In response to yet-another-discussion at work about the “customers” of IT, I started thinking about coming up with a definition of what customers really are – and who actually deserves being called a customer within the organisation. My best shot for now is the following:
“A customer is any (external) person or entity that contributes a net positive cash flow to the enterprise”
Seems fairly simple (and no, it’s probably not perfect), but actually there are some important implications hidden in here:
- In some industries, you may sell a ton products to certain people at very little to no margin but the resulting scale drives down your cost of operations overall and the overall relationship thus ends up being very cash-flow positive.
- In other industries, you may sell some products to people where you then spend so much money on marketing contributions, after-sales service, various long-term incentive and retention schemes etc. that your relationship with the “customer” actually ends up cash-flow negative overall.
The challenge in both cases is of course whether you have the tools and the data to see when the balance, on an enterprise-wide scale, tips from one to the other side (my guess is that most companies, especially large ones, don’t).
So does that make my sales department a customer (because they claim that they bring in all the money?) someone asks? No, because the sales department in itself does not contribute any cash flow into the enterprise, but it acts as an enabler to get external entities to contribute (they are also internal to the enterprise which to me is a disqualifier, but some would definitely disagree here).
And of course last but not least does it mean that all business functions are “customers” of IT? Not to me, because there is no positive cashflow into the enterprise from what the LoB functions buy from internal IT – it’s just moving money from one side of the cigar box to another. Of course there is a significant cashflow from the business, via IT and out of the enterprise to suppliers, partners and consultants but that’s a different matter. Again, it’s redistribution of funds from one part of the enterprise to another, or it is a part of the enterprise cash flow that IT controls on behalf of the business. Of course that spend has to be made in the best interest of the enterprise, but the spend in itself should not be a problem – you wouldn’t close down your procurement department because they are the company’s biggest spender, would you?
But wait, I hear someone shouting from the back, just because you’re cash flow positive doesn’t mean that you are profitable – no, and that’s what differentiates “a customer” from “a good customer” 😉