[sociate] If not "consumer"

  • From: "Jerry Michalski" <jerry@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Sociate News" <sociate@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 7 Mar 2003 00:28:27 -0500

So what should we be called, if not consumers? When in doubt, wherever you
see ?consumer,? replace it with ?person? or ?individual.? That's a good
start, but context matters. As luck would have it, there are many other
words that work beautifully when used appropriately. For example?.

In business

"Customer" is a fabulous word. Unlike "consumer," the dumb endpoint of two
long food chains (one to make and distribute the item, the other to market
and pitch its messages), "customer" carries a sense of shared responsibility
between buyer and seller: The selling company warrants (at least minimally)
that its product will continue to work for some time, or it will repair or
replace it. If not, enforcement mechanisms such as the Uniform Commercial
Code and the courts offer recourse to try to set things right. A supplier
and its customer have a better balance of power than a producer and its
consumer. Not that consumers don?t have recourse to exactly the same laws.
They do, but they are treated with less respect.

The OED dates ?customer? back to 1440, defining it first as ?One who
acquires ownership by long use of possession; a customary holder? and also
as ?One who frequents any place of sale for the sake of purchasing; one who
customarily purchases from a particular tradesman; a buyer, purchaser.? The
definitions offer a sense of time passing, of continuity and relationship.

For services, the word ?client? is usually more appropriate than customer.
Lawyers and dentists have clients (the idea of consuming a dental visit is
certainly unappealing). People who offer services often have ongoing, more
personal relationships with their clients.

If you?re trying to win someone?s business, they are a prospective customer,
or ?prospect.? That?s fine. Instead of being in your target market, they
might be your preferred or ideal customer or customer group. There?s
absolutely nothing wrong with ?buyer,? ?seller,? ?supplier? and ?partner.?
Businesses wouldn?t run quite as well without ?employees,? ?managers,?
?recruits,? ?stockholders,? ?shareholders? and ?stakeholders.? Wherever you
turn, reasonable words abound.

The more specific the word, the better its use. In a conversation I had a
few years ago with a marketer from Kraft General Mills, one of the largest
consumer-products companies in the U.S., she noted that her teams think and
talk about their audience as ?moms with kids.? Excellent.

?Consumer? has become such common usage that it will be difficult to
dislodge from everyday conversation. One of its most ingrained uses is the
?consumer market,? which refers to ordinary people who shop at grocery
stores, in catalogs and on the Web. How about calling it the retail market,
as we used to? ?Selling to individuals? also works.

The consumer market also encompasses manufacturers of consumer packaged
goods (which we used to call food, dry goods or household goods) and
consumer electronics (personal electronics? home electronics? home
entertainment?), as well as consumer protection agencies and publications
such as Consumer Reports, which developed to protect consumers from consumer

Dropping ?consumer? does take a little getting used to, but being mindful of
it is the important part.

In civic life

The sphere of private activity is full of great words such as ?individual?
and ?person.? We are ?citizens,? ?students? and ?participants.? ?Members?
belong to things, for a fee or for free; the same goes for ?subscribers? and
their subscriptions. In our leisure time we are ?fans,? ?players,?
?spectators,? ?viewers,? readers,? ?listeners? and ?contestants.?
Unfortunately, there are also ?patients,? ?victims,? ?subjects? and
?prisoners.? When we get together in various contexts, we form ?families,?
?teams,? ?groups,? ?communities,? ?audiences,? ?gangs? and ?classes.? Why
talk about ?demos? (marketing shorthand for demographic segments), when you
can talk about groups of people?

The word ?user? gives many people the willies, including my futurist friend
Paul Saffo from the Institute for the Future, whose standard reaction to it
is that ?only two industries call their customers ?users?: illegal drugs and
computers.? Personally, I have no problem with ?user.? The complaint doesn?t
make much sense: drug addicts and PC users have little in common, except
maybe those long bouts of playing Everquest or surfing the Web. In some
settings, ?user? is short for ?end user,? an honest attempt to describe the
person at the very end of the selling chain, the one who is really going to
make use of the product or service in question.

A different objection is that users are people who use other people: They
are moochers, manipulators. Skeptical as I am of marketing and advertising,
it?s unlikely that the PC hardware and software industries are trying to
call their customers addicts or moochers, even subconsciously. A third
objection is that users use things up, much as consumers do.

Unfortunately, people who dismiss ?user? ignore how powerful a word it
really is. Users put things to use, a magical feat. They circulate ideas,
build things and put them to work in the world. Talk about co-production.
Users prize usefulness, which is one of the key attributes of products and
services that treat people as individuals rather than as consumers. ?User?
and ?end user? aren?t about being used, they?re about putting things to use,
and there?s a world of difference.

Sumers? Prosumers?

There's a good reason Bob Metcalfe is a pundit. When I told him that I had
named my little one-person company Sociate because I enjoy associating
people and ideas, then talked about my beef with the word "consumer," he
zipped back with the following: Since ?to sociate? is ?to associate? without
the ?ass,? then maybe in the future we?ll just be ?sumers:? consumers
without the ?con.?

Similarly, my friend David Isenberg makes a strong case for Alvin Toffler's
word ?prosumer,? the idea being that it would represent the pro of
consumption, not the con. (Isenberg, formerly of AT&T?s Research Group,
describes himself as a ?prosultant;? naturally.)

Coining terms that stick is a mark of good punditry, but it is more
important that we escape all forms of ?sumption that describe us. I support
just being thought of as people. Individuals. Capable, ordinary folks with
wants, needs, skills and aspirations. Any word that separates us from being
individuals works against us, makes us easier targets, allows the people
targeting us to think of us as collections of objects to be manipulated,
rather than humans to be heard and served. That?s why we shouldn?t coin any
new word.

Besides, as far as the business of buying and selling goes, we?re not doing
anything new. We are slowly cycling back to older ways of doing business
based on relationships and reputations, even though the business environment
has been changed irrevocably by technology. If we master the new
technologies and use them judiciously, we will find a new point of balance
that is far healthier for all parties.

A few years back, Michael Schrage wrote a sage piece titled The Relationship
Revolution, which recommends a nifty experiment. Wherever you see the word
"information" in daily use, replace it with "relationship." Thus,
information technology becomes relationship technology, and the information
age becomes the relationship age. Nice.

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