I am your customer, you are my customer. When I need to provide you with something, you are my customer. When you need to do the same for me, I am your customer. I am marketing, you, finance, are my customer when you ask me for data. I am corporate finance, you, country finance, are my customers. I am R&D, my customer is marketing and sales. I am sales, my customers are the consumers. I am information management, the rest of the company is my customer.
The customer-centric mantra that has been in place for many years has created this muddle. Not pronouncing the word ‘customer’ is so politically incorrect that we tend to pollinate our thinking and our language with it, to make sure we don’t miss it. There is an historical point and reason behind this. Many organizations work in silo mode with low grade cross-communication and cross-collaboration, so, it made sense at some point to inject a bit of ‘consumer mentality’ to make the point that we are all serving each other, in one way or another, within the organization. However, by over customer-izing the language, the real customer gets lost or neglected. There is only one customer, the ones who pays the bill. This is the external customer – an individual in Business to Customer (B2C) a company in Business to Business (B2B). Anything else is muddled thinking.
I encourage my clients to make language choices. The internal “I serve you, you serve me’ may need a different language: call it client, business partner, co-workers, co-dependents, chums, internal service providers… I am playing silly language games here on purpose. Find a way, other than ‘customer,’ so that we can have a real conversation about the real customer. So, a simple rule such as ‘the customer is always external’ could do the trick. Of course, there may be more than one external customer, of course.
Cleaning up internal language is important. Customer-izing the internal organization may be nice and rewarding. It may create a good feeling of cooperation, but it dilutes the external focus. And since many companies spend 90% of their time looking inwards and 10% outwards, a bit of ‘externalization of the customer language’ would do nicely.
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