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.
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