A recent conversation on Twitter struck a nerve with me. The person posited that,

 

"If you're a sysadmin, you're in customer service. You may not realise it, but you are there TO SERVE THE CUSTOMER. Sure that customer might be internal to your organisation/company, but it's still a customer!"

 

A few replies down the chain, another person posited that,

 

"Everyone you interact with is a customer."

 

I would like to respectfully (and pedantically) disagree.

 

First, let's clear something up: The idea of providing a "service," which could be everything from a solution to an ongoing action to consultative insight, and providing it with appropriate speed, professionalism, and reliability, is what we in IT should always strive to do. That doesn't mean (as other discussions on the Twitter thread pointed out) that the requester is always right; that we should drop everything to serve the requester's needs; that we must kowtow to the requester's demands. It simply means that we were hired to provide a certain set of tasks, to leverage our expertise and insight to help enable the business to achieve its goals.

 

And when people say, "you are in customer service" that is usually what they mean. But I wish we'd all stop using the word "customer." Here is why:

 

Saying someone is a customer sets up a collection of expectations in the mind of both the speaker and the listener that don’t reflect the reality of corporate life.

 

As an external service provider—a company hired to do something—I have customers who pay me directly to provide services. But I can prioritize which customers get my attention and which don’t. I can “fire” abusive customers by refusing to serve them; or I can prohibitively price my services for “needy” customers so that either they find someone else or I am compensated for the aggravation they bring me. I can choose to specialize in certain areas of technology, and then change that specialization down the road when it’s either not lucrative or no longer interesting to me. I can follow the market, or stay in my niche. These are all the things I can do as an external provider who has ACTUAL customers.

 

Inside a company, I can do almost none of those things. I might be able to prioritize my work somewhat, but at the end of the day I MUST service each and every person who requests my help. I cannot EVER simply choose to not help or provide service to a coworker. I can put them off, but eventually I have to get to their request. Since I’m not charging them anything, I can’t price my services in a way that encourages abusive requestors to go elsewhere. Even in organizations that have a chargeback system for IT services, that charge rate must be equal across the board. I can’t charge more to accounting and less to legal. Or more to Bob and less to Sarah. The services I provide internally are pre-determined by the organization itself. No matter how convinced I am that “the future is cloud,” I’m stuck building, racking, and stacking bare-metal servers in our data center until the company decides to change direction.

 

Meanwhile, for the person receiving those services, as a customer, there’s quite a range of options. Foremost among these is that I can fire a provider. I can put out an RFP and pick the provider who offers me the best services for my needs. I can haggle on price. I can set an SLA with monetary penalties for non-compliance. I can select a new technical direction, and if my current provider is not experienced, I can bring in a different one.

 

But as an internal staff requesting service from the IT department, I have almost none of those options. I can’t “fire” my IT department. Sure, I might go around the system and bring in a contractor to build a parallel, “shadow IT” structure. But at the end of the day, I’m going to need to have an official IT person get me into Active Directory, route my data, set up my database, and so on. There’s only so much a shadow IT operation can do before it gets noticed (and shut down). I can’t go down the street and ask the other IT department to give me a second bid for the same services. I can’t charge a penalty when my IT department doesn’t deliver the service they said they would. And if I (the business “decider”) choose to go a new technical route, I must wait for the IT department to catch up or bring in consultants NOT to replace my IT department, but to cover the gap until they get up to speed.

 

Whether we mean to or not, whether we like it or not, and whether you agree with me or not, I have found that using the word "customer" conjures at least some of those expectations.

 

But there’s one other giant issue when you use the word “customer,” and that’s the fact that people often confuse “customer” with “consumer.” That’s not an IT issue, that’s a life issue. The thing to keep in mind is that the customer is the person who pays for the service. The consumer is the person who receives (enjoys) the service. And the two are not always the same. I’m not just talking about taking my kids out to ice cream.

 

A great example is the NFL. According to Wikipedia, the NFL television blackout policies were, until they were largely over-ridden in 2014, the strictest among North American sports leagues. In brief, the blackout rules state that “…a home game cannot be televised in the team's local market if all tickets are not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time.” Prior to 1973, this blackout rule applied to all TV stations within a 75-mile radius of the game.

 

How is this possible? Are we, the fans, not the customers of football? Even if I’m not going to THIS game, I certainly would want to watch each game so that the ones I DO attend are part of a series of experiences, right?

 

The answer is that I’m not the customer. I’m the consumer. The customer is “the stadium” (the owners, the vendors, the advertisers). They are the ones putting up the money for the event, and they want to make their money back by ensuring sold-out crowds. The people who watch the game—whether in the stands or over the airwaves—are merely consumers.

 

In IT terms, the end-user is NOT the customer. They are the consumer. Management is the customer—the one footing the bill. If management says the entire company is moving to virtual desktops, it doesn’t matter whether the consumer wants, needs, or likes that decision.

 

So again, calling the folks who receive IT services a “customer” sets up a completely false set of expectations in the minds of everyone involved about how this relationship is going to play out.

 

However, there is another word that exists, within easy reach, that is far more accurate in describing the relationship, and also has the ability to create the behaviors we want when we (ill-advisedly) try to shoehorn “customer” into that spot. And that word is: “colleague.”

 

A colleague is someone I collaborate with. Maybe not on a day-to-day basis or in terms of my actual activities, but we work together to achieve the same goal (in the largest sense, whatever the goals of the business are). A colleague is someone I can’t “fire” or replace or solicit a bid from another provider about.

 

“Colleague” also creates the (very real) understanding that this relationship is long-term. Jane in the mailroom may become Jane in accounting, and later Jane the CFO. Through it all she remains my colleague. The relationship I build with her endures and my behavior toward her matters.

 

So, I’m going to remain stubbornly against using the word “customer” to refer to my colleagues. It de-values them and it de-values the relationship I want to have with them, and the one I hope they have with me.