(and why it’s important to make the distinction)

Something I’ve been concerned with for quite some time is the term user versus the term customer. In many places I’ve worked at, the term that is frequently used and almost universally favored is customer. And while, as a business, I agree it is important to recognize the person who pays your bills, it is not always an accurate description of who is engaging with your brand.

As a professional who has dedicated his professional life to the betterment of the user experience, I discovered early on that the terms user and customer are not synonymous nor are they 100% interchangeable. Let’s take a moment to look at their respective definitions.

us·er
/ˈyo͞ozər/
noun
a person who uses or operates something, especially a computer or other machine.
cus·tom·er
/ˈkəstəmər/
noun
a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business.

In the above definitions, we can see that user is a far broader term, whereas customer is specifically the person who buys something. Again, the appeal to focus on the person holding the purse strings makes perfect sense from the perspective of the business, but that person may only be a fraction of the people interacting with the product, services, and brand.

When trying to make improvements to the experience, only focusing on the customer will create blind spots, causing us to neglect the needs and goals of everyone else using the product or service. Even worse, it could cause us to deprioritize features or updates that could greatly improve the overall experience and increase the value of the brand.

Let’s look at some examples.

At a training company I used to work for, there were three main types of customers: individual, group, and enterprise. The individual customer purchased our products and services for their own use. In contrast, where the group and enterprise customers may have also been purchasing for themselves, they were more often purchasing for other people. If a group account included, say, 10 people, 9 of those 10 people were actively engaging the brand’s offerings, but only 1 person had purchasing power. That means that if, as a business, we only focused on that one person’s needs or demands, the other nine people would possibly not get the experience they desired. Now multiply that by an enterprise account and we’re talking scores, even hundreds of people that are getting an experience determined by the purchaser. An experience that may not affect the purchaser because they themselves are not actual users.

Do you see the dilemma?

Currently, I work on a team building websites for car dealerships big and small. In this context, the customer is the car dealer. And even though they may know their market base very well, they are the site owner, not the site user. And who is the user? The car shopper. The dealer, as our customer, needs to sell cars. The car shopper needs to find the car that’s right for them. The website addresses the dealer’s business need of lead generation, but what about the car shopper? Their goal isn’t to become another sales lead, their goal is to find a vehicle. And ultimately, their true need isn’t to purchase a vehicle at all. It’s to get from point A to point B. Purchasing the vehicle is merely an intermediary solution.

Again, by only focusing on the customer, the real users suffer. That may generate revenue in the short term, but in the long term it weakens the brand.

Returning to the topic of enterprise customers… Enterprise software has been notorious for delivering subpar experiences. Why? Because they often only focus on the customer, checking the boxes of desirable (and not always practical) features in order to appease the person signing the check. A certain well-known CRM that many of us use on a daily basis comes to mind here. The boxes may be checked, but the people that actually use the product end up with an experience that doesn’t address their needs. And since the software provider focuses primarily on the customer, the users are without the power to voice their concerns.

Oh yeah, it can be configured to your needs. But for a price.

And about that price. Several enterprise software giants over the years have forced companies to created entire departments of subject matter experts and certified technicians in order to support poorly crafted software that provides overly complicated experiences. These experts and technicians had to be trained, which created a whole new segment to the training industry. And while the software provider may be seeing dollar signs and alternate revenue streams, the customer is now seeing an increasing financial burden in maintaining the piece of technology that was supposed to make their life easier.

But the software provider also feels the strain. Trainers have to be hired to teach the users how to use the product. Oftentimes, these trainers have to travel to where the users are located. In addition, a customer service department has to be created internally to help users troubleshoot bugs, complete tasks, and explain unintuitive workflows. These are all costs that either have to be absorbed by the software provider or passed on to the customer.

So the user isn’t the only one who suffers.

Just because the technology is complicated doesn’t mean the experience has to be. Imagine if the enterprise software just… worked. It worked the way it was advertised and embraced user-centered design to provide for the needs of its users AND its customers. Instead of spending money on additional training and extensive customer support, they could be investing it back into the product to make the experience the best it can be. The lack of additional departments helps keep the company lean so that it can maneuver around competition and stay best in class.

The ideal solution is to find a balance between the user’s needs and the customer’s needs. We can treat the needs of the customer as an extension of our own internal business goals or as the needs of a specific user segment (i.e. persona). What’s important is not losing sight of the user.

So, which term is better to use? Understanding the difference between the two and how both fit in with your brand will help answer that question. Ultimately, we are designing and building things for other human beings, so the term people works perfectly fine for me ;)


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