What’s in a Name? Consumer or Customer?

Posted: July 31, 2007 in CRM

It’s the middle of summer.  People are conveniently away from their desks and if not outright on vacation, at least their voice mail greetings give the impression that because “I will have limited access to voice mail and email” you should expect a bit of a delay before they get back to you. 

I recall that when I was a kid all the factories in town shut down in unison for two weeks in July and that was that. 

Main Street had a kind of ghost town feel to it and trees were mostly still as even the breeze seemed to have left town.  That’s all I remember about economic activity back then, I was a kid after all and two months without school seemed like an eternity.

This being the middle of summer with lots of people off to the beach and mountains to spend vacation time, activity in the CRM market seems to have slowed a bit so I thought it might be fun to explore the consumer side of the equation. 

We are very smart in CRM to use customer instead of consumer which is used a lot in the general press. I did a quick on-line search of consumer and found just what you might expect for that word.  My favorite definitions were from economics — a person or organization that uses a commodity or service — and ecology — an organism, usually an animal, that feeds on plants or other animals.

A little further down I found something that reminded me of college biology classes:

“A heterotrophic organism that feeds on other organisms in a food chain.  Herbivores that feed on green plants and detritivores that feed on decaying matter are called primary consumers. Carnivores that feed on herbivores or detritivores are called secondary consumers, while those that feed on other carnivores are called tertiary consumers. Compare producer.

I recall being fascinated one day when a professor told us there were very few examples of tertiary consumers because the food chain is like a pyramid and the higher up you go the greater the energy need of the individual and the fewer individuals there are.  Lions and tigers, for example are active only about four hours per day, an energy saving response to being so high up in the chain.  It takes a great deal of size and strength for a lion to bring down a wildebeest what would it take to bring down a lion?

What got me started today though were the words “Compare producer” right at the end of the paragraph.  A producer is the antithesis of consumer. 

In the theater, of course, the producer is the person who is responsible for raising the money, and every time I think about it Mel Brooks comes to mind and I get off track.  It’s the economics definition that interests me here though, “A person who creates economic value, or produces goods and services.”  Logically, if a producer creates economic value the consumer must take it away — a somewhat pejorative connotation.

In fact, consumer was a slightly pejorative word until the post war period when abundance ruled.  Prior to that, decades of war, depression and Calvinism made many people guard against over consumption and wary of those who did though in every age there have also been people who celebrated consumption. The early University of Chicago economics professor and social critic, Thorstein Veblin, made a second reputation for himself when he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” — never mind about his other reputations, that’s a story for another time. 

Among Veblin’s advice to those who wanted to communicate their great wealth and status without actually having to state it (that would have been too vulgar), he said make sure your wife doesn’t work outside the home except in un-paid charitable activities.  Another Veblin strategy was to get a dog since taking care of the animal was an almost full time and unpaid job in itself.

Of course we are all both producers and consumers.  All you need to do is look around to see the enormous economic activity we engage in and the value we create to know that we consumers produce a heck of a lot too.  As much as we produce though, there seems to be no end to the need for us to consume. 

For a long time, many people have observed that CRM is not really about customers or relationships but the need to manage consumers and thereby manipulate need and consumption.  Would it then be more correct to mark it with a producer label instead?  Perhaps we could call it Producer Process Optimization.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just more accurate labeling and it represents nothing more than an adjustment in the category or market niche such labeling might actually help.

This is not an idle summertime dream.  As we think about what many are calling CRM 2.0 questions about what to call CRM 1.0 are timely.  There is symmetry here between producer and consumer and understanding the divide might spur some creativity in both camps to deliver even more innovative solutions. 

So, what did you think?

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