At my previous employer, my team handled connections across the organization. The vast majority of our time, though, was spent on ‘the customer side’. That meant taking project opportunities from our sellers and implementing EDI or eProcurement connections. In that situation, it’s pretty easy- the customer is your ‘customer’, right? That’s correct, but in a broader sense the ‘customer’ was our sales organization. We did the work on their behalf, they reaped the benefits of the higher sales that resulted from the project, and if there were problems the risk was, in effect, to their important customer. Other direct or indirect participants in the process, such as our branch organization, could also be considered ‘customers’ since the project could impact their group by removing or adding workload. We discovered there were very few things we did that affected only one ‘customer’.
Likewise, on our ‘supplier side’, where we buy finished goods from hundreds of suppliers for distribution, our main 'customer' was our purchasing organization. They ‘owned’ the suppliers, the work we did automated their processes, and if something went wrong they suffered. As with the customer-side example above, other areas were also interested parties that depended on our services, from the DCs, to AP, to the product management team.
One of the best outcomes continuous improvement projects Is that they help you really identify the customers. As you map your processes in detail and determine where the inputs and outputs originate and end, you develop a true sense of your customer impact. You often discover groups you viewed as only tangentially involved in a given process truly have a vested interest in its outcome. Three quick examples we encountered:
- Our AP area had a team who manually ‘worked’ supplier invoices that didn’t match PO information. When inbound processes experienced slowdowns or connection issues, the team was left with nothing to do.
- The AR team responsible for collections had much additional work thrown on their shoulders when a customer was implemented on electronic invoicing and data integrity problems caused errors.
- Our service center staff handled inbound electronic orders that fell out of the process. When the inbound stream was disrupted they were left with no work. If individual customers ended up being problematic from a data standpoint they were flooded with errors.
In those cases, our ‘customer’ group included those teams whose workload was directly affected by the project.
Whether you work on supplier EDI, customer eProcurement connections, or anywhere else in the business, recognize who your customers really are and do your best to keep them happy!