Everybody has a customer

Posted on October 30, 2023.

A couple of days ago I posted this on LinkedIn:

I added this clarifying text:

Whether it’s a digital product, a service, a policy, program, campaign or initiative — someone consumes the thing you make at work.

In some cases the customer is obvious. In others, less so.

Your job is to make your customers successful. Have you considered what makes them successful?

How might that change the way you approach your next initiative?

It turns out it wasn’t nearly clarifying enough as I received a stream of legitimate concerns with my choice of the word “customer.” I argued that given my attempts to be pithy in a graphic there was little room for nuance. However, in a blog post, there’s plenty of room for nuance. So, in the interest of clarifying my pithy poster posting, let me address some of the concerns it raised.

Customer vs consumer vs user

One of the biggest issues that came up was the word “customer.” While folks who make a product for direct B2C markets understand this word in a very clear way, for others, who work in other situations this felt like the wrong word. The argument was that in many situations there is a customer (the person who buys the thing you make) and a consumer (the person who uses the thing you make). In other feedback there was further distinction drawn between consumer and user (the ultimate person in the value chain). 

Customer implies a person paying for a product or service. I agree with that. There are, however, many ways to pay for something. You can pay with money. You can also pay with time, effort and reputation. Consumer is the person who puts your product to use. They might use it themselves or they might deploy it to others to use (the end users). In all of these situations there are people using the thing you make to further their own goals. The effort, time and money they put into doing that should be a main consideration for you as you make your “thing.” 

Reducing everything and everyone to a transaction

Legitimately this post could have been misunderstood as removing humanity from our work and looking at everything as a transaction to be profited from. Many of the folks who reacted to the post mentioned that it’s this exact mentality that is a root cause for many of the problems we face today in business and society – surveillance capitalism, pay inequality, et al. I admit that at face value this can be inferred from it. However, that was never my intention. 

Instead, the point I needed more characters to make was that instead of just thinking of our work as “output” and measuring its success by its mere creation, we consider who has to buy/consume/use that output and for what purpose. As it turns out, I was arguing for the exact thing the critics of the post were – ensuring we maintain the humans in the conversation for everything we make. And, in doing so, ensuring that we understand what needs brought those humans to look to us to provide help, support, products and services. What were they trying to do? What’s getting in their way? What are they currently doing to solve for that? How might I provide them with something better? Again, with B2C products this is a daily part of the job. For those who don’t build those kinds of “products” this isn’t always a part of the conversation. I am hoping we can begin to change that. 

Most people don’t “make” anything

This is another big point I was trying to argue against. Many people who read that post would argue, “I don’t make anything at work.” I wholeheartedly disagree. Everybody makes something at work. It’s not always a product. Sometimes it’s a schedule, a budget, a proposal, or a presentation. Other times it could be a policy, a campaign or tool. Just because the “output” you create isn’t the end-product the company is selling doesn’t mean you don’t make anything at work. One client of mine is a shoe company. The shoe designer in that company makes a shoe design mockup. They don’t make the actual shoe. Yet, their “output” is “consumed” by several other folks in the company. They have to use that design to then do their job – merchandising, marketing, procurement, budgeting, manufacturing, etc. If the way the design is delivered makes those tasks harder, how might the shoe designer change the way they work to make their “customers” more successful? 

Understanding who we serve improves our work

The purpose of the post was to underscore the fact that understanding who we serve in our work should improve the work we do. Instead of focusing on simply executing tasks, we focus on making our “customers” more successful. Yes, there are other words that make better sense in certain situations than customers. And yes, our goal is to maintain the humans in the conversations, not remove them in favor of spreadsheet porn. It’s important to remember that we serve other people in our work. Those folks will be both inside and outside of your organization. If we keep them and their success in mind, how might we change what we do on a daily basis to make them more successful? 

I am co-writing a book with Josh Seiden on Objectives and Key Results and this idea is a central theme in that book. You can learn more at www.okr-book.com.