Words Mean Something, Not Necessarily the Same to Everyone
I am always amazed at how words mean something, but rarely the same thing to different people. One of the hardest words to get agreement on is the word “customer.” It’s used in so many different ways by each function within a corporation that rarely is there the same image conjured up in each mind in any conversation where the word “customer” is used. The clearest insight into this problem came when I was reading a book by William Luther called How to Develop a Business Plan in 15 Days. At the very start of his book, Luther begins:
“In December 1984, I was hired by Clemson University to conduct a two-day marketing seminar for five state colleges in Florida. The first half-day was most difficult, because the people from the colleges kept stating that there was no way someone with no experience in education could help them develop a marketing plan. I tried to convey to them that the planning process was the same regardless of the type of product or service, but they just wouldn’t buy it. The use of a bad analogy made matters worse – the analogy being that the planning process was the same whether you were selling a college or a can of beer. The meeting did not go very well until just after lunch, when they were presented with a five-step procedure that helps you determine who your customer is and what the message should be. As I went through the sequence, I proved to them that they had been spending all of their marketing dollars for the last five years on the wrong target audience.
“Like so many other institutions of higher learning, these colleges realized that they must get a better understanding of marketing, now that federal and state funding assistance has diminished. The group was openly hostile until the purchase-process priority was discussed. When asked who should be number one in the purchase-process priority, the college officials, after several minutes of discussion, stated that it was the parent. Number two was the high-school guidance counselor. The student was listed as number three. At this point, I asked them how they had been allocating all their marketing dollars during the past five years. Almost in unison they said words to the effect of ‘son of a gun.’ They had been committing their complete marketing budget to the students.”
Here we are 27 years later and colleges are committing the same mistake. Our three kids attended college and postgraduate education with our household receiving untold pieces of marketing literature from colleges starting in the sophomore year of high school for each child. In the six years we endured this onslaught (2-5 pieces of mail every day), not a single direct mail piece was addressed to the parents. Everything was aimed at the student. Amazing.
Luther’s process starts by identifying those categories of people involved in purchasing decisions, and then classifies them as influencers, purchasers and users. In the above example, the parent is typically the purchaser, the guidance counselor is an example of an influencer, and the student is the user. So when we start talking about customer, it is important to think just a little harder to understand which role the person we are talking about is playing – influencer, purchaser, or user.
One of the fundamental mistakes made in product development is focusing all of the design and functionality on the user. The most successful products design in capabilities for the purchaser and influencer.
Another definition of customer was popularized by W. Edwards Deming as part of Total Quality Management – customer as next person in line. As business becomes more market and customer centric, we tend to think of customer in an external sense. Deming pointed out that it is hard for most of us when we are inside of a company to have much exposure to an external customer. Therefore, it becomes easy to think that quality is someone else’s problem and nobody will realize I’m not paying attention because I’m so far away from the customer. Deming then defined customer as the next person in line to receive the work that an individual produces. By providing this definition of customer, more direct measures of quality can be taken.