Customers make buying decisions. Consumers use products and services. Sometimes they’re the same person. Sometimes they aren’t.
By differentiating between customers and consumers you can explain a lot of otherwise baffling phenomena in business, like why professional sports teams don’t care that strikes and demands for new stadiums (stadia?) have driven the public beyond mere apathy to alpha-state levels. Their major customers are the networks; fans, for the most part, are consumers.
It also explains the poor product quality and “customer” service of many software companies: Software selection is a strategic decision made by IS leadership or the chief technical officer, so when end-users and technicians experience problems and call for support they can’t threaten to take their business elsewhere — it isn’t their decision.
(This distinction, by the way, appears to be an original insight — much to my astonishment, nobody seems to have pointed it out before. If you were my customer instead of my consumer, it could turn me into a wealthy man.)
This distinction is useful inside, as well as outside, the company: Understanding the difference between your internal consumers — the people who make use of the technology you provide to the enterprise — and your internal customers will help you become a more effective leader, and help your career as well.
A recent column pointed this out. Your internal customers aren’t your consumers, they’re the people who approve your budget and who control your career. Some readers weren’t too happy with this analysis: They prefer to eliminate the idea of internal customers altogether. Everyone in IS, in their view, should focus on the connection between their work and external customers (and, presumably, external consumers, too).
This is a position advocated many times in this space: Everyone in IS, and in fact, every employee in the company, should always be aware of how their efforts translate to value for external customers.
The two positions aren’t in conflict, though. They’re complementary, or at least they can be, although keeping all of the connections straight can be a challenge sometimes.
When making decisions, it’s worthwhile to look at the world from more than one perspective. One perspective is that of mission and purpose — what you are trying to accomplish. From this perspective, it’s important to understand your connection to external customers, to provide context for your actions and decisions. IS works best when it relates to the rest of the company as an active partner rather than as a passive order-taker or independent service provider, and to be an active partner you need to participate in interactive discussions about how to achieve business goals. “How can we more effectively attract and retain customers together?” is a better question than, “How can we help you?”
A different, but equally valid, perspective is your responsibility to be politically effective. Even in healthy companies, every individual starts with different premises, experiences, personal and professional goals, and priorities … in short, a unique world view. Politics is the art of moving forward in the face of these differences. With technology pervading most businesses, every business decision leads to new or changed, and always conflicting technical requirements and priorities, so you operate in a highly political environment.
Why should you view the people who control your budget as your internal customers? Because that’s political reality. By definition they are your customers, and if you don’t treat them that way, they won’t make the right buying decisions about your products and services (they won’t approve your budget).
Then, most important of all, there’s a third perspective: your career. You personally have customers, and they’re also internal. They’re the people who approve your raises, bonuses, and promotions.
If you’re lucky, helping the business attract and retain external customers will make your personal internal customers happy. If you aren’t so lucky … well, they’re internal, but they’re still your customers.
It’s up to you to decide how you want to treat them.