What Do You Call Customers?


I’ve spent the last 12 months in Vancouver with lululemon, the yoga-inspired global athleticwear company. It’s an amazing company with incredible values, lofty goals and which has connection and human spirit at its heart. In 2017 the company was rated by Glassdoor as the 6th best company to work for in North America, and the number one retailer on the list. This is exceptional, and no accident. They pay serious attention to employee personal development and training, and their drive to deliver consistently excellent customer service is, in my opinion, unrivalled.

One of the first things I learned about the company is that they call customers “guests”. At first glance it might seem a bit contrived, but, if you look more closely, the relationship lululemon has with its guests is about more than just the transaction on the day, in store or online. The people who make up their customer base and their wider audience also become part of a global community, one built upon great values and a desire to help people lead their greatest lives. lululemon invite guests into their world. Guests reciprocate, and invite the company into theirs. It’s a remarkable relationship. They truly are guests.

It’s another example of the many different ways organisations can refer to the people they serve. In the public sector “service user” is a favourite, though it always felt too passive for me. Service user for me conjures up a feeling of a large power differential, where a person, a service user, should passively and gratefully accept whatever they are offered.

In the digital world the “user” is the most commonly used collective name for the anonymous person who uses the digital tools we make. They interact with our apps, browse our websites and complete our online transactions. I don’t mind user, although it makes them sound a bit robotic. I prefer to call them humans, a reminder that the people we design digital tools for are human; emotional, socially-wired and brilliantly flawed.

When I wrote Desire Code I deliberately used the word “customer” throughout and many times it caused a reaction from the public sector organisations I worked with. They felt that calling people customers made it sound like their services were commercial and for profit. To me the word “customer” feels dynamic, and a reminder that the people we serve actually are our customers, even if what we provide is free to them.

So what are they to you? What do you call the people you do your thing for? Are they users, service users, customers, humans, VIPs, guests, listeners, readers, visitors, or something else? How you refer to them and how you think of them is more important than you may realise.