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Do customers exist or are we humans who buy things?

At first glance this may seem a matter of semantics but, as is often the case, terminology matters. And for the inquisitive mind, the question leads to what could be one of the most important issues for companies to address, if they are to thrive in a rapidly changing world. It does so by challenging a long-held assumption about customers that no longer seems valid. One which may not be an appropriate foundation for the increasingly sophisticated methodologies and technologies which build upon it. And which, if the hypothesis is true, could increasingly distort multiple areas of current practice, with significant costs and consequences.

A good place to start is by considering why we have the term ‘customer’ at all. What is its purpose?

From a company’s perspective, it provides a number of practical benefits. A key one being that it acts as a filter through which they can make best use of resources by limiting their interest to the specific attributes of a person that they perceive to be relevant to their business, whilst ignoring everything else. This can then be used to develop personas that provide a ‘knowable and predictable’ version of their specific customers (current or potential). 

By leveraging that knowledge, companies can more confidently design the subsequent products, services, or experiences that provide value to both parties. In addition, it can inform wider company activities such as the development of company metrics, store design, digital solutions, and employee training. In turn it creates the belief that at each stage of the customer journey and relationship, the company has the ability not only to largely determine and manage the customer experience but also potentially to influence or manipulate their behaviour.

In essence the current definition and application of the term customer is a device to improve efficiency and create or increase the certainty that companies prefer to operate from. Overall, it is a persuasive and appealing proposition which may explain its enduring popularity. But is it true?

If so, then it should deliver a trend of rising customer satisfaction as their needs are better understood and met.

But according to many indicators, such as the UK Customer Satisfaction Index, that does not seem to be the case. In response, some companies have taken to blaming (directly or indirectly) customers for inappropriate or irrational behaviour and of being unreasonable in their expectations.

For many reasons this seems a weak argument. But it is insightful that many companies have externalised the issue and are seemingly not questioning their own assumptions and processes. However, the fact there is a significant tension between the perception of companies and customers does identify the issue that brands are clearly not as in control of the customer journey and experience as they believe.

Therefore, it would perhaps be more helpful to look at it from a different perspective – the customers. Or to restore them to their full condition, the human who buys things. It will be obvious from the above that companies, especially the larger ones, devote considerable time and resources to thinking about their customers.

But as humans, we do not spend as much time thinking about brands as many companies imagine or would like. In fact, for most people, shopping is often a necessary, rather than chosen, activity that occupies a very small part of their day.

This difference in levels of attention is an important distinction but, of itself, may not be significant. Instead the key question is whether, during the process of buying, a human is largely unaffected by anything else in their lives? In effect, they become a customer and mirror the narrower traits associated with personas.

To be fair, personas are becoming more sophisticated as new characteristics are added. An example is the incorporation of the growing appreciation of the role of emotions in decision-making. But these tend to be added as layers and from a single discipline perspective so it is questionable whether this is an effective way to replicate the more holistic way in which humans function.

Instead it seems more reasonable to acknowledge that in real life people are, to varying degrees, influenced by an ever-changing mix of their current circumstances and context. For example, waiting to be served when you are not in a hurry may not be a problem. But the same situation just a few hours later when you are in a rush to get to an important meeting can create very different emotions and behaviours. Equally, recent good news or bad news, or the people you are with, can have a similar effect in altering your expectations, experience and response.

In reality, we don’t live life in role-based silos and the non-customer aspects of a person are always present and, to some degree, influential on their priorities, behaviours, and emotions. At an individual level, humans are complex and variable. And there are quite rightly aspects of a person that are unknowable to brands.

Moving from the concept of a predictable and stable customer to the messier but arguably more authentic human would represent a fundamental shift with significant implications for everything that follows, creating both challenges and new opportunities.

My interest in this area began with a study I initiated in 2009 whilst in the fire and rescue service. Since then it has continued to grow and in response to a number of requests, I recently ran three webinars in which we invited attendees (professionals from across the globe) to discuss what they understood by ‘human’ when used in terms like human centred design, human experience or humanising. And a follow up question asked how they believed a human perspective could provide a new lens to address some of the major challenges facing companies.

The events were both insightful and inspiring, confirming a strong interest in this subject. The webinars were very much a first step of a longer project to identify the links between a ‘human’ approach and improved outcomes for companies, those they interact with and the wider society. It is certainly a topic that deserves greater attention.

In closing, it is worth briefly considering what this could mean to management consultants as the work matures.

At a practical level, it would inevitably create some new language, methodologies, and tools. But it is very much my hope that these will be kept to a minimum. The focus is on looking at current issues and exploring how a human approach could provide a new perspective, rather than to create a new movement in search of a use.

It has the potential to be used both strategically and operationally. In terms of the former, it is increasingly important that companies understand and optimise how people in any capacity experience them. This offers significant opportunities for differentiation and should be woven into all levels of planning and policy.

An authentic human lens should also be an integral part of programme and project work. For example, a human strategy should be an integral accompaniment to digital transformation. The success of digital is often reliant on how people receive it and there have been many examples where this was considered too late. In fact, the term ‘humanising’ is becoming popular and suggests a recognition that too much dehumanisation took place, leading to avoidable costs such as increased complaints.

Equally, creative use of human experience can be used to positively enhance engagement with companies. An example that may be familiar to many is of the pianos that are found in some train stations in the UK. Rather than creating an ambience through preselected piped music, visitors can create their own entertainment, which is (mostly) fun to those present but is then also widely shared via social media and word of mouth.

However, I anticipate that this work may initially find a more ready application at an operational level, solving problems where established approaches have failed to provide an answer. There seems to be no shortage of these currently.

Based on the above, the research should lead to new solutions for consultants to propose or adopt, and it is reasonable to assume that will be beneficial in a professional sense. But perhaps fittingly, I will end with a hope that it would also be a positive addition on a human level for consultants. That it will provide a sense of intrinsic satisfaction from knowing their proposals meet the client’s needs in a way that also recognises the human need and experience of all those affected by them.

Finally, if you are interested in learning more or wish to be advised of future events, we would be very pleased to hear from you. We are also seeking an academic/research partner, so if you have been inspired by the recent CMCE Research Awards, and you feel you could help us with this work, please get in touch.  

David Wales, 'Human Experience and Service Design consultant, SharedAim Ltd'.

Tuesday 21st March 2023
Human silhouette in a circle and square