Client, Customer or Team?

Once in a while I get asked a question that leaves me stumped; not because it doesn’t make sense but because over time my world view has taken its own twist on reality. One such question I was asked very recently as a part of product design exploration was – “Do you refer to the businesses you support as client or customers?” The team was looking to refine the verbiage on their product and wanted to ensure they have the right terminology. Before, I give you my answer and explain why the question stumped me, I want to re-narrate a story that I am sure already exists somewhere on this blog.

Once upon a time an HR consultant was conducting a 2-day offsite for Harley Davidson’s HR leadership team. The opening session on Day 2 involved the CEO coming in to share his vision with the team. He began by asking what they had learnt on Day 1. One enthusiastic participant went on share his learning and in his speech referred to the business group as internal customers. At this point, the furious CEO bangs the table and says, “There is only one customer at Harley Davidson. And if you haven’t learnt that yet, then you have learnt nothing.” Needless to say, the external consultant left with a story that he would never forget and now shares it with the world hoping that they’d learn. Unfortunately, if the product design team’s data is anything to go by, a very large chunk of HR professionals refer to the teams they ‘support’ as customers or even worse, ‘clients’.

The CEO had a valid point. Redefining who the customers are moves us one step away from the people we were hired to impact. It is the very reason 90% of all HR solutions end up being generic vs on brand. I am aware of the logic behind referring to internal teams as customers. However, I refuse to agree with that logic. Besides, which customer regularly invites outsiders to sit through all their team meetings?

I was stumped at the question because the businesses I support are my team. In my conversations, I refer to them as my managers, leaders and my team; so often, that friends and family begin to wonder just how many teams I am on. I attend their team outings, off sites and all the serious meetings too. I have never thought of them as my customers or clients. But I am not perfect. It takes time for me to start thinking of them as my own team and treating their customers as my own. Before I belonged to the team, they were customers too. It took trust and time to get on to the team. Now that I am, I am never going back to calling them customers because they are not. There is just one true customer. The rest of the organization is one large team ensuring that we do what’s best for the consumers.

If there is one thing I can urge you to change today, it is to stop seeing the teams you support as not your own. They aren’t consumers, they aren’t customers and they most definitely aren’t client.

You with me?


2 thoughts on “Client, Customer or Team?

  1. I took issue with your last sentenced. So much so that I looked up the definition of customer and client. To your point neither word resembled the HR function in an organization. HR supports mechanism for the overall organization, correct? Do you think the terminology HR uses to describe its self would change the way they support the organization? If so, how?

    1. I am a big fan of terms because they not only represent the mindset but they also become a way of interaction. A reason a lot of HR practices are generic vs on brand (look out for my next post) is because we fail to look at the real customers the org serves.

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