Let’s Forget The Consumer

In a world where loyalty has reached such fickle heights, it is really important that the words we choose reflect our relationship with those who buy (or might buy) our products.

Let’s Forget The Consumer

I’d like to bet that you have read, spoken, and written one word more than any other in your marketing career. That word is consumer–and that is the last time you will read it for the next few minutes.

We spend our working lives predicting and reacting to the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of this group of people who play such a large part in a brand’s fortunes. But I’d like to propose to you that we are doing them (and us) a huge disservice by labeling them in the way we do.

For me, that word we generally use lacks empathy. It’s too rigidly transactional for the longer-term relationships that we are hoping to encourage, and it turns people into a faceless mass. I’m in favor of using the word customer–a much more personal form of address that also nods to the more holistic association we want them to have toward the brand.

But is this just semantics? I think not. In a world where loyalty has reached such fickle heights, it is really important that the words we choose reflect our relationship with those who buy (or might buy) our products.

There is something about the word customer that appropriately represents the alteration in the power dynamics between brand and its audience. This is a respectful word that reflects the fact that the customer, living in a digital world, can now influence brands in a fundamental way.

My belief is that something as apparently simple as a name change helps to galvanize marketers into embracing these new dynamics. Thinking about our customers rather than … well, that other word, naturally leads into super-charging our efforts to understand them. When I say understand, I don’t just mean in the traditional market research-aided way. I mean really getting under their skin—knowing them better than they know themselves.

The great ad man David Ogilvy once said, “The customer is not a moron—she’s your wife.” That’s as relevant today as when he said it in the 1950s. It’s about seeing your customers as living, breathing humans, rather than targets.

It sounds basic but it’s worth repeating: The most successful companies are customer-focused, rather than product-focused.

The new relationship with the customer also requires that companies embrace transparency. This is not an easy shift for many organizations with a traditional structure that encourages hierarchy and secrecy. The trick is to start small, rather than thinking this must begin with a massive companywide transformation program. The transparency can start within the organization by encouraging greater collaboration between individual departments.

GE invited some of its business customers to an internal seminar in order to better understand their thinking. The company also gets customers involved in the innovation process. The desire to open up to the outside world even extends to its competitors. It adapted its Aircraft Engine unit to work not only with its own engines, but to service and repair all manufacturers’ engines.

Adopting a customer culture right across the business is something that must be led from the top. Employees further down the tree need to see their managers practicing what they preach. This is why Amazon puts its managers on call center training so they have a literal idea of what customers are thinking and saying. This awareness then seeps through to strategy.

The omnichannel retailer also publishes an email address for its CEO and empowers its customer service people to make decisions for the good of the customer they are dealing with (rather than having to refer it up to a manager, the more common approach).

Empowering staff at all levels to act in the best interest of the customer is excellent practice. If you show your people you respect them, this will filter into how they treat customers. This is also the context behind my desire that we use the word customer—because it encapsulates the respectful relationship we should be engendering with these, our most important business partners.