I’ve always been a big reader, but the pandemic has given me even more time to indulge my passion. I recently devoured Conscious Capitalism, by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia.
It really struck a chord with me, particularly this paragraph calling on businesses to stop using the term consumer: “Businesses must think of their customers as human beings to be served, not as consumers to be sold to. In fact, the very word consumer objectifies people, suggesting that their only role is to consume.”
Like the saying goes, “A consumer is a statistic. A customer is a person.”
There aren’t a lot of alternatives, so on a practical level, I feel it’s a bit naïve to completely reject the term. For example, Business-to-Business-to-Consumer (B2B2C) organizations do need to differentiate between the types of customers they deal with. They sell their products or services through intermediaries (companies, agents, etc.) who are one type of customer. That intermediary’s customers are often called policyholders or consumers.
For insurance companies, for example, the financial professionals (FinPros) they partner with are their direct customers, but the FinPros’ clients are the consumers of the insurance company’s products and services. The term works there, if imperfectly.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m no fan of the “consumer” label, I just appreciate it as useful shorthand. Ideally, those insurance companies would go with more specific terms, like “financial professional customer” and “end customer.” That’s a bit unwieldy, though, and therefore unlikely to catch on.
But one term insurance companies and other B2B2C organizations really do need to ban is “producer.”
Continuing with my insurance industry example, “producer” is how many companies refer to the financial professionals who are their actual customers. While normally I like having a specific term for specific customers, this one doesn’t work. The term clearly telegraphs that their customer’s role is to sell.
That sets up a bad dynamic.
At Heart of the Customer, we’ve seen this with several of our clients. Using the term “producer” leads employees to assume that their customers’ sole motivation is to accumulate wealth and that there’s no intrinsic value to their role. After all, in doing business with you, they have chosen to become producers, right? So they must just want to make money.
Even if the company is investing in improving its customer experience, that mindset is obviously going to impact what the company believes producers want and need from it…and therefore, the experience the company provides.
Now let’s change the term and see if you can spot the difference: Those FinPros didn’t choose to become producers, they chose to become customers. (And for the record, if those employees think it’s that easy to make piles of money in doing so, why aren’t they doing it, too?!)
Here’s an example of how this played out in the real world:
One of our insurance sector clients hired us to map the life insurance sales journey. As part of our best-practices process, we conducted a hypothesis mapping workshop – an early-in-the-project internal mapping session where employees take on the role of a producer and predict the journey of selling life insurance. For the exercise, we used the company’s term for their FinPro customers.
What did we hear when we asked team members to put themselves in a producer’s shoes and tell us what they would say at the beginning of the journey? Things like, “I’m going to make lots of money!” and “I’ll finally be able to afford that boat!”
But what did we hear later in the project, when we interviewed actual FinPros about their journey? A very different story.
First off, they don’t call themselves producers. They use the term “advisor” or “agent.” And they described how passionate they were about helping their clients. It wasn’t their boat that excited them, but the one their client was able to afford because of the FinPro’s trusted guidance and financial management services.
Furthermore, they didn’t just make money, they earned it by being incredibly client-focused. The money wasn’t the point, it was an outcome.
So when we shared our findings with our client, we asked a simple question: Why do you call them producers?
They didn’t really have an answer. After some thought, they recognized the problem and started a communications program for company messaging to replace “producer” with “financial professional.”
The impact was huge, and the following year, when they hired us to map another financial professional journey, we heard something very different from their team. The journey they envisioned during the hypothesis mapping session now was all about the financial professional educating their customers and helping them accomplish their goals. (Still not entirely accurate because of the limitations of internal mapping, but much, much closer to the truth.)
One key outcome for customer experience programs is to create empathy. But if your word choice frames your customers as money-makers (rather than human beings making a living) every time you mention them, you’re making that key task harder.
In today’s divisive climate, we’re all keenly aware that words matter. And names and labels might matter most of all. What we call things – particularly people – defines and skews how we perceive them.
That’s no less true in customer experience than it is in politics or relationships: What you call the people who buy your products and use your services shapes how you treat them, whether you realize it or not. So take the time to make sure you’re getting it right.
And #shoutout to my friend Shep Hyken, who also recently shared thoughts about word choice in the “customers” vs. “people” debate.