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The Customer is Not King

Posted on: Wednesday 15th of September 2010

Whenever marketers use the word ‘customer’ or ‘consumer’ they bury themselves deep within an organisation-centric view of the world: these terms are seller-centric inventions.

The only entities that see ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’ when they look at the world are organisations trying to sell stuff. When marketers talk about customers and consumers, they are not talking about the world ‘out there’ as it really exists, they are looking into a mirror reflecting their own internal obsessions back to them.

A customer is someone who buys what we sell. When the organisation looks at ‘the customer’ it is just looking at ‘what we sell’ from a slightly different perspective, a perspective designed to help it sell better. There is nothing wrong with this per se. There is lots to be said for it. But it is a seller-centric projection. You can spend an entire lifetime peering into this mirror without ever seeing what lies beyond.

One way of looking beyond this mirror is to recognise that every product or service that meets a need – i.e. that’s sold – also generates a new need: the need to make a decision.

In the industrial age, meeting this meta-need – the need to make better decisions (and to implement them better) – wasn’t the seller/marketer’s job. There was a division of labour. The job of the organisation was to make a good product. The job of the ‘consumer’ was to make a decision – a choice. And the job of the marketer was to influence these decisions.

This was probably inevitable at the time. Decision-making is an information intensive task and gathering and using information in an organised way was prohibitively expensive.

A tectonic shift

But today that’s changing and we can look at the world through a different lens – that of the decision-maker (the person) rather than that of the decision-influencer (the seller). Once you do this it quickly becomes apparent that this meta-need – to make (and implement) better decisions – is bigger than all other needs (for chocolates, for cars, for current accounts etc) because it embraces them all, subsuming them into the bigger task of achieving what the person (not the seller) wants to achieve.

Person- or buyer-centric services then, sit on the side of the individual, helping the individual achieve what the individual wants to achieve, including managing relationships with many different suppliers more efficiently and more effectively (VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management). The central questions here are, What challenges does the person face when doing this? How to do it better?

The difference between now and say, twenty years ago, is that twenty years ago this person-centric perspective was operationally irrelevant. You couldn’t do anything practical to help people address these challenges. When marketers said ‘the customer is king’, it was just a disguised way of saying ‘the organisation is king’.

Now, however, as information becomes a tool in the hands of the individual, that’s changing. The organisational king is being deposed. This is not about superficial changes in ‘how to achieve the same old marketing goals better’. For example, it’s got nothing to do with arguments about whether it’s easier, cheaper or better to get marketing messages across via social media or mass advertising. It’s a deep, structural, tectonic, remorseless and comprehensive transformation in the relationship between individuals and organisations.

And if you keep on looking in the customer mirror, you simply won’t see it coming.