Customers and clients and consumers, oh my!

Why the labels you use to identify your users matter.

One recent positive IT trend is to drop the monikers "user" and "end user" and apply the more descriptive word "customer" to identify the internal staff that IT supports. This offers two distinct advantages. First, it reinforces the essential relationship of IT as a technology supplier and the customer as the IT buyer. This helps emphasize that IT's role is to meet its customers' needs, wants and demands.

Second, calling the user a "customer" reinforces the notion that he has choices in whom he uses to supply his needs. True, it's much easier for a free market consumer to decide to switch from Big Macs to Whoppers than it is for the head of finance to fire IT and use an outside resource. But is not unheard of, either. IT's customers do have choices and, though they are harder to exercise than which fast food restaurant to patronize, many IT organizations have been blindsided by a suddenly outsourced IT service.

However, while using the word "customer" is an improvement over the dehumanizing "user," it still does not go far enough.

When taking a careful look at the IT customer landscape and whom IT needs to please to stay in business, two distinct groups appear. The first is the overseers of IT: the CEO, corporate bigwigs and business unit leaders, all of whom want accountability from IT. They are the people who decide on IT's role in the enterprise, approve IT's budget, and hire and fire CIOs.

The second group is the day-to-day workers, whose concerns center on application availability, good response times and easy-to-use interfaces. They are the firsthand beneficiaries of the systems and services IT provides. They want good and consistent service and quick response when there is a problem. They don't want to see or hear from IT at other times.

Though "customer" is a better name than "user," an even better name for the first group, the corporate leaders and shakers of the company, is "clients." Traditionally, clients are customers who have an ongoing relationship with a business. A business might not have contact with a client every day or even every year, but when it does, the relationship is based on everything that has passed between the two parties over the course of previous interactions. Lawyers, accountants and investment bankers tend to refer to their customers as clients. IT's relationship with senior business managers, who might be on IT committees, involved with IT budgets or responsible for the oversight of ITs functions, is a vendor-client relationship.

What about the second group, those who slug it out in the corporate trenches consuming IT's services every day? Well a better name for this group would be "consumer." In the for-profit world, consumers are customers who have a transactional relationship with a vendor. The customer might visit a business every day, but each transaction with the vendor is independent of every other transaction. Retail stores and restaurants tend to have a consumer relationship with their customers. End users, though they might rely on IT's services every day, actually interact with the IT organization only occasionally, and those interactions are episodic. This is more of a consumer-type relationship.

Why is it important to distinguish between IT's clients and consumers? Because what each group wants from IT differs. Clients are concerned with ensuring that IT can provide the services needed to generate corporate revenue, support the business strategy and do it within budget. Consumers want hardware that does not break, applications that do not go down, and quick and effective response when something does go wrong. They care not a whit about IT's mission, strategy or budget.

Whom does IT need to please? Both groups, but the gotcha is that what will please one group will not necessarily please the other. Both IT clients and IT consumers want high availability, but the consumers might want top-of-the-line PCs and the fastest bandwidth possible, while the clients usually prefer less expensive choices.

How is IT doing in satisfying both customer groups? The results are mixed. Clients should be pleased with IT's efforts to ensure that the IT strategy is congruent with the business strategy. But what does this do for the IT consumer? Not much.

Catering to one and ignoring the other is a no-win strategy. The consumers generate the revenue IT likes to spend. Ignoring this group is a non-starter. On the other hand, IT is not going to get the chance to satisfy the consumers unless the clients say so. Client approval is needed for IT to do its job.

The challenge for IT is to adequately serve all of its customers -- clients and consumers. To do this, IT needs to recognize that clients and consumers have different needs and different criteria for IT success.

George Tillmann is a former CIO, management consultant and the author of The Business-Oriented CIO (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). He can be reached at


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon