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September 30, 2005


Mick O'Dwyer

Seems to me the focus has come down to one specific buzzword: customer. Picking out one word is pointless, discussion descends into semantics. The problem with most buzzwords is that they are not only industry specific but in some cases company specific; taking it even further buzzwords share the same language space as pet-names and nicknames, they only make sense to one or two people. Buzzwords are, by their nature, exclusionary.

Outside their environment buzzwords can become meaningless and lose all inherent value, or at least lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

Because people are people they can get used to using certain buzzwords in everyday life; bring their office language home with them. With buzzwords there's also an element of oneupmanship involved: 'what! you don't know what our consumerverse is?'.

By using industry buzzwords in everyday non-work life, with everyday people, there's a danger of being seen as an unctuous toady who likes to baffle. No one likes a sneering smartass.

If buzzwords become associated with negative connotations, and those negative connotations become associated with an industry then stereotypes will evolve. That can't be helpful.

Using buzzwords isn't a bad thing, not knowing when and where to use them is.

Kate Lawton

I have to admit I am "over" marketing buzzwords. Only two weeks ago I wrote a very long rant about what I would do if I heard the phrase "think outside of the box" at one more meeting. I'm sure it will one day be fashionable to get back into the box. Can I please just get back into the box?

The use of the word customer doesn't bother me, but I suppose I prefer client. But my company sells software, so our customers are users. I don't know the first time I heard someone say only drug dealers and software companies call their customers users, but it still makes me chuckle.

Account Deleted

Looking at the comments, and my own experiences, it seems that we need to consider the context in which the word is used, i.e., HOW it is being used. I met with a group of marketing folks recently who kept speaking, in their work session, about "the consumer" as an abstract. And further, "the insight" as another abstract. Eventually they started talking about "slicing and dicing the consumer" or "cutting up the consumer." It was rather horrifying language and it wasn't until I dealt with them in smaller groups (where they weren't culturally posturing for each other) than I got to see their real curiosity, empathy, intelligence and passion.

I guess I don't know them enough, yet, to know if the words are simply shorthand, or if they are really covering for something distancing and alien-making (as it struck me at first).


I'll tell you what you hate about the word "customers" Adrian. You hate the way experts latch on to these catchphrases and then toss them around shamelessly to evidence their command over their trade.

You hate the fact that it is all talk. No walk.

Are you with me Adrian?

Because I certainly am with you.

The one great thing about practising managers is that they are sometimes emotionally drained doing what they do that they don't talk about it, they just do it.

So practising managers like to use phrases like "how we make our shoppers happy" rather than nonsense like "customer centricity at xyz store".

Making shoppers happy is hard-work and I just want to go about it in a simple, no-nonsense way. Talking or thinking about it too hard, or reading about it too much tires me out.

See the thing with consultants and writers and experts is that the only thing they are supposed to get better at is distilling and communicating ideas. And the best way to come across as evolving is to use these bullshit words more and more. We, mere mortals, who actually make shoppers/diners/buyers happy don't have time or emotional buffers to drum up words like "centricity".

You see, we, have to make sure people can get what they want before christmas.


Consumer: Buys for reasons other than loyalty, like price or other incentives.

Customer: Multibuyer, brand preference, somewhat price insensitive, loyalty to product or service.

Champions: Best customer, more price insensitive, refers others and champions brand values.

David Foster

"Customer" is fine. It's been used for centuries, and is not a buzzword. I object to "consumer", which could imply a totally passive being not trading value for value..I believe "consumer" was purely a technical term of economics prior to the heyday of Ralph Nader.

"Valued customer" seems to be used increasingly, and is ridiculous. If you value your customers, prove it by how you treat them.

Olivier Blanchard

I think I liked it better when airlines refered to their customers as passengers.

"Paging Delta passenger James Roberts to Gate 19."

"Paging Delta customer James Roberts to Gate 19."

"Customer" seems... impersonal. Detached, even, from our relationship to the airline. "Passenger" was cool and a little bit sexy.

"Traveler" might be even better.

The thing about buzzwords is that they are shallow and short-lived... but for better or for worse, they are carried by ever-shifting semantic sands that drive discussion and business trends, so... They aren't so bad.

Until they become overused, that is.

Dee Rambeau

LOL. BTW, since we've got a good circle jerk going here about buzzwords, why don't we go after acronyms next? FYI, look forward to creating some ALI and some ROI next time we're sharing OFM or a RGT.

celia blue

Buzzwords exist for a reason. They are phrases that communicate meaning. Buzzwords are short-hand for an idea.

I agree with you that buzzwords are the best way to communiate an idea. What I don't like is how people in a specialized business use buzzwords to exclude outsiders from the conversation.

Just because I don't know the buzzword for a concept, doesn't mean I can't or won't understand what is being said-- given the chance to learn. And who knows, I might even have a valuable new take on things-- given the chance to contribute.

I'd guess that there are lots of people like me who get tired of not being listened to because we don't speak the latest buzzword.
And so we stop even trying to contribute, put off by "buzzword snobbery."

jennifer rice

wow, great comments all. Coming from a mostly B2B background, I liked David's reminder of the difference between buyers and customers in a business setting (and, of course, a wife/husband setting!). There's also a difference between customers and prospects. Then there are past customers (who no longer buy from the company,) current customers (as in a subscription service) and repeat customers (as in retail or CPG). How exactly do we differentiate them if we call them "people?" Are we also going to change "customer service" to "people service?"

Andrew Ziola

Here are a list of my favorite buzzwords:

David St Lawrence

John (jbr) makes a good point, but in a business to business relationship, the buyer may be only a minor player for the customer company. The customer is the person who decides and authorizes the execution of a contract. The buyer may only facilitate the transaction.

I think the seller's attention needs to be placed on the customer, whoever that may be.

Anyone who has successfully sold to a married couple knows what I mean. :)


well, if you really want a word, spent some time on reading word history. Etymology may provide the answers to this riddle.

did you know originally, "customer" was a person working in customs? "client" was a legal customer in England and in French/Latin was one who depended upon a patron.

by the way, a "patron" is not a customer, but is really the protector or bestower of benefice.

"custom" is habitual use, which could imply that customers are habitual users of a good/service.

"consume" is to use, buy or take.

"cater" meant buyer of provisions or to buy provisions.

of course, "caveat" may be most appropriate as it means to beware or be on guard.

however, for me, the term "buy" or "buyer" is the best means to accept and believe as true....and, isn't that what we want business to be - based upon belief and trust? just call me a dreamer....

David St Lawrence

Glad to see that you are still stirring things up, Jennifer!

We do not need to move any further toward Orwell's 1984 Newspeak. Calling customers "people" adds nothing to the understanding of their needs and how we, as purveyors of goods and services, can better transact business with them.

Nomenclature of any kind is best kept simple and factual. The proliferation of buzzwords like ROI, ADSL, VOIP is driven by the need to discuss complex concepts in a concise manner. For those who need to know, these terms are a useful shorthand and not an obfuscation.

Adrian's heart may be in the right place, but his choice of terminology reflects a fuzzy alternate reality. People are not necessarily customers. Prospects are not necessarily customers. Customers are buying or have bought things and a result have entered into a contractual relationship.

The term customer has proved its usefulness through time. The effort to change the term reflects an inability to confront the process of getting a prospect to become a customer and buy what you are selling.

Jackie Huba

What's wrong with "customer?" Kudos to you Jennifer, for not using the dreaded buzzword "consumer."

Big Picture Guy

With all the stingers at the ready, I’m certainly not going to stick my head into the mouth of the hornet’s nest in defense of or deference to buzzwords. I would, however, tell a story. Here, in the Small Office, people like to say to those who would listen that Every Customer Counts. We do not mean it, of course. We have other platitudes on tap for those interested, though I should warn you that these platitudes are every bit as irritating as buzzwords.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet a group of Olympic athletes at a dinner sponsored by a customer. The buyer of this particular customer walked into the room, looked for a familiar face, and made a beeline for the seat next to me. It spoke volumes about the comfort level he had with our company. There was clearly a relationship here, built over time, that is easy to explain, slightly more difficult to exploit. The point is, he became, in that instant, a person rather than just a professional buyer who in other contexts purposefully adopts an adversarial posture.

So count me in the camp that believes that even B2B customers are people, people who buy on emotion as much as on promotion. We can even call them ‘people’ although, I suppose, not to their faces. Lest that, too, creates a buzz.

Stephen Macklin

Don't worry to much about searching for replacements for the current crop of buzzwords. You could replace them all and two years later someone would be complaining about overuse of the current buzzwords.

Maybe we need a word for them. Buzzkillers?

kid mercury

>>You want a word for "all people who buy stuff in general?" What's wrong with "people?" Everyone buys something at sometime. My point was that the word "customer" is too vague to lead to action to improve products or service.<<

So "customer" is too vague but "people" isn't?

Marc hit the nail on the head with his post.

Marc Orchant

From a relatively detached perspective, I think the whole argument around whether there's a better word or phrase we might use instead of "customer" is specious.

Adrian - words do not "lead to action to improve products or service." Commitment and caring do. Taking pride in what you, as an individual or organization, has to offer leads to the desire to improve your product or service.

Yep... pride. Oh... and greed. The good kind. The kind that means "we think we will win because we do a better job of (pick one):

a) solving a problem lots of people have;

b) delivering an experience that is unique, remarkable, and repeatable (as in - if I tell my friend or co-worker about this and s/he tries it, they'll have the same great experience I did);

c) saving people whatever finite resource they care about in relation to what we do (time, money, effort).

Jennifer - I agree with your closing point. The problem with jargon, in any industry or context, is that's it's truly meaningful only if you share an understanding about the intent behind the "shorthand". I'm a Stunk & White kind of person - eliminate the unnecessary words and simplify, simplify, simplify.

The easier you make it for someone to not only understand the point you're trying to make, but to share it with someone they know, the more successful you will be at communicating your ideas. And the more consistent you are in living up to the intent behind those words and ideas, the more successful you will be in making them a reality.

Adrian Savage

Hey...I did hit your hot button, didn't I? But words aren't simply words. They are the only means we have to convey ourselves and our thoughts to others. And buzzwords aren't neutral short-hand for more complex phrases. They become ideas in their own right and are often used without thought of any original meaning.

You want a word for "all people who buy stuff in general?" What's wrong with "people?" Everyone buys something at sometime. My point was that the word "customer" is too vague to lead to action to improve products or service.

P.S. My apologies if you think I called you cold, alien or shifty. Your response shows you can be pretty warm and personal in your anger.

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