What is a Customer?

What Is A Customer?

In the world of Agile, and the world of business too, we hear a lot about “customer value”. Folks seem to have some kind of handle on “value” (although not everyone can agree on that one – see my post “What Is Value” for my take, based on Goldratt and his Theory of Constraints).

And for the record, we might also choose to frame the question of value within the Antimatter Principle frame, and vocabulary:

Value: The degree to which folks’ needs, in aggregate, are being (or have been) met.

But what about “customer”? So simple and straightforward. Do we even need to define it? I thought not, until a recent conversation on Twitter gave me pause for reconsidering. Specifically, the idea that maybe folks are talking at major cross-purposes, with significantly differing assumptions and definitions for the term. If we can’t agree on a basic term like “customer”, what chance alignment of a whole host of fundamental questions about software, products and business generally?

Here’s my definition, again using the Antimatter Principle as a frame:

Customer: Someone (could be either a person, or a collection of people) whose needs we’re attending to.

I’m pretty sure you’ll have a different definition of customer. I’d love to hear your take.

Before I close this post, here’s a different definition, informed by Crosby and his Zero-Defects (ZeeDee) approach to quality:

Customer: Anyone who receives or anticipates receiving something (e.g. a good or a service) from someone else.

This definition canonises Crosby’s idea that we’re all customers. And we’re all suppliers, too. And as suppliers, it falls to us to ensure that what we’re supplying is what our immediate customer needs to supply their customer(s).

– Bob

  1. The System might have got you but it won't catch me said:

    A very brief comment. We often think in terms of ‘customers’ as the user of the product – especially in terms of software development or even organisational improvement. It’s easy to refer to users as customers, especially if outside support is procured to help (consultants, external suppliers etc.)

    I am not a fan of the term ‘customer’ because customer implies choice (as in where to exercise one’s custom). But seeing as internal departments providing for ‘users /customers’ are effectively acting as a monopoly, who is the customer? Who has choice?

    It goes further – as in the people who use the ‘new shiny thing’ are rarely those who procured the supplier, consultant etc.

    This gets worse in the public sector where people who have no legitimate choice over the services they access are still referred to as customers (I can’t report a pothole via a neighbouring council’s portal because I like the interface better than my own councils).

    I digress…

    It leads my thinking that the customer (if we accept the term) isn’t the ‘user’, it’s the group of people who benefit from the ‘new thing’.

    So maybe, the customer isn’t the ‘user’. The customer is the thing (not necessarily person or people) who experiences the ‘value’ of the new thing in terms of outcomes.

    That significantly widens what we mean of customer past user or organisation, and should link any activity to what we choose to determine as value.

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