User or Customer? Linguistics in the tech age

A while ago, a couple of bloggers sparked an interesting discussion about what the difference between a user and a customer. This discussion lit up the blogosphere and twitterverse about who was right and who was wrong. If I had gone back and looked harder, I would have found if someone had stated this, but frankly, they are both wrong.

Jack Dorsey postedsomething regarding how he feels regarding the use of “user” when referring to people who use their product.  Dave Winer, in typical uppity and yet thoughtful fashion, posted a reply countering this viewpoint.

The whole mess is about when do you call the person at the keyboard a user or a customer, especially when trying to “serve” them.  I think both of these gentleman make good points, but I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.  Jack is making a critique upon geeks from a business perspective, which I think is always a skewed way to look at things, and Dave simply complains that he “imagines Jack Dorsey feels pretty powerful these days, but even now he’s not so powerful that he can change the programming of millions of people with a single blog post” failing to realize business owners the world over have already conquered this ground and this is a rehashing of a tried and true business principle.

In short, it’s the business majors versus the computer science geeks in a linguistics showdown.

Now, being that I’m a tech nerd in a customer service position, I think I see both sides of this story pretty clearly.  What it boils down to is how do you respect people and do the best by them.  Jack’s argument is the business major method; call them customers.  His point is sound in that yes, absolutely, customer sounds a lot better than users in business circles.  As a retailer, a salesrep, or a seller of knick knacks, the people who buy stuff from you are your customers.  In that arena, people like to be called customers. You are establishing that you are selling them something that they want, and you are there to serve them and provide the best experience possible.

What business majors don’t see is that, In some circles, customer is pejorative, especially when someone is just “using” something. When I’m having trouble with something technical, I need help, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being sold too. This is a common feeling amongst geeks, who spend time doing their own research and away from slick, pushy salesreps. Salesreps sell to “customers”, but support helps users. This also applies when who the customer is becomes hazy. I’m a user of Google services, but I’m not their customer. Google’s customers are people who they sell data and ads to. Same with Facebook. This distinction is important so that we all understand where we stand when it comes to free online services. There are even situations where your customer is a large corporation. The employees of the customer are users who need help. They didn’t buy this crazy piece of software, do they want to be called a “customer” of something they didn’t ask for? Finally, being a customer of a good company is a good thing, but being a customer of a bad company, perhaps like Comcast, is not always a good thing. While “comcast customer” is better than “comcast user,” being a customer of Comcast rarely makes one feel good these days.

This doesn’t change how you treat a person. If someone needs help, and your job is to help them, it’s your job to provide outstanding service. Part of that service is to know your audience. Customer, in my experience, most often wins out, especially when dealing with physical goods or services. When it comes to software and online services, know your audience. User might be better if:

1) You are dealing with knowledgable computer geeks, especially those who like free software.
2) If you are dealing with people who you don’t directly sell to and they know it.
3) They are not being sold to and don’t like to be sold to.

Even then, I find how you treat them trumps what you call them.

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