Two thoughts on culture and customers

Posted: July 8, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The word ‘customer’ has a certain grubby, commercial ring to many people working in the arts and the public sector. I say this having striven all my life to work in those sectors, and as someone wary of the ‘people as sources of money’ thinking that can attach to the word.

Not what the word 'customer' is all about

Not all the word ‘customer’ is about

The problem is that ‘customer’ actually has two different and related uses. Sure, it can mean someone with whom you’re entering into a commercial transaction, providing something for money (lets call this an A-customer). But in the absence of any other word to fill its place, many organisations and systems thinkers also use ‘customer’ to refer to anyone to whom you’re providing a good or service (lets call this a B-customer).

Amazon and Hachette and customers

If you pay any attention to books as an industry then you know that there’s currently a dispute between online bookseller Amazon and publisher Hachette. If you follow any authors or book bloggers you may also be aware that it’s become incredibly divisive within the industry, with fierce words put forth on all sides.

For me, the deciding factor in this is customers. Putting the customer first isn’t just empty rhetoric – in the long run it’s what leads organisations to success. Publishing is going to keep changing, evolving towards systems that serve B-customers better because that’s how they’ll get the money out of A-customers. Any argument about publishing that doesn’t begin and end with the reader experience, taking authors into account along the way, is flawed. Publishing exists to provide readers with books, and if you don’t remember that then you’re doing it wrong.

I’m seeing a lot of arguments, especially on the Hachette side, that are doing it wrong.

TV streaming and who’s the customer

This ‘customers first’ thinking is also why I think streaming services are going to win out over traditional TV channels.

Traditional channels have viewers as their B-customers, the viewers of their shows. But their A-customers, the people paying for it, are the advertisers. As someone recently pointed out to me, if you’re not paying for something then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. As a result, those A-customer advertisers have pulled TV in directions that are less satisfying for the B-customer viewers, the shows drowned out by the volume of adverts. Given other cheap options, viewers will go for a more satisfying experience, and the service will die.

But I don’t want to be a customer!

There’s no point burying our heads in the sand. If you want to sell books, if you want to read better books, if you want to make smarter decisions about your work whatever that work is, then you need to be thinking about A-customers and B-customers. Even great art works by serving people’s needs and desires. And no-one but customers is going to pay your bills.


Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons

  1. Back in 2012, Catherine Ryan Howard wrote something that I keep coming back to whenever anyone suggests that artists shouldn’t make money:

    If you don’t want to make money from writing, I can only assume you don’t love doing it as much as I do, because making money from it is the only way that you can do it all the time, unless you win the lottery.

    Her blog is worth adding to your RSS reader, by the way.

    • That’s a great way of looking at it. And her blog is now in my RSS, along with mnay of your other recommendations.

      On a vaguely related note, I find that I’m reading my RSS feed more since I got a tablet a couple of weeks ago. I like that I can read articles away from the laptop, more like a book or magazine, and just save the ones I want to share for later. Suddenly I’m catching up on neglected feeds full of hundreds of articles.

  2. Dylan Hearn says:

    You are absolutely right, both in your assessment of artists needing customers and a lot of the spin coming out of the Amazon / Hachette dispute.
    Artists have always needed money to produce their art, whether it came from religious patrons during the Renaissance, buyers of mass produced paperbacks during the 20th / 21st century or partners supporting their loved-ones in their goal of meeting their dream.
    I have a good friend who is very community focussed, believing very strongly of giving something back, often to his own detriment. I have often said that there is nothing wrong with people paying you for your work. It is only wrong when you exploit people either by taking advantage of their labour or their good nature by charging more than a product is worth.

  3. Sue Archer says:

    Hi Andrew, this reminds me so much of my own day job in the IT industry. Who are you designing software for? The customer. This is often lost sight of, and people end up building pretty things that are ultimately useless to the customer.

    Focusing on a customer is not the death of art or creativity, because every customer is different. Just look at how many wonderful things are being created through venues like Kickstarter.

    I must admit, though, that I am heavily biased towards the word “client” over “customer.” A client is someone you are building a relationship with, which fits nicely into the concept of services. A customer can be viewed as simply a consumer of a product (“consumer” being another word I dislike). Maybe it’s just me, but I like to focus on “clients,” and this includes people inside my company that use my services (not just external clients).

    • You know, I think ‘client’ might be the word I need to distinguish types of customers – it certainly would have been useful in my old day job.

      Like you, the day job perspective has shaped my understanding of this. I spent several years working in business improvement, and the frequency with which people lost track of who their work was for could be quite startling. I think it’s part of why I’m so attuned to it in things like the Amazon debates – the tone and arguments used often feel awfully familiar.

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