I don’t want to be your “customer”

Acknowledging the Power of Your Words

In my early twenties, I managed a popular chain restaurant – a very successful company with hundreds of locations worldwide. I’ll always remember what our CEO said at that time…

“People are customers until they’ve chosen to enter [our restaurant], at which point they become guests.”

A simple word substitution can help to create a culture shift inside of an organization. Consumers (people) can be thought of differently – more favorably – simply by being thoughtful of the word(s) we use to identify them. Additionally, this can cause a chain reaction. When a patron hears her merchant referring to her as their “guest,” it feels different – much warmer than “customer.” Think for a moment of what each word implies — A “customer” can feel distant (cold) while a “guest” feels connected (warm).

When working with my clients, I advise them to eliminate the word “customer” from their company’s vernacular, if it feels appropriate for their industry to do so. Some recommended replacements are client, guest, patient, fan, or member. If none of these seem to fit, or you cannot seem to find an acceptable and appropriate alternate for your industry, consider using customer, but only as a last resort.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ~Mark Twain


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  1. As always, wonderful advice Steve! And I love how you used your own experience as an example.

    I’m reminded of your visit to Florida. You were speaking to our senior management team ahead of working with our sales staff. You asked, “how do you view a customer,” “how do you think most companies view a customer?”

    I thought to myself, “as a dollar sign…”

    Then you asked, “how do you view a client?” The lightbulb went on…

    It seems I thought of “customers” as dollar signs and “clients” as people with whom I have a relationships. Obviously two very different ways to view the people buying our products…

  2. I LOVE this. “Customer” can be very cold and businesslike when people really don’t want to seem that way. I can only hope more people read your blog!

  3. Steve – Great advice.

    “Customer” is a term that conveys the view of the business, not the view of your intended audience. A customer is generally viewed as someone spending money with a business.

    The other terms you suggested get everyone to view the world through the eyes of the audience, and not “customer” as a revenue target.

    People “sell to” customers. The other terms you suggested convey a sense of people feeling “cared for.” We have to ask ourselves: Which would you prefer?


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