Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Do you have clients or customers? (It matters.)

When I acquire a new client I usually ask what they call the people they hope to sell things to. "Clients" or "customers?"

"Whatever" is not an acceptable answer.

When IBM acquired PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting more than a decade ago, the PwC consultants relentlessly stressed that "customers" were about managing transactions but "clients" were about investing in relationships.

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, writes that the word change was very important for a product-oriented company like IBM as it morphed into a professional services firm.

Perhaps we can call this part of a company's "strategic vocabulary." One word can suggest a totally different raison d'être.

Schrage notes the effect of another word choice. At a meeting in a different company executives were boring themselves to tears trying to imagine the "products" their "customers" would want in 10 years.
The facilitator, with a world-class flair for bafflegab and platitude, had asked the group to envision products customers might desire a decade hence. The conversation regurgitated cliché after customer-centric product cliché until the moment the team rejected and replaced the facilitator's language. 
Instead of brainstorming new "products," the group instead collectively chose to imagine future "offers." The word forced a different discipline of design thinking. "Offers" usefully blurred categorical and cultural distinctions between "product" and "service" innovation. Making an "offer" looked and felt different than selling a "product." The more people talked, the clearer it became: "offers" was simply a better word and organizing principle for generating more innovative innovation scenarios. "Offers" liberated participants, where "products" constrained them. 
Language matters. A lot. Amazon, for example, lists over 3000 publications about "product innovation" and roughly 800 for "service innovation." According to its search engine, however, the world's largest bookseller doesn't have a single "offers innovation" title. Is that an opportunity?
Schrage notes that IBM also substituted "team" for "committee." I think if I hear one more person use the word "team" I'll scream. It's typically used by someone to assert that he's in charge. Well, if you're not in charge, don't imply that I'm on your team.

"Commodity words yield commodity outcomes," Schrage concludes.

I like that.

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