the past and assuming that a degree in some way differentiates the ability of the candidate, but more importantly we are sending out a message that you have to have a degree to work in HR. A pattern that is replicated across numerous other roles and professions.

There are certain life skills, there are certain intellectual processes that do come from study, I complete get that. But can they be obtained in other ways? Of course.

Our duty as a profession is to challenge the preconceptions of requirements, to throw our doors open more widely and to make our assessment and selection processes based on genuine capability, talent and potential. Not on meaningless qualifications.

But if we can’t do that within our own recruitment, what chance have we got in other areas of the business? We need to get our own house in order and be ruthless with our own professional approach.

Let me put it simply,

You don’t need a degree to work in HR.

So let’s stop saying you do.

That’s a good question…

One of the most important tools a HR pro can have is the ability to ask good questions. You won’t find it in many of the “earn yourself a seat at the table” articles, but trust me it’s true. Good questions are your best friend.


To start with, good questions help you out when you don’t know what else to say. They help you enter a conversation and are a brilliant way of interacting above your organisational level. Generally, the more senior you get, the more you like the sound of your own voice. Asking questions plays right in to that sweet spot and gets you noticed.

Good questions help you learn. They give you knowledge, insight and understanding that you otherwise would not obtain. They’re your key to learning more about the business and developing your commercial and strategic acumen. Good questions are personal development on speed.

Good questions help you avoid making a fool of yourself. Too many times when things go wrong you have the, “why didn’t you tell me” moment. Which of course has the answer, “you didn’t ask”. Good questions replace volume, they get to the issue quicker than lots of questions and they identify issues before they happen.

Good questions make the other person work. You only have to develop your repertoire of good questions once, but you can deploy them time and time again. The person on the receiving end, however, has to do the thinking. Not only does it make them smarter (and they’ll thank you for that) it also means you can spend the time listening, it’s a win win.

It’s too easy to think that getting yourself noticed, getting influence, getting that organisational recognition is about being heard. And too many HR people spend their time talking and talking to try to fill that space. Next time you’re tempted, ask a question instead (but make it a good one), and see what the response you get is.

Trust me, you’ll never look back.