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The Word "Customer" is NSFW

Level 17

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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.

27 Comments
jeremyxmentzell
Level 11

I love this opinion.

The aforementioned expectations that are set up when we either start trying to identify nebulous items or persons is a very tricky thing to do well.

I often fall into this trap of attempting to identify internal or external customers and more specifically appropriately identifying the context the conversation it is happening in.

  • Are we talking about a deliverable?
  • Are we discussing strategic coordination?
  • Are we working on a common directive?

Some of this is probably cultural in nature, speaking from my own experiences in the world of silos - I'm very leery to use the word "colleague" due to the subtle differences between team dynamics and goal targeting alignment.

Being in a service organization - there simply are options to go around people for service (though there might be some subtleties) - some of it full-on shadow IT; some of it willful end-arounds that in the end, if the result set is pleasing to the management overlords - is cited as "the right way," those people receive preferential promotions or outright permissions to continue to work out-of-band to continue to get those results.

Is that right? Hard to say.

meyer837
Level 10

Interesting perspective; I'll admit to being one of the loudest horns tooting the idea that IT is a customer service department. And although I see the point you are trying to make, regarding the differences between customer and consumer I think you are splitting hairs that aren't always there. I don't think it's that easy or simple. In many cases, the customer is the consumer and if you make something difficult for me to consume, I'll find a way to consume it anyway in a different way. In today's world I think the idea that you can't replace IT with a different IT is a false premise because you totally can replace IT with external options. IT-as-a-service is ubiquitous and has become quite comprehensive in its offerings. Many companies have taken to administrative controls to combat this, i.e., creating policies that state that only internal IT resources are acceptable and use of external, or non-approved, resources will result in disciplinary action. I think it's important for IT to cultivate a customer service oriented personality so that the people IT is meant to serve and service, will utilize them instead of seeking alternatives.

rschroeder
Level 21

Wow.  I love the fine details and the logic. 

In my organization, we in IT adhere to one philosophy:  "If someone consumes your service, they are your customer."

And the customer is always right, even when their demands are unreasonable, inconvenient, expensive, impractical, difficult, or impossible.

In effect:   "Here:  this is a sow's ear.  Make it into a silk purse.  I don't want it done "as soon as possible"; I want it done today.  If it's not, your boss and your boss's superiors will answer to me, the customer.  If you can't or won't do it, they'll ensure someone who CAN do it WILL do it."

It makes for a tough day/week/month/year/employment environment.

Occasionally the bosses understand when the death of common sense has occurred, and they politely explain to a customer why something won't happen to meet the customer's schedule or demands.  It may not happen to their schedule's desires, or may not happen at all, depending on the laws of physics (we can't change 'em), or available resources (technical knowledge, budget, staff, hardware costs, etc.).

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tallyrich
Level 15

Great perspective on the term. I'd never thought of it in that light. Great points.

zennifer
Level 13

Got you going!!!  I love your feedback, venting.. perspective ... I need to share this with my co-workers! 

zennifer
Level 13

Speaking about customer .. have you heard Aruba's Mission ... Customer First, Customer Last!  I love it!

ScottRich
Level 12

Excellent article. I have shared this with my colleagues in IT.

And something I learned from my father is that while the customer may not always be right, they are always the customer. You either satisfy them, or find new ones.

vinay.by
Level 16

Cool article

tinmann0715
Level 16

The simple response to the NFL "Blackout" dilemma was that the franchises did not want TV to discourage fans from attending the games. Having fans in seats, preferably with season ticket plans, was a primary revenue source. The NFL recognized the impact of TV on the consumption of its product.

As for the "customer/consumer" discussion Leon raises interesting points. In the retail world it is hard to tell the difference between the customer and the consumer. I guess which term to use is based on scale. I wrote about the Customer Revolution a few weeks back. Businesses need to revolutionize their approach to their "customers", whoever they may be. This revolution goes well beyond the "Yes, sir!" and "How may I help you, ma'am?" days. Businesses need to be flexible and innovative with their customers. I found this interesting chart for delivering the customer experience.

Radioteacher
Level 14

Recently a group was asked "What is the Goal of the company?".  My thought..."To make money!" but someone said it was to "Grow Customers" before I could speak. 

The person that asked the question agreed with them.  I am glad I was silent but still like my answer better.

I learned my answer by listening to "The Goal" by Goldratt.

If we had lots of customers and did not make money....we would be Uber.

RT

Image result for book the goal

indigoforever
Level 8

It's easier just to consider: colleagues are your team, customers are the company's market, consumers are your target. Accordingly you can envisage anybody as being a combination of all three but still arrive at the best linguistic term to use when referring to them. These terms do yield different inherent relationships.

david.botfield
Level 13

Good Article. I've come across occasions before where colleagues thought they were customers.

asheppard970
Level 13

I like your train of thought, adatole​, and I was cruising right with you until the NFL example.  While I understand the distinction you are making between "customer" and "consumer", I think the NFL was forced to realize that the people who sit at home are just as much their "customers" as those butts in seats.  Those "couch potatoes" and "armchair QBs" still buy the merch, swag and anything else the hucksters choose to tantalize them with during the "commercials" (and who do you think lines the NFL's pockets? ADVERTISERS!!!).  Interesting that the dictionary definiton of "commercial" (adj.) is "done for the sake of financial profit".  While, yes, it is about butts in seats it's also, as "Puff Daddy" so eloquently stated, "[...]All About The Benjamins!".  Why is it that the Yankees consistently have playoff and series bound teams while the Rockies (I live in CO) are consistently middle-of-the-pack and are, bascially, a farm team for the rest of MLB?  The answer is simple, and was previously stated...MONEY!  And that money does not ONLY come from butts in seats.

So, how does this relate to "customers" versus "consumers"?  I think in this day and age we are ALL "customers".  Yes, 30-40 years ago, before Gore invented the Internets, there was a broad distinction but now?  Not so much in my opinion.  Another word to consider (and "colleague" is, of course, brilliant!) is "client".  If you look at the Latin base of the word "client", it states: "The term originally denoted a person under the protection and patronage of another[...]"  This, to me, is a more useful term than either "customer" or "consumer", which both have somewhat negative connotations as was stated in your article.  My wife is in the financial services arena and they use "client" all the time as opposed to "customer".

The bottom line - even though it will always be the bottom line - is this: if one is a service provider, such as yourself, Leon, then one has more freedoms.  And if one is in a corporate environment then one has less freedoms but ultimately it comes down to how you treat the person/entity in your "protection" for the period of time it takes to provide a solution.  Are you going to be an arrogant know-it-all who blusters in with the "I've got this! Step aside, plebe!" mentality?  Or, are you going to stop, look and listen to what your client has to say?  I was a BSA for several years and I learned that I have two ears and one mouth for a very good reason: to listen twice as much as I talk!

mtgilmore1
Level 13

Good article.  Nice write up... Thanks.

petergwilson
Level 14

Totally agree.  Staff are users not customers.  We still have to fix their problems but they can't leave for another supplier if we don't meet their expectations.  Also, our jobs exist because they aren't IT experts.  If we don't meet management expectations we can be replaced. 

Management recently wasted two days of our time by bringing in a 'consultant' to 'train' us in "Customer Satisfaction in an IT Environment".  I had a long disagreement with the tutor about the use of the customer description and used pretty much your argument.  In our environment (a University) we have staff and students.  The staff are NOT customers.  However, the students pay £9,250 a year in course fees.  They ARE customers.  Unfortunately management don't really care about supporting the students.  The emphasis is on staff.  This is quite wrong.  We still try to provide an excellent service but are constrained by management diktats.

On a side note I also argued when the tutor talked about meeting the customers expectation.  This is totally wrong.  My argument was that we should be SETTING the customer's expectation and then EXCEEDING it.  That way we are in control.  This is sometimes know as "The Scotty Principle" 

Urban Dictionary: Scotty Principle

ecklerwr1
Level 19

I know one thing for sure... getting management to sign off on some things can really be tricky.

alang
Level 10

I agree that in the past couple of decades we have moved from "providing world class customer service" to "supporting business outcomes". In between we heard things like "IT always provides platinum service, even when it's not really necessary" and "IT has to learn to say NO". And yes, the end user is the consumer, while our customer is the business who decides to employ and pay us and therefore gets to say what is important and what isn't. And even thought it's not quite as direct as with an external service provider, even as an employee I can refuse to provide service. It may end my employment and getting paid, just like it would end the contractual relationship and getting paid for an external service provider. But that also goes into philosophical discussions and splitting hairs. In the end, I think that with the maturing of the IT industry there is a trend to recognize that not every service that can be provided should be, there has to be a desired business outcome that will be achieved by providing the service. I think what we are seeing is that IT has moved and is still moving from magic to more transparent technology and thus is being used as a tool as it should be - where it makes sense. Really mature tools are treated that way. Just because a consumer/co-worker asks you to staple every piece of paper to the wall that you can find does not mean it would make business sense to do that, and nobody would even discuss if refusing to do that would mean bad customer service.

asheppard970
Level 13

Underpromise, overdeliver!  That's the way to becoming known as "a miracle worker"!  Trouble is, we deal with bosses/superiors/managers/VPs/others who do the exact opposite and "overpromise", and then we are expected to live up to the already superinflated expectations.  As mentioned elsewhere, I used to be a BSA and it was my job to play intermediary between the end-user community and the geeks that supported them.  Establishing and maintatining expectations is one of the most complicated and frustrating jobs there is.  Why?  Because, as mentioned, you have others who blow expectations out of the water. You also have the end-user who sees some new, fancy, whizbang technology and plays Veruca Salt on you, "I want it all and I want it now!".  Then, how do you manage superinflated expectations when the user, themselves, is the one who sets them?  It's a challenge, believe me.

For example: most of the sites I manage still have T1 (that, boys and girls, gentlemen and scholars, is 1.5 Megabit) connections to an MPLS.  It used to be that one would come to work to get a connection that was far and away better than what one had at home...not no more!  Now, with the deployment of Gig-Internet to consumers, the expectation is set that work should have the same thing.  My response to this is simple: I ask them if they would be OK with not having access to the Internets or company data for, oh, say 90+ days out of the year.  And, typically, they turn slowly and walk away.  Business class and consumer class Internet are VERY different.  While business class connections have SLAs of 90-95% uptime (or better!), consumer class still operates in the 60-75% range, and that's not guaranteed!  Oh, and let's not forget - if you have cable - that the rest of the neighborhood is going to drag you down with streaming their "Orange" and what have you!

To summarize, I always proceed in the words of, and to paraphrase, the great Art Williams who said: All we can do is all we can do...but all we can do is enough!

meyer837
Level 10

asheppard970 who is buying consumer class Ethernet for an enterprise? Although I agree with the general idea of "underpromise, overdeliver," in today's market T1 is more expensive and less reliable than a carrier-grade private Ethernet connection. I too have dealt with T1s and we migrated to MPLS Ethernet. If you were referring to consumer broadband, then that is presenting a false premise, no business is going to consider replacing T1 with DSL or Cable (not without utilizing SD-WAN tech anyway).

asheppard970
Level 13

meyer837​, I was in no way insinuating that businesses should get consumer class Internet.  Far from it (unless, as you mentioned, they utilize technologies like SD-WAN/Viptela).  What I was attempting to do is show the flip-flop of perceptions in the recent past that "work" should have a faster Internet connection than "home".  That is simply not the case anymore.  And when someone asks me why we can't get gig-Internet at "work" like they have at "home", I mention the above SLAs, they drop it and walk away.

petergwilson
Level 14

True.  I also get a lot of "Why can't I have mode disk space.  I have terabytes at home".  I explain about backups, disaster recovery, speed, costs etc. and wait for them to glaze over and give up.

meyer837
Level 10

asheppard970​ That's fair, it's certainly true that internet speeds at the Enterprise are no longer faster than home connections without exception. You can certainly buy gig (or higher) internet circuits, but they are expensive. However, Enterprise still is king when it comes to internal links, connecting devices via 10G/25G/40G/100G, you just won't see that at home, (except for some homelab-type stuff). Of course then you get the tragically hilarious questions: "If we have such a fast network and datacenter, why is my PC so slow?" Trying to explain the difference between local PC speeds and network speeds and server speeds... their eyes will glaze over and they will still say the internet is slow.

asheppard970
Level 13

The almighty dollar can be a highly effective influencer of perception.  Everything is possible in IT...it's simply a matter of how much time and money you are willing to throw at it.

Can we get gig-Internet in a business-class circuit?  You bet...to the tune of about $1,000 a month or exorbitantly more in my case (5+ figures!) because of location.  There is an old adage in sales: You can have any two of 1) Low Price, 2) Great Quality and 3) Excellent Service but you CANNOT have ALL THREE!  There is a reason that consumer-class circuits are so cheap: their service STINKS! (And, yes, that is a highly technical term!)  Versus if you want business-class circuits, with big-boy service level agreements (like 24/7 support, guaranteed uptime clauses, etc.), thou shalt pay through thine schnoz for it!  It's all in what you need and are willing (and ABLE) to pay for.

meyer837
Level 10

Hah, I didn't mean to use the exact same wording in my response... but "glaze over" really does describe it!!

asheppard970
Level 13

Fair enough, meyer837​, and I totally agree with you.  Again, as I mentioned just above, it comes dow to what folks can afford, business or home.  I'm sure there are geeks out there with lots of money and time, who have turned their homes into virtual data centers, with 100gig everything everywhere and petabytes of storage.  But, by and large, regular consumers are not in that position.

meyer837
Level 10

As far as I know, most homelabbers are just recently (within the past 2-3 years) starting to adopt 10G, with maybe some fibrechannel sprinkled in here or there. Anything above 10G is prohibitively expensive for home, even if you inherited old switches and servers with higher capability. I'm sure we'll see some 40G stuff here in the next year or two, as some of the early 40G equipment starts getting upgraded to 100G. That being said, a lot of orgs are still trying to upgrade from 1/10G.

I just did a quick sweep of eBay and it looks like I can get a Juniper EX4200 with 10Gb uplink module for about $200 these days. Add a $200-300 rackmount server and you can feasibly do some legit 10G stuff for under $500 at home now. Makes me want to go shopping...

Nene
Level 9

Wow adatole this article has sparked so many comments which are all true in their own sense. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I believe what matters is the need to serve and react to different people the right way so everyone is happy.

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.