Monday, February 20, 2012

Who is your customer?

Amid reports of Google's latest ethical lapse, I found myself reflecting on an adjacent point: Google would never have thought to engineer ways to bypass users' browser security settings if those users were still their customers.

Way back when, in the days when Google was young, you and I were their customers: we were the people using their cool, new search engine and (I'm sure) they delighted in delighting us with the power of their tools. Subsequently, though, Google stumbled upon the fact that you can make a huge amount of money connecting advertising results with search, and that occasioned a shift of outlook and intent. No longer were Google search users the customers; now they were the product, and advertisers were the new customers.

Any business that wants to be around for a while seeks to delight its customers. But the product? That's just the product, to be packaged and marketed in the most effective manner. Google has had more than its share of ethical stumbles this year, but in the end what some people are angry about is that Google has stopped treating ordinary people like you and me as their customers. That has been the case for years, but it's only now that we're seeing the full implications of that switch.

It's a critical question: who are your customers? I've found that this can vary widely even within an organization. Since I was hired to manage an intranet, I've always taken it for granted that my customers are the company's employees. Five feet away from me, however, sits a woman whose primary client is the company CEO. Next to her sits a woman whose clients are certain divisions within the organization, and beside her sits a woman whose customer is the department head. We have many different customers whose interests do not always perfectly align, and yet this is a fact that we never seem to speak about.

Do you know who your customers are? Do the people you work with know that, too? If not, ask yourself what might happen if they stumble on that information themselves.