Has the word “customer” lost its impact?

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There is a lot of discussion these days on the importance of being “customer” focused, of having a “customer” mindset, of delivering a better “customer” experience. Sometimes there is so much reference to customers that the word is starting to lose its meaning. Now don’t get me wrong. I am an unwavering advocate of the imperative for organizations to create and maintain a strong “customer” culture which embodies – focus, mindset, experience and shared values and beliefs that what’s best for the customer is best for the business.

However, some organizations have developed their own unique twist to this. The way in which you talk about customers and describe them influences both the attitudes and behaviors of employees towards them.

Remember when Telcos referred to their customers as subscribers? This depersonalized their customers to the point where they were thought of as a number or a statistic.

Costco thinks and talks about its customers as “members”. This means that they see them as part of their business and all staff feel connected and act accordingly. A member is someone who belongs there. In particular, a member is special and is to be given special, personalized service and this is reflected in everything that happens at Costco, including the return of goods which are accepted back cheerfully even from the most unreasonable member.

Both Ritz-Carlton and Virgin Atlantic refer to their customers as “guests”. As an invited guest of the hotel or airline you are treated with radical hospitality. It promotes in the staff of these organizations a feeling that you treat these visiting guests in the same way as you would treat guests in your own home.

Professional services firms like CPAs and Law firms refer to their customers as “clients”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a client as a person who is under the protection of another. This suggests the customer is in their care and they have a responsibility to do what’s best for the client. Also it seems that the word “client” elevates the customer to being someone who deserves special individual attention.

Doctors refer to their customers as “patients”. Part of their duty of care is to advise and help manage their personal well-being and maintain confidential records of their patients’ progress.

In the “age of the customer” it is important to rethink how we refer to that most important driver of our business success. Whatever word you use conveys a particular meaning that can support or dilute the mindset and behaviors of your employees towards customers.

Do you have a special term for customers? Does it support your drive towards customer centricity?

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