For what it’s worth, the term ‘consumer’ really irritates me. I still use it to make myself understood, but it bugs me. With time, I’ve concluded that the word bugs me for strategic reasons- not just because I don’t like the word itself.
‘Consumer’ conjures up a mass of people ready to blindly ‘consume’ my product. By comparison, the word ‘customer’ seems more singular and implies a relationship of some kind. Consumers consume. Customers purchase- if they are treated right. Consumers are the way of the past. Customers are the wave of the future.
This makes a difference on a couple of fronts. Right now, retailers have customers and most of their suppliers have consumers. For structural reasons, but also because of this schizoid mindset, the retailer often has a much stronger relationship with that person than does the manufacturer. Over time, this almost always leads the retailer to become a more trusted ‘guarantor’ of product quality than the manufacturer. Ultimately, this means that the retailer can source products and build brands that the customer trusts more than those from the manufacturer- and they’ll be cheaper for many of the same structural reasons.
I believe everyone needs to build a real, working customer relationship management (CRM) strategy. Forget the software for now; just embrace the theory. In the old world, terms like 1:1 marketing, segmentation and mass marketing were too often viewed as distinct alternatives. The fact is, for many marketers, inside their customer database reside customers who deserve to be handled 1:1 and can be profitably marketed to this way, customers who can be approached on a segment basis, and customers who can only be profitable if they’re treated en masse.
Depending on your business, you may even be able to determine the unprofitable customer- and although all consumers may seem like they are worth having, some are definitely best sent over to your competition.
So, let’s stop thinking about the people buying our products and services as consumers and promote them to the exalted status of customer… and then we can all go back to fighting over them.
If you’re a manufacturer and this creates confusion with intermediates such as retailers, who you currently call customers, I have another suggestion. Call them partners and treat them accordingly.
Austin McGhie is head of Sterling Strategy. Stay tuned for a continued, in-depth take on the customer all month long.