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Sunday, February 16, 2014

What or Who is a Customer?




Recently I have been thinking about customers.  

A colleague of my recently said at a conference “You don’t need to take care of all your customers, just the ones that you want to keep”.  That is a truly great sentiment.  All too often folks in the public sector miss that concept.  If you doubt that, just go spend some time in your national Passport Office.  Even if the place in which you find yourself has a monopoly, these days even the civil service folks are very vulnerable to the well-placed complaint.  My point is they can run, but they cannot hide, at least not for very long. 

But the whole discussion started me thinking about who exactly is the customer.  Recently I have found this a harder question to answer.  I have found two definitions that take me in two very different directions.

When I go to the source (ISO 9000:2005 – Quality management systems – fundamentals and vocabulary) I get one definition which is a “customer” is a “person who receives a product” or but when I go further I get “a customer is an organization or person that buys goods or products or services or ideas from a seller, vendor, or supplier for a monetary or other valuable consideration”.  

There is a whole world of difference here.  In the ISO definition the word “receives” does not differentiate between a gift or a transaction.  When Oprah gives everyone in her audience (for which they received a free ticket and paid nothing) a free car, I don’t think that makes any of them customers.  When I walk down the street and give a homeless person a dollar or a free meal, I don’t think that makes that person my customer either.  And if I give someone a birthday  present, I don’t think that makes them my customer either.

But as soon as the exchange is transactional where I give them a product that they give me something of value, then a different relationship exists.  (For the moment let’s leave tips out of the discussion.)  I don’t want to say that the ISO definition is wrong, but I do think their definition is far too open and vague and unhelpful.

So where am I going here, and why does any of this matter?  Recently I got into a discussion about “internal customers” where they were defined as persons from within a company who receive products or services from their  own organization with the intended purpose of using them as inputs to their own work.  

Now I understand the notion of assembly work where a product goes from point to point until it reaches its finished state, but to refer to that next station in line as a “customer” is nonsense.  And if someone in my department comes to me and asks me to give them my presentation slides because they require them to give a lecture doesn’t mean I have to turn them over as a condition of customer satisfaction. 
If I on my own volition want to give someone a car, or a gift, or pass on my finished work to co-worker I may do this because I want to, or even have to, but neither of these defines the recipient as my customer.  And when I do these things, even if they make someone happy and even if they feel satisfied, neither my actions, nor their feelings have anything to do with “customer satisfaction”.

And when someone tells me that the relationship between management and staff is just a simple extension of the customer relationship, my head explodes.  

It is really easy to fall into a jargon trap where folks who buy my goods and services and folks who work with me and for me all get lumped into the category of “customer”  but none of this is helpful or contributory to understanding Quality or Management.  We have one set of responsibilities and authorities when it comes to our co-workers (staff), and we have another very different set when it comes to the folks that want what we have to sell (customers), and we have another very different set when it comes to recipients of gifts, and largesse and charity (?).  

I may want to keep them all happy and satisfied, but they are not all the same.

1 comment:

  1. I have written some posts on this topic and the difference between end user and purchaser. The bottom line is I think end user is by far the most important from a quality perspective though the whole chain matters.

    http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2012/12/12/customers/

    http://blog.deming.org/2013/11/customer-focus-with-a-deming-perspective/

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